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Rob Koenig: Connected Light

Posted on February 4, 2019

Photo: Todd Kaplan

A round stage is said to present one of the more daunting challenges a lighting designer can face, but this Parnelli Award winning LD has excelled at creating multiple in-the-round designs for his longtime client Metallica, including his universally acclaimed work on the band’s 2018 WorldWired stadium and arena tour.

Lighting a stage with a 360° exposure to the audience fits neatly into the design philosophy that Koenig began honing in the earliest days of his career, working clubs and small theatres in the Orlando area. Back then, he pulled cables, set up props and occasionally played in bands in addition to running the lighting console. Close contact with the crowd was part of life in those days, and it taught him lessons he would carry with him as he reached the highest levels of the touring world, working in various capacities for the likes of Guns N Roses and Carrie Underwood in addition to Metallica..

For Koenig, lighting should not only illuminate artists on stage, it should also serve as a bridge that links artist and audience together to create a more memorable experience for both, all while fulfilling its primary mission of reflecting a concert’s music. Taking time from his very busy touring schedule, Koenig talked to us about the connective power of light.

Metallica thrives on fan connection. We’ve always been impressed with how you’ve supported this with audience lighting. How do you light the audience without abusing them, particularly on the in-the-round tours you’ve done?
“The band playing in-the-round is certainly an added benefit to audience lighting. We were able to place really bright LED washes/strobes on the dasher trusses, which carry all of the cabling for the show from distros in the corners to the center grid. The angles of our light are more from the side, which is not as abusive for fans as staring down the barrel of a light all night. There are certainly lights emanating from the stage that are in the audience, but utilizing saturated colors helps illuminate the crowd without making them uncomfortable. Metallica likes to see the audience, so we want our lighting to connect the band to the fans, not to abuse the fans.”

Photo: Todd Kaplan

Aside from allowing the band to see its audience, what contribution do you view audience lighting as making to a show?
“Well, on an in-the-round show, you don’t have backdrop. The audience takes on that role, so they become a surface you can paint on, just always ensuring that you are not blinding them all night.

“Also, when the audience is lit, they can feel it. The lighting makes the show a bit more personal to the people in the audience. They experience a connection, knowing the artist can see them. However, you always have to be careful as a designer when you do this, because you don’t want to make your audience uncomfortable all night by pushing to much firepower toward them.”

Speaking of band-audience connection, you kind of blurred the distinction between stage and audience on the WorldWired tour so it became one visual entity. How did you do that?
“This is an ongoing theme the design team discusses with the band. It’s something that Dan Braun, the tour’s production designer, pushes the envelope on, as much as possible. A barricade between the stage and audience is necessary and essential in a show of this nature. Still, we want the crowd to be as close to the stage as possible, so fans can be closer to the band. At the same time, we still want to maintain a safe work environment for the band as well as all the techs working during the show. So, it’s a balance.”

You’ve been with Metallica for quite some time. Do you build on the same theme from tour to tour so it’s like an ongoing visual narrative of the group, or do you approach each tour as a clean slate?
“The utmost respect is given to this issue at the top of a major touring cycle for this band. All of us on the design team certainly want each new record cycle to look different than the last. In the same way the band doesn’t want to release the same record over and over. Currently we have two shows, with two distinct narratives at play. The stadium show is drastically different to the arena show.”

Do you have to like a client’s music to do a good job lighting it?“I do believe so, yes. I do think it all starts from the music that inspires you. We all have our bags of tricks that we can pull from to make a great looking show when we’re familiar with a band and enjoy listening to their music at home. However, I have on several occasions, not been a fan of an artist’s recorded music, but the when I experienced it live, it took on a new life, a new dimension. So that becomes inspirational.”

You have a musical background, having started playing the piano at age five, and playing in bands yourself earlier in your career. Does this help you in your design?
“I played the piano and drums in my youth, which gave me an appreciation of melody and rhythm. When I accidentally fell into lighting, I very quickly realized how important all those years of training were. It allows me to understand the musical structures, the melodies, the rhythms, on a deeper level. This helps you as a lighting designer, director and programmer.”

How do you get inspired at the start of your design process? Is there a design element that you always start with?
“Without question it starts with the music for me. From there it may be a particular piece of art or architecture, a structure that guides my creative process. Occasionally, a specific light or set piece will inspire me.”

Photo: Todd Kaplan

What do you like best about being a lighting designer?
“I love that I am trusted with painting a picture over the top of an artist’s music.”

Is there one thing that you would like to see changed about our industry?
“Things always change in our chosen profession, and that excites me. I love the new technologies that are made available to us as designers.”

As you know, touring has become a more important revenue stream for bands today than it was 10 years ago. Most bands seem to be touring more and appearing at a wider variety of venues, going from say a big arena at one stop to an amphitheater on the next, to a festival on the third. How does this impact you as a designer?
“It doesn’t really impact me. I came from years of slugging it out in club and theatre tours, carrying a small lighting rig by myself, pulling my own feeder, and typically playing the role of production manager as well. This experience has made me very budget conscious. I feel blessed when I have loads of creative and monetary freedom, but I’m also very understanding of what it means to work with a smaller budget and the limitations it puts on stage space, transportation, and power requirements.”

It seems that some tour designs have become more theatrical with elaborate scenic elements, while others rely more on big lighting displays. What are your thoughts on that?
“This is true, and I love the variety!”

Do you think lighting programming and lighting design are diverging into being almost two separate disciplines?
“I certainly believe we are already seeing that. However, most designers I know, my contemporaries, have come from the programmer world.”

How about lighting and video? How do the roles of lighting and video differ in a tour design?
“I think anymore, those two disciplines are more similar than different. It’s always about balancing the two in a design.”

You’ve worked for many superstars. Is there a band or solo artists from the past who are no longer with us that you wish you could go back in time and design for?
“I have never thought that way. The teams that put together those tours set a template for what we do now. They all have their own place and time in history. Really, I wouldn’t change any of it.”

Photo: Todd Kaplan

What do you think you would have done if you didn’t become a lighting designer?
“I would have been a studio engineer/record producer. That was my original goal.”

Who were the big influencers in your career?
“That’s a difficult question to answer. We are influenced by everything, nature, architecture, painters, photographers, our contemporaries and predecessors, perhaps influenced on not only what to do, but what not to do.”

How would you like to be remembered as a lighting designer?
“I would love to be remembered as someone who had great respect for the artists I worked with. I am always respectful of the artists point of view, and always will be. I am blessed with an understanding and even more so an appreciation for music. It’s been who I am since I was young. I would also like to be remembered as someone who always gave himself over to the job. Always researching, always pushing myself to make the show as striking as it can be.”