Meet the Couple Who Lit Up Their Neighborhood by Learning to Code

Meet the Couple Who Lit Up Their Neighborhood by Learning to Code

By Phoebe Knight

Each year after Thanksgiving, festive homeowners in Atlanta and around the world unpack holiday decorations to bedazzle their yards and homes with strings of twinkling lights. After building a new house of their own, Decatur couple Tony and Katie Paradowski wanted to go beyond the standard sparkle and flash. This drive led them to create a massive, animated, musically choreographed Christmas light show named Christmas in the Grove.

In 2010, they began with a single switching controller and a “modest” 10,000 animated lights. The following year they added 26,000 lights, music, professional voice-overs and sequenced animation. Over the years, the display has continued to evolve. This holiday season, the exhibit showcases lasers, projectors, over 110,000 lights and a variety of glowing, flashing and dancing decorations.

Katie and Tony Paradowski

Katie and Tony Paradowski

Naturally, we wanted to know what goes into the award-winning light show, so we spoke with Tony Paradowski to learn more about the tech behind the Grove. Get this: He actually designs and codes most of the display’s animations himself.

“I’ve always been a bit of a computer geek,” he said. When he started Christmas in the Grove, though, he had no knowledge of animated light design and had to teach himself what he needed.

Through Google, he learned that most residential displays use controller hardware from the company Light-O-Rama. The device regulates the light strands and provides software to control each strand or bulb independently. According to Paradowski, 10 seconds of music requires an hour or more to code. This means the current 13-song playlist required over 260 hours to animate.

The whole enchilada.

The whole enchilada.

Paradowski attends conventions such as Christmas Expo and Lone Star Holidays Academy to discover new technologies to incorporate into their light display. The result of one of these trips is in use on the property: RGB (red, green, blue) pixel lights.

“We can control the individual color of each bulb in a strand,” Paradowski explained. This gives them the ability to create cohesive, moving images in light. The utilization of this technology can be seen in a “ribbon tree” where 8-bit animated figures dance to the beat of the music in an iridescent shower of color.

Another new technology has had a dramatic impact on the display (and the Paradowskis’ utility bills): energy-efficient LED lights. In 2010, all lights on the property were incandescent. Over time they replaced each strand with an LED version, and the improved energy efficiency lowered their bill despite the increase in the number of lights.

The Paradowskis' home

The Paradowskis’ home

Speaking of energy bills, the display is a labor of love that requires a significant personal investment from the Paradowskis. A time-lapse video of the 2013 setup reveals that it takes crews of people, a hydraulic crane and almost three whole weeks to assemble the display in its entirety. To prevent eager viewers from blocking the roads, the Paradowskis hired local police to assist with traffic control. They also arrange visits from Santa Claus for the children.

In our conversations with Paradowski, he never spoke of the cost. “Our family has been extremely blessed,” he said. “The display is our gift to the community. It’s a way for us to give back and make people happy at Christmas.”

One thing is certain: The surrounding community loves Christmas in the Grove. Viewers take to Facebook and Twitter to praise the exhibit all the time. When asked if the neighbors complain about the commotion, Paradowski said, “My immediate neighbors could not possibly be better. Some of them even help with the setup and takedown. They’re great.”

A donation box rests in front of the house, but the couple does not use donations to fund their display. Instead, they donate 100 percent of the proceeds to Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) research. To date, they have collected more than $10,000 in donations.

Christmas in the Grove runs until January 1, 2017. You can catch the display at 1428 Oak Grove Dr., Decatur, GA 30033. The lights illuminate from 6:30 p.m.–10:00 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and from 6:30 p.m.–11:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Images courtesy of Phoebe Knight and Tony Paradowski.