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Chris Pike Chris Pike | 09:54 UK time, Thursday, 13 December 2012

Some people may feel that they have been hearing Jingle Bells on a constant loop since 2003, but at the BBC the festive season began on Tuesday night on the One Show with the switching on of the BBC Christmas lights. At Television Centre Alex, Matt and their guests were having a merry old time at a traditional Christmas market and hanging out with Rudolph and his reindeer pals. Meanwhile, up here in Salford, BBC R&D got together with the One Show team and an army of volunteers to create an amazing 150ft long Christmas tree light painting live on-air.
One Show light graffiti Christmas tree at MCUK

The One Show Christmas Tree Light Painting

Video and more after the bump!

This seasonal side-project was inspired by Sunlight Graffiti, an interactive light painting work that we installed at the Tate Modern this summer as part of the Cultural Olympiad, in collaboration with artist Ólafur Elíasson. Producer Steve Rawling saw the BBC News story about that project and saw the potential to take our software and go bigger and brighter. So it was that we ended up on the roof of Quay House last night in the freezing mist, pointing a camera down at around 50 people armed with coloured torches.

View from the roof of torch-wielding volunteers

View from the roof of torch-wielding volunteers

R&D's Brendan Crowther has made a short film about the project: 

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The light painting effect was generated using our software system and sent down to the outside broadcast van outside where the local production team were based. An HD satellite link was set up to transmit the footage down to Television Centre in London. Shortly after 7pm, a well choreographed and rehearsed team of volunteers set off around the MediaCityUK piazza with their torches, as I took on the highly complex task of pressing the space bar at the correct time. We were all a little nervous as live television is not something we often get involved in at Research and Development, but it went off without a hitch.

R&D assess the quality of the Christmas baubles

R&D's Christmas Bauble Quality Assurance Unit

To create the light painting effect we used a simple piece of software that I'd written in the summer. It takes in an HD-SDI camera feed and builds up a painting in real-time using the brightest pixels in memory. The software was written using Cinder, a free and open-source C++ library designed for creative projects. It's a very straightforward process (the more advanced part of Little Sun was the object-tracking and the stunning WebGL-rendered online experience), but it can create a remarkably dynamic and engaging experience for the light painter using it.

Over the last ten days we've done some development and testing to make sure that the software is broadcast-stable. We spent an evening or two experimenting with a variety of torches and manoeuvres on the ground. In order to get suitably diffuse coloured light from LED torches we taped ping-pong balls over the end of the lights, which was a good few hours work for the One Show team, but looked fantastic. There were one or two dodgy runs in R&D's first experiment but on the night it was looking great. Well done to all from BBC R&D who worked on this, especially Max Leonard, Anthony Churnside, and Matt Shotton, and also congrats to The One Show for such a spectacular show all round. I'd also like to thank all the torch-bearers who braved the icy winter conditions for the cause. I hope you were as pleased with the result as we were. Finally huge congratulations to the R&D team responsible for the halfRF MIMO HD Radiocamera which was used for the coverage outside Television Centre during the show.

UPDATE: The more attentive One Show viewers will have learnt that all of the reindeer must be female, because the males lose their antlers in Winter. Therefore my statement in the first paragraph should not read "Rudolph and his reindeer pals" rather "Rudolph and her reindeer pals". I offer my sincerest apologies to any reindeer who I may have offended. Thanks to AJM for pointing out the mistake. Merry Christmas!

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