How to make sure the fire­works go with a bang

How do you make sure New Year’s fire­works go like clockwork when it’s im­pos­si­ble to have a re­hearsal? Hala Kha­laf finds out how ev­ery whizz and bang is planned down to the last de­tail

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Tonight, whether you’ll be watch­ing fire­works in the midst of the crowds ex­pected along Abu Dhabi’s Cor­niche or some­where else across the UAE – per­haps along Gal­le­ria’s prom­e­nade on Al Maryah Is­land, Sharjah’s Al Ma­jaz Wa­ter­front, from Dubai’s Mad­i­nat Jumeirah over­look­ing Burj Al Arab, or near Al Mar­jan is­land in Ras Al Khaimah, or sim­ply from the com­fort of your bal­cony – you’ll be one of bil­lions of peo­ple across the world cran­ing your neck back to stare up­wards in rapt awe at the py­rotech­nics light­ing up the night sky.

Fire­works are as much a part of New Year’s Eve cel­e­bra­tions as the mid­night count­down. Dubai’s New Year’s Eve fire­works ex­trav­a­ganza to her­ald the start of 2013 be­came a Guin­ness World Record when 479,651 fire­cracker shells were re­leased over the Palm Jumeirah and World Is­lands in the six-minute show. The spec­ta­cle took 10 months of plan­ning and 5,000 man-hours to pull off.

And yet, de­spite all that, the UAE isn’t even the world’s num­ber one cus­tomer when it comes to fire­works. That dis­tinc­tion goes to the Walt Dis­ney Com­pany, which is of­ten touted as the largest con­sumer and pur­chaser of fire­works in the world.

Re­gard­less of who is set­ting off the ex­plo­sives, it’s a huge pro­duc­tion ev­ery time, with sev­eral months of plan­ning go­ing into pulling off an im­pres­sive fire­works dis­play – ev­ery­thing from con­cep­tion to de­sign to pro­duc­tion. Not to men­tion the sim­ple fact that there’s no dress re­hearsal to guar­an­tee the fi­nal re­sult.

“There’s no way to re­hearse what the fi­nal fire­works show will look like,” says Jakub Ken­cho Skalski, gen­eral man­ager of Flash Art. Skalski’s com­pany, founded in Ger­many about 20 years ago, pro­vides fire­works world­wide, or­gan­is­ing shows from Sin­ga­pore to Monaco, and from Hong Kong to the Mal­dives.

The Dubai of­fice is in charge of fire­works for the Mid­dle East, or­gan­is­ing about 100 shows a year, and Skalski has been in charge of the of­fice since 2000, pro­vid­ing fire­works for Na­tional Day, for the For­mula One, and even for Dubai’s Global Vil­lage.

This year, Flash Art is be­hind the elab­o­rate fire­works dis­play that will be light­ing up Abu Dhabi’s sky come mid­night tonight. The com­pany has spent months pro­duc­ing the show for the Depart­ment of Cul­ture and Tourism, which is over­see­ing the Cor­niche fes­tiv­i­ties.

“A re­hearsal is im­pos­si­ble be­cause once those fire­works are set off, then that’s it, they’re gone,” says Skalski. “You can­not check to see how the fi­nal show will look, as you can with a light or laser show. We can­not see the fi­nal ef­fect ex­cept for that one time, at show time. So, we have to trust in our de­sign­ers and pro­duc­ers that they will achieve the ef­fect de­sired.”

Shows as big as those held on New Year’s Eve in­cor­po­rate mul­ti­ple el­e­ments and fire­works are just one of those. There’s also the mu­sic to be con­sid­ered, and this year, there’s a flame show near the main stage set up in the shal­lows off the Cor­niche.

“Our job is to de­sign the fire­works dis­play, de­pend­ing on the colours and shapes of the re­sult­ing bursts, and de­sign­ing that into se­quences, so that spe­cific colours and shapes launch at spe­cific times along with the mu­sic,” says Skalski.

The end re­sult is dis­cussed with the client – in this case, it’s the city of Abu Dhabi – and the fire­works be­come part of the big­ger pic­ture.

It all starts with the mu­sic. It’s al­ways pretty im­por­tant be­cause with­out the mu­sic, we can’t do any­thing

This year, three months of prepa­ra­tion went into the New Year’s Eve show along Abu Dhabi’s Cor­niche, says Farah Al Bak­oush, spokes­woman for the DCT.

“The fire­works will last for 10 min­utes, syn­chro­nised with mu­sic, across a 2.2 kilo­me­tre stretch over the Cor­niche and re­leased from the wa­ter, from 15 barges,” she says. “The show will be vis­i­ble from most of the ar­eas across the Cor­niche.”

And where did all those fire­works come from? “Al­most 90 per cent of fire­works in the world come from China,” Skalski says. “It’s a big man­u­fac­tur­ing coun­try with a big tra­di­tion of fire­works over there and China is our main source.”

In­deed, the Chi­nese in­vented fire­works some­where around 960 and 1279 AD. They shot off fire­works to ward off evil spir­its and used them dur­ing cel­e­bra­tions like the em­peror’s birthdays and Chi­nese hol­i­days, and they re­fer to the cel­e­bra­tory sky light­en­ing demon­stra­tion as a “fire drug”.

Flash Art also sources fire­works from Spain and Italy. “We travel to see demos and choose based on qual­ity and safety,” says Skalsgi.

Safety is al­ways of the ut­most con­cern, with Abu Dhabi Cor­niche be­ing luck­ier than most venues in that the fire­works are re­leased far away from the crowds, from the sea. And these days, safety is ba­si­cally guar­an­teed be­cause it’s not hu­mans who are re­spon­si­ble for re­leas­ing the fire­works.

“We use spe­cial com­put­erised sys­tems, noth­ing is done by hand,” says Skalsgi. “You can­not achieve this kind of syn­chro­ni­sa­tion by hand, be­cause ev­ery fire­work is con­nected to a spe­cific out­put and timed to the mil­lisec­ond for when it has to go off. There are lit­er­ally thou­sands of me­tres of ca­bles, and set­ting it all up is a very time-con­sum­ing job. Some­thing like this, a 10-minute show, can eas­ily take 15 peo­ple and re­quire two weeks of prepa­ra­tion.”

For a mere 10 min­utes, ex­pect any­thing be­tween five to six thou­sand fire­works to go off, re­sult­ing in close to 15,000 shots – or “bursts”, as Skalsgi calls them – to go off in the sky.

Else­where in Abu Dhabi, on Al Maryah Is­land, another 10 minute show is be­ing pre­pared, with 15 crew mem­bers work­ing for four days, up un­til the last minute on New Year’s Eve, to set up tens of thou­sands of fire­works that will be shot up into the sky.

Tim Grif­fiths, the show de­signer from Pains Fire­works and the per­son over­see­ing all the rig­ging that’s tak­ing place, says that for a show this size the prepa­ra­tions be­gin with the mu­sic.

“We start off by talk­ing it through with the client and de­cid­ing on the mu­sic. It all starts with the mu­sic. It’s al­ways pretty im­por­tant be­cause with­out the mu­sic, we can’t do any­thing,” Grif­fiths says. “It con­trols the show and the se­quences and the types of prod­ucts we use. Then that’s where it takes off, with chore­ograph­ing the show. We prep months in ad­vance,” which is an im­pres­sive feat, con­sid­er­ing that Pains Fire­works puts on shows across the UAE al­most ev­ery week, and has de­signed the Gal­le­ria’s New Year’s Eve show twice be­fore.

This time around, the show is mostly made up of Span­ish fire­works rather than the usual Chi­nese prod­ucts.

“It’s go­ing to look spec­tac­u­lar,” says Grif­fiths. His team is rig­ging the build­ings on the is­land, as well as the bridges con­nect­ing Al Maryah to the main­land; fire­works will be go­ing off from ev­ery­where.

In terms of safety, that con­cern is that the pub­lic do not ac­cess the ar­eas where the fire­works are sched­uled to be set off.

“We work with the po­lice and with se­cu­rity to make sure the bridges are closed and can’t be ac­cessed,” says Grif­fiths. “Other­wise we’d have to stop in the mid­dle of the show. So again, there will be two coast­guard boats pa­trolling the area so no boats sail close by ei­ther.”

What fire­works com­pa­nies have no con­trol over, how­ever, is the wind. “It’s our one con­cern usu­ally, as it makes smoke and de­bris drift a long way, but we cal­cu­late that and make sure we are pre­pared for it,” says Grif­fiths.

And if it rains, it’s re­ally not the end of the world, says Al Bak­oush.

“The fire­works setup is built to with­stand rain of any sever­ity,” she says. “Hu­mid weather, and rain in par­tic­u­lar, cause smoke to thicken and stay in place for longer than usual. So in wet con­di­tions, smoke takes some ap­peal away from the fi­nal ef­fect.”

For now, how­ever, the weather fore­cast looks like it will be the per­fect night for py­rotech­nics, with no rain on the hori­zon. Both Grif­fiths and Skalsgi have one piece of ad­vice for rev­ellers.

“Even if you can see it from your win­dow, it’s not the same as be­ing there,” says Grif­fiths. “You need to hear the mu­sic while you watch the show. It’s re­ally all about the mu­sic to get the full ef­fect.”

And as Al Bak­oush put it, the end re­sult will be what­ever the viewer takes away from the ex­pe­ri­ence.

“Fire­works are a purely ab­stract medium, very much like mu­sic,” she says. “They interact with the spec­ta­tor’s emo­tions in ways which can­not be re­placed by words. Our goal is al­ways to al­low the au­di­ence to leave re­al­ity be­hind for the du­ra­tion of the dis­play and let them­selves be­come im­mersed in the pure, un­ex­plain­able joy given to them by colours and shapes ex­plod­ing in front of their eyes. It pro­vides the emo­tional depth to the ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Getty

Fire­works over the Burj Al Arab ring in a new year. Such shows are a UAE trade­mark

New Year fire­works over Al Maryah Is­land, Abu Dhabi in 2016

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