Photo by Ruta Smith

The Bright Side

 “Nobody appreciates lighting,” said John Reynolds, an Emmy Award-winning lighting producer. “They see it on TV, and it’s ‘whatever.’ But, Christmas lights, man, people get excited. You only have three lights up and people start taking pictures.”

Put up a whole lot more lights and a person would be forgiven for forgetting the camera altogether. Reynolds has seen it firsthand as the creator of Cougar Night Lights, which opened Nov. 23 on the College of Charleston’s downtown campus.

Reynolds, a CofC alumnus and Charleston native, has designed, produced and created the College’s holiday light show since 2017. It’s one of many lighting projects on his big-league resume. He has produced lighting for TV, film, the Olympics and presidential debates. 

Reynolds is also working another holiday lighting display up the road in Clinton. But Cougar Night Lights remains special to him.  

“It’s good, it’s challenging, it’s daunting,” he said. “You don’t realize how much time you spend up in the trees laying the foundations for everything. That first year I think I put in almost 5,000 feet of cable to control all the lights, and it’s interesting going back year to year and seeing how the trees have grown or how they differ.”

Photo by Ruta Smith

As if the work wasn’t challenging enough, Reynolds suffered a severe injury in a 2018 rappelling accident while rock climbing, but that didn’t stop the tough-nut technician of Christmas joy.

“I busted my legs up pretty good, so the second and third year, I was still recovering, but that wasn’t going to stop me from doing the lights,” he said. “I was up in the lift with a peg leg, and eventually, it didn’t get any better. I had it amputated, but it only adds to the mystery — the one-legged Christmas lighting guy.”

Now, like many others, the pandemic has underscored his career in 2020. Reynolds and his industry colleagues felt the hit of worldwide economic pressures of the coronavirus. But, the show must go on. 

“It was a rough time for a lot of people for a good five months, but around September, it started gearing back up,” Reynolds said. “That’s the nice thing about Christmas lights, though. You don’t really have to [be close together] … you can drive by it.”

But for some, seeing the lights through a car window isn’t enough.

“We drove by the lights the other day, and even though it looked great from the road, we just had to get up close,” said Johns Island resident Rachel Gene. “So, we just put on a mask and hopped on out to watch the show.”

‘A creative process’

Reynolds is behind every piece of the College of Charleston show — from the theme and composition, to the rigging and programming. Building the production one piece at a time is his favorite part. 

Photo by Ruta Smith
Most of the show’s 40,000+ lights climb the columns of Randolph Hall

“I always talk about editing as a process. When you start, it’s so daunting,” he said. “Then, you lay it out and feel like you get to a point where it’s all a disaster. But then, you have that epiphany, and all of it comes together, and in the end, you’re just excited. It’s a creative process.”

And, a lot of the pieces to that creative puzzle come and go throughout the process. Reynolds said he often arrives on site with a full plan only to begin thinking, “What if I did this? What if I did that?” There’s a lot of improvisation and flexibility behind the bulbs.

With lights dripping from the massive oaks of the College’s Cistern Yard and climbing the columns of Randolph Hall, Reynolds’ work floods the school’s landmark quad with light.

“There’s the central theme of the hanging lights, which is just one of the most captivating parts of the design,” Reynolds said. “It just changes the whole feel of the Cistern area, this cool, soft light that fills the night, and once we take them down, it just feels so dark.

“But, the columns, of course, are the centerpiece as far as the show — the animation part of it anyway,” he said. “And, last year we added the lights under the cistern, which I like, because you can see they’re there, but it’s kind of a surprise. All of a sudden these lights you’re standing right next to are illuminating you and everyone else.” 

Photo by Ruta Smith | Credit: Ruta Smith

Small crowds of distanced onlookers allow the light to spill across the yard, so that even those in the back can enjoy the show.

“We come every year,” said West Ashley’s Don Becker, who stopped by the Cistern on Monday with his family. “Our son recently graduated from the school, so we started going for that, but now it’s become a family tradition. And, we kind of like the distanced aspect, you can tell people are being safe and considerate, and it lets you focus on the lights more.”

The numbers behind the awe 

Most people are familiar with the basics of stringing lights around the family Christmas tree or a holiday display out in the yard. Those lights flick off and on with a few plugs here and there (Clark Griswold excepted).

Cougar Night Lights requires the equivalent of more than 40,000 plugs, according to Reynolds, all computer-controlled and individually programmed, to light up Cistern Yard.

The program Reynolds uses sets up a system of “universes,” each of which contains 512 distinct channels. Cougar Night Lights uses about 140 universes of light data, mostly due to the columns, which contain over 6,000 pixels apiece, with each taking three channels.

“It’s a lot of information, and you program it and go through and design elements to the music, to the beat, to the change ups in the song,” Reynolds said. “It can be a little daunting because there’s so many aspects of the show — the columns, the stairs, the hedges — and you program it all.”

About two to three days go into the programming alone, and that comes after the physical work of hanging the lights. This year, that took about eight full workdays decorating the circa 1828 building in a lift.

“That’s a challenge in itself, it being a historic building,” Reynolds said. “You can’t just start screwing into things, you have to find creative ways of getting things to hang, and you have to be really careful.”

It is, afterall, hallowed ground for Reynolds.

“It’s such a beautiful campus,” he said. “I graduated from that college, and it’s kind of a special place in my heart, and it’s exciting to be around there. I graduated in ’97, so I still see some of my old professors. I still have that feeling of this being an important place for me.” 

Cougar Night Lights is free and open to the public. The 30-minute shows begin at 5:30 p.m. and end at 9 p.m. daily until Jan. 1 at CofC’s Cistern Yard (66 George St.).