A Behind the Scenes Look at the Morton Arboretum’s Illumination

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Illumination: Behind the Scenes

Before the Morton Arboretum is lit up at night with its annual Illumination display, there’s a lot of work to get through behind the scenes.

Planning takes months, with the bulk of the work starting in early September.

A core team of six responsible for design, execution, and creation, 20 equipment experts, and around 30 arboretum employees collaborate to bring some brightness to the cold season.

“The way we create the show is we use a thing that’s called time code,” said lighting designer and creative director of Illumination, John Featherstone. “What time code let’s us do is break down every moment of the show into frames, seconds, minutes, and hours. So what we can then do is break apart and program every element of the show. So we can see what every lighting fixture is doing in real time.”

New Driving Experience

This year due to the pandemic, the arboretum had to switch gears. Illumination will be a driving experience instead of the traditional walk through.

The change presented a creative challenge for the event’s lighting designer.

“Obviously people are viewing this from a car window which is quite cinematic in its scale. It’s got a defined border and boundary. If you’re out and walking you can look around and look up at the trees. That’s far more restrictive when you’re in a vehicle,” said Featherstone. “So it gives us an opportunity to think about this as an experience which is more horizontal than vertical if that makes sense.”

The new Illumination drive-thru gave Featherstone and his team a chance to explore different parts of the arboretum.

The tree lights display is usually a mile long, but this year it spans nearly two miles. That means more cables – 26 miles worth to be exact, almost six times the amount usually required.

Lighting Illumination

And then, there’s the lights themselves. Crews set up around 150,000 lighting devices for this year’s 11 exhibits – all controlled by the click of a mouse.

“There’s a computer network which provides all the control for all the lighting throughout the experience,” said Featherstone. “So there’s a carrier signal which is embedded in the audio track that all of this technology listens to that runs the show in perfect to the fraction of a second sync, to the thirtieth of a second in sync between the lighting and the audio track.”

After nine months and 25,000 hours of hard work, the Illumination drive-thru experience will be open starting November 20.

Tickets need to be purchased in advance, which you can find on the Morton Arboretum website.

Naperville News 17’s Aysha Ashley Househ reports.