The Christmas season seems to come earlier and earlier each year. But in Red Hook, it came really early this year. Back in June, a team of more than 20 artists working out of a warehouse on Ferris Street began toiling to create a "Tech Miracle on 34th Street" for Macy's Herald Square's annual Christmas window display.
The product of their labor was unveiled last night, and over the coming weeks, an estimated 25 million visitors will stop by to bask in the glow of one of the great New York Christmas traditions.
Manu Sawkar, who runs the production company Macy's hired to design its windows, explained that his team sought to create a display that resonates in the age of the iPhone. One of the six holiday windows, for example, features Santa Claus in a hi-tech workshop, where he receives letters from children via YouTube.
"The idea is that kids don't really write letters to Santa anymore," Sawkar said. "They make YouTube videos instead, and Santa works out of a command center. He can take videos and he has a computer program that matches kids with presents."
The window depicts Mr. Claus checking a handwritten list, while his elves employ futuristic software to connect with children across the globe. The "Perfect Present Generator" shuffles through animated content of boys and girls on a screen, matching them with their desired gifts.
Interactive displays and games adorn the windows, each of which is designed around a theme, such as "Santa," "Celebrate," or "Family."
One of the most elaborate creations is the "Celebrate" window, which is the product of thousands of hours of work by designers, mold makers, sculptors, painters, carpenters and mechanical engineers. The window features images of celebration encased in an enormous "magical" pinball machine with buttons that can be engaged from the window's exterior. Visitors who approach the glass can play pinball on the device, which is one of the largest pinball machines in the world.
"We know for a fact that the audience loves being involved in the windows," Sawkar said. "It's the perfect combination of all of the elements that we do."
Sawkar and his production company, A Standard Transmission, have brought Macy's Christmas windows to life for the past four years. In 2013, the scrappy firm stole the business away from Spaeth, the design giant that had decorated Macy's windows for decades. Sawkar, whose background is in technology and film production, said understanding how to build narratives around the windows' tech elements was key to winning the job.
"Screens and technology are really not that interesting without the physical context. So I started doing fabrication, too," he said.
Sawkar said his goal is to offer visitors something new while preserving what people love about the storied window displays. "With so much history and so many eyeballs, there is a balance between keeping the entire thing grounded in the history that makes the holiday windows magical and keeping it relevant in today's increasingly digital and interactive age," he said.
The "Love"-themed window harks back to the 1960s, incorporating a "naughty or nice" meter modeled after an old-fashioned carnival "love meter." A touch-sensitive foil on the outside of the glass reads visitors' handprints, just like an iPhone captures a user's touch on its screen. "It's funny that there is so much technology going into something that looks like it's from the '60s," Sawkar said.
Days before the big reveal, Santa Claus sculptures, handmade Christmas trees, and gilded reindeer—all months in the making—were trucked to Herald Square for installation. At the workshop in Red Hook, the team of artists, doubling as elves, labored around the clock to put the finishing touches on the window displays. They used glue guns to apply nearly a thousand handmade leaves to trees and carved winter wonderlands from foam.
The windows were revealed Friday evening, giving the city one of the first big signs that Christmas is around the corner. The decorations will be up through New Year's. By then, the spirit of Christmas will have begun to drift away for most New Yorkers.
But Sawkar's team will already be thinking about Christmas 2017. The process of creating Macy's Christmas windows—from conception and development to fabrication to installation—takes 10 months.
"I love Christmas," said project manager Adam Brandt. "But this doesn't even really feel like Christmas to me. It's mind-numbing after awhile," he said.
Lead carpenter Fred Potter agreed. "It's kind of strange, but the way we think about it, it's not really a seasonal thing. It's more the business of set decorating."
Megan Cerullo is an award-winning journalist from Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Gothamist, DNAinfo, and the New York Daily News.