SM PIER — You round the bend on the Pacific Coast Highway, watch the Pacific Wheel dancing in the sunset, and see a lightshow.
Dana Wyatt hears music.
Wyatt, director of Operations at Pacific Park on the Santa Monica Pier, programs each frame of each light show like an animator drawing a cartoon. Each show is created to the beat of a song that the public will never actually hear alongside it.
On a desktop computer in a windowless room that abuts the Pacific Ocean he’s revising the Fourth of July show. Sporting a horseshoe mustache, his eyes are locked on a swirling vortex: The digital projection of the wheel. Accompanying it on the screen is a large grid of squares — each representing one light — which Wyatt can mentally translate like the green binary code in “The Matrix.” You see a game of Minesweeper or checkers but he sees fireworks, a heart, or swirls.
“The correlation now is like musical notes on a piece of paper,” he said. “It translates for me.”
Playing on his stereo is “Giorgio By Moroder” by Daft Punk. He calls it his “click track.” As the song transitions, so do the scenes.
Light patterns repeatedly align perfectly with certain notes. Viewed with the music, it’s completely hypnotizing.
When the show is unveiled — sometime around July 4 — the public won’t hear the music; it exists for Wyatt’s programming purposes only.
Wyatt says he limits himself to about half an hour of computer work at a time. When he stops, he sees the lights in his head.
“OK, we’ll start with something that looks like fireworks,” he says, “roll out the red, white, and blue. Spin it up. Get a little quirky with it. Do a little yin-yang. Do ‘the jiggle.’”
The jiggle, the yin-yang — Wyatt had to create these sequences individually.
There is no “Holy Grail,” as Wyatt calls it, that would allow him to download pre-packaged frames or sequences. He’s looked.
He can save frames and sequences that he’s already created, so the work gets easier over the years, but he started without a pallet.
His first show took about 60 man-hours, he estimates. The Fourth of July show will take him about four hours.
He heard the Daft Punk song about six months ago and was drawn to its intensity and its transitions. Often he programs the shows to sync with Pink Floyd.
“A Pink Floyd concert is very visual,” he said. “The visuals and the music: I’ve never indulged but there’s a lot of narcotics involved. I don’t use any artificial stimulation, just the music itself. So for different events, it’s different genres of music.”
His Valentine’s Day show, with its swirling hearts, is far and away the most popular. He’s proud of it but it’s simple. Wyatt describes it like a bandleader who’s sick of playing his hit.
And what music is the Valentine’s Day show aligned with?
“Pink Floyd,” he says.
“‘Wish You Were Here?’” suggests Cameron Andrews, a spokesperson for the park.
“‘Comfortably Numb,’” responds Wyatt, laughing heartily. “I’m sorry.”
Tasked with overseeing ride maintenance, ticketing, security and much more, “Ferris wheel lightshow composer” wasn’t added to the job description until 2008, when Pacific Park replaced its salt air-weathered wheel.
Instead of 20 spokes, Wyatt pushed for 40, realizing that it would up the resolution. Today the solar-powered wheel has 160,000 LED lights capable of seven colors. Rim lights circle the perimeter. White lights make the colored lights pop.
UCLA computer science professors couldn’t figure out a way to easily populate the light shows. There’s no one else in the Ferris wheel world who can do what he does. Other Ferris wheel guys call him with questions. He’s the industry leader.
Wyatt’s family and friends are impressed. When the wheel was featured prominently in a Brad Paisley music video, he got e-mails from dozens of buddies in the amusement park industry. His granddaughter, who he called his “best friend in the world,” sometimes sees the wheel in the background on news broadcasts and requests that he make it more pink.
But Wyatt is his own biggest critic.
“I did not like that transition,” he says, toward the end of his draft of the Fourth of July show. “It was too blunt. It was too abrupt. It was ‘boom,’ right to a whole different image up there. It’s not smooth. I’ll go back in there later and fix it up.”
When he’s programming at night, he’ll walk out to the pier with the song of choice playing on his Blackberry to see how everything is lining up. There’s a live-streaming camera fixed on the wheel for Pacific Park’s website, but the colors are a little off, Wyatt said. He set up his own.
In order to change the program, someone has to actually climb up into the center of the Ferris wheel and manually change flash drives.
Wyatt’s been less inspired of late. The Fourth of July show got the juices flowing again, he said, but it’s a lot of work.
Perhaps this is because he doesn’t have an artistic background. He doesn’t seem to consider himself an artist. In the business world, he said, passion is often confused with competence. He’s not interested in creating a light show that reflects the depths of his soul. In his mind, it seems, there’s the perfect light show and then there are all the other light shows.
The challenges are more appealing to Wyatt than the creativity, and there are plenty of challenges. He doesn’t think he’s scratched the surface of what the Pacific Wheel’s lights are capable of.
“Every time I sit down and do an intense project I pick up something new,” he said. “A different little nuance — something I didn’t know.”