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A Light Touch

Matt Ford and Lori Merkle headshots
Matt Ford and Lori Merkle

A Light Touch

By Steve Ulfelder

Bobcats Matt Ford and Lori Merkle created Magic Lantern Creations and have won Emmy awards for their work

He was a frustrated engineering major at another college. She was a classically trained vocalist who, because of a rough patch with grades in high school, felt fortunate to be admitted to Texas State University.

Now they own and operate one of the nation’s most respected lighting companies. You’ve probably seen their work everywhere: “The Wonderful World of Disney: Magical Holiday Celebrations,” the National Christmas Tree Lighting, “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” “Hollywood Game Night,” “Penn & Teller: Fool Us,” MTV, and “America’s Got Talent.” You get the idea.

Completing the fairy-tale nature of Magic Lantern Creations (MLCinc), the brainchild of Matt Ford (B.F.A. ’92) and Lori Merkle (B.F.A. ’94), consider that while the two knew each other during their undergraduate years, they didn’t start dating until a chance meeting years later.

UNLIKELY PATHS

Ford, who hails from Lewisville, says he was a “miserable” electrical engineering freshman at Texas Tech University. “EE just wasn’t my thing,” he recalls. One of the few courses he did enjoy was an elective in theatre lighting. A professor suggested he investigate the highly regarded Department of Theatre and Dance at Texas State. After meeting professors William Peeler, Dr. Daniel Hannon, and Frederick J. March in the process, Ford says his life changed. “Matt was one of my first serious lighting students,” Peeler says. “He had this sharp, intense curiosity and a theatrical style that would work well for him in an industry that was in transition.”

Merkle’s road to a Texas State mortarboard was even more circuitous than Ford’s. A classically trained singer, she “had rough times with grades in high school,” she says, and few higher education options. When a small Louisiana college didn’t work out, she made her way into Texas State on strict academic probation in the musical theatre program. That took some doing, Peeler says with a chuckle, because back then the program “barely existed — it was there on paper only.”

Merkle’s determination made it happen. “Singing was the one thing that kept me going,” she says. “I knew musical theatre was my passion, and I knew Texas State was the place.” She fondly remembers studying vocal performance and technique in the School of Music with Dr. Naymond Thomas. Theatre professors and advisors such as Peeler, Hannon, and David G. Flemming knowing how challenging a career in show business can be, advised her to investigate the technical side of theatre. “Next thing you know,” she says, “I was running a follow spot. I was teaching lighting labs. I was Matt’s master electrician for his senior project. I could say thank you a million times to those who saw in me what I, at the time, did not, and it wouldn’t be thanks enough.”

CLIMBING THE LADDER

During his Texas State years, Ford interned at Vari- Lite in Dallas, a pioneer in automated lighting. Following graduation in 1992, he did a year of graduate work at Rutgers University. He enjoyed a breakthrough moment in 1994, when Whitney Houston was seeking a lighting director for “The Bodyguard” tour. Ford worked with legendary Broadway designer Jules Fisher on that tour, then on many more until moving to Los Angeles. Along the way, he got to work with such rock greats as Stevie Nicks and Bob Seger. The touring, however, was taking its toll. “In ’98 I wanted to get off the road,” Ford says.

Once in Los Angeles, he linked up with another industry titan, Bob Dickinson, and turned his focus to television. In 2000, Ford took the entrepreneurial leap and formed MLCinc.

By then, Ford had reconnected with Merkle — and Peeler gets part of the credit. After graduating in 1994, Merkle headed for New York City. To support herself while  auditioning for vocal roles, she landed a job with the U.S. Institute for Theatre Technology, a group with which Texas State has long enjoyed a strong relationship. Ford was in New York City in 1999 to be the lighting programmer on ESPN’s Espy Awards at Radio City Music Hall. Knowing this, Peeler suggested the Texas State alums get together to network. A long-distance romance ensued, with Ford and Merkle marrying in 2002.

The couple, and the business they founded, have known nothing but success ever since. Even before MLCinc, Ford won a pair of Emmy awards for outstanding lighting direction while working with Dickinson. MLCinc designs and packages lighting for TV shows primarily, with an impressive list of household-name clients. Merkle and Ford run a lean operation, supplying personnel and equipment on a per-project basis.

HUMBLE, GRATEFUL

During an interview, both Merkle and Ford are disarmingly modest; it’s almost as if they ascribe MLCinc’s success to being in the right place at the right time.

But Peeler, a veteran participant in and observer of the entertainment business, knows better. “You have to have a vision,” he says, “and you need the ability to make the most of any chance you get. Matt and Lori have done that.”

Sarah Maines, associate professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance, says Ford has returned to campus as a guest in the non-theatrical design class for MFA students, talking about TV lighting design. Merkle also networked with and supported Bobcats at the U.S. Institute for Theatre Technology conference.

The MLCinc pair are also extremely fond of and grateful to Texas State. “I’m not sure what direction I would have gone in if they hadn’t given me a chance,” Merkle says. Adds Ford, “When I transferred in, I had a 2.0 GPA and low SATs. Despite that, Texas State gave me an opportunity to study what I was meant to do. I’m wildly grateful for that.” 


More info: magiclanterncreations.com