Up in the air
April 25, 2017 8:37 AM
Four pyrotechnics specialists discuss the danger of the job and how new tech will run the future
Those who are defying industry expectations in order to go hand-in-hand with jaw-dropping performances are often overlooked. Truth be told, behind every intricate firework display stands a pyrotechnics team behind-the-scenes, ready to drop everything and work until the show is ready to be viewed by an audience of thousands.
Access sits down with some of the UK's leading pyrotechnics and special effects companies to discuss the perks of the job, as well as the challenges that the sector faces in such a high-demand industry.
There are few major displays in the UK that we haven't worked on in our 30-year history, says Jon Culverhouse, director of Fantastic Fireworks. We've done New Year's Eve in London, and every November we light up the nation on Bonfire Night, putting on more than 100 displays.
From worldwide rock tours, royal fireworks displays and international sporting events, we are the only pyrotechnics company to have fired pyro off the Wembley arch, adds Emma Williams, marketing manager at Le Maitre.
We thrive on bringing that iconic moment to an event, by supplying bespoke and innovative special effects. We can even flavour smoke-filled bubbles, Maisie De-Pulford, marketing assistant, Quantum Special effects tells Access. We've had the honour of working with some amazing musical acts on their tours over the years, such as Biffy Clyro, Katy Perry and Muse. Remember those rings dripping with sparks at the London Olympics in 2012? That was us!
With a recent peak in pyrotechnics, helped hugely by the London 2012 Olympic Games, suppliers are seeing an increase in organisers' demands for well-designed firework shows. That also means the creators are often given creative freedom by their clients.
We feel the creativity bar is constantly being raised, and one of the impacts of London 2012 has been a new-found confidence that we in the UK are really good at making events happen, says Titanium Fireworks' Toby Alloway.
Remember those rings dripping with sparks at London 2012? That was us!
Maisie De-Fulford, Quantum Special Effects
On occasions, we are given more creative reign. The best recent example of this is our work with the MTV EMAs. This year we supplied an indoor pyro display for Global Icon Award winners Green Day and their latest song Bang, Bang'. The brief was to literally make the set go bang using up to 1,000 pieces of pyro in the last 30 seconds of the track, explains De-Pulford.
Instead of just placing our products at the back, we made use of the entire set. This allowed us to shoot pyro vertically, diagonally and even horizontally across the stage, using 50 separate positions to create a 3D criss-cross effect that was totally unique.
In the lead-up to an event, these pyrotechnics experts plan thoroughly every single detail of the display, filling the clients' needs of the visuals with the time they have been given and to eliminate the risk of any blunders that could happen. Some clients are very clear on what they want, but others look to us for inspiration, Williams says. We are happy to work with invested parties to safely push the boundaries that recent innovations in products and ring systems have made possible.
We welcome the input of our clients, but they are also happy to be guided, says Culverhouse. The displays can take anything from 24 hours to 24 months to prepare. During the 2012 Olympics in London we arranged a display for the president of Kazakhstan with a less than 24-hours' notice. For the city of Liverpool's 800th anniversary, we had two years to prepare.
It varies on the type of event, Williams explains. We are often called out on short notice to provide effects for TV shows, adverts, corporate events and so on. It's not unheard of to receive a call on the day of an event itself.
De-Pulford adds: If there is any advice we can give to organisers, it is to get your SFX team on board from the start. There are no limits to what can be achieved when you've got that extra time. Think outside the box and achieve something truly unique for your show.
Challenges of the job vary from adapting to updated health and safety regulations, to the significance of the pound defining what makes a spectacular show.
Alloway says rising prices are his biggest challenge.
Most fireworks are imported from China, so changes in the value of sterling do impact us, since a key ingredient of what we do has to be imported, he says. This means we all must be aware and driven by service quality, which has to be a good thing for anyone buying a display.
Being around fireworks, hot lights and explosives all day does sounds highly dangerous, so Access is curious to and out just how dangerous a job in pyrotechnics really is.
Naturally there is a dangerous element. They are, of course, explosives, says De-Pulford. Rigorous safety measures are in place and we pay meticulous attention to detail in all our planning to ensure that our effects are deployed with no danger to crew, artist or crowd. Nothing gets fired if there is the smallest doubt over safety.
The UK events industry has an amazing safety record. Of course, things can go wrong, but I don't see why working with fireworks should be any more dangerous than walking around a town, Alloway adds.
All the products have to be approved by the HSE, so it's not very dangerous, says Williams. We undertake all risk assessment and obtain any necessary licences before an event. We always liaise closely with event organisers and the venues to ensure the highest safety standards are met at all times.
New technology is a large factor in most physical sectors nowadays, with it becoming simultaneously easier to produce content, yet more difficult to maintain the highest standards of pyrotechnics display.
According to Williams, phones are proving to be more useful than they were originally designed for, and are now able to launch smoke and haze machines at any point during a SFX set or show. At Le Maitre, we're expanding our virtually smokeless range of pyro, which produces extremely intense colours with virtually no smoke, she says. We have also added smart controls to our most popular smoke and haze machines so they can be controlled remotely via a mobile phone.
Wireless technology is major at Quantum, says De-Pulford. We programme tailored shows with multiple cues and deploy it remotely. We push the boundaries of what we can achieve with new technology, and our aim is to always integrate into a show seamlessly without causing any hindrance or distraction to the production or audience. Our wireless Q: Control units are perfect for this.
Technology has revolutionised the way rework displays are designs and staged, adds Culverhouse. Computer technology has turned reworks into an art form that was not previously possible. Not only that, but it is safer for the technicians ring them.
Consumers react more favourably to a high intensity display lasting only a matter of minutes
As events of all kinds push the boundaries, so do their technicians. With every event that includes fire being thrown from the stage or sparks raining over a crowd, the bar is automatically raised to the entire industry.
Big pyro displays have become a staple of festival entertainment over the last few years, and I think we can expect this just to get bigger and brighter in 2017. A lot of artists are really upping their game in wanting to create that memorable moment for their audience, says De-Pulford.
Displays are getting shorter as event organisers recognise that consumers react more favourably to a high intensity display lasting only a matter of minutes than the same amount of money spent on a longer display. When your audiences start looking at their collective watches, you've lost them, Culverhouse says. With the development of low debris reworks, we are increasingly being asked to do close proximity displays on rooftops in city centres.
Organisers are clearly paying attention to both the audiences of their shows and the SFX pyrotechnics companies that are putting them together, all while being able to command and guide a show-stopping outcome.
We are being asked more and more for intense colours, says Williams. Also, for as many products as possible to be included in the virtually smokeless range. More artists who use vast amounts of pyro in one cue want to ensure they can continue singing immediately after the ring something our virtually smokeless products can really allow.
Alloway adds: There is a natural progression towards multimedia performances: Getting music, moving lights, flames and lasers to work well together. The e Son et Lumiere (a sound or light show usually projected onto a building) is hardly a new concept, but as people see ceremonies and other televised events such as London New Year's Eve and Hogmanay, I think they are realizing that pulling the visual elements together and choreographing the sometimes competing parts to a soundtrack really does make the hairs on the back of one's neck stand on end.
While the preparation and elements involved in producing a pyrotechnics show are often pushed to the side, the displays themselves may go down in history as being part of an event of a lifetime.