More so than perhaps any other company in this industry, Morpheus Lights is like the mythological phoenix that rose from the flames to return even stronger. Two years ago, the company was forced into Chapter XI, and industry gossip about its future was rampant. Yet reports of its demise proved greatly exaggerated, mainly because its key personnel never doubted that the company would survive.
Today, the company has its executive offices in Santa Clara, and a brand-new production facility in Redding, CA. Its new management team, combined with an experienced crew, has allowed the company to regain its place in the entertainment lighting industry, and gives it a strong platform for growth.
"The new management has focused on bringing vitality to our company, which has always been known for having a wide array of technology, and advantages in how we package the technology," explains vice president of marketing Jim Gordon. "We're taking some of those products that we've always had, and diversifying in some ways. For a long time, we were doing television and corporate industrials besides concert tours, and now we're going back into those markets again."
Morpheus Lights began in 1971 when John Richardson, a lighting designer for groups such as Tower of Power and Huey Lewis and the News, founded the company with his brother Brian, who concentrated on engineering the PanCommand luminaires and trussing. "They started off doing local productions, and with the advent and the popularity of some of the bands in San Francisco began to do national tours with them," Gordon says. "Morpheus always had a technological focus. It would invest in the latest equipment as well as work on packaging systems for the greatest efficiency. I used to hire Morpheus Lights to do bands that I played in."
When Gordon joined the company, Morpheus had just begun to develop color changers and moving lights. "The Color Ranger was invented in 1982," Gordon says, "followed by a stream of technological benchmarks."
Vice president of marketing Dan English also started with the company in the early 80s. "It was apparent that Morpheus Lights had been a conventional lighting company first, but they started adding the technology that they were inventing to their lighting systems," English says. "We've been a one-stop shop for 18 years. In the mid-80s, it was pretty labor-intensive to take a moving light out of the box and hang it on a truss, though that's still the predominant way that it's done. We're still the only company that packages our systems to roll out needing little assembly. We can save our clients money in labor costs and truck space this way."
The company completed its Flip Box system, which allows automated lights to ride inside its trussing, in 1985. Gordon explains that the company had a dual purpose for this development. "There was an economic part, and there was also was a creative aspect because 12 moving lights in a 10' truss section puts a dense pack of technology at a designer's fingertips," Gordon says. "That led to coming up with our own line of controllers, the Commander."
In 1987, Morpheus started the corporate entity PanCommand Systems to handle the company's R&D and manufacturing. "Morpheus developed all the technology," English explains. "And PanCommand was the manufacturer."
Morpheus' moving lights initially had a native protocol, but as DMX512 became the industry standard, the company focused on offering its lighting systems and individual fixtures with it. "That allows us to rent to other lighting companies," Gordon says. "If somebody wants to rent a DMX-able Fader Beam or a BriteBurst from us, we can give them individual packages. It gets the technology out there in more people's hands, which is really the key to our growth."
That strategy is just one of the ideas the company's new management is implementing. "Dan and myself, president Peter Dalton, vice president of operations Trent Brockmeier, and controller Pat Key took over in July 1996," Gordon says. "Our mission statement and goal for the company was to reposition it as a continued technological innovator and systems integrator for rentals, and apply certain innovations to our sales department.
"Peter was introduced to us in the banking community as a businessman who helps companies go through a recovery process," Gordon continues. "He supervised the rebuilding of the company's infrastructure and instilled in us some of the fundamentals of management, and led our wading through the Chapter XI reorganization. We now have a melding of people who are in lighting, like Danny and myself, with people who are very much business-oriented."
Gordon notes that as the lighting industry has matured, more companies are taking a similar approach. "To be competitive, you have to have a strong business foundation," Gordon says. "We now have this team of individuals who have worked together, and everybody brings a unique set of strengths to the management team. One person may have really strong operational skills, or production skills, or excellent relationship skills and a knowledge of the politics of the business."
Brockmeier, who took over as vice president of operations to allow English to concentrate on rentals, admits that before he joined Morpheus, his lighting background did not extend beyond flipping on a light switch. "I was brought in to help out with some operational issues here--and actually, the whole idea of the allure of the industry and entertainment never has been something that's appealed to me," he says. "But what's the most interesting to me is that there are so many creative thinkers with different viewpoints. We've tried to keep the passion andexcitement that everybody has for this industry and teach some business practices, too. That's probably been the biggest challenge, because there's such a fever to get the show out--no matter what, it always has to happen. But really, that's not just true for show business, that's all business. Our job is to figure out how to translate that to the bottom line.
"Everybody is so willing to accept both sides of the picture, where historically that wasn't the primary focus here," Brockmeier continues. "It was always just to get the show up. Well, that hasn't changed. But we want to balance that with business practices and measure what achievements we have--our costs, our performances, and how they worked out in the field. That's helped bring an even more competitive spirit to the company. Everybody has been very willing to help me understand the nuances in this industry. These people have really gone through some good and some not-so-good times, but their passion for this business has never dimmed. So, that has been phenomenal; the energy that you get out of it is really fun."
Dalton's mandate was to alter the industry's perception of Morpheus as a proprietary setup. "Peter has really pushed to make the company more approachable to the rest of the industry," Brockmeier says. "And we're making a huge investment to do that."
"The goal of Morpheus now is to continue to be a technological innovator and systems integrator," Gordon says. "As a rental company, if somebody wants to use our core technology, but they want some other people's lights, we'll provide those as well."
Overseeing much of the technical advancements in the 38,000-sq.-ft. (3,420 sq. m) production facility in Redding is a group of industry veterans including general manager George Edwards, production manager Kelley Lapping, manufacturing manager Drew Strozza, production coordinator Leslie Collier, document control manager Yvette Rivas, and vice president of engineering Rick Romano.
Edwards oversaw the facility's move from San Jose to Redding, where the town welcomed them with open arms. Almost all the manufacturing staff are local to the area and new to Morpheus. "The level of commitment we've gotten from the employees we've hired who come from here has been incredible," Edwards attests. "The people really want to work. Most of the manufacturing staff in San Jose didn't wish to relocate. Everybody had the option, and most of them didn't want to leave the Bay Area. So we hired a whole new manufacturing staff, and they picked up everything rather rapidly and are doing a fine job."
"They have an incredible work ethic, which is great because we're trying to be on par with what's going on in the industry today," Romano concurs. "The company was always very secluded and did things its own way, and now we're starting to conform. And we're also selling all of our gear, whereas before it was only the commodity items, such as the Color Faders and Color Rangers. Now, any of our moving lights can be purchased.
"Certain key designers just love our gear, and we stick with them and support them any way we can," Romano continues. "Ken Billington certainly uses our product, and his design for the Riverdance tour is all on DMX512 as well. That was our first real big data system to go out and see if indeed our lights were general commodity-compatible. The reliability has gone up dramatically on our fixtures in the last year. The next group of equipment we come up with is going to be ethernet-based, so it will not only conform to the ESTA standard, it will also conform to the Apple Talk protocol. Basically we're taking an off-the-shelf, very well-known protocol and applying it to the lighting industry with the help of Amazing Controls and others. We also opened up so that we actually do a lot of outside contracting with other companies--Black Boxes Inc., the guys who make the DMXTool, do a lot of work with us."
Morpheus is also pursuing these new relationships to create products beyond entertainment lighting. "We're finding that a lot of designers we work with are crossing over into architectural designs, so our new equipment shows that we're also branching out into architectural lighting," English explains. "We are creating some weatherized fixtures for harsher environments and updating some of our existing lights to handle those conditions."
The efforts have already started to pay off. "Our manufacturing has taken off," Romano says. "I've really been amazed at the orders we've gotten in the last few months. We've become a more friendly company; a kinder, gentler Morpheus Lights, if you will."
This new attitude is part of what lured Romano back to the company. Having worked at Morpheus from 1989 to 1991, he left to work for Walt Disney Engineering on its Fantasmic show, which Billington designed. "They wanted somebody to come down and work with the Morpheus gear, and they made me an offer that I wanted, in the direction I wanted to go," Romano explains. "While I was at Disney I worked for The Obie Company as well; I was their director of R&D." From 1995 to 97 Romano worked at George & Goldberg, and then, toward the end of 1996, Morpheus called him, asking him to come back. "They said, 'The company's changed; would you be interested to come up and look around?' I found out that it had indeed changed--it's a more employee-related environment now."
Gordon attributes the change in climate to the company's team atmosphere. "While everybody has a certain discipline, there is a lot of crossover with this group," Gordon says. "All of us have a hand in how we go about marketing the company. Peter is the official head of our team, but we function as a group of peers together in how we go about managing it. It's a team approach up in Redding also; it's not like there are layers of supervisors and managers. It's more of a family approach with some solid business concept in place also. We don't want to become too traditional, stodgy, and bureaucratic, but we had to get these creative people to focus on how they do business."
The company's emphasis on the personal touch extends to its clients. "We go designer by designer, job by job, phone call by phone call, to make sure our clients know that a comprehensive support service is going to be offered to them," Gordon says. "That's one of the basic elements of being a vendor in this business. That's just expected, and the execution of that first step is what determines the hierarchy of companies that people have their trust and faith in. How relationships are formed, kept, and maintained is key. Our senior management group is unified in its focus to provide that type of service to all of the various market niches that we're talking about, whether it's a lighting designer for a touring act, somebody who is doing an installation, or somebody who is the head of procurement at an amusement park. We have a tremendous desire to have happy and satisfied customers, and we do everything in our power to make sure that happens."
While Morpheus Lights has its sights set directly on the future, its personnel are not about to forget how they arrived at this point. "It's truly special to see that there is still a sense of vitality here. We've been around for 27 years--and we've changed. To be competitive now, companies have to redefine themselves," Gordon concludes. "You want to have a focus in going down a path, but you have to examine your priorities six months from now. That's one quality we are most proud of, that we can be dynamic enough to do that."
In 1995, the Morpheus BriteBurst 1200 appeared on the lighting scene, a specialty fixture that offers designers a 1,200W moving light with color-changing capability. Two years later, the BriteBurst 2500 redefined the state of the art--it includes the same basic features as the 1200, but upped the ante to 2,500W. At LDI98 in November, Morpheus Lights plans to unveil the BriteBurst 2500 Series Two, which uses the versatile technology of the BriteBurst 2500, but takes the instrument one step further with even more design flexibility.
The BriteBurst 1200, the first in the series, includes a single rolling color changer, variable beam control, mechanical dowser, and remote pan-and-tilt coverage. The 1200 puts out 1,000fc at 70' (21m), is DMX-controllable, and has a beam angle from 4 to 22 degrees.
The BriteBurst 2500 has many of the same features as the 1200, but with a few more added attractions, including Morpheus XL color faders and a high-speed dowser. But the biggest change was stepping up to the 2,500W HTI light source. Essentially, the BriteBurst 2500 is equivalent to a 7,000W xenon lamp, but without the power requirements or the idiosyncrasies of xenon, which doesn't always respond well to panning and tilting.
Since its appearance, the BriteBurst 2500 has been used in applications ranging from entertainment to industrials to video. It has put in appearances at events such as the closing ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan; Garth Brooks in Central Park last year; and the opening festivities for Disney's latest animated epic, Mulan. According to lighting designer Jeff Ravitz, who used the BriteBurst 2500 on the Boston tour in 1997 and has the fixtures out on the current Shania Twain tour, "It stands up to the day-to-day rigors of touring and is amazingly reliable." From a design standpoint, Ravitz finds that the BriteBurst "gives you a unique quality, a new texture--it's an instrument that will push through your existing washes and add another dimension because of its extra output. It's intensely bright and incredibly versatile. The BriteBurst 2500 is a really powerful tool for me," Ravitz reports.
The BriteBurst 2500 has also been highly visible in the professional sports arena. Lighting designer Bill Brennan has used it for numerous events, including the US Professional Figure Skating Championship and the National Gymnastics Championship. Brennan uses the unit in two ways: to give a theatrical look to the opening and closing ceremonies of sporting events, and to augment the lighting of the event itself. "The BriteBurst allows me to put robotic lighting where it's difficult to focus," he explains.
Of course, there are some situations that wouldn't benefit from 2,500W of light--primarily small venues with low trim heights. Says Morpheus engineer Rick Romano, the BriteBurst 2500 is not recommended at "any trim height below 20' [6m]. It could probably reheat pizza at about 20'," Romano chuckles.
As the new units are being developed, there are more than just the usual engineers and software programmers working on the final product--lighting designers who have used the 2500 are adding their design suggestions for the Series Two. "The Series Two is born from their recommendations," Romano says. "We're listening to designers and giving them what they want." Romano is currently working on perfecting the BriteBurst 2500 Series Two with software designers William Houghton and Mark Jenson. Though many of the features on the 2500 Series Two will echo the BriteBurst 2500, Morpheus has numerous improvements planned.
The most noticeable change will be the body style. The BriteBurst 2500 has a detachable head that can be permanently mounted in a truss, with a separate ballast that can live up to 100' (30m) from the unit. The BriteBurst 2500 Series Two is designed to be a fully integrated unit, similar to many standardized moving lights, with a ballast that can slide in and out of the unit itself. "The ballast will probably be living within the unit, and that way it gets weatherproofed with the unit," Romano explains. "You'll be able to slide the ballast in as a base for ground-based applications and slide it out for putting it up in the ceiling." Mechanically, Romano is looking into a solid state or a magnetic ballast for cost effectiveness, weight, and to eliminate flicker on video and film.
Overall, the dimensions of the 2500 Series Two will be very similar to the BriteBurst 2500. There will be a little more depth to the chassis, which will increase the tilt coverage to 270 degrees. The 2500 Series Two is also expected to feature beam shaping, which was suggested by Brennan. "The shaping will be very similar to a PAR bottle," Romano explains. "You'll be able to oval the beam and rotate it, or even change its position." Romano is also looking into adding a fourth rolling color changer, which will have variable color correction that will allow the unit to run at 3200K. Other options for the 2500 Series Two include a wider beam angle, faster mechanical movement, and the possible addition of diffusion into the effects scroller.
The 2500 Series Two is also going to be weatherproof, a new design option. "Because of the weatherization, we're looking at some architectural and outdoor applications," says Romano. The 2500 Series Two could be used in a myriad of outdoor situations, from permanent ground-based architectural fixtures to rooftop-based units that can be focused anywhere from the sky to the ground. It will be available for rental or purchase upon its introduction at LDI98, at a competitive price, the company reports.
Sharon Stancavage is a Detroit-based concert and theatrical lighting technician.