It's pretty hard to miss seeing something lit by Peter Morse. His roster of clients reads like a Top 40 who's who, from Michael Jackson, Madonna, Janet Jackson, Barbra Streisand, and Bette Midler to Mariah Carey, the Bee Gees, Tina Turner, Reba McEntire, Yanni, and Michael Bolton, just to name a few. From concert tours to HBO specials and performance scenes in motion pictures, Morse lights an average of six major projects a year.
It all started back in the 1970s when Morse was the road manager for Mac Davis. Then Davis needed a lighting designer, and Morse offered his services. "Mac said he needed a lighting guy and that it paid $500 a week," recalls Morse. "So I said 'I do lights' even though I never had." A month of crash courses and Morse felt he knew what he was talking about as far as basic lighting was concerned. "Of course, this was back in the era of very conventional lighting," he notes. From using a few odd instruments, Morse progressed to designing small touring systems to take out on the road, and eventually designed and directed the lighting for Davis' stage shows in Las Vegas.
After Davis came Dolly Parton and Morse's career was off to a gallop. Born near Chicago, Morse originally majored in pre-med at the University of Illinois but had recorded his first album at 16, and toured extensively on the folk music circuit. He eventually moved to New York to study music and theatre, coming to lighting by way of singing and songwriting (see if you can dig out any of your New Christy Minstrels albums) and got his staging chops on the road, producing and lighting shows for various artists, including Tina Turner (before her comeback, as Morse points out), Loretta Lynn, and other country artists. Madonna was the first of the major rock stars to come his way, with her 1987 Who's That Girl world tour. This collaboration continued and Morse won Cable Ace Awards for his lighting design of Madonna's 1990 Blond Ambition live from Nice, France, HBO special and her 1994 Girlie Show HBO live in concert special.
Over the 20-25 years that Morse has been lighting concerts, the industry has changed quite a bit. "I was fortunate to start at a time when there wasn't too much competition as a designer," says Morse. "Things weren't so much of a challenge technically 20 years ago either. It was more hit and miss."
Morse has acted as an LD and lighting director, going out on tour with various artists over the years, and calling the cues night after night. "I love directing a tour and going out on it, but I don't always have time," he says. "Over the past five years there has been more of a trend toward specialized designers and lighting directors, and today's technology demands a third entity as well, the programmer," a position Morse considers "a necessary appendage. This is where the specialist comes into the picture, for the variety of boards available. I found it impossible to keep up with them all, but I have a feel for what I need." For Morse, a good programmer works fast and has the ability to both visualize and produce the required look.
On last year's combined Reba McEntire/Brooks and Dunn tour, Morse worked with programmers Arnold Serame and David Arch, and lighting director Gayle Hase, for Reba's lighting, while lighting director Larry Boster used programmers Chris Medvitz and Eric Wade for Brooks and Dunn. Both acts performed with the same lighting rig and on the same set, a kinetic truss designed by Mark Fisher and built by Tait Towers. A series of five "fingers" of cantilevered truss jutted out over the artists and contained a battery of lighting instruments. Additional fixtures on the floor lit both the artists and the truss, at times giving it an ethereal halo.
The rig for this tour was supplied by Light & Sound Design and contained more than 240 automated fixtures, including 110 High End Systems Studio Colors(R), 22 Cyberlights(R), and 22 Technobeams(R), as well as 36 Martin MAC 500s, nine Coemar NAT 2.5kWs, 32 Vari*Lite(R) VL6s(TM), and nine custom-built 2.5kW Arri HMI fixtures. These were outfitted with color changers, dousers, and automated pantographs. During the song "Fancy," one of Morse's favorite moments in Reba's show, the Arri fixtures lowered slowly on their pantographs, then tipped up and focused on her with white light before moving away. "This is a nice subtle moment," says Morse, who also used over 150 traditional PAR-64s and six Lycian Starklite followspots. Three Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II consoles, three ETC dimmer racks, and 92 Wybron Colorams were also part of the package.
"There were three levels of lighting on this tour," Morse explains. First there were automated luminaires used for both acts, plus more conventional PAR cans for Brooks and Dunn. "These are pure horsepower for them," Morse points out. Third were the Arris, which added special moments to McEntire's lighting, which looked pastel and sculpted, in contrast to the brighter, saturated primary colors (red, blue, amber, and green) for Brooks and Dunn. "Boster's approach is more rock and roll, more kick-ass," says Morse, who used layers of softer colors for McEntire.
The placement of lighting instruments on the ground is one of Morse's stylistic signatures. "I started it with the Pointer Sisters, if you can remember how long ago that was," he says. "I put PAR cans on the floor behind them to add color from the floor. This gives me a great separation and another layer of lighting." For Reba/Brooks and Dunn, Morse found himself working on a large open set. "There was nothing in the back, and in some venues there were seats back there," he explains. "The show was designed for 360 degrees, so I had to add in another layer to pop the artist from the background."
In this case, Morse placed a row of Studio Colors used as washlights alternating with the harder-edged MAC 500s on a 5'-high wall at the back of the set, with a mix of Cyberlights, Studio Colors, and Technobeams along the sides of the stage. "I like the hard-edged light breaking through the wash with gobos and textures," he says. "This adds another dimension to the light."
In a departure from his concert tours, Morse has done the lighting for scenes in two films, Showgirls and The Bodyguard. "My role is a theatrical/concert lighting designer when it fits the script," he explains. For Showgirls, he worked with director of photography Jost Vacano to give the production numbers the right look. The film was shot at the Horizon Hotel and Casino in Lake Tahoe, NV, right down the street from Morse's home. "I stripped the theatre completely," he says, "and put PAR cans and ellipsoidals everywhere for the look of standard theatrical lighting."
He also used automated luminaires, not so much for visual movement, but to be able to refocus quickly enough for the different scenes in the film. "I flew the house pipes up to the rafters and put in trussing for the moving lights," Morse notes. Obie Telescans and Z-Scans with xenon sources were used to backlight the dancers, while Vari*Lite VL2s(TM) and VL4s(TM) served as washlights on the stage. He also used VL6s, which were brand-new instruments at the time, focusing them on the audience. "I wanted to duplicate the movement of the lighting on the stage for when the camera picked up the audience," says Morse.
He also used PAR cans with color scrollers, and Cyberlights to get gobos into the camera's eye, and hung additional instruments on side ladders positioned lower than usual so that the camera would see theatrical lighting. "Wherever the camera looked, the action of each number was repeated for continuity," says Morse. "I pointed some lights right at the camera to create a little excitement. The live eye sees so much, but on film you need even more."
Video also provides a challenge Morse enjoys. "I learned a lot in my work with Allen Branton," he says. "I learned about control and how to keep the artist looking like a human being. You can't do what you might do for an arena." Other film projects include Truth or Dare, the film version of Madonna's Blond Ambition tour.
Perhaps one of his largest challenges was the lighting for the 1995 Barbra Streisand: The Concert tour and television special, which aired on NBC and earned him an Emmy nomination. "There were two IMAG screens at the concerts so I had to light for live and video at the same time," he says. "This was great training. Barbra Streisand viewed the video closeups very carefully so I ran the show with binoculars around my neck."
Streisand's tour was more laid back than most, performing in just six cities in three months. The lighting was more theatrical than most concert rigs, in keeping with the three early-American-style sets on the front of the stage for the first half of the concert. "There were three rooms with furniture, which gave us intimate areas to work in," says Morse, who took over the lighting for this tour after the initial performance at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. The rig included a wide variety of moving lights, from Obie Telescans, Vari*Lite VL2s, VL4s, and VL5s(TM), and 70 High End Systems Intellabeams(R) that hung low on a fan-shaped truss over the orchestra which sat on the upstage half of the stage. "Marc Brickman did the original lighting in Las Vegas and this was a visual element that I loved," explains Morse. "It sort of transported Streisand into the 90s."
A center window on the set flew out to reveal a large videowall that showcased clips and film footage from Streisand's career. These images played with live images from the concert to create moments like Streisand singing a duet with herself during a song from the film Yentl. The Telescans (once again programmed by Serame) were hung above the set as automated backlighting that could follow her around the set, while the VL4s and VL5s washed the sets and backdrops with color. The VL2s were used to focus in to highlight plants and other props, or with gobos.
For the second half of the concert, the stage was cleared of furniture. "This gave it more of a concert look and a bigger lighting look," says Morse. The Intellabeams which had been focused on the orchestra now swept downstage. For the final song, Morse used rainbow dichroic filters with multicolored beams. Most of the colors Morse used were custom blended.
In 1997, Morse won an Emmy Award for his lighting design and direction of Bette Midler's Diva Las Vegas television special on HBO. Working with so many different artists, Morse adapts his style accordingly. With both Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson, for example, he was approached with a set already designed, so he worked with the set designer to develop a process for the lighting. Madonna outlines her act as she images it in her head, while Bette Midler is more spontaneous with her energy. "The more input from the artist the better," says Morse. "My responsibility is not only to light up the stage but to make the song's imagery read to the audience. If there isn't any input, I have to go by feel and I'm usually pretty much on target.
"I now feel comfortable enough to experiment with colors and patterns, even fixtures perhaps," he continues. "Sometimes as a designer you need to break your own palettes and work environments, to expand the envelope with newer artists and let go of self-imposed restrictions."
To determine the size and shape of a lighting rig, Morse starts with the set to see where the sources have to come from, and then looks at the elevation to see what's needed for the eye. The design of the truss varies with the artist, such as Bette Midler, who used a very theatrical set where the truss was not seen at all, compared to Michael Jackson or Reba McEntire where the truss was very much part of the visual experience of the design.
"My repertoire has grown with all the technological advances," says Morse. "It used to be pretty basic. The business is now very competitive with all the different moving lights available. You have to pick and choose lights that are best for the project and that you can understand. You have to look at each fixture in terms of output, size of image, number of gobos, the kind of board required--and the bottom line, the budget." Morse admits he'd like to branch out from the concert scene a little more. "I love ice shows and theatre," he says. "I think crossover can be very valuable with the influx of another way of thinking."
For a complete list of Peter Morse's credits, including additional photography and annotations, consult his website at www.petermorse.com.