'Firework, Not Fire Fun': The Serious Jobs Of Pyrotechnic Pros

'Firework, Not Fire Fun': The Serious Jobs Of Pyrotechnic Pros

6:46pm Jul 04, 2015
Jim Souza, president of Pyro Spectaculars, poses with samples of some of the fireworks he's planning for this year's Macy's show.
Jim Souza, president of Pyro Spectaculars, poses with samples of some of the fireworks he's planning for this year's Macy's show.
James Delahoussaye
  • Jim Souza, president of Pyro Spectaculars, poses with samples of some of the fireworks he's planning for this year's Macy's show.

    Jim Souza, president of Pyro Spectaculars, poses with samples of some of the fireworks he's planning for this year's Macy's show.

    James Delahoussaye

  • A peek inside one of the big shells. Can you tell what this one will look like when it's launched?

    A peek inside one of the big shells. Can you tell what this one will look like when it's launched?

    James Delahoussaye

Designing a vast fireworks show is a bit like composing music. There's the opening to think about, of course, and the grand finale — and all the intricacies with which the colors and displays intermingle in between.

For Jim Souza, the president of Pyro Spectaculars, this is his art.

"The sky is the canvas," he says, lending another metaphor, "and fire's my paint."

Pyro Spectaculars has major street cred in the fireworks business. The company has lit up the sky for Olympic opening ceremonies, the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty and, yes, even Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston's wedding.

But maybe their best-known work is the Macy's 4th of July Fireworks Spectacular, a giant, televised spectacle on New York City's East River. It's the largest fireworks show in the U.S. — but even as big as it is, it's an even bigger job for those putting the show together.

As soon as the smoke cleared from last year's event, Souza and his brother set to work on planning for 2015. They traveled to Washington, D.C., met with event planners, even sat in while sound engineers mixed new music.

"It's me and my brother sitting there, telling them, 'We really like that,' " Souza recalls, "or maybe, 'We can have some more cymbals here 'cause we could have this great big kaboom go on at that very crescendo.' "

And then, of course, there are the firework shells themselves. Round like a basketball, covered in brown paper and filled with little colored balls called stars, the shells make the effects that, in turn, make the Macy's show famous. And there are a lot of them: Souza says that in one show, 50,000 fireworks will go off for 25 minutes.

"And all this happens in seconds — milliseconds," he says. "The explosion will push the stars across the sky, burst into a single color, transition from red to white to blue — or twinkle or whistle or whatever the effect is."

All of this is planned out with tiny blue dots — thousands and thousands of annotations — crowded onto a spreadsheet on Souza's computer. The blue dots, each one representing a single fireworks effect, splay out like music notes on a page.

It may sound exceptionally complicated, but fireworks are in Souza's blood.

"We grew up — not just our job, that's our family," Souza says. "That's what we always grew up with." Even at 12 years old, Jim Souza was already working on professional fireworks shows. But, as he's quick to point out: "It's called firework, not firefun. And so, yeah, when it's hot and you're digging trenches: 'Can I do something else, Dad?' "

This Independence Day in New York City, dozens of Pyro Spectaculars technicians have been checking every wire, every computer connection, every shell. After all, they only have one shot to get it right. It's a lot of work, and a lot of pressure, but remember:

"It's just cool," Souza says. "It's the coolest thing ever."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Tonight, Macy's presents its annual fireworks display over the East River in New York City. If you've ever seen the spectacle, you know this is a huge show. And it's even a huger show to plan, as our own James Delahoussaye found out.

JAMES DELAHOUSSAYE, BYLINE: Designing the largest fireworks show in the U.S. is like composing music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JIM SOUZA: And I'm imagining that I'm going to start this thing off silver. And I started opening the show in a curtain of light.

DELAHOUSSAYE: Jim Souza sits at his computer.

SOUZA: And then so I would play it and push the button, and we'd have a little bit of applause.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DELAHOUSSAYE: The spreadsheet on the screen doesn't look like a giant fireworks show. But there are these tiny blue dots - annotations - thousands and thousands of them. Each represents one single fireworks effect, like a music note on a page. In Jim Souza's mind, he sees explosions.

SOUZA: The sky's the canvas, and fire is my paint.

DELAHOUSSAYE: Souza is the president of Pyro Spectaculars, a company with major street cred in the fireworks business. They've lit up the sky for Olympic opening ceremonies, the 100th anniversary for the Statue of Liberty and, yes, Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston's wedding. But their most famous work is the Macy's Fourth of July Fireworks show, a giant televised spectacle on New York City's East River.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIREWORKS)

DELAHOUSSAYE: As the smoke cleared from last year's event, it was time to start planning 2015. Souza and his brother traveled to Washington, D.C., met with event planners. They even sat in while sound engineers mixed new music.

SOUZA: It's me and my brother sitting there telling them, you know, we really like that, or maybe we can have some more cymbals here because we're going to have this great big kaboom go on that very crescendo.

DELAHOUSSAYE: Armed with a soundtrack packed with cymbals and crescendos, Souza came back to headquarters. He picks up a fireworks shell.

SOUZA: What I'm holding here in my hand, if you can imagine the size of a basketball and it's round.

DELAHOUSSAYE: It's covered in brown paper and cut in half. Inside, there are these little colored balls.

SOUZA: Each one of these stars is hand-placed. It's all handmade. It looks like giant marbles here. Then here we have a green. Then we have a yellow smile, twinkling red stars that are going to be the eyes for a happy face.

DELAHOUSSAYE: This is one shell. The Macy's show will fire off many, many shells.

SOUZA: Ten thousand different effects.

DELAHOUSSAYE: Ten thousand.

SOUZA: Times five is 50, yes.

DELAHOUSSAYE: So for one show?

SOUZA: Yes. One show - 50,000, all fired in 25 minutes.

DELAHOUSSAYE: Fifty-thousand fireworks.

SOUZA: And this is all within (snaps fingers) milliseconds. It's going to light the colored stars and push them across the sky, burst in a single color or have a transition, burn from red to white to blue or twinkle or whistle or whatever the effect is.

DELAHOUSSAYE: It all sounds really complicated, and it is. But fireworks is in Souza's blood.

SOUZA: We grew up as not just our job, that's family. That's what we've always grew up with.

DELAHOUSSAYE: At 12 years old, young Jim Souza was already working on professional firework shows. But...

SOUZA: It's called firework; it's not fire fun. And so yeah, when it's hot - it's 110 degrees and you're digging trenches - can I do something else, Dad? (Laughter) No (laughter).

DELAHOUSSAYE: Right now, in New York City, dozens of Pyro Spectacular's technicians are checking every wire, every computer connection, every shell. They have only one shot to get it right. When the sun drops, the show starts.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICA")

SOUZA: And now the sky is lit up in this beautiful - what we call golden camoras. And those are the giant weeping willow shells. They go up in the sky and come cascading down, up on the East River, and conclude this giant camora shell of Niagara Falls.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICA")

GLORIA ESTEFAN: (Singing) America.

SOUZA: It's just cool. It is the coolest thing ever.

DELAHOUSSAYE: James Delahoussaye, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Support your
public radio station