To speak or not to speak?

Two frequently asked questions come up regularly:

  1. “Why don’t you publish a list of your forthcoming firework displays?”
  2. “Why don’t you vlog or post photos from all of your shows?”

The presenter in me often wants to shout about and share my work. However, when I work on a firework display, I am engaged as a pyrotechnician with a professional responsibility for that particular display, on behalf of a client. The client is a paying customer and the priority for my team is to make the show happen.

If we are slowed down by the poor weather or traffic delays to get to site, then standing around and talking to a camera isn’t going to earn me any favours with my fellow crew members, yet alone the client. It is ESSENTIAL that you are a focussed team player in this job.

The success, safety and security of the event are all interlinked, which means that I am not always permitted to disclose where I am going to be at a particular time.

A lot of this depends on the client of course, along with the size, type and location of the display. Often, I will only show on-site footage and pictures, rather than how we got there.

Sometimes a display is a complete secret, to create a surprise for the audience. It is really special to be able to create a surprise like this, but can you imagine the fallout (no pun!) if I gave it all away on social media? It would be a total failure on my part! As such, I’ve spent many nights hiding in fields, on roofs and bridges whilst being unable to say anything public until afterwards.

Make no mistake, keeping quiet is really difficult when you enjoy what you do! It’s like an industrial sponsored silence, but it is all part of the challenge and enjoyment of working in live events.

But of course, many shows are in the public domain and some event managers actually build public engagement behind-the-scenes into the whole package. The launch of Hull City of Culture with Titanium Fireworks is an example of this.

I make a professional judgement, in conjunction with my firework colleagues, site managers and the client, to ensure that what I disclose from a firework site doesn’t give away any key secrets or compromise security. (HINT: We travel with and work with explosives. If you didn’t realise this, go and stand in the corner.)

Over the years, I have earned trust across the firework industry to strike this fine balance and showcase the skills and huge amount of work that goes on behind-the-scenes. Right now, as I write this, hundreds of professionals are working flat-out to pre-prepare the fireworks for displays across the UK as we head into the Halloween and Bonfire Night season.

So where will I be firing from on the main Bonfire weekend this year? A major racecourse and a scaffolding tower on a Somerset beach both feature in my schedule. There may be more, but you know, I couldn’t possibly say. (See above – you have actually read this post, haven’t you?)

I’ll be posting more updates on Facebook and Twitter over the next two weeks as we head towards Guy Fawkes Night 2017.

Stay safe out there!

Making, baking and decorating cakes

The past 48 hrs have been packed with even more visits and special treats. Firstly, we went along to see a Chinese pyro-musical wedding show with no bride, groom nor wedding guests. It was a trial and demonstration of a new style of show to demonstrate that smaller-scale and lower budget shows can still have impact.

The pyrotechnicians are essentially trialling the idea of off-the-shelf professional packs. There will be a variety of styles for weddings, birthdays, corporate events and so on. It may come as a bit of a surprise, but this has, apparently, not been done before. Until now, each pyro-musical show has been designed from scratch, requiring a significant budget and meaning that professional displays were not available to a lot of people. This new approach aims to make professional displays more accessible.

We were invited onto the firing site to see the rig in progress. It was an all cake show, with a few fountains included, meaning that there was no need to rig any mortars, which can be time consuming.Chinese firework rigging

The new packaged show idea uses a pre-programmed firing system, which even includes the music stored in the memory. What’s more, the system makes use of low-latency glow plugs – the fuse ends are fitted with a plastic sheath which then allow it to be clipped into the glow plug adapter. The head technician said that it had a response time of 1/50 seconds, which is barely noticeable to the human eye.

The factory doing the show allowed us to visit their production line the following day. Like several other companies, they are looking at ways of automating certain stages in the cake manufacturing process in order to meet demand.

Jack Ge and Matthew ToshFinally, we were extremely honoured to be dinner guests of Jack Ge, Senior Fireworks Artist Master, Liuyang Fireworks & Firecrackers Administration Bureau. He is one of the most senior people in the main Liuyang governing body of fireworks in China. A top bloke indeed and full of enthusiasm!

Making a shopping list

20150114_064139A really important part of the visit to Liuyang is to see product demonstrations. Every single night, I have been outside watching demos and you know what? It is bloomin’ freezing when you are sitting still for over an hour.

Some factories specialise in just one type of firework, such as aerial shells. Others produce a wider range of materials and hence the demonstrations for these can be longer. The largest one I went to featured over 70 different fireworks and effects. That’s a lot to take in and remember, and so we are given mark sheets. To a certain extent, it’s like being back in the classroom.

After two or three demos, one’s brain becomes a bit saturated and so the group comes together to review and share thoughts on all of the material seen so far.

We go through our notes whilst watching videos of the demos we’ve seen. The video is a really helpful reminder.

The conversations are around the blend of effects and the markets that they are suitable for. There are three areas that we are looking at this week: Consumer retail goods, professional fireworks and stage pyrotechnics. The requirements of each are very different. For consumer material, we have to think about the calibre, height and burst diameter. We are also considering mine effects in cakes; stars that erupt from the ground around the main projectile to fill the lower part of the sky. There is a surprising difference in quality and spread – basically, you wouldn’t want to have too large a spread on a firework if it is intended to be lit by hand!

We are also looking for symmetry of spherical bursts and consistency of height in multi-shot materials. This varied quite a lot for some manufacturers, something that I hadn’t really appreciated until now.

Lab testingSome of the more sophisticated factories have introduced detailed testing and analysis of the raw ingredients and finished powder mixtures. One factory that I visited has automated several of its processes, including installing a machine that fills cakes, ensuring that even the cardboard discs are all pushed in to the same level in every single tube. Both of these can have an effect on the performance height of a projectile.

The group has some very detailed discussions about certain fireworks, freeze-framing the video and almost doing a frame-by-frame dissection of the effects. In some cases, we’ve decided to take the mine of one and blend it with the aerial glittering effect of another. This is how much control we have over the fireworks. I can’t give any specific details as some of this is commercially sensitive information; I’ve been sworn to secrecy!

A lot of people ask me if we customise or design fireworks for import – this is exactly what is going on in this meeting.

As this particular group imports shop goods and is the largest importer of professional (Category 4) fireworks to the United Kingdom, what you see in the shops and at many UK professional displays in late Summer and Autumn 2015 will be a direct result of this meeting.

Cool, eh?

Testing. It’s all about testing.

Testing fireworksQuality control is important and regular tests are conducted by many of the factories. The larger ones seem to run batch tests from production lines almost every evening as soon as it is dark. Some tests can also be done in the day – it really depends on the type of firework and what it is that is being tested. This is what provides the background sounds in the hills around Liuyang.

Some companies have dedicated test sites. Others, well… just watch the video and learn for yourself…

I was really fortunate to speak to the head technician of Dancing Fireworks today who explained a bit about how people train in firework manufacturing. Firework testing is a key aspect of the training.

Through my interpreter, I learnt that chemistry students from nearby Changsha initially come to the factory on a three month placement. Once they graduate, they join the company as trainees and are mentored by a more senior technician.

Cake fusing machineThey start by working across the loading and production lines, to get a thorough understanding of each stage of manufacture. It’s all on-the-job training and, under supervision, the trainees are soon expected to build and test firework effects almost every day. There are industry-governed practical and written exams, especially for the more senior roles and you are expected to publish a thesis in order to become a head technician.

It takes around ten years to become fully qualified.

It is an immense industry and quite difficult to picture until I found out that there are currently 1236 firework factories in Liuyang alone.

Sounds of Liuyang city

This place is something else. Where else can you be woken at 7am by the sound of several thousand firecrackers going off or aerial shells being fired and nobody seems to turn a head?

I wanted to capture a few audio snippets and so here they are: Descriptions of the Liuyang soundscape.

Wandering around Liuyang, it soon becomes apparent that the common city sounds differ slightly from those in the UK. Apart from the obvious language differences, above the vehicle sounds, horns and general hustle-bustle of city life is the continuous sound of fireworks; sometimes in the distance and sometimes right in front of you.

Of particular note, is the experience at sunset in the surrounding hills, where most of the factories are. You might expect to hear the birds roosting and maybe spot a few bats? Not here. That’s when the serious batch testing gets underway at the larger firework factories. The thump-thump of shells going off every few seconds in adjacent valleys and beyond is rather unique.

The thing that has really struck me is the perceived normality of it all. Local residents appear to think nothing of a 100-shot noisy firework being let off on the pavement in the city centre next to a road. If you are lucky, then they stop to watch. Otherwise, people drive and cycle past; they continue with their normal everyday lives.