Todd Wolfson

Software Engineer

October 12, 2018

This year I helped build a giant rainbow for and at Burning Man. It was 70' x 30' x 4', had 25,200 LEDs, was walkable, and had aerial performances

Under construction:

Construction photo



Daytime photo


Aerial performance:

Aerial performance



Nighttime photo


Here's some more high level details:

So now for story time. What motivated me to contribute to such a project and what was my experience with it


For those unfamiliar with Burning Man, it's a blank slate where people bring art and music to create a temporary city for 8 days

For further reading, here's a lunch and learn presentation I gave about it:

At the time of writing, I'm 29 years old and my dad would be 79 years old. He died earlier this year. I always had this desire to have kids before he passed away

Initially, I thought this was due to wanting to have my children know their grandparents (an experience I had a shortage of). Then after a speed counseling session at last year's Burning Man, I realized this wasn't the full case

Burning Man story time! I didn't seek out speed counseling, more it found me -- as a lot of things do out there

I was exploring a new part of the city. Someone offered me hot dogs, I accepted, and stopped in. While eating and talking, a woman invited me to speed dating

I figured why not since I'd never done it before

We went to the event, it turned out to be speed counseling but I decided to stick around anyway

Speed counseling gist: 1 inner circle and 1 outer circle of people, 5 minute sessions where inside counsels outside 3x, then outside counsels inside 3x

Back to motivations, the epiphany I had at this speed counseling event was that half of my fear was rooted in being unable to teach my kids the content that my dad had taught me

One major chunk of that content was lacking knowledge and practice with being handy


After getting back to San Francisco, I decided to properly address my lack of knowledge. I had some EL wire that wasn't functioning properly. This was motivation enough to try to pick up electronics again for the nth time

Then in my dating life, someone told me about how Burning Man art projects are willing to teach you as long as you're willing to help. I was skeptical of said free lunch but was willing to see how things went

In March, I went to a Burning Man theme camp and art project meet and greet and signed up for a few volunteer lists

As I waited to hear from the art projects, I continued to hone my electronics skills with the lantern wall project. This soldering experience became key later on

Then in June, I was contacted by both Rainbow Bridge and Chilopod, another art project, about coming to their respective warehouses to help out

I went over to Rainbow Bridge first but there wasn't much for me to do yet; the majority of the project was metalwork which I wasn't qualified for. That being said, there was a prototype panel which needed wiring and soldering so I jumped on that

Rainbow Bridge felt low-touch for me at the time so I started helping out on the Chilopod as well. This was wood fabrication and took me to the next level of experience: drills, impact drivers, circular saws, jigsaws, orbital sanders, and techniques (e.g. clamping with body weight, proper weight/hold for drill/impact driver, accurate measurements over long distances)

Chilopod photo:

Chilopod photo


Between June and mid-July, I helped on both the Rainbow Bridge and Chilopod. It became clear though that I didn't have enough time for both projects so I went with Rainbow Bridge as it felt they were more lacking in volunteers

From June through July, I was assigned to architect the interactivity portion of the bridge; figuring out the how we take inputs (e.g. MIDI keyboard, microphone), output sound, feeding the data to our computers, and sourcing said components for said architecture

We had many iterations but the final architectural plan was:

Mixing board config architectural plan

Additionally in mid-July, we built more test panels so the software team had something to visualize against:

Test panels

Each panel is constructed as follows:

  • LED strands (each has 50 WS2811 LEDs) are tested on a standalone PixLite
  • Plywood is CNC'd such that LEDs fit into holes
  • Plywood is primed and painted in even-odd stripes
  • Overpainted LED holes are reamed to allow easier LED insertion
  • LEDs are inserted into holes, sitting at a specific depth
    • This is done mostly by eyeballing
    • Gloves are worn to prevent blisters
    • Not overworking yourself is encouraged, it can hurt your thumbs for a while
    • LEDs are inserted in a zip-zag fashion
      • Strand insertion
  • Busbars are fabricated with wires ending in 2 wire JST connectors to meet LED gaps to inject power
    • Wire lengths depend on the wire they're targetting
    • Busbars
  • Wires are then routed behind LED strands to reduce likelihood of snagging
  • Busbars are tested with a multimeter to verify there's no accidental continuity (some JST connectors were flipped red-black to black-red, yey...)
  • Panel is connected to a test PixLite and power supply to verify it lights up with no issue
  • LEDs are adjusted to make sure they're deep enough to emit maximum brightness
  • Test PixLite is disconnected from panel
  • LEDs are caulked in place to avoid accidental falling out during transport

When I timed this all out, it took 1 person 3 hours per panel for the electronics portion

Between late July and mid-August, we built 56 panels including 3 extra panels and excluding test/prototype panels. 4 of the panels were different to handle the parts that met our footings

Building the rainbow

In mid-August, it was time to bring out the rainbow to Burning Man

We got the flatbed on Thu Aug 15, forklifted our large metal trusses onto it, added bins of components and tools in the spaces in between, ratcheted everything down, and saw it off on Sat Aug 18

Flatbed packing

In addition to this, we rented and filled a large U-Haul. We weren't initially anticipating needing the U-Haul but the generator was larger than expected, the flatbed was smaller than expected, and it acted as a workspace on playa (e.g. can collect sawdust without worrying about MOOP/litter)

We departed on Sun Aug 19 with 3 vehicles and 7 build crew members (including myself). Our goal was to arrive in Black Rock City on Mon Aug 20 at midnight as that's when our work access passes started. Unfortunately, on the way we found out that will call didn't open until noon

We decided to stop in Reno, get well-rested, and leave in the morning. This was also beneficial as on the way, our U-Haul had blown a tire and is a generally stressful vehicle to drive

The rest of Monday played out well:

  • Arrived at will call at noon
  • Picked up our tickets and vehicle passed
  • Got our artwork placed (i.e. Artery organization and is shown where space reserved for the art is)
  • Set up our tents
  • Unloaded the flat bed via a VR (telescopic handler)

Placement marker

On Tuesday, we:

  • Greeted 4 more build members
  • Set up our work area (2 pop-up tents, 2 tables, tarps)
  • Surveyed where we wanted to place our footings
  • Set up footings, connecting them with metal plates and bolts
  • Bolted railings to trusses (420 bolts; 30 bolts per railing, 2 railings per truss, 7 trusses)
  • Templated where weldnuts will go for mounting panels to trusses
  • Trenched our generator cable and art car microphone cable (sadly ran generator cable too short and art car microphone was backwards)
  • Registered for gas purchases at Hell Station

Bolting railings to trusses

On Wednesday, we:

  • Greeted 2 more build members
  • Retrenched generator cables
  • Craned together all trusses into giant arc and bolt them together (240 bolts; 40 bolts per connection, 6 conections)
  • Verified all railing bolts are still tight (420 bolts again)
  • Surveyed placement of interactivity area

Craning together trusses

Bolting together trusses

On Thursday, we had a "hurry up and wait" situation due to HEaT's equipment being occupied by other projects:

  • Greeted 2 more build members
  • Finished bolt tightening
  • Prepped LED panels for mounting (e.g. updating busbar posts, quality checking for loose wires, fixing broken crimps or JST connectors)

On Friday, we:

  • Lifted the bridge and placed it on the footings
  • Secured footings now that we know bridge's true width
  • Continued preparing LED panels and also started mounting them
  • Cut and started mounting walkway
    • We used metal screws to punch through the plywood and into the metal for this

Bridge lift

Secured footings

On Saturday, we:

  • Finished mounting walkway
  • Continued mounting panels (almost 1 half was done night before)
  • Prepped mounting plates for stairs via predrilling
  • Started fixing busbar position for troublesome collision between truss and busbar

Construction photo

After Saturday, I had other volunteer responsibilities to tend to and was leaving the upcoming Friday for a wedding, thus was unable to help further

Thankfully the main gate opened on Sunday so a new set of volunteers could help out with the panels and electronics side

I did help a little more on Tuesday with setting up the interactivity area but I was mostly hands-free after Saturday night

I'm a little bummed I didn't get to help out with strike but such is life

All in all, helping build the Rainbow Bridge was a super rewarding experience; I gained invaluable skills/experience, saw how the artistic sausage is made, and enjoyed everyone I worked with

Daytime photo

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