Light up the Sky

With demand growing for fireworks and other special effects at weddings, corporate events and private parties, Open Air Business discovers how to ensure your occasion has the wow factor

Firework displays and laser shows should be enjoyable, spectacular and of course safe, and demand is growing for the sensational special effects that can be achieved.

Fireworks and moon
Pic: Whitelightning Pyrotechnics

Display pyrotechnics – also known as commercial or professional fireworks – are pyrotechnic devices intended for use outdoors, where the audience can be further away, and smoke and fallout is less of a concern.

According to Wikipedia, pyrotechnics is “the science of using materials capable of undergoing self-contained and self-sustained exothermic chemical reactions for the production of heat, light, gas, smoke and/or sound.”

In relation to the entertainment industry, explosions, flashes, smoke, flames, fireworks or other pyrotechnic driven effects are referred to as theatrical special effects, special effects or proximate pyrotechnics. Proximate refers to the location of the pyrotechnic device in relation to an audience. In most instances, special training and licensing must be obtained from local authorities to legally prepare and use proximate pyrotechnics.

Of course, if you get a request for any sort of display at your venue, the first thing you must do is decide if you are happy to allow it. Most venues do but may enforce some restrictions. The most common of these are: the client must use a company from your preferred supplier list; you might want to charge a facilitation fee (up to 10 per cent of the value of the show); you might request that the show finishes by a certain time; and you might only want to allow ‘quiet’ displays. Very few venues will allow customers to fire their own fireworks because of the insurance liability.

Consider your neighbours
Considering the local community in which the event is taking place is also of particular importance. There could be farm animals in nearby fields or barns or a nature reserve, and at certain times of the year it may be of extra importance not to cause distress to the animals; for example, if they are lambing or calving.

Whitelightning Pyrotechnics is a family run business that has been operating for 15 years. As owner Vanessa White explains: “It is courteous to let local people know about the time of any fireworks; especially think of nearby care homes for the elderly and people who may have pets so they can take care of them.”

If appropriate, low noise displays may solve the problem. These cause less disturbance to people and animals alike and include fountains, strobes, glittering comet tails, falling leaves/waterfall effects and crossette bursts.

Venuescan specify whether or not fireworks are allowed on the site and whether to allow only low noise displays. However, most venues and sites have no restrictions. In terms of other permissions, this depends on what else might be in close proximity to your venue.

“The firework company will do a full on-site survey to determine whether extra permission is needed from the Civil Aviation Authority (if the display is within five nautical miles of an airport/RAF base), the coast guard or harbour master (if it is close to a port, harbour or the sea), the Highways Agency (if it is near to major roads) and the rail network (if it is close a railway line),” White explains.

“In most cases the display company will get the clearances needed, although for some public events it will be up to the organisers to get permission from local authorities if on council/public land, and if any road closures are needed.”

Pic: Whitelightning Pyrotechnics

Call in the experts
According to the Health & Safety Executive, if you are organising a major public event, you will need a robust and detailed approach to planning as well as professional involvement.

HSE provides some useful tips and guidance on its website. However, whether your event is large or small, the experts can ensure that your guests are treated to something spectacular, while maintaining strict safety measures.

Health and safety is of course of the utmost importance and should be taken very seriously. Keeping up to date with new advances, changes in legislation and training is vital, as is having the appropriate insurance should an accident occur.

“We have £10 million public liability insurance to cover our displays,” says White. “Our dynamic risk assessments are live documents and constantly reviewed throughout the day. In the majority of cases nothing will need changing, but any concerns will be discussed with the event co-ordinator and agreed.”

According to White, it is vital to ensure you use a reputable company with the proven relevant experience, qualifications and insurance. “They will then make sure in depth risk assessments are completed and the correct procedures followed for setting up and firing the display safely. You could also look for one affiliated with a trusted body such as the British Pyrotechnists Association (BPA), which can recommend City & Guilds trained firers and senior firers.”

Simon Page, director, Titanium Fireworks, also has some words of advice to help anyone choosing from the hundred or so companies that are operating in the sector in the UK, emphasising the fact that you should make sure you know who you are dealing with and research them properly.

“In choosing a company, make sure you have a name and they are responsive to your communications,” he says. “A lot of companies are run by ‘hobbyists’. Don’t be afraid to ask to speak to someone who they have worked for recently and be very wary of ‘packages’. Every venue is different and every event is different so we would not dream of rolling out a standard pack for someone’s event. It is a lot of money to go up in smoke, noise and light, and you don’t get a rehearsal!”

What to expect
Organised displays are put together using category 4 (professional only) fireworks rather than fireworks you can buy over the counter, which are designed for public use.

Yellow fireworks
Pic: Whitelightning Pyrotechnics

Choreographing a display is a complex skill. “Design is my passion,” says White. “It’s like doing a performance without being on centre stage, painting a picture in the sky, mixing a pallet of colours, shapes and effects to create flow and moving patterns building and building to a crescendo of colour and sound in the finale.”

A vast array of effects can be achieved, from single shots to chasing sequences and patterns, large Roman candles producing huge tails rising into the sky and multi-shot cakes or barrages, which come in thousands of configurations including straight, zig zag, crossover and fan firing in various combinations. They range from 10 to 500 shots and fire in three to 120 seconds.

“We try to stay up to date with the current technology, although it can move at some speed,” says White. “Displays can be designed on the computer using specialist software and then a visual result played back to check on the design, timings or shown to a client if needed,” she continues.

“Some displays will be manually fired using an electrical firing system, while others are programmed into the system. This can be done using cables or wirelessly to several different firing positions across a site,” she adds.

Other effects that can be achieved include mines that fire a column of stars upwards from the ground, again in a variety of effects and colours. These are sometimes used in cakes to create a layered effect from the ground to high in the sky.

The practicalities
The time required to set up a display will vary greatly depending on the size and complexity and how many positions there are. “Usually it requires a lot more time than people might think and we tend to be on site all day from early morning to late into the evening/early hours of the next morning to set up a large display,” says White.

Page believes that fireworks are unusual in that, unlike most things in the event industry, the thing you are paying for cannot be re-used. “Like food, wines and flowers, our product is used up during your event. If you think about the costs of a professional company designing, preparing and delivering fireworks you wouldn’t imagine that they could do this for some of the prices you see advertised on the internet.

“The normal corner to cut is the most expensive item after labour, which is of course the fireworks themselves. If it looks too good to be true then it almost certainly is,” he adds. “It is possible to fire a really great display for between £1,250 and £3,500 depending on duration and whether music is involved.”

“Our displays start from £600 for a small private party or local wedding,” says White, “£1,000 or £5,000 can be fired in 10 minutes or one intense minute. For this reason we don’t have any set packages as each display is uniquely designed to suit the budget, time and to enhance the venue,” she adds.

Displays are often set to music, but contrary to what you might be told, this can often be more expensive for two reasons. Firstly, the fireworks need to follow the undulations of the music, which generally requires more fireworks than just firing them in an order.

“We actually design all our displays with a special software to ensure there are no non-deliberate pauses so setting to music does not add to our work,” says Page. “The far bigger challenge for us is simple physics. Light and sound travel at greatly different speeds. Think about lightning and the thunder that comes afterwards – even if the storm is overhead,” he adds.

The company recommends a linear PA system right in front of your guests (costs from about £500) in order that you can see the fireworks are actually synchronized to the music. “If you rely on a DJ using speakers through a window or back in a marquee you have fireworks drowning out some music in the background,” he warns.

Pic: Whitelightning Pyrotechnics

The final word
While it is not unreasonable to pay a deposit, Page’s advice is not to part with more than 25% of an agreed amount until you have seen the end result. “I would also check the cancellation terms as sometimes the wind does blow in the ‘wrong direction’ at such a speed that it simply isn’t safe to fire a display,” he says.

“That said, a proper firework company should be able to design a display for most locations that has a better than 90% chance of firing,” he continues. “We don’t actually charge any deposit but ask for payment after the event when you have confirmed you are entirely happy that what we have provided is what you were expecting.”

As any reputable company will tell you, a consultation and site visit are vital to ensure everyone has the opportunity to express their needs and discuss ideas. Planning a display can be overwhelming, so to summarise, here are the key areas you should consider: the event; the neighbours; the time and date; the budget; and the number of firers.

Of course, the one thing you can’t plan for is the weather. However, you don’t need to worry about that, as a professional display can still take place in all weather apart from the most extreme wind. The only thing the rain might dampen is the audience’s resolve.


Common Firework Effects

  • Bees – represents a cluster or swarm of light points, which move through the air under their own power before disappearing
  • Blinker (aka strobe) – a cluster of stars that move out in a strobing or blinking effect; they hang in the air longer than most other fireworks
  • Blossom – reminiscent of a flower, this colourful effect sparks and expands outwards, much like a blooming flower
  • Bombette – fired by a lifting charge, this effect is produced from within a candle or cake
  • Brocade – looks like an expanding sphere of stars, similar to a Peony but more persistent
  • Butterfly – created with two cones of effects that are fired in opposite directions in a symmetrical pattern
  • Comet – leaves a persistent, glittering trail, often in the form of a star
  • Crackle – an audio effect featuring little snaps and bangs
  • Crackling comet – a tail of crackling effects, as opposed to a silent glittery one
  • Crossette – an effect that spawns several other effects, e.g. an exploding coloured star that releases several other coloured stars
  • Double break – this could be a rocket that bursts twice with two separate effects or a shell/firework that releases two effects
  • Dragon’s egg – a gold/silver burst that concludes in strobes or crackles
  • Falling leaves – gives the impression of falling leaves, drifting downwards
  • Fish – with a swimming, wriggling appearance, the fish is often coloured and is easy on the ears
  • Heart – bursts into a heart shape
  • Hummer – makes a humming sound, generated by the way it burns and its housing structure. Low pitched hummers sound like bees, while high pitched ones create a screeching sound
  • Kamuro – this hanging effect looks quite like a willow, usually with a twinkling or strobing effect
  • Maroon – extremely loud bang created by a maroon shell/rocket
  • Palm tree effect – cascading effect reminiscent of a palm tree, usually gold and silver
  • Parachute – a tricky effect created by professionals, aimed at staying in the air for longer – often for flare/hanging lantern effects
  • Peony – an expanding sphere of stars.
  • Pistil – an effect containing a peony as a key component
  • Rainbow – displaying various colours or changing colour
  • Report – what the professionals call a ‘bang’
  • Ring effect – expanding 2D ring/circle generated using numerous stars
  • Salute – a loud bang similar to a maroon
  • Spinner – a rapidly spinning aerial effect, usually silver. May emit noise and release stars
  • Spiral – a spiral shaped effect
  • Star – star or flaming ball. Can be any colour. Low noise
  • Tail – the fading stream of light behind the firework
  • Titanium salute – huge bang accompanied by a m,bright flash
  • Turbillion – usually a star with an erratic flight path and a spiralling, glitter effect
  • Whistle – a whistling sound in a firework, made by the material being burned rather than the effect of flight
  • Willow effect – similar to a palm tree effect, but more like a willow tree’s weeping branches

Useful Links
Titanium Fireworks – 020 7183 9665 /
Whitelightning Pyrotechnics – 01945 463857 /

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