Ask the Pyrotechnician

I’m starting to get into the swing of posting here, even if I’m certainly aiming for a quality over quantity approach. Over the years I’ve lurked here, I’ve found that the most interesting topics are often those of the ‘Ask The…’ variety. Almost always educational and if you’re lucky, you get a few stories to boot.

This is my contribution. I’ve been an active and practicing Level 1 Pyrotechnic Supervisor for the past 6 years, and have worked in Canada on a very wide variety of shows. From small, back-yard birthday shows all the way up to 12-night, $40 000 per show contracted runs. I’ve helped on competition crews and have both shot and designed pyromusical displays.

Somewhat more uniquely (particularly in Canada), I work alongside a few very close friends in a hobbyist capacity; designing and manufacturing effects for a wide variety of ground effects. We specialize in gerbs (static fountain-type fireworks) for use in custom designed and built wheels. Our wheels have been featured in displays all over Canada, as well as one or two in the US as well.

I’d be happy to satisfy any and all questions you might have regarding fireworks, particularly as they pertain to fireworks in Canada. It’s an area with a great deal of public ignorance; ignorance most industry professionals attempt to combat whenever we encounter it. I am less well versed in the American industry, but have been a member of the Western Pyrotechnic Association for 4 years and have attended Winterblast for the last 3, which has given me some insight into the way both professionals and hobbyists conduct themselves in the US as well!

Anyhow… enough rambling. If you have a question, please ask! If I don’t know the answer, I’ll almost certainly know someone who does.

  • Budista

First of all - thanks! Second of all - if you don’t get much of a response be sure and bump this right after the new year; holidays can be tough on new posts here.

Not sure what to ask except the usual stuff - what are some of the coolest displays you’ve set up? What’s some cool, insider language you guys use when setting this stuff up? Can you rattle off a line or two that makes perfect sense from a pyrotech standpoint that is unintelligle by we civilians?

I was reading about a guy who made a guitar for Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead who was also apparently an amateur fireworks guy. He blew himself up. Tough hobby. What are some of the basic rules for amateurs trying that stuff - not that you need to worry about me trying anything…

It’s 12.30am here on Jan 1 2010, and I’ve just returned home from a really super fireworks display in my little town here in Australia. Corowa/Wahgunyah, you rock!

It’s also coincidental that you’ve started this thread, because not 15 minutes ago, I was talking to my SO about the ‘career prospects’ for pyrotechnicians. Given that there are only so many celebrations and/or events that call for fireworks, I’m guessing that the industry is for the most part monopolised by a select few individuals and companies who do ALL the stuff needed, yes?

But come NYE, there’s little towns and villages all over the world who want a groovy fireworks display…who does these performances? It’s certainly not the Big Boys in the Pyro Industry because they are obviously busy doing the Big Shows in the capitals. If it’s little independent Pyro Tech’s, and going by tonights effort, they are incredibly talented and creative folk…but where do they get work for the rest of the year?

IOW, what does a Pyrotechnic do when Pyros are out of season?

How did you get started? Did you just grow up in the family business, or did you always want so badly to do this that you made an opening for yourself?

Is it possible to get accident or fire insurance, or do the companies just laugh at you?

How dangerous is the job, really?


I think we all want to know how one gets started in such a nifty job.

Hey! A response or… 4. Excellent.

Wordman: I’ve worked on a lot of neat displays; from close-proximity stage fireworks and fire/smoke/flash stuff through to some massive $55k, 25 minute pyromusicals. My favorite show every year is one we do in Nanton, Alberta; a town of 2 thousand an hour away from my city. We do it with a very close group of industry friends, it’s a pyromusical designed by one of the best designers in the Canadian industry (for free, as it’s his hometown) and we make a lot of really neat custom stuff for the display such as waterfalls, wheels, flash pots and set pieces. It’s always been one of the best shows I work on and is always something to look forward to.

As for a line of jargon, this is something you might hear on the Stampede grounds during our 11 night run there: ‘Hey Rip! Pass me three Sidecars, two 4" Cab Farf’s and some E and gaff. I need a bit of giftwrap too, if you’ve got any left in your Drey.’

Advice for amateurs: Please. Don’t. Modify. Family Pack. Fireworks. You have no idea how dangerous this stuff can really be, and cutting into the packaging is something most industry professionals with decades of experience won’t do because it’s a great way to lose a limb. Also, and this is the biggest piece of ignorance we always encounter, Do NOT hold Roman Candles in your hand!. They may not look like much, but those balls are mostly iron burning at upwards of 4000 degree Fahrenheit. Once they’re lit, they will NOT go out until the fuel is gone. If you’ve seen the aftermath of a small gas station candle blowing up and the ball entering a persons body, you’d respect that these things aren’t toys. Just because you’ve done it before doesn’t mean you’re not risking both your health and that of those around you.

Kambuckta: Australian pyrotechs are, in my very limited experience working with them, very similar to Canadian technicians. That’s to say, there’s a lot of insurance, a fairly structured licensing regimen and they tend to be quite safety conscious as a result. I’d assume that the smaller shows on big holidays work just like they do here. Normally, there is a large importer or ‘production company’ (sometimes the same, sometimes two companies working together) who will package and design the show, then ship it off to an individual shooter somewhere in their territory. For instance, the company I’ve worked with handles roughly ~150 shows on Canada Day, shipping throughout Western Canada. Over the decades, they’ve developed relationships with competent Supervisors throughout these provinces and know that if they send out a script and the product, at least something is going to go up in the air in a safe and controlled manner. The big boss usually picks out a cherry gig for himself; something where he’s got an 8 or 9 person crew and a separate cleanup crew to come back in the morning to sweep for any missed debris :P.

As far as insurance goes, Paul, I can only speak to the Canadian industry. The government of Canada mandates that anyone shooting a professional (Class B) display fireworks show in Canadian territory must have a minimum of $1,000,000 general liability insurance in case of accident, fire, injury or death. This is the minimum, and a lot of municipalities demand more. My hometown of Calgary, for instance, will usually demand a minimum of $5,000,000 general liability before you can get a permit for a Class B show. The premiums for these sorts of coverage are, as you can imagine, pretty prohibitive and have developed what a lot of people like to call a ‘Closed Industry’. Not a lot of start-up companies can pay $50k-$90k a year for insurance and then bring in the shows to pay for them. Those companies that are established, however, usually do fairly well.

This is somewhat unfortunate and largely due to the attitude toward fireworks in decades past. In the last 10 years, Fireworks is classified as one of the safest industries to work in, with less insurance and workman’s compensation claims than virtually any other industry in Canada. A large part of this is due to the self-cleansing nature of contract work. If word gets to a production company that some idiot backwoods ‘tech’ was removing the lift charge off a 6" round shell and dropping it in water with an electric match in it (this is a bad thing that you should probably never do :P), that ‘tech’ will not get another call to shoot a show. Likewise, companies with little to no concept of safety will either be shut down or will be slowly edged out of the market by smarter, safer companies. I’ve known the owner of the company I work for to call off a $50k show contracted by the Canadian government (the Parliament Canada Day show) because of unsafe winds that would take debris toward the crowd. He maintained his position on safety despite government officials, event organizers and random assholes screaming at him to ‘press the button’. This mentality is by no means pervasive, and my experience with American pyrotechnics varies wildly from exactly this mentality to something more of a ‘if no one dies, it’s not fireworks’ sort of attitude :P.

Career wise (and I’m going to lump Paul’s and Elvis’ answer in here too), there are a few paths and they can also depend on the industry you choose. Get ready, this might be a longer answer. I’ll answer both in terms of Display Pyrotechnics (big, outdoor fireworks you might see on NYE or the 1st and 4th of July) and in terms of Pyrotechnics (the industry term for close proximity and stage/sfx fireworks)

Technicians almost all start with volunteer work. Normally, you start as an Apprentice working under Level 1 and 2 supervisors on a variety of shows. I personally volunteered on about 8 or 9 shows before getting my first paid gig as a Supervisor, but I’ve known people who got an honorarium or something like that for their first show. It’s not hard to get on your first show, particularly since at the training course (offered by the Canadian government) there’s always going to be a representative from at least one of the companies taking numbers and handing out business cards. After that, it’s just a matter of wanting to spend your time and efforts busting ass and getting your foot in the door to make something of a name for yourself. In my first year, I drove ~2000km, worked for free where I would now make a couple grand and really proved that I was in it for the love of the industry, not the fame or the money. I now have an extremely close group of industry friends known collectively as ‘The Fireworks Family’ or ‘Tim’s Family’ and all of whom I would call ‘incredibly talented and creative folk’.

Anyhow, after you develop a rapport with the production company, you can take a few different routes in Display Pyro. One, and the one I’ve followed, you can stay in close contact with those who design the shows and make a good name for yourself as a reliable and competent technician who will usually be the first call when they need someone either as an assistant or a shooter. Two, you can apply to work full-time for the production company/importer. This is the route my best friend took, and has been employed with a well-known company for the last two years. This tends to be a lot more warehouse type work, with a lot of picking orders, packing them and shipping them off. He gets a lot more shows per year than I do (I average 8-10, he averages 15-20) and tends to shoot a lot more of his own, but he also makes a bit less than I do between fireworks and my day job and has to deal with a very sporadic income. Still, the adage has always been that ‘You don’t do fireworks for the love of money. You do fireworks for the love of blowing things up and getting paid for the privilege.’

Generally, particularly in Display, there’s a fairly definitive season. From April through December, there’s always going to be a corporate event or a wedding or a massive event like Canada Day or NYE. Other than that… you’re usually doing make-work as far as I know. I have a day job myself, but my best friend has been doing it for a couple years and says the winters (in Canada) tend to be a lot of downtime and not a lot of income. It’s like any seasonal work.

I didn’t really realize how much I talk when I’m trying to help educate about pyrotechnics… I really meant to go on a bit and talk about how one gets into close-prox and special effects, but I have no idea if anyone’s interested in it.

What does that translate to in layman’s terms?

Heh… it’s not that complex, really.

Sidecars are simple cakes, which are (in their most basic form) a bunch of single-shot roman candles arranged together in a single, delayed bundle. It’s a way of getting a lot of shots out of a single ‘match’ or cue. Usually when you see a bunch of the same sort of effect coming off the ground, it’s going to be a cake.

4" Cab Farf(alla) is a 4" shell, manufactured by Pirotecnica S.A. Caballer (from Spain). Farfalla is a term for a shell that, when it bursts, creates a ring of spinning tornadoes (or ‘tourbillions’).

E and Gaff are Electrical Tape and Duct Tape, respectively. We use 2-3 rolls of tape per show.

Giftwrap is pallet wrap (saran wrap) or polyethylene sheeting that we use to waterproof our effects. Rain is a nuisance, Wind is a problem.

Dreys are a stage term for a sort of ‘wagon’ that can have props, set pieces or, in our case, fireworks in them that can be wheeled into place with everything already set up inside. It’s essentially so we can do all the set-up in a safe place away from crowds, then wheel them into place when the show is starting.

Oh… and Rip is short for Ripley; a technician I’ve worked with for the past 4 or 5 years :P.

Keep 'em coming. This is fun!

  • Budista

You you mix your own recipes or does it come in 55 gallon drums that you repackage into your displays?

And how much hair have you lost to close calls?

So what does a “small, back-yard birthday show” cost? And what sort of fireworks can I expect, meaning, how many launches, and lasting how long? Just curious, in case I ever decide to have a blow-out party.

Projammer: Nothing, insofar as I know, is ever shipped in 55 gallon drums. 99.99% of any fireworks you see is made in a commercial mass-production environment in a factory, simply because individual manufacture is too expensive and incredibly time consuming. It’s really only those of us who want to see something really off the wall or want to know how it all works that take the time to make something from scratch.

Everything in our displays is government approved product (unless it is a competition show, when non-approved product is held in bond for the duration of the competition) that arrives in sea-cans and is picked/boxed/shipped to wherever the show is.

As far as close calls, I’ve actually not lost much hair at all since entering the industry! As a kid playing with model rocket engines and smoke bombs in the back yard… different story :P. I have had a 6" shell muzzle break while hand lighting a show once, which is when a shell exits the gun, goes up 10-15 feet and functions. In full ‘bunker gear’ (firefighting turn-out gear), it was like someone ran into me with a Toyota; knocked me on my ass. My ears were ringing for hours. My mentor, also, had a shell function when he was working on defusing it (it hadn’t gone off during the show). Had he not been smart and worked below the mouth of the gun, he would have lost his head.

Dewey: This is where Canada and the US separate, unfortunately. Canadian fireworks regulation is such that the Explosives Regulatory Division requires 1000 pieces of any new product to be given to them for testing before they will approve it for import. That’s per effect, per color. So if you have a new, slightly cheaper, green Chinese peony shell (the simplest effect to produce) and you get it approved, you still have to provide 1000 red shells to the government to get the red’s approved. It’s ridiculously selective and incredibly prohibitive to new products making their way into Canada, as well as making everything MUCH more expensive. The end result is that everything is 2 or 3 times as expensive as identical effects in the States.

In the US, $1500-$2000 would get you a pretty solid backyard show, with ~4 or 5 minutes of decent fireworks. Nothing like you would see in a competition, of course, but enough that you get that ‘Ooooo! Aaaaaah!’ factor that you want. In Canada, the rule for something worthwhile is usually $500-$600/minute for a good show. I’ve been on some with less of a budget, but they tend to be a lot of family-pack (think of the stuff you’d find at a gas station) and not much eye given to design.

Keep in mind too, that in Canada there are companies trying to pay down those incredible insurance premiums. These costs are factored into the prices they charge for their shows. The main company usually won’t show up for less than a $2000 budget. As a hobbyist and lover of fireworks, I think the cheapest show I’ve ever shot was about ~$1000 in a professional capacity, and I donated my normal shooters rate in product.

I knew this - after years of setting up and breaking down rock band gear, I have come to realize that you can measure the true Manliness of someone (either gender) by how much they can do with duct tape. I swear, it seems some guys could practically take over the world with channel-lock pliers, a utility knife, a Mag-lite, some crazy glue and duct tape.

Thanks again for the thread.

im so glad i found this, because there is a question that has been burning in my subconscious for a few years now. Back in the 90’s the was a show that i, being a child, was infatuated with called “The Worst Witch”

on a particular episode of this show, the lead girl is pouring all sorts of coloured liquids into a cauldron, nothing special… but then she pulls out a jar of light beige-y/sandy coloured powder which she proceeds to throw into her pot which then quickly ignites in a pink flash bomb effect.

the thing is i cant tell whether or not its a real thing, or just a good computer graphic (keeping in mind that this was the 90’s so as far as i know ‘good’ and ‘computer graphics’ did not go to often in the same sentence.) I looked up flash powders on youtube, but they are all very dangerous explosives, and the water activated ones would have burned this girls hands no?

here’s a link to the clip skip to 4:23

Is it real?:confused: thanks for any help :wink:

Hey Cannibal,

While not infatuated with the show, I do remember watching it as well whenever I happened to catch it. Bit of a throwback to see a show like this, so thanks for that :P.

Anyhow, the effect there is something called a ‘flash pot’ effect. It’s actually just a bit of stage magic and has nothing to do with what she’s got in her hands. If you’ll look at the clip you’ve linked me frame by frame, you’ll see hardly any of what she throws actually -hits- the cauldron. What actually happens is there’s a wired/wireless charge inside the cauldron filled with flash powder. Stage flash can be any of a dozen mixtures, but for something that close to a human it would likely be Aluminum powder (the white sparks) and Potassium Perchlorate (often sold as ‘A/B Flash’). It’s much more stable than other mixes and is used because it’s less sensitive to shock than other mixes.

The pink tinge could be another half a dozen things; from a little gerb mix thrown over the flash pot to a gerb to effects editing after the fact. It’s not particularly noticeable, so I’m inclined to think the tech sprinkled some on top of the flash to give it some colour.

I haven’t the foggiest about water-sensitive explosives. I do know that aluminum is quite tricky in fireworks, largely because of how dangerously shock-sensitive it becomes after flash powders and the like are exposed to water. It’s this reason that, if you have a fireworks fire or find a dud, you never, ever, ever soak it in water. There are various disposal methods and your local fire dept. should be well versed in them.

Hope that answered your question!

  • Budista

Did you watch the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics – where everyone was shocked to learn that some of the pyrotechnic effects were CG for the benefit of the television audience?

Because I’m wondering if you would have immediately recognized that something shown was absolutely not possible to achieve with pyrotechnics, even by the people who invented them.

Oh, man. You get paid to blow shit up.
I am so jealous! :smiley:


I didn’t watch the actual ceremonies live, though I was in BJ in time for the closing ceremonies. I have however seen a few recordings. The immediate giveaway for pyrotechs watching the ceremonies were the footprints moving across BJ. I watched the recordings with my mentor, and at first our jaws just dropped. This effect, if you could create it, would be totally revolutionary. But after we thought about it for a minute or two, we figured out that there just wasn’t any way for fireworks as they exist right now to do that.

This isn’t to say you can’t make the footprints. The Chinese are well known for their shape-shells and this seems like something well within their grasp. What would be impossible is to have all 29 footprints line up exactly where you wanted them so that they worked like a giant walking from Tiananmen to the Birds Nest. Shells spin extremely quickly coming out of the guns (which creates that corkscrew tail you sometimes see), so it’s impossible to predict which way the shape will face when it functions.

In reality, while you might have a few genuine footprints, there would also have been a few weird ‘line’ looking fireworks that would have facing away from the ‘helicopter’. You get the same effect in some displays when there are a dozen 'heart’s; 7 of which face away from the audience. We always joke that if the techs, underneath the show, see the shape then the audience gets a nice line of stars.

  • Budista

So I saw something at Disney a few years back that seems to have migrated into wider use - the smiling faces and cubes. Didn’t see hearts then, but wouldn’t be surprised if I had just missed them.

How much more difficult are those to make? Are they more expensive than one that shoots out in every direction?

Also - do you have any idea how much money and effort Disney puts into their shows? Seems like they have multiple ones every night. I’d assume that each park has a standard show that they just reload daily, with changes to the program made in the offseason. I’d figure their budget lets them get all but the most cutting edge effects. Maybe I’m wrong?

Like nougat?

Darth Sensitive,

Those are what are called ‘Shape’ shells, for obvious reasons. There are a wide variety of shape shells in use, including squares, rings, cubes, happy faces, hearts and even two-ring (one ring with a perpendicular ring, usually another colour) shells. It’s not really difficult to make the ingredients of the shell, though their assembly is often quite complex. Without going too deep into the construction of shells, unless someone wants that, it’s simply and issue of knowing how to arrange the break charge and the stars inside the shells. In a spherical shell, you’re usually limited to geometric shapes, while cylindrical shells are even more limited (though they are excellent at producing consistent rings and associated effects). They’re usually around the same price as a ‘spherical’ style effect, simply because their difficulty in manufacturing is off-set by the fact that there’s much less composition in the shell. The cheapest effect is what’s called a ‘peony’, which is just the sphere of stars, no tails and no gimmicks.

As for Disney, I actually know the lady in charge of their displays. Her name is Raven and she works with a group of West Coast pyros called the Flying Monkeys. I’m fortunate to have met her a number of times at the Western Pyrotechnic Associations Winterblast in Lake Havasu City. In the past, she’s put on some informational sessions on Disney’s fireworks system, so the info I have is right from her.

Anyhow, I couldn’t really speak to their budget, since that’s private and she couldn’t give us a number. I do know it’s a very expensive production, largely because Disney manufactures a lot of their own fireworks. They use a variety of conventional pyrotechnics, both display (1.1G/1.3G TDG or 7.2.2 in Canada) and close-prox (1.1G/1.3G TDG, 7.2.5 Canadian).

The most interesting thing about Disney is their use of pneumatic firework launchers and computerized shells/effects. It’s at the absolute cutting edge of the pyrotechnic field, and consists of banks and banks of pressurized air ‘guns’ that contain shells without pyrotechnic fuses. What this does is takes 95% of the inconsistency out of the fireworks show where these new shells are concerned. They will always be launched to the same height, they will always function exactly when commanded do by the controller (computerized, of course) and the operator will know when there is a malfunction or a shell is a dud. This means that every shell is accounted for and they all function exactly on cue.

When you consider that even the most accurate pyrotechnic fuses in common usage have a ~10% variance in their timing, it doesn’t take a professional designer to realize why this is quite amazing stuff. The problem is, installing a microchip with wireless capabilities into an explosive and setting up a pneumatic system with hundreds of guns is incredibly expensive. I couldn’t even guess how much the launch system and controllers cost, but when we received a shipment of Disney’s shells by mistake, we realized they’re almost 6 or 7 times the price of a normal shell with identical effects.

Still, in terms of safety and control, Disney is at the top of their game. And when you think of how many times they’re lobbing bombs into the air, even a 99% function rate would result in thousands of duds and errors in timing (or possibly more catastrophic failures) at the most popular amusement parks in the world.

I’ve actually got a standing offer to work for a season at Disneyland with Raven if I can get a work visa and accommodations, but don’t know if I’ll ever take her up on it. It would be fun, but also a major move and pretty expensive to boot (Disney not offering any assistance with getting a visa or accommodations).

I think… I talk a bit much with these replies. It’s a bad habit, but I find that being concise leaves out a lot of necessary background info.

  • Budista