Almost 20 years since the birth of the first moving light, the industry is breaking out of its adolescence. The playing field is much more crowded, compelling moving light manufacturers to hone their business and marketing strategies to contend not only with the competition, but its offspring: the spate of patent lawsuits that have been gripping the industry since the mid-90s. In terms of technology, the industry has leapfrogged beyond the first generation of automation, originally geared solely toward the concert industry, and is now looking toward developing technology for other niche applications, such as theatre and architecture, while building on innovations in its core markets.
Talk about coming a long way. Vari-Lite, Inc. president and CEO Rusty Brutsche estimates that the technology probably occupies about half of today's market for professional lighting. "My off-the-cuff guess is that of all the shows in the world now, probably about half are automated," he says. "There is still a lot of conventional gear out there because of the price differential, but over time I believe it will all become automated as we continue to drive the cost down and develop different luminaires."
That remains to be seen, but at least Brutsche was there when it all began in the early 80s; Vari-Lite is widely credited with developing the first moving light. As the story goes, it all happened at a barbecue joint in Texas. "The old story we've told a lot is, we were at lunch at a barbecue stand in 1980," says Brutsche. "And one of our engineers, Jim Bornhorst, was talking about how by combining dichroic filters and this new light bulb, we could actually get a color-changing system, which is something we had all been dreaming about for a long time. And it was fairly small relative to traditional lights of the day One of our guys said, 'Well, if it's that small and it can do that, we should make it move.' And we all kind of sat back because we had never thought of it."
The company went on to build a prototype, the VL Zero, and a small controller, which they rushed over to England to demonstrate for Genesis, one of its biggest clients at the time. The band was rehearsing in a barn-turned-recording studio where the VL Zero was first demonstrated and immediately snapped up, 50 lights in all, for use on their Abacab tour. The fateful first concert with moving lights took place in a bullring in Barcelona on September 25, 1981. "It was like the shot heard round the world. We were just inundated with requests and interest from everywhere," says Brutsche.
Meanwhile, Morpheus Lights, another early leader in the concert lighting industry, was developing its own moving light technology and supplied its first automated lighting tour in 1982. Similarly, Morpheus started out as a conventional lighting company in the 70s, but developed into a full-service company with both a rental and sales division, offering fully integrated lighting packages. (At the time, Vari-Lite was solely a rental operation, although as of November 1999, the company has begun selling its product.) "A lot of people were thinking, why not have a panning and tilting light, a profile and washlight," says Jim Gordon, vice president of marketing for Morpheus. "So independent of what Vari-Lite was doing, Morpheus went off to put its own moving light together and started developing lights at the same time."
While companies like Vari-Lite and Morpheus--and later Light & Sound Design (LSD), manufacturer of the widely used Icon(R) automated luminaire and control system--were building the foundation for automation in the concert industry, a handful of other companies--including High End Systems, Clay Paky, Martin Professional, and Coemar--were making the crossover from the club world. [Editor's Note: At press time, Martin Professional had not responded to numerous requests for an interview for this article.]
"Back then, the technology was developed for a specific purpose," says Nils Thorjussen, vice president of marketing. "If you were Vari-Lite, you produced products for concerts. If you were Clay Paky, you produced products for nightclubs. High End Systems products were originally developed for the nightclub market, but quickly evolved into concerts, theatre, corporate projects, and architecture."
While concerts have traditionally been the golden goose for automated lighting manufacturers, ups and downs in that segment of the industry have many manufacturers looking toward other niche markets. In turn, other markets are looking toward the automated lighting industry to incorporate a little rock and roll into their environments. "The diversification of the industry has been a direct response to the market," says Norm Wright, vice president in charge of engineering for the lighting division of Group One, US distributors for Clay Paky. "Thus, as more and more people see the result of our labors, in turn, the entertainment lighting industry has found itself supplying its products into totally different markets. "
"Everybody seems to want to add value to the environment whatever the project is, whether it is a concert, a casino, a hotel, a movie theatre, or an amusement park," says Gordon. "Moving lights are very plentiful, and when technology is plentiful and the supply is larger than the demand, it is a price-driven market. That's why all the production and rental companies are trying to find niche markets where they're not competitive in terms of profitability."
In the theatre market, for example, look at the lighting systems of any major Broadway show and you'll find moving light technology. "The industry has evolved because markets such as theatres--which originally dismissed automated lighting--have come to embrace it as the products have become more suitable to their needs," says Thorjussen. He notes that High End has made the Cyberlight(R) more silent for theatre as well as television with the Cyberlight SV version.
But adapting moving light technology to the needs of the theatre isn't always easy, according to Brutsche. "The theatre market is the toughest because their requirements are rigid--they have noise problems, they're selective about colors, and they can't pay huge amounts of money," he says. "That's the market that I think is most challenging."
Theatrical lighting manufacturer City Theatrical has a different approach to the market than moving lights manufacturers with roots in the concert or club worlds. In 1998, the company developed the AutoYoke, a moving light specifically for the theatre. "They have much of the capability of a moving light that people know, plus they are, in fact, a moving Source Four which is the majority of the lighting on Broadway," explains Gary Fails of City Theatrical. "It maintains the same color temperature as the rest of the light plot. It doesn't have a real stark contrast to the color temperature the way that other moving lights do.
"The other big aspect is cost," he continues. "Moving lights are quite expensive and the ability to have a moving light at a much lower cost is really appealing to designers."
Architecture is another market manufacturers are eyeing. "We've set up the Lightwave Research brand to focus our resources in this area," says Thorjussen. The company has also repackaged the Studio Color(R) and Studio Spot(TM) as the EC-1 and ES-1 for exterior architectural purposes.
"Morpheus is also branching off into the architectural market--in 1999 we introduced the WetFader, a submersible fading color changer," says Gordon. "We also sold a large complement of ProSpots and ProSofts to Disney, and they were weatherized; we have plans for furtherweatherization of our products."
Brutsche explains Vari-Lite's take on the architectural market. "We actually dove into that and built some products and ended up selling that division [Irideon] to ETC," he says. "I believe that the market for automation in architecture is quite large and is going to become a very big business, but it is similar to the theatre market because it is rigid in its requirements. It needs equipment that is very low cost and extremely reliable."
The needs of new markets point to stepped-up product development, which inevitably leads to the issue of patents and how lawsuits have impacted the industry. Vari-Lite has initiated lawsuits versus High End (which was settled out of court), Clay Paky (which is still in the courts), and Martin (which is also still in the courts; in response to Vari-Lite's injunction against selling certain Martin products in the US, Martin recently launched two new products, the MAC 500SP and 600NT, which lie outside of Vari-Lite's patent.)
Vari-Lite takes the position that it is vital to protect intellectual property. "The big difference in automation and other types of products in the lighting industry is it requires an enormous amount of money to fund the research and development of the technology and you really can't afford to not protect that investment through filing for intellectual property," says Brutsche, adding. "I think that the litigation and the conflict has been over that belief of ours that we have the right to protect our property and that we have almost the obligation to our shareholders to do that. Otherwise, we can't really afford to make the investment.
"There are other ways to do things other than a patented way, and I think it is incumbent upon everyone to respect the rights of others," he continues. "As time goes on and we mature as an industry, I think that will continue to evolve and we will operate like other businesses. Patents and intellectual property is a big part of the American economic system.
"Morpheus holds a lot of patents and with our new company [restructured in November after filing Chapter 11] we are looking at what our patent portfolio is and making business decisions about what to do as Vari-Lite is," says Gordon. "We've never infringed on a Vari-Lite patent and Vari-Lite has never infringed on ours. We feel we have the best color fading system in the world and we want to make sure that we have the advantages of what our patents are. That's why you patent something."
While Wright at Clay Paky could not comment because litigation is still pending, Thorjussen simply stated: "It would be much better if the money spent on lawsuits went into research and development."
Meanwhile, across the board, manufacturers are looking toward future technological innovations. "We believe that luminaires will continue to get smaller, lighter, faster, brighter, and include more features," says Thorjussen. "While the fundamental task of lighting will remain a constant, the tools used have improved dramatically over the years and will continue to improve for the foreseeable future."
"I think that the big trend is going to be towards reducing cost and making it more affordable," says Brutsche. "As you try to push the technology down into local markets, community theatres and schools and everywhere that lighting is done, you need equipment that is fairly low cost and reliable and so I think we'll see continued improvements in light sources and the methods of applying the color systems."
Meanwhile, Gordon predicts that if budgets grow, there will be more integration of different moving light technologies. "I think you certainly have an array of hard-edged and soft-edged lights out there, so packaging is a trend," he says. "With larger budgets, there are some designers who take one of everything. They have everybody's moving lights on it because there are commonalties in the lights and differences in textures. If your budget allows you to have that many paintbrushes in your palette, that's great."