The 2015 Honda Celebration of Light kicked off on Saturday, July 25th with Team Lidu from China. Our team arrived early to claim a viewing spot on Burrard Bridge so had the perfect vantage point for watching over 250,000 spectators enjoy the show. The fireworks didn’t disappoint with crowd favourites like heart shaped displays, but as event people, we couldn’t help our thoughts drifting to the logistics of the show. To find out what it’s like behind the scenes, we caught up with Brian Oberquell, a pyro-technician who’s worked on the barge for over 15 years. Read on to hear Brian’s tips for incorporating a custom fireworks display into your next event.
Source: danna on Flickr & Gerry Kahrmann, PNG
Tell me a bit about your background and how you got into this line of work.
I’ve been interested in, and doing, pyrotechnics since I was high school in Washington State. I began by doing small-scale things like flash pots for fashion shows and ballet, and after moving to Canada, I began getting more involved in the local pyro crowd. Between fireworks displays, theatrical pyro for various shows such as 50 Cent, Rammstein, Motley Crue and Skrillex I’ve got close to 100 shows in my log. I was also fortunate enough to be able to work on the 2010 Winter Olympics for the opening and closing ceremonies.
By day I’m a software Quality Assurance Manager and by night I’m a pyro-technician.
How did you get involved in the Honda Celebration of Light?
My first involvement was in 2000 when it was the Benson and Hedges Symphony of Fire. I had recently taken the Display Supervisor course and obtained my Level 1 license and was contacted to see if I was available to cover for someone who couldn’t be there for the first show. This is one of those offers you don’t refuse, so I went to work and did the first show. I figured that would be the end of it but I was asked back to work on the finale (back then it was 4 shows in total – 3 countries and a finale), and I guess I did okay because they asked me back the next year for the full run – and I’ve been doing it ever since. This is my 16th year!
Source: Gerry Kahrmann, PNG
As former professional event planners, we know how much preparation goes into the days leading up to the event. What do your days look like ahead of the CoL?
Even though the first show isn’t until Saturday, we start on Monday (and a few people actually work the weekend before) to get things ready. Consumables such as foil, tape and plastic must be brought on board the barge. The preparation areas have to be cleaned and organized, and we also do various sorts of clean up to ensure that when the first country team arrives, we’re ready to start putting their show together.
What is your experience like the night of the event?
The number of people on the barges during the shows is limited for safety reasons, so most of us will be in the Production Area on top of the English Bay bathhouse to watch the show. Most of the time everyone will have had a chance to go home, clean up and unwind a little before the show. My show night routine is to park at Pacific Centre, stop at a restaurant to get something to eat, then walk down to English Bay and wait for the show. Afterwards, I walk back to my car, head home and get some sleep so I can be ready to start on the next show.
With live performances, and especially with fireworks displays, timing is everything. What is the secret for everything being triggered at the right moment? What technology is used?
It’s all done by computer…when shows are designed, the person creating the show will usually have their music already edited together and then they decide what shell or effect they want at a certain time. Show design software is used so the designer enters the desired outcome into the software and it calculates when the shell or effect must be triggered in order to have things happen when the designer wants them to happen. Remember that it takes time for a shell, once launched, to achieve its intended height before it goes off so if you saw a willow in the sky at exactly 15 minutes into the show, it had to be fired from the mortar at a certain time before that 15 minutes was reached in the show.
How many fireworks are used for each night of the event?
It depends on the show but it’s usually in the thousands. That can vary depending on whether the show uses a lot of multi-shot cakes, as each cake is considered a single cue, or if they have a lot of shells because even if a chain of, say, 10 shells is fired as a single cue…it’s still 10 shells. On Saturday, my rough estimate is that 1600 shells, around 300 one-shots and around 100 cakes were used.
We heard a new barge was introduced a couple years ago. What are the main differences between it and the original barges and how has it impacted your job?
The first big difference is the layout; the old barges had a fairly narrow centre aisle with sand on either side where the newer barges have the sand on one side and a much larger aisle/working area on the other. The other big difference is that the older barges didn’t have a protective wall, which meant that we had to dig everything into the sand for safety purposes. The newer barges have a thick protective wall on the audience side which means that for the smaller shell sizes (150mm and below) we don’t have to dig them into the sand because the wall is there to prevent anything from going where it shouldn’t…of course, the mortars for the larger shells are still buried in sand but we also have a dedicated “sandbox” on the barges for those mortars so they have even more protection around them – a secondary wall, if you will.
Another nice feature of the newer barges is that with the more open floor area we have greater flexibility in placing specialty items such as large cakes or racks of Roman candles.
Source: pyrouniverse.com and sz-wholesaler.com
Do you have a favourite firework colour or pattern?
I like all of the colours but I suppose if I had to pick one in particular I’d have to say blue. As far as types of fireworks I think my favourite is the willow, and as far as pattern shells go my favourites are two different shapes that I’ve only seen once, in different shows – a cube and a Maltese cross. I’ve seen so many smiley faces and hearts that I’ve become blasé about them but cubes and Maltese Crosses are so rare, at least in my experience, that I was completely blown away!
Source: Hammond Photography on Flickr and timesofmalta.com
What are your biggest challenges as a pyrotechnician working on the CoL?
I think the weather is my biggest challenge – if it’s too hot or too cold or (heaven forbid) raining, it makes it that much more difficult to get things done in a timely manner. Sometimes during CoL the language barrier can be a challenge but we’re always able to work around it.
What do people planning corporate events need to know about incorporating a custom fireworks display into their event? What are important considerations and who should they work with locally?
One important fact is that fireworks displays aren’t cheap. The cost varies depending on a number of variables such as location, whether the show is shot on land or from a barge or other “unconventional site”, and even the municipality it’s being held in as permit fees vary from location to location. I tell people that at a bare minimum to assume a cost of $1000 per minute but that’s no guarantee of the final cost – I’ve been asked to do wedding pyro where the estimate for incidental costs ran as much as $700 even before we discussed the actual product.
Planners also need to be aware that putting a show together takes time. While some companies offer “show in a box” pricing you can’t assume that one size fits all. Depending on the show design and what product is used, it can take time to get product delivered because as you can imagine, you can’t exactly pack up a bunch of fireworks and ship it via FedEx overnight…ground shipments take time and you also need to factor in the time it takes to obtain permits, prepare and process the paperwork and so on.
If anyone is considering a custom fireworks display at their event, the first thing they should do is verify that the venue will allow fireworks to be used on their property. Other things to consider are, if it’s an indoor venue, will fireworks be an issue with fire detection systems? Who at the venue has the authority to grant permission?
A great source of information is the local fire department; usually they have a Fire Prevention officer who handles fireworks permits. That person or group will be able to provide the planner with information regarding permit costs, processing time, any special requirements and so on.
Next up, Brazil will be showcasing their talents on Wednesday night. You can find Brian watching the display from his perch atop the English Bay bathhouse. Where will you be? The Keg Steakhouse and Bar VIP Viewing Lounge is the perfect spot to host your group.