Independence Day Fireworks Spectaculars Rely on Computerized Choreography
Fifth-generation pyrotechnician Jim Souza of Pyro Spectaculars uses a computer to choreograph “pyro-musicals” that fuse modern technology with the ancient craft of fireworks. Courtesy of Pyro Spectaculars by Souza. (Flickr photo)
Lighting fireworks manually is a relic of the past for today’s big-budget pyrotechnic shows. The exploding shells themselves are still made by hand, but modern technology has found its way into other key functions of the centuries-old craft.
The displays of today require computing horsepower to choreograph the precise timing, height and direction of state-of-art aerial explosions that deliver whiz-bang effects, even spell out words and are often set to music.
“What’s changed over the years is the ability to design these shows with a computer,” said Jim Souza, CEO and president of Pyro Spectaculars, which has wowed crowds at the Olympics, the Boston Pops Fourth of July Celebration and Chinese New Year celebrations overseas. “These displays require perfect timing, precision, and for shows like the Golden Gate Bridge’s 75th birthday celebration, tight synchronization with music broadcasting over a radio station.”
Technological advancements make it possible to create fireworks displays of increasing complexity. The more sophisticated capabilities challenge pyrotechnicians to continually dazzle audiences with so-called “pyro-musicals” such as Macy’s Fourth of July above the Hudson River in New York City.
A silver curtain fireworks display was used at the 75th anniversary celebration of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Courtesy of Pyro Spectaculars by Souza. (Flickr photo)
“The big shows now require computerization for the choreography,” said Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association. “Shows are more elaborate and more visually appealing than before computers were used.”
Computers were first used around 1978 to remotely ignite fireworks, according to Heckman. Back then, a computer set off an electric match to contact a fuse, but in the 3 decades since, they have been asked to do a lot more.
“These days it’s like putting on a movie production when companies design a show,” Heckman said. “These guys sit down at a computer, select the music and have an electronic inventory of effects that knows what shell will burst at what height, how long the firework will last — it’s quite amazing.”
Souza scripts, designs and visualizes pyro-musicals using software from Infinity Visions on a MacBook Pro running an Intel Core i7 processor. Before a show can be choreographed, the properties for each shell must be logged, including burn time, lift time and effects. Microchips embedded in the shells trigger the fireworks to explode at a specific height, in a particular direction and with millisecond precision.
“Timing chips are something I know the companies are working on,” Heckman said. “These chips will accelerate wider use of letters, for example. An ‘M’ for ‘Macy’s’ could look like a ‘W’ if turned the wrong way. We’re getting there, but [we're] not there yet.”
The Macy’s “Golden Mile” fireworks effect features a shower of sparks stretching a mile across the Hudson River will grace the New York’s largest Fourth of July celebration. Courtesy of Pyro Spectaculars by Souza. (Flickr photo)
Though letters and numbers have appeared in larger shows over the past few years, often for countdowns and spelling out the patriotic abbreviation in Lee Greenwood’s anthem, “God Bless the U.S.A.,” Souza said the industry hasn’t yet perfected the pyrotechnic equivalent of skywriting.
“We call it ballistic fireworks technology, and it takes a number of shells to break in sequences to get it correct,” Souza said. “Maybe that’s something for next year’s [Macy's] show.”
The Macy’s show is one of 403 Souza’s company will stage this Fourth of July and the department store-sponsored spectacular promises to showcase the latest innovations.
“Thanks to fusing the ancient art of fireworks and modern technology, you’ll see cascades falling out of the sky that are even more vibrant and beautiful to watch,” Souza said. “We’ll have something new that I call eclipse shells that go up in the sky and you see half appearing in red, the other in green, then light up in another color like orange, then light up to complete a full circle — it’s kinda ghost-like, but it also looks like an eclipse.”
For all the modern technology that goes into today’s fireworks shows, Souza believes there’s one instrument that sparks everything.
“It all starts with the basic — an imagination — which isn’t a technology at all,” Souza said. “It’s the freedom of the brain, and with regard to our Fourth of July shows, what better way to celebrate this freedom than to honor America’s birthday through fireworks.”