Sunday, July 5, 2009

Bigger, Badder Booms

The technology is from China. The 45,000 pounds of explosives, monitored from a command center on the Intrepid battleship, will need to soar as high as 1,000 feet in the sky.

Around 9:20 p.m., a new, experimental model known as the “ghost shell” will explode across the night sky, then vanish—only to reappear and disappear several more times in a wave pattern.

This year’s Fourth of July fireworks show in New York—more than 10 times larger than the one in Washington—needs to be bigger, brighter, longer and louder than last year’s.

The U.S. has set off fireworks on Independence Day since the first celebration in 1776 when John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail that July 4 should be marked with “illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forevermore.”

Pyro Spectaculars, one of the family-run firms that dominate U.S. fireworks, puts on the New York fireworks show. Its chief executive, James Souza, makes several scouting trips to Liuyang, China, each year to meet with manufacturers about new shells, cardboard balls as wide as 12-inches in diameter, filled with gun powder and chemicals. The rest of the year he spends at a 160-acre World War II military munitions facility in the desert outside Rialto, Calif. There, at Pyro headquarters, he can freely test explosives.

This year, Mr. Souza asked Chinese manufacturers to develop river-themed explosives such as what he calls a “golden weeping willow” that will float on the Hudson River and burst into a gold dust cloud. Another new shell mimics falling leaves with red, green, purple and yellow gushes that waft in the sky for as long as 12 seconds, an eternity compared to the two- or three-second life of the typical chrysanthemum-shaped white bursts. He also buys shells in Valencia, Spain, Lisbon, Portugal, Hamburg, Germany, and Sapporo, Japan.

Mr. Souza needs to make this year’s show higher than last because Macy’s, the department store which sponsors the event, moved the fireworks display to the Hudson River from the East River where it has been for the past 15 years. In order for the estimated three million New Yorkers expected to watch from the West Side of Manhattan as well as from traditional viewing spots on the East Side and Brooklyn to see, the explosions need to be high in the sky.

The Macy’s show will use at least 10,000 more explosive shells than last year’s 30,000 and roughly 15,000 fireworks that explode at more than 600 feet high in the air, eight times as many as in 2008.

With audiences accustomed to fancier effects online and in video games, fireworks have gotten more sophisticated. As many cities cut back on local fireworks amid economic belt tightening, the nation’s largest shows are trying to pick up larger television audiences.

Many U.S. fireworks companies, including Grucci’s of New York and Pyro Spectaculars, date back to the arrival of Italian and Portuguese immigrants in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The trick to making fireworks look different is the “stars,” gumball-shaped pellets of chemicals arranged inside a shell that create colors and images in the sky—which the firms try to guard from rivals.

“You wouldn’t ask Michelangelo how many buckets of paint he used in the Sistine Chapel,” says M. Philip Butler, a Grucci’s producer working on the July 4 show in Las Vegas. He declined to say how many shells he plans to set off this year.
New microchips embedded in shells make it possible for fireworks to explode at a specific height.

Last July 4, Grucci’s of New York wrote “U.S.A.” in the sky as singer Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” played. It’s tricky to get a shell to break precisely so that it looks like an M, not a W. Next year’s goal: high-definition bursts that explode at lower levels but look crisp on TV.

Fireworks companies began using computers in the late 1980s to remotely ignite fireworks with an electric match that makes contact with a gun powder fuse. The gun powder, called “black powder,” launches the shell skyward. When the fuse reaches the explosive matter inside the shell, the firework goes off and the stars explode in a fixed pattern and color. Popular “cakes,” the name for a cluster of fireworks linked with a single fuse that burst at various heights, are called “Apocalypse Now,” “One Bad Mother-in-Law,” and “Dante’s Inferno.”

This year, at Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota, mortars to launch fireworks were placed via helicopter behind George Washington’s head carved in the mountain, says Doug Taylor, president of Zambelli Fireworks Internationale, the show’s producer. “The sky is our canvas.”

In New York, Tony Award-winning “Ragtime” composer Stephen Flaherty wrote “American River Suite,” an original score, for the show to be performed by the New York Pops symphonic orchestra. The Souzas spent a month in their California offices writing story boards, pairing explosives to music. They asked Mr. Flaherty for a longer crescendo to fit a 12-second burst and a quicker drum beat for a series of short, intense explosions. “The Souza brothers want emotion,” James Souza says.

The Souzas “told me it takes so many seconds for smoke to clear,” Mr. Flaherty says. “That’s not something that occurs to me when I’m writing for the stage.”
To buy fireworks, James Souza flies to Hong Kong and goes to Shenzhen where he and others from Pyro Spectaculars catch a flight to Changsha. From there they drive an hour on a bumpy road through the mountains until they reach Liuyang, the center of fireworks design with more than 500 manufacturers in a single town. By day the Souza team meets manufactures to discuss colors and patterns. At night, they test fireworks and then feast on Chinese food. Their trips include a stop in Beihai, a fishing village in Southern China that also makes explosives.

Fireworks date to 12th century China when the Song dynasty made simple explosives of sulfur, charcoal, saltpeter and bamboo shoots. China is the world’s largest manufacturer and exporter of fireworks.

Manufacturers adjust complicated chemical formulas to turn the common primary colors red, green and blue bursts into lavender, hot pink, fluorescent yellow, and electric blue. “It’s like a closely guarded recipe,” says Steve Frantz, national sales manager at Zambelli Fireworks in New Castle, Pa.

One of world’s largest displays rang in 2009 in Sydney with 120,000 fireworks shells and shooting comets exploding in a $2.8 million display around Harbour Bridge. For the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, the Chinese launched fireworks from nearly 300 points on top of the Olympic stadium. For the first time, fireworks exploded into Olympic rings in the sky. Chinese Olympic organizers came under criticism after they admitted to augmenting the display with computer-generated images of fireworks in the shape of footprints over Tiananmen Square, an effect that dazzled global television audiences.

Contemporary Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang works with pyrotechnics and designed the fireworks for the Beijing opening and closing ceremonies. Mr. Cai says weather conditions made it difficult for television cameras to capture the footprints as they exploded live over Beijing, so computer-generated images were created for TV audiences. Mr. Cai’s next exhibit, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in December, will feature an exploding white flower in front of the museum. “I’m a very timid person,” Mr. Cai says. “I use gun powder as my main medium to try and break with that part of myself.”

Macy’s held its first fireworks show in 1958 and has hosted the event in New York annually since 1976. A Macy’s spokesman declined to discuss the event’s budget. Fireworks displays of its size can cost about $500,000, plus the cost of live music, according to industry estimates.

Earlier this week, Gary Souza worked alongside 75 pyro-technicians on a Staten Island pier to load explosive shells into fiberglass and steel cylinder mortars. On Saturday, six 290-foot barges with the explosives will motor up the Hudson and stretch for over a mile.

One pyro-technician stays on each barge during the performance to hold down what the industry calls “a dead man button.” If the button is released it cuts off the electronic current that launches the shells and signals that something may be wrong. At 9:20 p.m., Mr. Souza, from a command center on the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum, will give the signal to trigger an electrical circuit that sets off each shell. After nearly two years of work, the show will be over in 27 minutes.

Condensed from original article byAmy Chozick, WSJ

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