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Unremarkable it might be from the outside, but inside is where the magic happens and where the magic of the Illuminations is created and maintained.
Inside Lightworks, the Blackpool Illuminations depot
Narrated by Andrew Walker, Directed and Produced by Stuart Braithwaite and Starring Richard Williams
There’s no ‘Illuminations Factory’ where these things can be bought off a shelf – everything that you see on Blackpool promenade is dreamed up and made right here in the town by a skilled and imaginative team of craftsmen and engineers.
The building itself was purpose built when the move was made from the old Rigby Road Illuminations Depot. It took two years to design and build, and was opened in 2000.
The shell and the space inside were created to cope with the Illuminations product, which is quite unlike any other! For example, the doors are especially high - high enough to drive the lorries straight inside when the weather is bad and enable them to be loaded or unloaded inside. The floor space is also sectioned off to allow a logical workflow, enabling things to move sensibly around the factory as they progress through different stages of manufacture.
Blackpool Illumination light fittings being made at Lightworks
Typically people join the team with a trade – they might be electricians or welders – and once enrolled onto the team they learn how to adapt their traditional skills to suit the very unique requirements of being ‘Illuminations Creators’. That could be quite a job title to have and tell your grandkids about!
So what’s the process? How do new installations travel from the spark of an idea to the streets of Blackpool Promenade?
Within the team are the skills required to design, cost, manufacture, erect and display new designs.
It might be something which is being made as part of a sponsorship arrangement, or through grant funding, but the process remains the same whoever the client is that requests and specifies the new project.
As you would with any new commission the team starts with a brief. What does the client want to see and achieve with their Illumination and how can that be translated into something which is interesting and people will enjoy looking at.
Consideration for the weather is vital in each piece. Not only do they have to look good they must be structurally sound and strong enough to withstand the weather (which can be, frankly, atrocious) so each illumination undergoes an analysis of the build design and cost, which is all done electronically.
The weight of each illumination is also taken into account and the load which they put onto the poles which hold them, and they each have a lifting plan. Each one is built within a certain size for windage.
The Blackpool Illuminations team have also become experts at adapting what is normally used as indoor equipment and making it work outside in all weathers, much of which has been done by developing specially built housings. For example, the projector equipment which is used on Birley Street in the Brilliance installation, and the projectors which are used on the promenade within the Illuminations display.
A design is worked up – nowadays it’s not a hand done pencil drawing but computer drawn with CAD software which can accurately calculate strengths and tolerances – and then also provide accurate costings for the project. In fact, the introduction of CAD has been the biggest change in the process in the last five years.
Once the design has been finalised, the creative part comes into play. The illuminations are made from fibreglass, steel and wood, so the design has to be transferred from a flat plan into these materials.
Where multiple shapes are required, maybe for one of the overhead road sections like this one above, the shape is carved out of polystyrene just like a sculptor would carve a statue. The polystyrene shape is then used to make a mould, from which multiple pieces can be made in fibreglass.
You might have wondered how the Blackpool Illuminations are controlled, and where the switch is to turn them on and off every day!
Modern technology has come into play in this respect too, and there are seven substations which are linked by the mobile phone network and that is how they are controlled for coming on and off.
All the big tableaus have a little hut behind them with all their wiring and controls inside.
Did you know? That the Blackpool Illuminations run on 24 volts? Different voltage levels have been tried but this is the one which is perfect for them.
You've probably never seen a 24v lightbulb available to buy anywhere, so you wouldn't be surprised to know that the lamps themselves are made to their own specification and imported specially. Plus, they're all plastic including the globe - so they do in fact bounce!
All these developments and refinements over the years mean that the Blackpool Illuminations achieves a 98% lit rate at any one time.
The construction team have a broad range of skills between them and have to be able to turn their hand to pretty much anything – being able to work in steel, fibreglass, plastic, timber, fibre optics, lasers, LEDs… and many other forms of lighting (and don’t forget they use ‘lamps’ because ‘bulbs’ grow underground!)
Their skills all come together in the joinery shop, fitting shop and fibreglass shop under the guidance of foremen and engineers to produce the finished product.
Installing the tableaus on the cliffs at Bispham
No two days will be the same for the members of staff on the shop floor, the managers and admin staff. The people who build the lights are also the ones who go out on the prom to put them up, so everyone in the team is very hands on and very able to do many different jobs.
The managers play a hands-on part in the design and production, the admin team are vital to the work of the Friends and organisation of events and tours of the depot.
In rotation, about half of the Illuminations which span the road and all of the tableaux from the cliffs are brought into the depot each winter when the annual light show finishes, traditionally after the October half term holiday.
They’re pressure washed clean, serviced, paint work is touched up, they're repaired and then stored in bays and racks like these below. There's a full paper trail for each one which documents its service history.
They go back out into position for another show the following year, with installation starting from April onwards – obviously all of the Iluminations HAVE to be in place by the end of August.
Removing them allows them to be moved around, reviewed and assessed from a health and safety point of view, and to alleviate some of the wind damage which they would suffer from the rough winter seafront weather if they were left there all year round.
Lightworks with many of the Blackpool Illuminations removed for display
It's quite a surreal sight that makes you walk round open-mouthed, the first time you walk into this vast shed. The familiar features, neatly arranged in racks vary in number depending on the time of year when you visit. The best time to call is in Spring, while everything is in storage and that season's refitting hasn't yet started.
The most amazing thing is just how big they look when you see them close up in a building. They look so much bigger than they do out on the Prom in the dark night air.
Have a look round this website to see some of their wonderful creations, but nothing beats a stroll along Blackpool promenade on an autumn night, gazing up at all the miles of twinkly lights!
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