How Saks Fifth Avenue Blended Tech Into Its Holiday Light Show

A little old mixes well with the new.

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Dec 23 2016, 12:00pm

Image: Saks Fifth Avenue

Rockefeller Center is at the heart of Manhattan's midtown. Thanks to the holiday season, the complex is iconic to the point of cliche, from the golden statue of Prometheus, to the ice skating rink, to the massive, decked out Christmas tree. And although Rockefeller Center has had a Christmas tree tradition since 1933, it wasn't until 1954 that artist Valerie Clarebout installed the wire herald angels that appear to flank the tree in every postcard and every Hollywood movie. By 1969, they had become a permanent fixture of the annual display.

Image: Anthony Quintano/Flickr

This photo, like millions of others, is taken from the side of the tree that faces Fifth Avenue. And right across the avenue is luxury department store Saks Fifth Avenue, which is home to a lesser known, but equally affecting holiday tradition.

Every year around Christmas, Saks Fifth Avenue dresses its display windows with holiday-inspired whimsy, usually telling a sequential story. This year's holiday theme is Land of 1,000 Delights, and accordingly, the dioramas tell the story of the "Nutcracker Sweet," featuring candy patterns and swirls.

Image: Saks Fifth Avenue

In just the past two decades, however, Saks has also been developing an accompanying light and music show, which projects on the side of the building that faces Rockefeller Center. This tradition started in 2004, with 50 massive snowflakes lit with 70,000 LEDs. They blinked and flickered in time with a high-paced rendition of "Carol of the Bells."

In 2010, owing to advances in technology, Saks switched to digital projection, which allowed them to engage in simple storytelling. Its very first digital projection show acknowledged the shift. First, the audience sees the snowflakes that have become familiar to them. But then, those snowflakes "fall," which reinforces the transition between old and new.

By the time Mark Briggs, an Executive Vice President for Hudson's Bay Company (the retail business company that owns and operates Saks), joined the Creative team in December 2013, the light show had evolved into something much more grand. But despite the show's increased sophistication, Briggs felt that something was lacking. And ultimately, he and his team concluded that Saks had gone too far in its use of digital projection—that when people think of holiday decorations, they think of tangible things that they can hold onto.

"I'm very mindful of looking back at what worked [in the past] and making that we are capturing the essence of holiday," said Briggs in an interview with Motherboard. "I'm a traditionalist in the way that I believe the people want us to create something that takes them out of the real world and transport them to a magical world."

In 2015, Saks, in collaboration with holiday design company American Christmas, debuted the Winter Palace, which combined practical sets with the light show—a melding of old and new. The Winter Palace evolved into this year's Land of 1,000 Delights candy castle.

"The key difference is color," said Briggs. "Land of 1,000 Delights is based on candy couture, and it's kind of a whimsical fantasy. Last year was very white, icy, and cold, whereas this year's show evokes a lot more warmth. I think it's really gone down well with the public, and they enjoy the show a lot more now."

Totaled, the light show includes 305,735 points of light that can be programmed and controlled. The practical sets on the side of the building include 12,851 feet of garland, 4,678 square feet of foliage, and 2,000 massive candy ornaments. The candy castle also has 21-meter high spires covered in crystals; there are 225,200 crystals in the entire display.

Image: Saks Fifth Avenue

It all took a bit longer to install than originally planned; most of the problems came from what Briggs and his team originally conceived and sketched, versus what was practical on such a massive scale. The entire light show took over 10,000 man hours to produce; planning for the show began over a year in advance.

In fact, Briggs recently met with his team to begin planning the 2017 iteration of the light show. Next year, they will be using a different piece of music than "Carol of the Bells," which has been a Saks holiday staple for many years. And although he declined to share any additional, specific details, Briggs gave some vague foreshadowing for what to expect.

"Everything we do literally starts with a piece of paper and a sketch," said Briggs. "But now that I've gotten to know the front of the building, and we have what we've designed and built already, it becomes a more practical process, designing what we can add to it."

"There's not a lot of space to add more," admitted Briggs, "But we're looking at refining some of the existing elements and reimagining what you currently see around the main doorway of the store now. That'll be removed and replaced with the new theme. There's lots of exciting things to come."