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Career Talk: Being a Firework Pyrotechnician

Look up into the sky on Independence Day and New Year’s, maybe even during wedding and graduation ceremonies, and there’s a chance you’ll see some fireworks. But make no mistake: The spectacle is as seasonal for us as it is the professionals behind the scenes. “It’s hard to call it a job when it’s so sparse. I wouldn’t even call it part-time,” California-based pyrotechnic operator Mike Tockstein said. “I do about 10 shows a year. If I wasn’t working a full-time job outside of that, I might do a few more, but it’s not enough to call it a job.” To learn about these paid hobbyists, ValuePenguin spoke with Tockstein about the ups and downs of being in the field, plus what it takes to pull off a large-scale public display.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity. To contribute, find us @VP_Careers.

Pyrotechnics engineer, pyrotechnician, pyro – which are you, and what distinctions do you draw between the jobs behind fireworks shows?

A pyrotechnician like myself is basically responsible for the setup, safety and successful firing of the large public displays that you see on the 4th of July, and most pyrotechs are independent contractors shooting exclusively for one display company. My license specifically allows me to set up and discharge large, public fireworks displays. I can’t do the small fireworks, anything theatrical.

There can be slight differences in the terminology that is used. Some of those differences might stem from the legal terms that a given state applies to their licensed pyros. So, for example, California, the state I’m familiar with, we’re considered pyrotechnic operators. I’d say pyrotechnician is the most generic you could get in describing a person in our field. I would associate pyrotechnic engineer more with someone who would be in the manufacturing space, designing and researching different pyrotechnic elements. But that’s not a term I would say we use very often.

As an operator, what exactly is in your job description?

I am dealing with a lot of logistics ahead of time. I communicate with the customer, the fire inspector, any other appropriate people for a given venue that are going to be involved in a successful event. Most of the time, I’ll have a meeting with them prior to the actual show date where we’ll actually meet at the site, go over logistics and safety areas and all of that kind of stuff. In regards to the show itself, if it’s a musically-choreographed display, a show producer – there’s another title for you – at the display company will choreograph the display according to what the customer is looking for. 

What is your background and the background of your peers in the field?

I’m an electrical engineer. It does help to have a technical background, but it’s ultimately not necessary. Backgrounds – not just with producers, but with operators also – are very broad. Every different type of background that you can imagine, being that there’s not really any formal education that teaches you how to become a producer. It’s really more of a creative talent to choreograph a display and normally a producer will have worked as an operator for a number of years beforehand. That producer position is typically one of the few full-time positions in display fireworks. You can come in with no experience and no education and learn the trade; it’s another trade basically like becoming a plumber or an electrician. 

Is this how your training and recruiting website, Pyrotechnic Innovations, came to fruition?

Being that I am an independent contractor, I am responsible for putting together my own crew, and my crew can be all unlicensed volunteers. They need not be licensed; there only needs to be once license operator on a given show who is ultimately responsible for everything. And when I first started out, I didn’t know any other pyros necessarily, so I had the friends-and-family crew, which is not ideal as far as a knowledgeable crew goes. So I started Pyro Innovations, posted some pictures of shows online and helped recruit people that were genuinely interested in doing pyro to build a crew that way.

Anyway, long story short, Pyro Innovations grew out of control to the point where I was training so many new people at every one of my shows that time became very cumbersome, so I spent hundreds of hours filming and editing, publishing all of this training information; that’s how the training section of Pyro Innovations came from so that people would have to go online, through this training material beforehand and that helped it grow even more. Eventually, that led to an official partnership with Pyro Spectaculars, (for whom) we recruit and train pyrotechnicians, both for people that just want to crew and get out on shows and also those people that eventually want to work toward getting a license.

How much harder is it to build a crew during peak season?

Resources are stretched very thin on the 4th as you can imagine because everybody is out of shows. Pyro Spectaculars, the display company I work for, they do hundreds of displays all around the country, mainly in California, but they also do the largest display in the country on the 4th, which is the New York Macy’s Fourth of July display. Myself, for the last few years, I’ve been doing the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum show, which is a pretty big display at a pretty historic venue. It’s a really big turnout, one of the larger shows in California.

For a show like the Coliseum event, what is the budget like?

It’s hard to say because they vary so much, different shows with different budgets. A customer could come to us and say, ‘Hey, I want a 20-minute show, and here’s my budget.’

As the dollar per minute goes up, so does the quality of the show. A $20,000 show shot in five minutes will be better than a $30,000 show shot in 20 minutes. So it’s cost and time that equals quality.

How many people are on your crew for the 4th?

I have 11 people plus myself on the Coliseum crew. "Shooter" is a generic term we use for the person who's actually pushing the buttons during the firing of the display. That can be anyone of the crew members.

How do your actually shooters fire the shells?

We use electrical firing systems. All of the devices – all of the aerial shells and the low-level devices, like candles and cakes, et cetera – have what we call an electric match, which basically takes an electric current and heats up a little bridge wire, which then ignites the pyrotechnic composition and fits some sparks into the device to ignite it. That’s how we fire electronically. They have a firing board in front of them that has either switches or push buttons, or some of them have… the older ones have a stylus-type setup where it’s like a pen you have and you touch metal contact, fire individual shots that way. And they’re shooting as they listen to the soundtrack. Prior to the show starting, when we’re done setting up, we do what we call a ‘continuity check,’ where each of our firing systems has a feature built into it that allows us to send a very, very low current through each of those firing circuits, a much lower current than it would actually take to fire one of the electric matches. That basically tell us whether we have a complete circuit or not on each one of those devices. So we know during a show when we hit that particular shot, it’s going to fire.

How do you do choose which fireworks – or devices – to use?

As far as choosing which fireworks go up into the air, it depends on two things really: if the customer had any specific requests and if it’s a musically-choreographed display – the show producer will choose fireworks that are appropriate with the music and the soundtrack. We could have a song that talks about love, so we’ll break a bunch of heart-pattern shells in the sky; or a customer could say, ‘I love happy faces. Can we have a bunch of happy faces?’ So we’ll break a bunch of happy faces in the sky. Now that wouldn’t be the whole display of course, but that would be a particular look within the show itself. We can customize it however the customer wants, and if they don’t give a lot of input, then the show producer has some rein to be creative.

How do you and the producer get on the same page? 

So if it’s a 4th of July display, it will usually be patriotic soundtrack and they will be in an office setting, using specialized software called “Show Director” used for the choreography of fireworks displays. When they’re done actually choreographing the display, if it’s a computer-fired show, that information is downloaded into a computer. If it’s a manual-electric show, where it’s still electrically fired but you’re pressing buttons to fire individual shots, you’ll have a cue sheet that’s produced that basically has the shell type and the cue number, when it’s going to be fired in the display. So most of those show-production-type activities are done by a show producer, and the operator or the pyrotechnician would be responsible for taking that design and implementing it out in the field.

The producer/designer’s workload aside, what is on your plate in advance of the Coliseum show?

We start planning months in advance. I will typically have three to four meetings down at the Coliseum with all of the different players involved, so the different jurisdictions that are responsible for the different areas around the Coliseum: the sponsor of the show, which is a councilman’s office of the city of Los Angeles that oversees that particular part of the city; the parking people; the fire department; there are a bunch of museums around there; the radio station that sponsors and has the stage and will also be playing our show soundtrack during the actual display. So we go through a series of three to four of meetings prior to the event. I am responsible for putting together my crew, so I put together my crew. Then I will put together all of the documentation that’s needed. Once I get my choreography from the show producer, I check over the layouts and cue sheets, put together basically a real cookie-cutter package for the crew so that when we show up on site, everyone knows exactly what needs to be done and we can just get rockin’.

The Coliseum show is two full days of setup because of the size of the display. We'll start at 9 a.m. on the morning of the 3rd, and we usually work ‘til dinnertime that day. Then we're back there at 9 a.m. on the fourth and work until around 6 o'clock, when we complete the setup on the evening of the 4th.

Then we'll go over any last-minute logistics. I'll go over the plan to fire the display with the crew from various positions, whether they're securing the fallout area or actually shooting off the display. When the show actually begins, I coordinate with the person who is playing the audio soundtrack for the show. They'll have the music-only CD, and I will have the cue-tape CD, which has one channel with the show's soundtrack and the other channel will have my cues. If you were just listening to the left channel, you would hear only the music. If you were listening to the right channel, you would hear, 'Fire 1, 2, 3,' and that's how my shooter, who is wearing a headset will be perfectly in sync with the show soundtrack, which is important for a musically-choreographed display. Because the (designer) will choreograph certain looks. The song could include a lyric about stars or diamonds, and we'll have a sky full of white strobe shell that correlate well with the music.

After the display has been fired (after the show has ended), we check the area to make sure that we didn't have any unfired shells come down (from the sky) in our fallout area. We do a real thorough sweep, and then we begin to break down the setup, pack it all back up into the truck the way it came out, and I drive it back to our fireworks plant. That's when my night ends. It's a very long day, and I don't usually get back home until or 4 or 5 in the morning."

Aside from those long hours, what are the drawbacks of being a pyrotechnics operator?

Believe it or not, what we deal with is fairly safe being that we’re coming at it with a lot of training and experience behind us. Most of the accidents that you hear about on the 4th of July are people playing with consumer fireworks that you can pick up at a local fireworks stand. There is a very small chance of injury to a pyrotechnician, his crew or their audience when you’re following all of the rules and using a little common sense.

What about the positive side – what keeps you interested despite the long and unpredictable hours of what amounts to a hobby job?

I have loved fireworks ever since I was a kid. I got my license two weeks after I turned 21. Between the thrill of actually discharging a display and actually the roar of the audience after the display goes off, it never gets old.

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