Happy Wanderings

All Fired Up for the Big Boom Boom?

Multiple Locations

A bunch of explosives experts are currently working around the clock to bring us a colorful indie celebration. Find out what goes on behind the scenes.

We did the unthinkable: We dialed up the people who produce fireworks shows mere days before their busiest time of the year (New Year’s Eve takes second place).

How long does it take to create a show?

It can take months. It depends on the budget, which can be anywhere from a thousand to hundreds of thousands. Typically, for a large display, the setup alone takes three days.

So a lot of crew is involved?

Think of a major fireworks display as open-air theater, only the stage is in the sky. It paints ephemeral images on that night canvas. Like theater, a fireworks production has a team of designers, laborers, stagehands, sponsors, and a choreographer. 

And the choreographer chooses colors and effects?

Precisely. That person is in charge of the things that make us go “ooh” and “ahh.”

What’s the process for designing and remembering the order of each firework?

Until about 2000, shows used to be manual. The choreographer creates the show digitally now, using special software. That’s before a single firework is shot.

How are fireworks transported to the site?

In a truck, with a big orange “Explosives” warning! Some of the shells, particularly the fireballs shot at the end of this video, cannot be transported and must be manufactured in the place they are fired.

How many fireworks are used in a 20-minute show?

Over 200, ranging from three-inch to 12-inch shells. 

And on the day of…?

We kick back and press the big red button that says “Do not touch.”

set upPhotos courtesy of the Western Pyrotechnic Association

For that story, we talked to spokespeople from Pyrotechnics Guild International and Western Pyrotechnic Association. Then, just to be democratic, we took to the streets to ask the people what they wish for in a fireworks display. Here’s what we heard:  

“More gunpowder.”

“Do away with them. In solidarity with my animals who are so frightened of them, I don’t like them.”

“I’d like to see the display tell a story. Maybe the fireworks could make some pictures, and even a little text.”

“I wish there were more colors, and you would see more animated characters. I want to see Uncle Sam.”

“If I could, I’d make it spell my name.”

“I’d like to hear more music, with the fireworks timed to it.”

“I want to control it from my iPhone. Isn’t there an app for that?”

Fireworks in SFPhoto by Matt Biddulph; title photo by Scott Creswell