Fireworks are a Fourth of July tradition, dating back to the first anniversary of Independence Day in 1777. (Fireworks were actually invented centuries before.) Displays are held in cities and towns all across this great land of ours.
The biggest Fourth of July fireworks celebration takes place in New York City each year. The sky lights up over the Hudson River, which divides Manhattan and New Jersey, creating a magnificent spectacle seen for miles around.
We interviewed Gary Souza, vice president of Pyro Spectaculars, the company that stages the Macy’s Fourth of July Fireworks. He is in charge of designing and producing the event, as well as others along the east coast.
CBS Local: What is you role with Pyro Spectaculars?
Souza: I am one the family member owners of the company and the Vice President, and my main focus is working on the design and production of the Macy’s 4th of July fireworks and all other events that we participate in on the East Coast.
CBS Local: In addition to the Macy’s fireworks, what other ones do you handle?
Souza: I am mostly involved with what we do with the East Coast and the Macy’s contracts. So whenever we do something with the parade, closing bell of the New York Stock Exchange. Those are what I’ve been mostly involved with. And the Macy’s job really takes time… it’s a full year project. So that’s why I am assigned to exclusively work with that show. Macy’s, being biggest show in America, it’s the show that sets the tone for the rest of our displays. We go out and start to acquire product and look for new and exciting products to use in the show. We’re always challenged, and have been for the nearly 30 years we’ve been involved with Macy’s, to find the biggest and the best and the most exciting and the most technologically advanced products and presentation that we can. So we’re always looking for that, and we are shopping around the world. And that process really starts in the fall. It really runs through until today… we are getting ready to send all the trucks out to New York.
CBS Local: So your company started planning the Fourth of July fireworks along about September, October of 2011?
Souza: The actual process starts while we are watching the show from last year… It all is sort of like a dream… It’s a vision in your mind. Right now I have a mind full of visions, scenes that we’ve been working on that tie in with the music of the show. So you play that over and over in your mind and then go back to it and use the computers to try to tweak things to try to make it look more like what you’re envisioning and make sure it’s what you’re wanting to see. And then that dream becomes a movie that you get to watch on July 4. And at that time we can say, the performance could have been better if we did this… Either we had too much or too little or other ways we can put things together and present them in a way that it would be more exciting. And that’s where it starts.
Then we take a couple of weeks off to let your mind relax, and then when you go off in the fall with artwork, drawings and discussions and collaborations with the people that put things together for our company. We’ll then take that information and go out to the manufacturers and start the process of buying and acquiring that product because fireworks take a long time to make… It’s not something that you can go down to the local store and pick up an extra pound or a few more. If you’re out of them, you’re out of them, and you’re out of them for months. The process of making one firework can take two to three weeks. The process of drying the stars that are going to make the effect… you have to mix it, roll it, let it dry, put the next layer on, let it dry, then go to the next layer. And then you take all the stars that are going into the effect, and you put them in the shell casing, wrap that up in paper-maché-type glue and then let it get hard and dry again. And then it has to be shipped and brought to wherever you’re going to use them. So it’s quite a big process that goes into getting to July 4th.
CBS Local: Do you go to your suppliers with specific requests or do you go see who has what and then pick from what’s available? Or is it a combination of that?
Souza: It’s a combination of knowing what we would like, knowing what that manufacturer makes. And then it’s presenting those ideas and saying, ‘well, this is how we like it.’ And so it’s giving them the specifications, because what makes the Macy’s show so unique is that it has fireworks, but some of the fireworks we use will last 17 seconds in duration. The less expensive, just booms and bangs and the ones that you might see around town, they burn out very quickly. But when you’re doing a show that is on national television with HD cameras, it really will pick up all of the little things in there that are great if you have them. And if you don’t, it will pick up all the flaws. And you need to get brighteners, because it will show the colors. The stars, they need to burn bright, and they need to last for awhile.
We use a lot of shells that have color that show up well on television. So if you have something that burns out quickly, it doesn’t present very well. So we have the live audience as well as the television audience, so it’s very important that we have the fireworks that have a blend of both. So the fireworks that we use, if you pay attention to them, they have multiple lives. They will burst, sometimes burn out, reignite and come back or sometimes just hang and cascade and burn from a thousand feet all the way down to the water’s edge before they burn out, often times changing color along the way.
So that type of firework, each one of those little things you see burning, is a star that was handmade and it has different layers, almost like a jawbreaker, different layers of powders within so they can have that effect. And the longer the duration, the bigger the star. And that’s where it gets difficult to kinda match and blend. What’s the best for the live audience? What’s the best for telecast? And how do you fit all that onto one barge, which is basically the size of a postage stamp, to make that happen out in the river?
CBS Local: So that leads me to my next question, which I think you just may have answered. What special challenges does the New York display present?
Souza: Certainly there are numerous challenges with any fireworks show. But in New York, in this particular venue, the Hudson River is very wide. It has weather issues, current issues, traffic issues. It’s a major waterway. The Coast Guard does a spectacular job in working with the Macy’s team to help to coordinate how we’re going to access the river at a certain time, allow thousands of boats as spectators to come to certain areas yet not close the entire waterway for an entire evening. It’s a very large national/international waterway. Commerce must go on. They do a spectacular job.
And that’s really a challenge to take these fireworks, get them from wherever they may come from around the world, deal with all the regulatory issues and agencies that are involved to get to that point, assemble a crew of 40 people from around the country that are experts — some have worked on this show for over 25 years. Get them all assembled and pull this off all within the course of about 10 days, given weather issues and humidity and wind and rain and whatever comes your way. You have a finite issue with July 4th happening at exactly one time. You can’t change it. You have to be there. It has to be done. And you have so many hours to accomplish that. With all the design and all the planning that goes in, it allows those 40 people to pull this off in the limited amount of time and on a limited amount of space.
CBS Local: It sounds like a logistical nightmare.
Souza: Well it is. It’s very challenging. I’ve been involved with the Macy’s show since 1983. I worked on it with my father when I was much younger. It was one of the first big shows I worked on. Just over the years, gaining experience and working on other logistically challenging events. We just did the 75th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge. And it was a very large show. For the first time, fireworks were actually fired off the bridge and up and down the towers. We had exactly one hour of bridge closure time before the show and during the show. And that’s the only time that one lane was closed. So to pull all that off… and that is logistically challenging as well. Doing shows in other countries and other cities that have other issues. Each venue has its own issues.
CBS Local: I saw some of the pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge show on your website, and they’re amazing.
Souza: Pulling that off pushed and taxed every element of our technical team, to be able to do some of the digital dancing things. There were 13 computers that all had to be synchronized to do their part in the big performance. The computers had to receive the code. And they had their little segments that they had to do. But when they all went off, it looked like one big event. That’s similar to what we’ve done with the Macy’s show. The technology has developed over the years largely from our experience working with the Macy’s show.
CBS Local: How exactly do you activate a firework?
Souza: Each of the 40,000 shells that will be in this year’s show has an electronic match, or an ignitor. Each shell will then have to be placed within its own mortar or tube, that will range in size from two inches in diameter up to 10 inches in diameter. So each aerial shell will be placed into a mortar. And these mortars with have to be strategically placed about the barge, in the area that will allow it to create the effect we’ve designed in the sky. So once the aerial shell is placed in the mortar, that electronic ignitor will then be connected to various [computer] terminals throughout the barge that will assign it an address. So the computer will then recognize that address. So say it’s position 1A, position 3A might be in the center, position 4A. So if you wanted all the A’s to fire at one time, you could have that. And in some cases in the Macy’s show, we’ll have over 300 aerial shells firing within a one-second period…
Then the computer has a program in it. It picks up a timed code that’s synchronized to the music. So when the musical score is played over the radio or television, that score is also synchronized to the computers on the barge — two computers on each barge. When it picks up that signal, it has a synchronizing time clock, an internal clock that will run, it will stay with the music. … At this given hundredth of a second, it’s going to release power to whatever address we tell it to. So those addresses will then all launch at a maybe a certain angle or maybe all straight up or maybe crisscrossing in the sky and create some of the lower-level effects before they make the burst up above. So that’s it.
There will be about five miles of wire on each barge. And that’s what takes part of the time of that 10 days for those 40 people is that they have to strategically locate all of this equipment, secure it, load each of the 40,000 aerial shells, connect two wires off of each of the aerial shells into terminals, which will then be connected to the two computers, which will recognize the address where they’re located. And that’s how the show is pulled off… There are four barges this year, with two computers on each barge.
CBS Local: What special safety precautions do you have to take?
Souza: Well there are a lot. From the manufacturer’s part of it, there are lots of things to be careful of. Static electricity is always your enemy. Using the electronic match — or the ignitor — has been something that has really allowed us to launch fireworks without having to stand next to them with a highway flare, as you might see at some small-town shows. There are shows that are fired like that all across the country. And we do everything we can to make that as safe as you can. But we are now firing shells, with hundreds of them a second, that you couldn’t do with a highway flare. So the ignitor allows us to have more design occur and makes it more technologically amazing to watch. But it is also one of the more dangerous aspects of it, because basically you’ve added a match head into an explosive device. So if it’s dropped, if it’s dragged, somehow that match head gets enough energy — whether it be a force or heat or electronics — it will make it go off. So you have to be very careful in the management and handling of each firework item.
In addition to that, you’ve got lots of stuff all over a barge, lots of equipment in a finite space. The barges are almost 300 feet long and 40 feet wide, but by the time we get to July 4, it’s pretty well loaded up, with almost every space full of fireworks. So you have to watch where you’re walking and stepping over things, and make sure things are secured down so wind or another explosion of another device doesn’t knock something over. All of the pyrotechnicians are licensed pyrotechnicians. They have a certificate of fitness from the New York City fire department. We work in close cooperation with the New York fire department. They’re always there to help us and work together with us to make this as safe as possible.
CBS Local: How do you decide how to order the fireworks? What goes best with what? What follows what to make the most dramatic effect?
Souza: That’s really where the art form comes into play. You only get one chance, and that’s the frustrating part about fireworks. Doing graphics on a computer, you can hit delete, erase or undo. With the fireworks show, particularly one on live television, you don’t get a second chance. What I touched on earlier is that there’s this dream, this vision in your mind. When I watched last year’s show, there were things that I really liked, and there were some things where I thought, ‘gosh, we could really add this thing to it and enhance that more and make it even better.’
For instance, this year there’s a song called ‘Sparks Fly’ from Taylor Swift. It’s a fun song … a toe-tapping fun song that is in this year’s show… So we wanted fireworks that moved and sort of swayed, like if you were listening to the song, you might sway, sort of dancing. It had color in it. But it had this bright and hot sensation to it. Orange is a new color we’re bringing out this year, and we’re using it for that song. But we’re also blending it with red. So it’s red hot and orange hot. ‘Ignite the Night’ is the theme of the show, and that touches on that, because it’s red hot, orange hot. And the combination of those two is almost like a raspberry sherbet. It was fun. So that’s new this year.
There is another scene in there where we do what we call a falling leaves sequence. There’s purple and green and yellow and red and white cascades that are real small, and they hang in the air for about eight seconds. It just makes this falling sequence that is so slow and so gentle, yet it plays well with the music. It’s the beginning of ‘God Bless the USA’ by Lee Greenwood. So this year, we took those falling leaves, and we added this fan of rainbow colors coming up to it. So it’s coming up very slowly below and then from up above slowly cascades down the other complementary rainbow colors. I’m really looking forward to that.
We try to match the music for what the music feels like to us. We try to find the pace of the music and match the firework to that, so that you don’t over-blast the sky. Too much going on is really just blowing up the sky. We want to make a tasteful presentation so you can appreciate the quality of the fireworks. Use the technology and the space and the angles of mortars on the barge to spread the fireworks wider across the sky. We basically will fill over a mile’s length of river with fireworks from four barges. It really opens up this big venue of fireworks for everybody to see that will hopefully match and blend to the feeling of the song, whether it be fun or patriotic or dancing or passionate.
CBS Local: Do you pick the music, or is the music chosen for you?
Souza: What’s really fun this year is that America picked the music. We worked with Macy’s this year. We went back and looked at some of our favorite songs that we’ve ever done fireworks to over the years, and asked America to vote on the website, ‘what songs did you think were the best?’ And actually, the number one song was ‘America the Beautiful’ by Ray Charles. It’s right up there in the beginning after the fanfare in the show. That was the one that America chose. There were a lot of songs in this year’s show that were voted on by the people in America that said that these are the ones that they liked. And we were able to work those into the show. The theme is ‘Ignite the Night,’ and that’s what we’re bringing out there for everybody to see, is the way we’re igniting the fireworks to the Fourth of July and blending that to the music.
CBS Local: What style of music and fireworks do you find go best with the Fourth of July?
Souza: I think you can’t have a Fourth of July show without having a John Philip Sousa march. Songs like ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever,’ it has to be there. And you’ve gotta put ‘God Bless America.’ And this year we have another really exciting moment. Somebody was chosen on the website, who sent in their version of the National Anthem. And that has been put into the show this year. It’s somebody who was given the music online, and they listened, and they sent in their recording. And they were selected to record that for the show this year. We’re going to take somebody from America, who wanted their version out there, and they’re going to have fireworks blended to that.
I think the Fourth of July is not the same without red, white and blue, without whistles and poppers and things that blend to the great patriotic music that we have. I really like the ‘Yankee Doodle’ song, just because it’s kind of crazy. It’s more than just a red, white and blue. We add whistles and noise and swirling serpents and things to go along with the piccolos in the song. So I think that’s fun, and I like fun fireworks. But I also like the really passionate moments.
On the Macy’s show, we’ve always made a big point of building up what we call ‘The Golden Mile.’ And we always find a song each year that will match what we want to do with this Golden Mile, which is a mile-long length of the river that we just fill with about 90 seconds of gold glimmering cascades that burst from 1000 feet down to the water. And it is beyond ‘oh’ and ‘ah’ to people. It just captures you. And to be able to look around and watch people’s faces during that. The whole area, 3 million people on the shore, everywhere you look, they’re mesmerized to the sky. That feeling that you’ve been able to bring to people is really what drives me to want to do this. We capture them with that moment… and then ‘boom,’ into the finale. It’s just so fun to be able to do that, and then see the world sort of stop for that 30 minutes in time and say, ‘wow, that was amazing.’ And the enthusiasm and the patriotism that’s instilled afterwards is beyond description.