CHALLENGE The Times Square New Year's Eve ball might have looked somewhat different this past December. To honor the ball's 100th anniversary, lighting designer Paul Gregory and his team at New York City–based Focus Lighting were asked to update the ball's design utilizing light-emitting diode (LED) technology and triangular crystal tiles from Waterford Crystal. Highlighting the brilliance of the crystal was a challenge, as was ensuring that the redesign of this New Year's icon showed that it is more than “just a glass ball with some lights on it,” as Gregory puts it. To that end, the lighting design team worked to make sure the ball looked equally spectacular to all viewers watching it, whether in person or via television.
SOLUTION The original Times Square Ball, making its initial descent in 1907, was 5 feet in diameter, made of iron and wood, and illuminated by 100, 25W lamps. It has been upgraded over the years, most recently in 2000, when Waterford completely redesigned the ball for the millennium. It has been adorned with the company's crystal ever since.
Today, the 6-foot-diameter ball weighs approximately 1,100 pounds and features an exclusive pattern by Waterford called “Let There Be Light.” Focus Lighting was one of five lighting design firms approached by Countdown Entertainment, which co-produces the New Year's event with the Times Square Alliance, in conjunction with Philips Lighting to craft what Gregory describes as a “creative but sensible” design. Once selected for the project, the main goal was to make the crystal appear as brilliant as possible, and to achieve this, the lighting designers had Waterford back cut each triangle to increase its ability to refract light. This is the first time the crystal has been cut on both sides—an idea that stemmed from the team at Focus. “We took the pyramid pattern, kind of a prismatic cut, and that's what really created all the sparkle,” Gregory explains. “We analyzed what makes the crystal beautiful, and it's the number of cuts and the number of light points.”
Philips has supplied the lamps for the ball for the past few years and wanted this year's design to include the latest in solid-state lighting (SSL) technology. That is how a total of 9,576 individually controlled LEDs came to replace the 600 incandescent and halogen lamps used to illuminate the previous model. With enhanced brightness, more color capabilities, and increased efficiency, the new lighting scheme can achieve more than 4 billion colors and incorporates 3,228 channels of individually controlled data. The usable lifespan of the LEDs is estimated at 50,000 hours, compared with the 1,000-hour lifespan of the lamps used on previous designs. According to Philips, it now takes only 24 watts to operate one red, one green, one blue, and one white LED on the ball, compared with the 180 watts previously required to operate the equivalent amount of incandescent and halogen sources.
To ensure that viewers did not look past the crystal to the sources behind it, Christine Hope, project lighting designer, came up with the idea of isolating the crystal into its own chamber of light using a mirrored baffle. The 672 individual triangles, backlit by 12 LEDs, are divided into groups of four to create 168 “main triangles.” The main triangles all have a white LED strip along each perimeter edge that interlocks with adjacent panels to illuminate the ball's geodesic outline.
The designers wanted the ball to look striking regardless of a viewer's location. As Gregory explains, a quarter-size piece of crystal from 5 feet away resembled a beautiful diamond ring. “We asked ourselves, ‘How can we have that effect from the 50-foot shot from the TV and the 500-foot shot from standing below?'” he says. The lighting control system, selected for its ability to layer video feeds with theatrical channel selection, helped achieve that dynamic effect for those watching. It took about three weeks to program the eight “shows” that played during the evening leading up to the ball drop, and the same signal controlling the TV cameras and sound also triggered the ball, which ensured everything was in sync. Watching from Times Square on New Year's Eve, Hope says, “It was great to see our ideas confirmed” and that the most successful looks from the street were the deep reds and blues contrasting with big triangles or stripes of bright white.
Focus Lighting developed a design idea that took the brilliance of the crystal to a new level while featuring SSL technology, reducing electricity consumption, and using a control system that offers endless lighting effects. When the clock struck 12 this year, the billions of people ringing in 2008 also were celebrating the dynamic new look of the ball as it descended the flagpole at One Times Square for the 100th time.
DESIGN TEAM | Focus Lighting, New York City (lighting design and programming); Hudson Scenic Studio, Yonkers, New York (structural engineering design and development) PROJECT DIMENSIONS | 6 feet (diameter) PHOTOGRAPHERS | Ian Hardy, New York City (left and right images); Emile Wamsteker (center image), courtesy of the Times Square Alliance MANUFACTURERS | E:Cue Lighting Control, LED Effects, Lighting Science Group, Philips Lighting, Waterford Crystal