Every year, the world’s top fireworks companies try to outblast one another in Montreal. This time, the US team aims to win with artistry, precision and handmade shells. – By Christopher Maag
Two bombs lift into the sky. They rise for precisely 6,5 seconds, streaming fire like comet tails. The explosions hit simultaneously, releasing bolts of white and then showers the hue of burning embers.
More fireworks blink on – a series of orange and white flares strung together to outline a ship. Céline Dion’s voice steals over the crowd: “Every night in my dreams, I see you, I feel you.” As people realise the ship is the Titanic, they begin to scream. The song builds. Fireworks fill the sky, the bombs and notes bursting at precisely the same time.
“Ah! Ça, c’est beau!” yells Ronny Boghen, one of 300 000 spectators watching a Canadian tribute at the 2010 L’International des Feux Loto-Québec, an international fireworks competition in Montreal. “They always do something that surprises!”
Meanwhile, 2 700 km away in Carrier, Oklahoma, Gary Caimano presses Start on the photocopier in his office. The machine thumps out another copy of his plan for the competition. Caimano runs a metal ruler over the pages, checking every cue.
He hasn’t slept a full night in months; years of stress and cigarettes have stained his cheeks and eyelids purple. In a few hours, Caimano will leave for Montreal, where his tiny company will represent the United States against bigger outfits from seven other nations; most, like those from Italy and France, have competed there multiple times.
The US has claimed eight gold medals since the competition began in 1985, twice as many as any other nation. But this year, the Americans are underdogs. Not that Caimano is intimidated. “Oh, we’re gonna bring the rain,” he says, laughing. “We’re gonna make the sky move.”
Every summer, the top fireworks companies in the world meet at La Ronde, an amusement park on an island in the St Lawrence River, where they have R490 000 and five days to load thousands of aerial explosives for sophisticated pyrotechnic shows synchronised to music. If a regular Fourth of July display is like a squirt-gun fight, a performance here is like a battle of water cannons. “Everybody’s trying to push the best fireworks and the newest launch technology to the absolute limit,” Caimano says.
La Ronde’s stage invites such brinksmanship. The audience sits on a grandstand beside a man-made lake. Before them lie five firing positions called ramps. (Most big shows have one or two.) Three football fields away, hundreds of 20 cm bombs can launch simultaneously from five concrete bunkers at Ramp 1. Few fireworks sites are this big – or this intimate. Shells also shoot from floating pontoons only 80 m from the stands. “We can do things here that no one has ever seen before,” says Denis Lono, who coordinated the 2010 jury.
Crowds in Montreal prefer shows that start with a wallop nearly as big as the finale. From there, most designers splice together snippets from dozens of songs, packing the soundtrack full of “punch posts” where they can let the large artillery fly. This year’s biggest opening sequence came from Macedo’s Pirotecnia, a Portuguese company that launched a barrage of shells that turned the entire sky red for the first 20 seconds.
Sweden’s team punched in with ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” and fireworks resembling a 300 m-tall Wurlitzer jukebox. Poland’s Surex Fireworks launched blue fireworks from the pontoons; they skipped across the lake, reflecting off the surface as if it were a mirror. The French team, Brézac Artifices, used white and blue flares to create the illusion of a monument rising from the lake.
Canadian blogger Paul Marriott has reviewed 169 shows on his Web site, which is devoted entirely to the competition. “A fireworks show should be like a good rollercoaster – there should be moments of building tension, climax and quiet,” he says. “That said, there is a trend toward more and more firepower.”
Western enterprises is one of the last US companies still making its own fireworks. They are beautiful, with tricky colours such as dark cherry and pistachio green, and names like Aqua Coconut Trees and Colour-Changing Brocades. It’s also one of the few specialising in close-proximity shells and effects, which explode so low to the ground that the audience feels like it’s in the middle of the show.
Because they’re hand-made, Western’s shells cost four to five times as much as those manufactured in China. So while some competitors use the R490 000 to bulk up on cheap firepower, the budget at La Ronde won’t go nearly as far for Western.
“Good God, the Chinese stuff comes in so cheap, you can hardly compete,” says Alan Johnson, Western’s consulting chemist. “Companies come in here and bring the beef and try to blow everybody out of the water with just sheer power.”
Caimano has always preferred to strive for artistry – matching the rhythm of fireworks to the pulse of music and cadence of poetry. He was born into one of America’s oldest fireworks families, the Zambellis, and grew up learning the craft from his uncles after a shell killed his father, when Caimano was five. “I think we all have this primal love for fire,” he says. “It got into my blood before I even knew it.”
With Pyro Spectaculars in California, Caimano coproduced shows for two summer Olympics. For nearly a decade, he designed Macy’s Fourth of July display in New York City. He lived in San Bernardino, made good money. Then Jim Burnett, Western Enterprises’ owner, offered something Caimano had long wanted: creative control, plus a factory capable of making any effect he dreamed up.
In 1998, Caimano moved his wife and kids to Carrier, population 78. “I’m surrounded by explosives every day,” he says. “It’s magical.”
Instead of stitching together punch posts with a musical medley at La Ronde, Caimano will play 12 entire songs, letting the emotional rise and fall of each one carry the show. “I’ve always believed in subtlety,” he says. “My idea is to do as much as I can with as little as I can use.”
Western’s show might look great. Or it might seem like a skinny teenager swimming around in his father’s shirt. “Gary’s show is very clever,” blogger Marriott says. “Maybe too clever.”
A truck delivers Western’s shells three days before showtime. Burnett, who’s 62, pulls on gloves and starts dropping shells into mortars in the noontime heat. La Ronde’s fireworks and entertainment technical director, Paul Csukassy, works alongside the best fireworks teams in the world. “These guys are different,” he says. “They’re really passionate.”
It’s the day before the show, and Caimano is one second late. He’s been one second late for three hours. Now all of his cigarette smoking and pacing have come down to this moment. He’s standing clenched and still, glaring at a metal box. “I’m trying to stay patient,” Caimano says, “but I’m about to lose my cool.”
The box is a brand-new, Chinese-made computer called PyroSeeking. Switching firing computers at the last minute is a big risk, one that most technicians would never take. But Caimano needs to launch every shell from multiple sites exactly on time, so he’s gambled on the most advanced model he could rent.
PyroSeeking should be a safe bet: it is so precise that it times each bomb’s ignition to 1/100 of a second. Unfortunately, the computer keeps firing cues precisely one second after the beat. “This is why you don’t do something new at the last minute,” Csukassy says. “You do what works.”
Outside the control room, the crew loading shells bogs down in the heat. Gilberto Mora, who works in the factory at Western, wipes his forehead with the sleeve of his T-shirt – made from cotton, so that it can’t produce a spark. Before long, thunder rumbles, and everyone looks up. Then the sky opens. Mora sprints for cover. Rain can short the computer’s firing systems. Also, the close-proximity shells – currently covered with plastic – are packed in cardboard tubes; if they get wet, they won’t light.
“It’s a torrent! A literal torrent!” Burnett says, wiping the rain off his face with his open palm as he steps into the trailer. “Golly. What a mess.”
Meanwhile, Caimano finally knows why PyroSeeking is late. Instead of beginning the count at one, like European machines, the Chinese computer starts at zero. Jamie Deye, who runs the firing system, compensates by moving the entire soundtrack back by one second. “It’s on the mark! Just burn the damn thing (on a CD) right now!” Caimano yells.
Csukassy shakes his head and snorts a laugh. “Tomorrow should be a good day,” he says. “Except maybe the weather.”
On the ride back to La Ronde the following afternoon, the sky is black with rain. Caimano, Burnett and the rest of the Western team glumly watch the water pour down the van windows. Finally, it lets up. The Americans run through a back gate and into the amusement park. The local crew reports that the ramps took a direct lightning strike, maybe two. Nobody knows how many fireworks were lost.
Thirty minutes before showtime, people begin pouring into the grandstands. Csukassy walks over to Caimano with a walkie-talkie. It’s decision time: remove the plastic? The big aerial fireworks can shoot through it – but not the close-proximity shells, which make up two-fifths of Western’s show. To fill this enormous canvas, to win, Caimano needs those fireworks. But exposing them will leave Western’s beautiful shells vulnerable should the rain return.
At the last possible moment, he gives the order: remove the plastic. Breathing loudly, Caimano climbs the stairs behind the grandstand and enters the control room. Over the speakers, the announcer counts down in French.
“Somewhere… a place for us,” Barbra Streisand sings, and the computer fires 10 purple comets with golden tails that rise and swish. The sound builds into a wall of bass, Streisand’s voice soars, and the whole sky explodes. White close-proximity shells foosh! from the ground, then turn green. In that split second before Streisand pops the “p” on “place for us”, two big aerials burst high and bathe the audience in mint-green light. People in the grandstand smile and whooo!
Caimano’s got them. He stands in the open window and wipes sweat from his face with a wet towel. A raindrop hits his forehead. And another. Soon it becomes a drizzle. Then a downpour.
The misfire starts small: a few green and red strobes on Ramp 3 scream sideways. Before long, one-tenth of the fireworks on Ramp 2 are underwater. Nearly 200 shells can’t fire.
The Americans will not win this competition. Caimano knows that. But he may have enough fireworks left to put on one hell of a show.
Roger Daltrey belts “Love, Reign O’er Me”, The Who’s great power ballad. Little shells burst to create the shapes of hearts. Then the computer launches everything it’s got. Blue shells stretch over the lake, clawing at the crowds. A white tower rises into the sky and connects to a hammering mass of blue and red stars before it all morphs into a thundering mushroom cloud.
The boom of exploding shells recedes. The rain is gone. As the crowd stands to cheer, Caimano looks around and smiles. “What did I tell ya?” he yells. “I said we were gonna make the sky move!”
The science of fireworks
Each explosion in a fireworks display begins with a shell. Inside, “stars” filled with chemical compounds surround a core of black powder. After a shell launches, a fuse sparks the powder, firing stars in all directions. The stars ignite, setting off chemical reactions that create various effects. “Everything you see in a fireworks show is chemistry in action,” says John Conkling, a pyrotechnic chemist at Washington College in Maryland. – Sarah Fecht
1. Red Hearts
Colour: Strontium compounds; burning them doesn’t produce by-products that weaken red like other colours. Effect: To get novel shapes, stars are glued to paper in the desired pattern and surround the shell’s black powder. The hard part, Conkling says, is getting the shell to burst when it’s oriented correctly, preventing upsidedown hearts or backward letters.
2. Green Willows
Colour: Barium compounds; their chemical stability makes them easy to work with. Effect: Pyrotechnicians create long-lasting sparklers by substituting charcoal for stars’ metal fuels. Charcoal makes the barium burn slowly, creating the draping effect of the willow as the stars fall. For symmetry, stars must weigh nearly the same and be distributed evenly throughout the shell.
3. Blue Crossettes
Colour: Copper compounds; they have to burn at lower temperatures to remain stable, so blue light is less intense and more difficult to produce. Effect: Each crossette shell contains paper-wrapped stars packed close to a black powder core. When the shell explodes, the primed end of each star ignites and burns toward its centre, which contains a separate charge. That splits the star into burning fragments.
4. Golden Dragon Eggs
Colour: Sodium compounds; the use of gold in fireworks dates from the Renaissance. Effect: Dragon eggs are created with a bismuth metal compound, copper oxide and a magnesiumaluminium alloy. The mixture reacts very energetically, snapping against the surrounding atmosphere. “The air gets pushed back so quickly that it’s breaking the sound barrier, which produces audible crackling,” Conkling says.