picture this... you walk onto your haunted attraction after a long off season.. you kick on your breakers... check your emergency lights... and then head to your control area and fire up a computer... open one program.. start the scenes and suddenly your entire haunt is alive! rooms are flickering in spooky patterns... your cue line is triggering a green light timed to run your flow at maximum pace... foggers are going off at a perfect time to get the right levels of cover spread throughout the haunt... and you can control everything from that computer.. in case you have one room slightly too bright.. and another one too dim... or if you are running a night and the line starts a conga line in the attraction, you can slow the door light to spread out the crowd and correct the clogs...
outside your street and lot lights are not static.. they are moving.. and strobing... showing every car driving by that you are not only open.. but alive and kicking too!
Traditionally the industry offers about a bazillion ways to illuminate your haunt... low and high tech options from soldered circuit boards to fully produced package systems... generally they are all unique and non-compatable with other tech.. meaning your haunt will have several systems through the years overlapping each other.. running everywhere with low and high volt wiring making quite a chaotic mess should you have to trouble shoot an issue... and need to trace.. replace.. or remove one of the many products embedded into your haunt.
You may have considered DMX when you were in the early stages of your haunt design but after spending time in conventions and in seminars related to lighting you were told "DMX is expensive.. and it is really complicated!" and then you were lead on an hour plus long discussion on how to wire up a low volt system requiring soldering... tap connections... wire nuts.. and some math on voltage and amps... just to install a beginner system of several LED's at a fairly high cost. These systems vary in programability if at all... and are incompatible with any existing lighting you may have already acquired.
DMX is the industry standard in virtually all aspects of entertainment currently. It is used on concert stages.. used in night clubs.. used in play houses... it has been officially around since the 80's... and every DMX fixture built from then until now can all be controlled by any DMX control system. I can take my laptop and walk into any bar with lights on the dance floor and with a few clicks and some identifying of the fixtures in the venue I can completely control every light they have. I can take that laptop to a playhouse.. and run that stage... take it to a concert and run the lasers.. trigger the fog... fire the strobe lights... change the stage to any color under the sun.
Programming is very easy! It is simply step programming... set the time frame of each step in the scene... set the levels of each fixture within that time frame.. go on to the next moment and adjust for that step.. continue to make steps or simply loop the few steps you have created. People get overwhelmed when they see 512 sliders... and assume they would have to learn every one and use them all on every programed scene... this is not the case. You can program individual lights in their own scenes and make multiple scenes as you grow your lights and skills... but lets get back to that later...
lets talk about the fixtures and how they transpose to your haunt.
the 1st fixture any DMX haunt should be considering are "dimmer packs"... these are boxes with 4 outlets for traditional plugged in lighting. Most haunts will have regular light bulbs... if they are trying to fully immerse the customer into a scene then having lamps and hanging lights with bulbs would do that easily. adding a dimmer pack to them gives you full control of them.. either to simply dim them to taste.. or to get a bit adventurous and create a slowly shifting and flickering tempo to add a spooky feel to a "haunted room". they are generally in the $100 to $200 range and come from a virtually endless list of companies who produce them. They generally have 4 channels. ...meaning you can independently control up to 4 fixtures.(however you can plug multiple lights into one channel and control a few lights together so even there you have options!)
personally, a haunt could run just off dimmer packs and be the coolest visual haunt in the area! ...and a haunt that began already and has a ton of lamps on dimmer switches can be upgraded to DMX easily by simply unplugging the manual dimmers and plugging the lamps into the dimmer packs.
How many dimmer packs can a DMX system have you are probably wondering?.. and that answer is (depending on what control option you land on)... ENDLESS! infinite... as many as you want to buy! so what this means is.. if you have a small haunt.. one "tube" (one themed attraction) you can easily have every room covered with dimmer packs and have full control of every light in that haunt... or if you have a 5 theme super haunt... you can still use one DMX system and add all 5 of them into that system and completely control it all.
Beyond controlling general light bulbs... you may be wondering about your strobe lights.. or adding color to a room.. or fog...all of these can be added into your system.
Strobes can either be a strobe light with DMX plugs... or a cheap strobe light plugged into a dimmer pack (yes.. dimmer packs can be used for more than a light bulb. you can use fans... old TV's that can be left on and when plugged in turn on... electronics that do things when powered on... etc etc etc... dimmer packs are a cool way to try new ideas and still have them controllable via your computer.) ..also you can program any light to strobe easily with a two step program on the fastest speed. LEDs are best for this.. bulbed lights are hit or miss depending on the strobe speed you desire and the number of filiments in a bulb.. the simpler the bulb (a one filament cheapo bulb) the faster the bulb reacts to the on and off flickering.. an Edison bulb with a very elaborate filament will strobe slower because the filament is going to disperse the energy slower... so if you want a slow fluctuation then any bulb is good.. if you require fast flashes and pops.. use a cheap one filament bulb for best effect!
LED lights... there are so many led lights available for DMX I simply cannot detail them all here... and new ones are on the market every day. some are small.. some are large.. some are simple (minimal options in the programming... general colors) and some are very complex (having unique patterns and effects triggerable though programming). they range from cheap to expensive and all the levels in between. For haunts you should be aiming for small... LED's produce a huge amount of light when you are talking about a haunt that requires dim and shadowed set design, so the smaller the better. (and this helps cost on your end!) With these lights you have the ability to shade your room or scene in any color you wish... it can be a static wash of light or a pulsating.. flickering.. strobing... or inconsistent off and on. anything you can imaging happening.. you can produce yourself with minimal effort.
Fog can be controlled with your system if you buy a DMX fog machine or hazer. If you have one already with DMX plugs but use its remote control you can still use that while the fog machine is incorporated into the DMX array. You can also use the trigger on the machine if one exits. DMX does not kill alternate trigger methods in most of the ones in production at this time from my understanding.
You can also control lasers! In our industry we have one unique laser only circulated to us... the "swamp laser" also known as "The Babbette".. and if you have this fixture and its hand controller you already know its a cool toy.. but if you unplug that hand controller and connect the laser to your DMX system you wil find out that the laser is probably the most advanced laser on the market! it has tons of images.. and endless patterns and shapes in its internal memory all completely un-noticed by 98% of the haunt world.
For your outside you can control "Movers"... those larger lights you see on stages that look like robot shoulder guns and.. uhh... move! There are an endless supply of these style lights on the market... they generally run high on price but there is a low side depending on what your needs are for outside lighting. and they are fun to program and even more enjoyable to watch run through a moving program as they dance and tickle the sky with color and patterns.
And now that we have some understanding of the sheer scope of the lighting selections available... lets talk about how it wires up, as this is where no one even goes when trying to slander the system for complexities.
DMX uses one wire... ONE! It connects to the control box off your computer and then goes directly to the closest fixture in your run. the wire is essentially a mic chord used in any stage PA system. a three hole round plug on one side and a three prong round plug on the other end.. lengths can be from as short as 6 inches to 100 feet or more. connecting multiple fixtures to your DMX system is done "in series" meaning once you have plugged the 1st light into your control system the next fixture will be ran off the 1st light. on all lights there is a "DMX in" and a "DMX out" and you can simply continue to connect fixtures in series for as long as you want or have money to add to your system. (there are limits that can be overcome with simply a repeater box that helps boost the signal... but we can talk more about that later.) It doesn't require a screwdriver.. soldering iron or any electronics training. DMX is the "plug and play" that others claim to be. The cables are available from as many distributors as there are for lights and fixtures. ..and they are not expensive.
Now that we have talked about the lights.. and the cables.. lets talk about the control...
There are so many systems out there it is mind numbing to walk through them all... from slider boards stand alone systems that do not need a computer to complex systems that are their own computers. I have used many of them.. but what I have landed on personally is Daslight.
It is a control box that connects to your computer via USB... and the program is about the most versatile for the Haunt industry. I used it for 7 years in a multi attraction haunt and found it to be very flexible and extremely useful in fleshing out the scenes and set visuals for every theme we tried season to season.
The program for it is free to download but it will not run a light unless it is connected to the official Daslight box... but you can download it and play with it as well as use the virtual 3d viewer to see how it works or to practice general scene step programming.
Daslight has three levels to consider when purchasing. the lowest is a limited box I DO NOT SUGGEST getting as it is limited in many ways that WILL hinder your growth as you progress. (basically it is a beginners system meant for very very VERY small lighting arrays. not for a haunt that could have an endless amount of lights) ...it is around $300 but again... don't get it... it is not the level for a haunted attraction and you will only have to buy a better box down the line. The 2nd tier box is around $4 or $5 hundred but is the best for a small to medium haunt. It has full features available... can handle any amount of fixtures and will perform year after year for ever. my box is 10 plus years old and it is still ready to run anything I plug into it! The top tier box is around $700... and is basically a super version of the 2nd tier. offering advanced options like multiple universes on the single box... and something you might want if you are a large haunt with 4 or more attractions you wish to control with one computer. (I have that box but I am a lighting programmer who works in all areas of lighting so having that helps me in non haunt more than haunt related endeavors.. for 90% of the people I would suggest DMX to.. the middle tier box is just fine. and my old haunt ran a middle tier box for two attractions with no issues for 7 season.
I do not work for daslight nor do I get kickbacks for sales of their product... I simply have used many in my life and Daslight has been found to be the easiest to program.. and run, especially in a haunted attraction. They update often... the program has virtually every tool and trick the lighting industry has in stand alone stage systems... and it is designed in a very user friendly way. (with "buttons" for each scene so you can simply click on what you want and it will start playing in the haunt.)
I suggest NOT using Apple systems... I have used it on both and prefer PC based systems. cheaper... and more reliable. (I have watched a friend try to use the daslight on an apple and it kept crashing.... something I have not experienced from my PCs in the 10 years I have been working with the brand.)
for me.. DMX is awesome.. HOWEVER.. as I am not "selling" you my DMX product so I will touch on some problems you might experience as it helps to understand what could go working if you buy the wrong fixture or try to DYI your own cables to save some money...
Our 1st season in my old haunt we decided to buy wire and connectors and solder our own cables.. we thought we were being clever and saving lots of cash. this would be my biggest regret for 4 or 5 seasons. Soldeing the female end was easy.. but the male ends were a different metal and just wold not hold solder unless you really worked that connection. and after we installed all those hand made cables, one by one through the season they lost connections.. or slipped and shorted connections.
DMX is low voltage... the wires running from light to light are sending data signals to the lights. so shorting them will not blow anything up. no breakers will trip.. no fixtures will be damaged. HOWEVER... EVERY fixture in that run will act possessed! Completely ignoring the programs and flickering and flashing in all the wrong ways. This happened because an actor jumped up on a wall and grabbed the DMX chord while balancing on a 4x8 plywood wall to "death from above" the customers... and that pulled the soldered connections loose. Tracing that short in a live running situation is stressful and required running from connection to connection with a good cable and replacing them one by one till you find the bad wire. it took over 4 seasons to replace out thousands of feet of DMX from hand made to store bought before this problem ended. Learn from my mistakes... buy manufactured cables... or you will be buying them later to replace the ones you thought you bought to save money with by soldering.
Buy reputable brand name lights or rent ones you are considering and add them to your array before you commit. Some lights by lesser known manufacturers can cause chaos to your entire array as if you have a short in your cables.. I call these lights "cancer lights" and they can be any light from anywhere.. so I do not have a "list" of bad lights to hand you...but do have the caution. (and this can help to troubleshoot if you have a good lighting array and then buy a new light and suddenly the whole array is a disco... you may have a cancer light.) If you have a cancer light it may not be completely useless... they can work within your system but you have to be creative on how you intermingle it with the rest. I suggest wireless to the cancer lights... the reason they "disco" a system is they send a bad signal back into the wire that is read wrong by the entire system. wireless cuts that communication and only allows the fixture to receive and not send... theoretically correcting this problem.
That is the basics... and please ask questions! there is far more to be taught and more posts to come on the subject as well as some future postings on general wiring experiences and ideas to simplify your haunt. so this is just the beginning. there will be more... happy haunting!