Somewhere in the heartland of Nebraska lies the headquarters of Ballantyne of Omaha, the parent company and manufacturing arm for Xenotech, Strong International, and Sky Tracker. Together these companies form a multi-branch family whose members specialize in xenon searchlights, xenon followspots, and specialty lighting instruments. While Strong International, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, is an in-house division of Ballantyne and based in Omaha, Xenotech-Strong is a wholly-owned subsidiary in far-off North Hollywood, CA, a location which makes sense as film production is one of the company's core activities. Xenotech-Sky Tracker's main office is in Orlando, FL.
"Ballantyne purchased Xenotech, which then bought Sky Tracker," says Jack Schmidt, sales manager for Strong International. "This is a good marriage of technologies and a good diversification for the company." He also points out that the current marriage is the result of a long series of mergers, buyouts, and spinoffs which began in the 1970s. Xenotech was founded by its president, Richard Hart, in 1987 and purchased 10 years later by Ballantyne in April 1997. The name of the company was then changed to Xenotech-Strong.
"Ballantyne was one of our vendors at the time," says Hart, speaking on a cell phone from his booth at Show West in early March. "We bought certain components from them. By 1997, Xenotech had grown to the point where I needed more business expertise and investors. It had gotten too big for me to take to the next step. Now we have a bigger engineering department and more manufacturing power." Hart describes a two-year courtship before the union was sealed, as Ballantyne was in the process of becoming a publicly-held company which trades on the New York Stock Exchange.
Hart began his show business career as a gaffer in Hollywood's film industry (a job he reportedly found more interesting than pumping gas at the Hart family gas station). Always looking for interesting lighting effects, he bought and modified 1,000W xenon searchlights from Sky Tracker to use on Ridley Scott's 1980 ground-breaking film, Blade Runner. The futuristic, bold shafts of light created quite an unusual look, and other films inquired about the product. "I bought the Sky Tracker lights and modified them. I had to separate the high-pressure xenon arc lamp from the heavy ballast and add a cooling system for the head, and then I rented them to film companies," says Hart. By 1986, he was building his own version as a standard movie light.
"By mid-1987, the business had taken off to the point where I was forced to give up being a gaffer and had to run the business," he says with a twinge of regret. "I miss being a gaffer and might go back to it one day. It's very creative, and no two days are ever the same." His new business was Xenotech, and the product was a customized, computer-controlled xenon light for film and television productions. They have now been used on a long list of projects, from such films as Alien 3 and The Addams Family to television series like Beverly Hills 90210 and Twin Peaks.
At the same time it was purchased by Ballantyne in 1997, Xenotech-Strong moved into its current 25,000-sq.-ft. facility in North Hollywood. With all manufacturing now done in Omaha, the Hollywood facility serves primarily as a sales and rental shop for the combined range of products in the Xenotech-Strong International-Sky Tracker family. "The largest part of our floor space is for rental equipment," Hart notes.
The rental inventory includes the industry workhorse Strong Xenon Super Trouper(R) followspots as well as Sky Tracker's full-motion searchlights, available in 2kW, 4kW, and 7kW configurations. At present, Xenotech has 24 people working at this facility and another five in Orlando at Xenotech-Sky Tracker, also a sales/rental facility.
Xenotech's prime product line is the Britelights, a series of searchlights that use a short-arc xenon lamp and parabolic reflector, designed to collect the maximum number of light rays and reflect them in as close to parallel lines as possible. Called collimation, the effect is that of a tight beam of light with very little scatter. The beam at the top of the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas is a good example of the possible brightness.
The product range includes portable models whose yokes have a 1-1/8" pin that allows for mounting or hanging from a crossbar. These are used chiefly for fixed, preset lighting in film and video production. Britelights also come in automated models, with pan, tilt, focus, color changer, and intensity controllable by computer. The architectural models are designed for fixed installations.
A recent addition to the Xenotech-Strong line is the Nocturn product line, first seen at PLASA in September 1998 and again at LDI98 last November. This complete ultraviolet effects system includes blacklight fixtures, as well as fluorescent materials, such as paints and plastics. Michael Friedman heads up this unit of the company. The products are designed for use in theme parks and other entertainment venues, as well as in film and television.
Another interesting development in the Xenotech-Strong product line is the RazorHead, developed by Wynne Willson Gottelier in the UK. The "head" of the RazorHead allows a fully orbital rotation of the light beam without moving the searchlight itself. Described by Hart as "a smart head on powerful shoulders," the RazorHead is manufactured at the Ballantyne plant in Omaha for distribution by Xenotech-Strong in North and South America (Wynne Willson Gottelier retains the European rights). There are models that fit on both 7kW and 10kW Britelights, and are DMX512-compatible.
The RazorHead was launched on U2's POPMART Tour in 1997, where lighting designer Willie Williams turned the 7kW Britelight into a giant, orbital moving scanner. Additional projects using the RazorHead include the Red Bull Air Show in Germany, Harrod's 100th birthday celebration in London, and the Miss World finals in the Seychelles Islands. The product was first seen in the US at the Xenotech-Strong booth at LDI97 in Las Vegas.
"There was a synergy between the products. We had always liked their luminaires; they are very well designed," says Tony Gottelier of Wynne Willson Gottelier. "The big advantage of the RazorHead is that the light source remains static at all times, while the head generates all the movement. This enables a far greater excursion of the beam and finer movements, from beautiful, almost imperceptible sweeps to frantic revolves. The twin axis, double-mirror system can track a car traveling at any speed from a considerable distance--quite a feat when you consider the physics."
Peter Wynne Willson, the mechanical genius behind the development of the RazorHead, has also developed the ChromaScope, a new dichroic (cyan-magenta-yellow) color fader as an accessory for use with the Britelights and the RazorHead. Launched in 1998, the ChromaScope uses a patented system of convolving dichroic leaves, and is also handled by Xenotech-Strong in the United States. "This is good for permanent installations as well," says Hart. "People like color--red for Valentine's Day and green for St. Patrick's Day--so there has been a lot of interest."
Future plans for Xenotech-Strong include additional product development, such as the new 7kW xenon pattern projector that can be seen up to a half-mile away. Hart is also looking to continue the company's broadening of scope and expansion from the movie business into themed entertainment and architecture. Recent installations include searchlights as permanent features on the rooftops of movie theatres, such as the Famous Players Cinema in Toronto. The new Xenotech Europe office opened in Paris in late 1998.
"Searchlights definitely draw people in," Hart attests. "They see them and think something special must be going on." When he tested the 10kW Britelight in North Hollywood, cars started arriving within five minutes and people came from as far as 25 miles away to see what was happening. "What we like to say," quips Hart, "is when yourent our light, you own the night."