In a spare conference room filled with controllers, giant spools of wire and spare bulbs, Richard Holdman tinkers with his version of Christmas magic.
Holdman installs holiday lighting displays for a living and for his final client of the season, Provo-based Web hosting company Fibernet, he designed a cascading wall of 2-foot snowflakes framed by strings of blinking LED lights.
It's a glimpse at the kind of animated holiday lights Holdman has installed from Santa Monica, Calif., to Seoul, South Korea; this summer, he created a drive-through display with 500,000 lights in Nashville. But for him, scale doesn't matter.
"I don't care if it's just one strand on a house," he said. "Any Christmas lights make me excited."
From hobby to career • Ironically, a younger Holdman remembers complaining to his dad about putting lights on the family home, but getting a place of his own changed his attitude.
"As a former DJ, I've always been interested in music and lighting," Holdman said. "Then I saw [an animated display] on YouTube and I thought, 'Wow, I want to do that.'"
That was back in 2006. He collected 35,000 lights, bought some light controls, wrapped his Pleasant Grove home and yard in lights and set the whole shebang to music.
It was an instant hit.
As word spread, cars filled with families and buses from senior-care facilities would roll past his home between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The next year was even bigger, with 60,000 lights. He collected $10,000 in donations for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, cars backed up for a mile and Holdman spent weeks directing traffic. At times, local police would be called in to relieve the congestion.
"It was just amazing to see the reaction," he said.
But the nightly bumper-to-bumper parade didn't sit well with some neighbors in his gated community. He temporarily moved the display to his parents' home in Lindon for a couple of seasons, boosting the production to 150,000 lights. But he missed decorating his own digs. He finally convinced his neighbors to allow one last show at his home in 2010.
That was the year a video of Holdman's winter wonderland went viral. So far, that video has racked up 33 million views on YouTube, and spurred calls from commercial clients asking him to design displays for their companies.
From Texas to Argentina to Moscow, Russia, the requests kept coming, which led to the founding of Holdman Lighting. While most of his clients are out of state, you can check out Holdman displays at the Valley Fair Mall and the law firm of Christensen & Hymas in Draper.
"It's the same kind of technology that's behind a concert and there's a lot of thought that goes into the design," he said. "Each site has a different number of trees and they're shaped differently, so it's a challenge and a lot of fun."
'Let's talk' • Part electrician and part artist, Holdman spends hundreds of hours designing a lighting scheme, cutting wire to custom lengths and using automating computer software to program when lights should flicker on and off. He and his crew carefully wrap trees, shrubs and buildings with three different colors of lights to create multi-colored animated effects.
For those wanting to create an animated display, Holdman has two pieces of advice.
First, start early. For his first display, Holdman says he started by shopping the after-Christmas sales the year before his first light show and started designing in the spring.
"My neighbors started seeing flashing lights in my backyard starting in July," he said.
Second, save your pennies.
Holdman says enthusiasts need at least 10,000 lights for a modest animated light show; again, shop post-Christmas sales. And contrary to popular perception, the electric bill isn't the biggest expense when setting up a light display. Holdman says it's the software and controllers that add up.
"If you're starting from scratch, plan on spending $3,000 to $5,000 at a minimum," Holdman said.
This year, Holdman has focused all of his creative energy on brightening others' properties; he's only strung lights on one tree in his own yard (although that single tree has 1,800 lights). But he still has ambitions.
"Driving down a street and seeing every house with Christmas lights on is so rare to see," Holdman said. "One of my dreams is to get a whole street and synchronize every house. If anyone's interested, let's talk."
Setting up lights that impress
O Feeling ambitious enough to design an animated display? Richard Holdman, of Holdman Lighting, gives these tips:
• Start early to learn how the automation technology works and to design.
• Hit after-Christmas sales for lights and controllers.
• Start testing when it's warm. "Nothing is more miserable than trying to figure it out in the freezing cold," Holdman says.
• Plan a budget. Small displays start at $3,000 to $5,000. "Don't get that new car this year," he says.
• Make sure your spouse is on board.