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The pyro-technology behind those fireworks

Pyrotechnics professionals are using sophisticated software to dazzle crowds

By Chris Kanaracus
July 3, 2012 03:13 PM ET

IDG News Service - As residents crane their necks skyward this week during their local Fourth of July fireworks displays, they may not realize the degree to which increasingly sophisticated software technology is behind all of the booms, blasts and starbursts.

"These programs have created a whole new genre of artists, with fireworks as their medium," said David Whysall of David Whysall International Fireworks.

Whysall's Orton, Ontario, company, for instance, uses a product from Finale Fireworks to choreograph shows.

Designers pick a music track and lay down a background picture of the backdrop location, according to Finale's website. Then they can choose from thousands of graphical effects that mimic various types of real-life firework shells, rockets and effects, simply dragging and dropping them onto a timeline.

The result is a video simulation that gives pyrotechnics companies a visual artifact that they can use to fine-tune the show or display to potential clients.

Finale and competing products, such as ShowSim, can also export script files to a variety of fireworks firing systems, which execute the actual show. In addition, ShowSim offers a 3D environment that allows users to change camera perspectives and get a sense of how the show will look from various audience viewpoints.

These software programs have gained in sophistication over time. One Whysall used many years ago "was a typing thing," he said. "It wasn't a visual thing."

Computerized firing systems have been around for a few decades as well, according to Kyle Kepley, who developed ShowSim and is also an award-winning pyrotechnics expert.

"Prior to that, electrically fired shows were fired using manual switch panels, and prior to the invention of the electric match (called e-match in the trade) shows were fired by hand using road flares to light the fuses directly," Kepley said in an email interview. Hand-fired shows are now rare, both for safety reasons and to ensure well-timed shows.

That last point is key for today's events, which incorporate many "lower-level" fireworks, according to Whysall.

The very largest fireworks shells can take several seconds to reach altitude and explode. But with lower-level fireworks, or ones meant to go off anywhere from ground level to 200 feet, "it's instant ignition," Whysall said.

To ensure this part of the show crackles with precision, software-aided choreography is a must. "You can be more creative and accurate," he said.

But software helps pyrotechnics pros get the most bang out of high-altitude fireworks as well, according to Kepley.

"If a firework needs to burst at a specific time to align with the music, it must be fired several seconds prior to that time," he said. "It would be very difficult to manually fire a show that needed to be synced with other events without very noticeable timing errors."

Reprinted with permission from IDG.net. Story copyright 2014 International Data Group. All rights reserved.
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