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Lighting incorporated into costumes and props can be achieved in  many different ways. It can be very subtle, such as with a glowing back-lit control panel, or dramatic, such as with neon or strobes. Some examples of these are shown below.

Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs)
LEDs come in a variety of packages and colors, and may even have blinking circuitry built into the diode assembly. Except with the blinking versions, a current-limiting resistor should be placed in the circuit to prevent damage or burning out the LED during use. While you can precisely calculate the resistor value to use, the only real reason for doing so would be to achieve maximum brightness of the LED when used at a specific voltage. If your power source is batteries, the resistance should be calculated for the maximum voltage that might be encountered, either when using fresh batteries, or during charging if you are using NiCd or other rechargeable batteries. For voltage ranges from a few volts to 15-20 volts, a resistor with a value of 4-500 ohms would be a good value. If you will never exceed five or six volts, then a lower value can be used. I generally will never use less than about 100 ohm resistors with low voltage circuits, such as the light sabers.

Blinking LEDs generally have an operational voltage range that should not be exceeded to avoid damaging the LED and/or circuitry. Blinking LEDs are handy if you have very limited room or if you only want a limited number of flashing LEDs in a particular area. If you want to have several LEDs all blinking in sequence, then a blinking circuit needs to be built or acquired. Most commercial blinking circuits seem to drive about 5 LEDs, although they may have multiple LEDs attached to the output. This allows your to configure the flashes to radiate from a center point (5 flashes out in each direction), or to run then end-to-end so that you have "chaser" LEDs where two LEDs are lit at any given time.

A selection of Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) and a 6" ruler for scale

LEDs come in a variety of sizes, colors, and shapes. The four specs on the round disk are surface-mount LEDs sitting on a button battery.

Incandescent lights
Incandescent lights are probably the simplest to wire and operate, however you must take into account extra heat if it enclosed, possibility of the bulbs burning out, their slightly fragile nature, and the issue of light and dark streaks due to irregularities in the glass bulb or the reflector. All in all, I prefer to use LEDs when possible to avoid most of these issues. However, for the Tick costume, I needed to have white eyes, and wanted them to glow in the dim light. Incandescent bulbs provide this easily. To minimize risk to jarring or burn-out, I mounted two bulbs in each eye. The bulbs were enclosed with a curved metal surface behind them, and cut sections of white plastic soap boxes for the eye itself. The thick white plastic gave a shiny white appearance in brighter lighting, but the rear-mounted bulbs provided a diffused yellow-white light through the plastic covers.

A variety of incandescent light bulbs

Incandescent light bulbs are probably the easiest to wire, and since they produce a full-spectrum white light, can be used with colored filters to achieve most any color.

Fluorescent lights
Fluorescent lights also require a power supply, and even though they can operate from batteries, the battery power must be boosted by a small transformer circuit to several hundred volts. At this voltage, the gas vapor inside the bulb will glow faintly, usually in the ultra violet. The UV light excites the phosphor coating inside the bulb causing it to glow. A standard white fluorescent bulb can be painted with a transparent paint or covered with a colored plastic film to shift the color into about anything you want. An ultraviolet bulb is basically the same construction, but the clear glass tube is tinted a dark blue-violet.

In my Chernobog costume, a white 6" fluorescent light is used to illuminate the eyes. Pieces of yellow and orange film tint the light to the desired color. Thin translucent plastic cut-outs are placed in the eye holes to diffuse the light even more. The result is a uniform yellow to yellow-orange glow in the eyes, with none of the glass or lens distortion that would be created using incandescent bulbs or LEDs.

I used an exposed 6" ultraviolet bulb in one of my early Blasters, creating a weird blue-violet glow in the front barrel. The front end of the blaster has a strobe to create a bright white flash when triggered.

My latest transparent light saber also has a small 2" UV bulb to make a blue glow when it is active.

3 small ultraviolet lights with a 6" ruler for scale.

Miniature ultraviolet lights. The picture is slightly misleading, as the two small tubes (one glowing) are filtered very well, and produce very little visible light.   The glow around the bulb is from laundry soap whitening residue left in the towel. The top bulb is from one of the small "Magic Light" units.

Fluorescent lights and power inverters

The circuit from a fluorescent light is a small inverter. It converts the battery power from Direct Current (DC voltage) to Alternating Current (AC voltage), then steps the voltage up by running the pulses through a transformer. The transformer circuit from a 6v light is shown at the bottom, while a 3v transformer sits on the "magic light" (actually it is a small fluorescent tube coated with dark blue-violet to block most of the visible white light, but pass ultraviolet light.) The small black and silver block in the upper left is an inverter circuit specifically designed for driving Electro-Luminescent backlights. For small EL pieces, you can use one of the fluorescent supplies shown here.

Miniature green neon bulb from Radio Shack Miniature red neon bulb

Small neon bulbs can be powered from the same fluorescent power supply. The red neon bulb is clear glass, show the typical red-orange glow of neon gas. The green "neon" bulb uses a phosphor-coated glass. Neon gas gives off some ultraviolet light, that will cause the phosphor to glow green. Small amounts of mercury can also be used (usually with krypton gas) to create a blue-white glow, also strong in the ultraviolet.

Electro-Luminescent lights
Electro-Luminescent lighting is similar to fluorescent, in that it needs high voltage to light up. Generally, the same power source from a fluorescent light will operate small Electro-Luminescent sheets without problem. If you want to create a project with both the EL material and fluorescent bulbs, plan on two power supplies though. The bulb requires you to ionize the gas across the distance of the two electrodes in either end of the tube. EL lighting starts with a metallic back sheet, covers it with a porous phosphor material, then covers this with a transparent layer that has a conductive film on the phosphor side. When power is applied to the two conductive surfaces, the phosphor glows. But because the distance between film is so much less than a tube, the EL material will light up, but not your bulb if attached to the same supply. Unlike the bulb, EL material is available in thin flexible sheet, tape form, and even "wire". Complete kits are available from both electronics and hobby supply companies (EL Experimenter's kit) or direct from the source, such as with Being Seen Technologies (on the Internet.) A recent addition to the beingseen.com website is the addition of impact-resistant light saber kits using EL tape enclosed in plastic rods or tubes (probably polycarbonite plastic.) While my neon sabers are bright, they will not take any shock without shattering the fragile glass tube inside.

I used Electro-Luminescent film to light my creature's eyes in this year's costume. If I found it back when I made Chernobog, I probably would have used it there too.

Using a LimeLight EL panel with a small fluorescent power circuit, I added a pale blue glow under the blue quartz crystals in my titanium broadsword. The titanium-coated quartz crystals in the medallions on either side of the handle conceal the switch and batteries to power it.

EL backlights

A composite image showing different types of Electro-Luminescent materials. A Lime Light (night-light) is being powered from a 6v fluorescent power supply. (As were all of the others, then the glow from each was superimposed on the image.) The red sheet in the background is the EL sheet that was cut to fit behind the eye.

Electro-Luminscent wires from Being Seen Technologies

EL Wires from Being Seen Technologies. These come complete with a small battery driven power supply that can be switched to always on or flashing.

 An Electro-Luminescent backlit eyeball.

Electro-Luminescent sheet produces a uniform red glow in a creature's eye.

Neon requires even higher voltage than fluorescent bulbs. A small battery powered neon power supply could generate close to 1000 volts. Like the fluorescent tube, the gas between the two end electrodes must be ionized to glow. In my neon light sabers I chose to use only clear glass tubes. This limits the color selection to two: neon gas will generate a red-orange glow, and krypton and mercury vapor are used to create a pale blue glow. If you use phosphor coated tubes, just about any color you want is available. Phosphor coated tubs may appear white when off, or may have a dark, but transparent coating over the outside of the glass to enhance the color or provide subtle tints not available with the phosphor directly.

My neon light sabers have the neon power supply wired to twin-ax connectors to allow the neon blade to be removed for transport. Most neon tubes can be connected by a single lead to the positive side of the power supply, using the supply like a tesla coil. The problem I have seen is that the user becomes the ground at the opposite end, usually resulting in a constant "tingle" where you are touching the metal handle. To protect the user from being shocked, a very fine ground wire is run the length of the tube and connected to the opposite end of the blade.

The mega-gun I created for my Dark Trooper costume used a short red-orange neon tube in one of the side barrels. A super-bright orange LED in the tip created a "beam" from the imitation laser.

The guts of a neon light saber

The inside of one of my neon light sabers. The neon supply is in the center, and connects to the twin-axial socket at the business end of the saber. The power supply is wired to 10 NiCd batteries that provide about 12v of power when charged. The toy lightsaber circuit trips a relay that turns on power to the neon supply.

A neon light saber with a glowing red blade

By adding a voltage regulator circuit between the batteries and the neon power supply, the length of the neon glow can be adjusted. A small neon supply can power a 3-4' neon tube without much problem.


Helium-Neon lasers (HeNe)
Adding helium to the neon gas shifts the color slightly more pink. Gas lasers, like neon bulbs use very high voltage, but the power must be polarized just like a battery, so that there are a positive and negative supply. Gas lasers use a tube that creates a very narrow path down the length of the tube, and the electrical contacts are outside of the path of the light. Mirrors attached to the ends of the tube reflect the light back and forth between them, until it is bright enough to escape through the front mirror. The front mirror has about a 5% transmission with 95% of the beam reflected back into the laser. Laser supplies generally produce more power than neon supplies, and often cost quite a bit more. HeNe laser supplies are available for battery powered operation if the laser is small (usually .1mw or less.) Over a certain size, only 110 volt line current power supplies are available.

HeNe lasers generally produce a bright red-orange dot, very similar to the LED lasers. I say generally, because there are also some "exotic" color HeNe laser tubes available. Unlike LED lasers that only produce a single wavelength of light, gas lasers often produce a mixture of light at different wavelengths. The brightest wavelength produced with the helium-neon mix is bright red, however there are also bright wavelengths of yellow, orange and green also produced by the glowing gas. By using special filter coatings on the exit mirror, one of the other wavelengths can be projected, by "blocking" the primary red and other lesser colors. Because the secondary colors being produced are secondary, the intensity of the laser at these wavelengths is much less. A .1mw green laser will typically use as much power as a .5mw red laser (because it probably would be a .5mw red laser if this color was not being filtered out.) As a result, you need a larger power supply to drive it, and most battery powered ones won't do it.

My first laser pistol used a very small HeNe laser tube. This gives off a bright pink glow when the laser is fired.

I also created a larger laser rifle, using a large HeNe laser in the barrel. Again, this lights up bright pink when fired.

The Bryer pistol I created for my Dark Trooper costume also conceals a small HeNe laser.

Helium-Neon laser tubes and power supplies

HeNe (Helium-Neon) lasers require a filtered high-voltage power supply. Smaller laser tubes can easily be powered from a 12v neon supply, but the larger tubes and fancy colors of HeNe lasers generally require a 110v AC power supply. A variety of HeNe laser tubes are show here, along with a 12v DC power supply (bottom left) and a 110v AC supply (bottom right.)

Laser Diodes
Like LEDs, laser diodes operate on fairly low power that can be provided with button-size batteries. However, unlike LEDs where a small resistor is all that is needed, a laser diode requires a controlled power source. This is no longer a real problem for those who are electronically challenged, as small laser pointers are available for well under $10, and by ripping one of these open, you can get a laser diode and the necessary power supply circuit. Removing the button switch or hard wiring it closed is a simple matter, then by connecting the power contacts to your sound chip, the laser fires instead of a flashlight bulb or LED.

Laser LEDs are usually mounted in thick aluminum or brass to help dissipate heat. The laser LED usually looks like a small transistor with a window in the top, and can easily be damaged from static during handling, or from overheating during use.

If you plan to use a laser LED in a project, try to plan a way that you can retain as much metal around the LED for cooling. To extend the life of the laser, make sure the laser diode has a way to radiate excess heat.

Laser pointers with exposed Laser Diodes

Some examples of LED lasers. Laser pointers have dropped as low as $4-5 if you shop around. Several years ago the pointer in the upper left sold for $50, and was a deal. The tangle on the right consists of a battery pack with the laser LED driver circuit and two laser LEDs. The small brass-enclosed one is a typical red LED laser, while the aluminum one holds an infrared laser diode from an old laser printer.

For a touch of the dramatic, integrate a strobe into your prop. I have yet to use these in any costumes, but many times in Blasters, Phasers, rifles, and that same Dark Trooper cannon. Others have added strobes to props such as wizard staffs and the like. This would make for a bright surprise if combined with other lighting effects behind eyes or concealed elsewhere on a costume.

A strobe consists of a small xenon filled glass tube, and a high voltage power supply that charges up a capacitor to several hundred volts. A trigger transformer begins the process of ionizing the gas in the tube. Once started, the resistance between the contacts in the tub drops, allowing the high voltage in the capacitor to arc across the gap. The result is a blinding white flash as the xenon gas lights up from the current passing through it. While fluorescent power supplies may not create much more voltage than the strobe uses, it lacks the capacitor that stores the electricity and releases it all at once. The difference is current. Fluorescent supplies generate very low current, and while you can get a nasty zap from it, it is not likely to do much more. But the capacitor discharge from a strobe is releasing hundreds of volts of power all at once, enough to hurt very badly, burn, or cause other serious heath issues - it might not kill you, but you will definitely not like it. Be very cautious when working with any of the power sources mentioned here, especially strobes!

Strobe circuits from disposable cameras

Some strobes taken from disposable cameras. These use a single size AA battery to charge the strobe. Their small size works well to incorporate into weapon props. Be very careful when handling these - the capacitor can hold a powerful charge, long after the battery has been removed.

Chemical light sticks
The only thing I have used chemical light sticks with was on the radio controlled base for the energizer bunny in my Dark Trooper skit. I have herd of people using them in a similar way as I used fluorescent lights in the Chernobog costume - as a backlight for glowing eyes or some similar purpose. The advantage is that no special wiring is needed to use these, but the disadvantage is that they last only for anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours at full brightness. You also must plan on leaving these accessible to replace them before each use.

Chemical light sticks are flexible plastic filled with a liquid. Inside the tube is another smaller glass tube filled with a different liquid. Bending or flexing the plastic tube breaks the internal glass allowing the liquids to mix. Once mixed, the liquids give of a bright glow, usually a yellow-green in color. Newer colors include red, yellow, orange, blue, and white. Miniature light sticks are also available - apparently some people insert these into translucent golf balls for playing in the dark.

Chemical light sticks

Phosphorescent materials
So far I only use things like glow in the dark plastic string for costume accents. On the Chernobog cape and bald mountain skirt, glowing plastic string (as seen to the right) was used to make waterfalls off of the mountain. Although I have toyed with different products, one approach is to use an ultraviolet light behind the plastic to create a uniform glow. The effect is generally so dim, it can only be seen in low lighting or a dark room.

In the image to the right, several phosphorescent toys glow under ultraviolet light. They continue to glow even after the light is removed, but dim rapidly. For a costume or prop, these items would have to be constantly recharged to be seen.

The toys include small flying disks, glowing smiley face balls, and glow-in-the-dark plastic "string". The blue glow at the top and bottom are the ultraviolet lights used to take the picture.

Phosphorescent plastics under ultraviolet light