LIGHTS, CAMERA, ACTION… - A Chat with Rob Koenig and Gene McAuliffe
Rob Koenig has bathed Metallica in glorious illumination configurations for several years now, and the WorldWired Tour is the latest in a series of adventures on that road. Alongside video director Gene McAuliffe, he shines a light on some of the visual production details.
When it comes to joviality, Metallica’s Lighting Director, Rob Koenig, is pretty hard to beat. Oh he might view himself as a grump, but even at his driest, even at his most narrow-eyed, Koenig radiates a glass half-full, an enthusiasm and appetite to get to the task at hand and advance it to the very best of his capabilities. Koenig is actually one of the more “Irish” spirited Americans I’ve met on WorldWired. It is no lie when I say that his is a face, voice, and presence I immediately associate with “now it’s a cool day” in so much as his vibe brings a cool and further familial dimension to the WorldWired Tour. Gene McAuliffe, the Video Director, is a quieter fellow who I hadn’t actually chatted with before (such is the way on large tours that it is impossible to know everyone well) but it is clear that he is an excellent foil for Koenig’s boisterous character. Both men are passionate and dedicated to their crafts, as So What! found out during a 20 minute chat in Manchester last October.
So What! Editor
Steffan Chirazi: Rob, talk about how you guys work together to bring the show to people. Give us a rundown.
Rob Koenig: Well, this inception of the tour is a little bit different. Gene and I don’t necessarily work as closely together as we normally would, maybe because a lot of content is already set in stone and a lot of the IMAG images of the band that we put up on the screens are much more arty. But on a normal basis when we’re doing the stadium tours, Gene and I work very closely together making sure that we’re presenting the best image of the band that we possibly can, whether it be through balancing light and balancing the screens-
SC: It’s more straightforward in a stadium, am I right in saying that?
Gene McAuliffe: Certainly on that show [WorldWired summer stadiums] it was.
RK: Yeah. It could be a lot more straightforward because the whole idea of our stadium show was to bring the show to the fans all the way back in the nosebleeds. And where we did have content, very rarely did the screens go “all content.” We were almost always showing some [live] image of a band member at all times. So Gene and the video director at the time, Dave Neugebauer, were very, very busy during the show. Gene was firing back all of the media server content, so he had a rather busy show. Rotated chairs a little bit.
SC: Yeah, I mean I’ve got to ask you, on a very, very simple basis, how many “content backups” do you have? Because you can’t afford a freeze, right?
GM: We always have two playback systems running.
SC: Running simultaneously? Really? So you press play on two sets-
GM: Yeah. So everything is programmed to run redundant systems, and we have multiple escape plans for other scenarios. And certainly part of it is, all the work you put into programming the show, you also have to keep in mind how to get out of any sort of problem that may come up.
SC: Let’s talk about challenges that this show has presented technically because obviously, you know, I would suspect five huge, solid screens are much easier than the cubes? I mean, you come in, you see these cubes, you hear what the band wants. How do you devise the content for the cubes?
GM: I think everybody had an idea or a plan kind of walking into it. And then once we all got in the building and actually saw it… yeah, I think the challenges were obvious, it was a completely different canvas as far as using them as a complete video surface.
RK: Yeah, and the directive from the band included with that was, “We want an entirely new show.” So we couldn’t just simply repurpose things, even though they would look immensely different on the cubes from the giant flat surfaces that we had in the stadium. It was, “We don’t want to see that on the show.” So everything, every stitch of cueing, lighting, video, everything was from scratch for the show.
SC: And what time frame do you get to work?
RK: The time frame is a little arguable. During the stadium shows I didn’t go home for the breaks, I went to a studio somewhere to start building not only the lighting for [this] show but the infrastructure needed to operate the show. The time frame was basically four months or so, but we really didn’t see anything in real life until eight days from the first show.
SC: What’s your inspiration when it comes to responding to the line, “Give me something I haven’t seen before?”
RK: That’s easy for me: the band. You know, I hate to sound like superfan but I am!! I’ve been a fan of these guys since I was 12 years old. So for me, on my end of things it’s been more fluid, and you try to challenge yourself in what you would normally do and that was, “What would we normally do on this song? Well, let’s not do that. What would we normally not do on this song? What feels awkward? What feels weird? What feels different than what we were doing on the stadium show?” This is a bit more of an intimate feel. We wanted it to have more of an intimate feel. As Dan [Braun – show designer and director] says, we want to eliminate the barricade from the stage as much as possible, so we’re trying to light the show accordingly like that, where it looks like the entire floor is the stage surface by lighting all people on the floor. And also, just trying to go down different avenues of how the show would look. Big stadium show, big stadium looks, big video screens, big lights. This one: a lot more intimate, very, very different looks, very varied looks throughout the entire night. Dan is instrumental at driving this process as well. We can look at a picture of every song and make sure that they all vary vastly.
GM: And I think with the way the set is designed too, it forced you to do things differently than you had ever done.
RK: Oh, very much.
GM: Because of the cubes, the automation and lights being where they are, I think it’s not like anything anyone has done before so we have to do it differently.
SC: Can I ask you to break down “automation” for laypeople.
RK: Automation in general is anything that moves on an “XYZ axis” in real 3D space. Automation would be [something] flying through the air. There is an automation setup; there is an automation operator who is [in charge of] any components on the stage that moves in 3D space “robotically,” for lack of a better word. So on this show, all of the cubes and the lifts that we had built into the stage for different moments [the lifts move up and down delivering various elements of the show – ED] are all part of the automation team. The drones are part of the automation team. On this whole show, all the cubes move on what will be a Z axis, so up or down, throughout the entire night. So that’s automation and there’s a lot of safety that goes along with it.
SC: Does that impact your design and your content creation at all? In terms of the safety issue?
GM: There were some limits, and buildings vary, so we also had to keep in mind that there were gonna be shows that had restrictions, so we had to have looks that work in any of those possible scenarios we run into.
SC: So you have, again, a backup in terms of created content, not just a physical backup. You’ve always got, “Well, if this idea is not gonna fly in this particular space we can put this one in, we can put this.” It sounds like-
RK: There’s physical limitations on what we can and can’t do on a daily basis, especially with automation from the ceiling. There’s a dynamic load to it. So there’s some arenas where we have to overcome limitations of what the arena we were in the day before could handle.
GM: We’ve been certainly finding the ways to still give them everything we can.
SC: A couple of six-cent questions. Your favorite lighting element of this itineration of the tour? Your favorite piece of content creation for this itineration of the tour?
RK: My favorite lighting element was an absolute mistake and I love it. It’s the lights that we have in far corners of the arena.
SC: Explain the mistake.
RK: They weren’t supposed to be there.
RK: The whole intention of those lights originally was, we don’t have a lot of lights on the show. For the typical arena show my fixture count is around 100 fixtures in all. There’s 52 cubes, there’s one light in each cube. That’s only 52 cubes over the band so I brought in some extra lighting for all the way out into the wings. And Dan [Braun] really wanted to push the idea of not having traditional lighting trusses on the show. So we scrambled at the last minute, and came up with an idea tying some lighting on the floor into where we have all these awesome LFC subs at the corners…
SC: Ah yes. The brown note as it has been called (a reference to the bowel-evacuating-ly powerful sub-rumble through yer drawers).
RK: And it is the happiest accident on the planet. We chucked ’em over there and didn’t know what we were gonna get out of it and it’s my favorite thing in the show, lighting-wise.
SC: Excellent. Excellent. And content wise?
GM: There’s a couple songs that are really high on the list. I think maybe “Master of Puppets” because that sort of blends everything together. We’ve got IMAG on cubes as well as content running with it. The cubes are moving. There’s some really drastic green and lavender lighting so it’s a really different look and the crowd loves the song. There are those lights that shoot across the crowd so you can see the hands up in the fog, and that’s a pretty big moment in the night.
RK: My favorite one is “Fade to Black” because there’s so much inertia happening between the cityscape on the video, the movement of the cubes, and the movement of the lighting – after we’ve done, what, ten shows now? Twelve shows? Something like that – and the hair on the back of my legs still stand up because it feels like the entire room is moving and it’s an unreal feeling. That’s one of my favorites.
Brett Murray (in with a question from behind the lens): What is the part of the show that you guys really have to be on your toes for your part and your part?
RK: Note one to the last note. I’m not joking. For me there is no moment of relaxation in this show. Everything is intense in this show. There isn’t a moment of being like, ahhhh. None of that!
SC: Except for that.
RK: There’s none of that.
SC: Looking back at being a kid Rob, what first attracted you to lighting?
RK: When I was younger in Florida, I was a drummer. I was also trained on piano, classical for 13 years, so I grew up on music. My brother and my sister were much older than me, so [they] started to feed me rock records when I was four years old. I became a big fan of lot of things. Started played drums when I was a kid, was playing piano when I was a kid. And my parents always said you need a backup plan if the “musician” thing doesn’t work out. Well, my backup plan was being a sound guy. So I did the sound guy thing for a while, tried to work in studios, that was where I was fascinated with being a studio engineer and fell in love with that. Work wasn’t really all that hot at the time so I went out and did some live sound, and that didn’t do anything for me. It bored me. The company I was working with had a small lighting rig; I tried that and fell in love with it. As for the first time I really noticed lights, it was the Nine Inch Nails Downward Spiral tour, ’94. That was the first time I really noticed lights at a show and it blew me away. I saw them three times on that tour as they rolled through Florida.
SC: Okay. And then Gene, we’ll come back to a bit of the content. I imagine you getting started in a myriad of ways.
GM: I was a music kid and a tech kid growing up in the San Francisco area, and went up to Chico to find what I wanted to do. Next thing you know I was offered a job on the road running a camera which sounded like a great way to see the world, which I always wanted to do. So I wound up on my first world tour, and I loved every minute of it. I liked all the technology so much that I tried to learn everything I could about it.
SC: So do you study up on it when you’re off tour? Are you always digging into the latest trends?
GM: I certainly try to. It’s hard to keep up these days, it moves really quickly.
SC: Do you share, in each of your trades, tips with peers on other tours?
RK: Oh, absolutely. If someone has a question that arises, “What do you think of this console, what do you think of this control? What do you think of this?” We all talk to each other. Only the people that are very uncomfortable with their position don’t share the trade secrets, and most of us are very happy to pass along that knowledge to either friends of ours that are colleagues, or people that we know that are up and coming.
SC: Is praise from one of your peers the best praise you can get?
RK: Totally. Or your artist.
SC: Well, which is bigger? For you personally.
RK: I would say artist. The artist is happy. That whole pat on the back when they’re telling you it looks good, that’s good, especially for us because we’re trying to desperately reinterpret the band’s music. We’re trying to paint on top of it. If they see the show and that’s not what they were envisioning for their music, that’s never good. But when they’re patting you on the back and they think the show looks good, that means that you’re interpreting what they’ve done, what they’ve spent all this time on, what our band just spent two and a half years on, that we are able to convey that to the audience in a way that they’re happy with, and that right there, is awesome and I love that.
SC: All right, one final question. As you’re watching the show, and it seems like you’re both extremely vested in not just doing the job but doing it with a sense of passion, you must be getting ideas. Do you save these ideas for the next leg or do you turn around to someone at the end of the week and say, “Hey, why don’t we try this?” Do you have a notebook?
RK: Yeah, I think we all have our own little notebooks, but it’s all a matter of time for implementation of these things, and on a daily basis we won’t have time for that. Once we’re on this thing it’s just the daily maintenance and the setup of the show. We have awesome crews out here that are taking care of all of the setup and everything and then when we get in there’s a lot of things for us still to accomplish on a daily basis. So unfortunately we don’t have the time to redo a song, do a new song, or anything like that. It has to wait till breaks because there’s just not enough time. We’ve been joking that we’ll get the show right in 2019. It’s going to constantly evolve because there’s, “Oh, what if we try this, what if we try this?” So it’s just gonna constantly evolve into something new, which is great.