How to take a great photograph of a fireworks display
Achieving good photographs of firework displays isn’t just a matter of taking snapshots with a smartphone, but with a little […]
The Mayor of London New Year’s Eve Celebrations has become the most watched live program on BBC 1 with 13.1 million viewers in 2015. As one of the largest and instantly recognisable shows worldwide, we thought that a few facts and figures behind the production and delivery of the UK’s largest firework display would help people understand what it takes to put on a world class show.
A is for Accreditation, one of the unique opportunities we get in being involved with a display of this kind is unrivalled access to places normal members of the public just never visit. Whether it be the London Eye or the top of Big Ben rigging fireworks from the top of the clock tower security is very tight. As such accreditation is a crucial part to the process of gaining access to such historic buildings. To gain access in to the Palace of Westminster we have to fill in a detailed form with no end of personal details weeks in advance of the event where our application is vetted and hopefully approved. We then have to visit the accreditation centre to have our photograph taken and our identity checked.
B is for Barges, the main bulk of the display is fired from three large barges moored in front of the London Eye. Each barge is approximately 30 metres long by 15 metres wide and are loaded at a dock down river opposite the O2, once loaded the barges are towed up river and moored in to position ready for the display, the trip from the dock usually takes about 2 hours depending on the tide and wind.
C is for Crew, in our view the most important element to a successful show, a hardworking and experienced crew who are expected to work under immense time constraints and in hostile conditions, either on an open barge exposed to the cold, wind and rain or hanging from the London Eye through the night when the public have all gone home. The Titanium Fireworks crew totals 10 experienced riggers and pyrotechnicians on the London Eye and a crew of 24 for the barges and waterborne element of the show working from 27th through to the de rig on the 1st January.
D is for Design, the London NYE display is the largest firework display in the country by a considerable margin and broadcast live on BBC1. In order to heighten the broadcast experience the show was synchronised to music for the first time in 2010, as a pyromusical the display is in its sixth year and our creative directors have been responsible for the design of this display since 2010. The design of the display starts with the music, a 10 minute medley of contemporary music taken from a range of artists over the last few decades as well as the hot tunes of the year. Once the soundtrack is signed off, the design process can start, we actually prefer designing pyromusicals, as the music can be used as the backbone or structure to the display using the pace, tempo and volume to dictate the intensity and size of the fireworks being ignited.
The other major aspect to the design process is the firing positions, this display is set out across a 250 metre frontage of the river Thames and uses the iconic structure of the London Eye as the centre piece to the show, in total the fireworks can be designed to fire from any one of 150 positions across the site. It is the designer’s task to create the placeholders or cues synchronised to each beat and crescendo of the music and to decide where to fire from and how many positions, the final cue actually fires a firework from 136 positions at the same time. The total number of cues for the entire display exceeds 5,000 all designed to be fired within 100th of a second accuracy to the music.
E is for Equipment, a mammoth display such as this show requires an incredible inventory of equipment, over 30 tonnes of tackle including wooden racks, metal holders and fibre glass mortar tubes are transported in two 40ft trailers to the docks where the barges are set up. Every firework requires its own holder or mortar tube to be fired from, all these holders must be robust to ensure the fireworks operate correctly and fire in the desired trajectory. The London Eye requires very specialist bespoke rigging equipment in order to rig the 1,500 fireworks on to the structure in under four hours.
F is for Fireworks, for fear of stating the obvious, it’s not much of a firework display without fireworks. Over 12,000 individual fireworks are rigged and loaded on to the London Eye, the three barges and our 15 front positions which stretch across the entire width of the display. Once the design is complete, all the fireworks have to be picked from our store, numbered, sequenced and in some cases fused together to create a bouquet effect. They are then boxed in special packaging according to location and module number for ease of rigging on site. The fireworks are transported in approved vehicles for carrying explosives by road and taken to the site where they are stored in a temporary licensed store ready for loading.
G is for GPS, the largest display in the country requires the largest resource of firing equipment and technology to ensure that all the fireworks are ignited on time and in synchronisation with the music. We utilise 4 separate firing panels spread over a wide area, it is important to make sure that all the systems fire together so that they fire one seamless display as opposed to 4 separate displays, as well as being synchronised to the music and of course fire on time at the stroke of midnight, to achieve this we require a time code source which triggers all the panels at the same time. We use FireOne which is a market leader in digital firing technology, one of the many features this system boasts is GPS functionality, where the firing panel receives GPS signal through an antenna and takes the time signal being sent by the satellites. By setting the show time to midnight, once the system is armed the GPS signal will run the shot clock of the firing panel and trigger the show at midnight. The irony of using all this 21st century technology is in complete contrast to the 200 year old clock which signifies the midnight moment with the chime of Big Ben, the timing of the clock and chimes is monitored daily to make sure they are accurate and the method used to alter the speed of the clock is by adding or reducing the number of old pennies on the pendulum.
H is for Health and Safety, a very large and complex firework display of this magnitude, fired from barges on the Thames and the London Eye with its many hazards, requires a detailed and thorough method statement and risk assessment. The RAMS are circulated to all the various stakeholders and scrutinised by independent experts to ensure as is reasonably practicable the display is fired as safely as possible. We have to ensure the safety of our crew and other contractors as well as the general public, we also have to consider structures and property especially the London Eye. A dilapidations inspection is undertaken prior to the display and post display to ensure that no damage has been sustained by the firework display.
I is for Innovation, this year will be the 6th year for our two directors Darryl and Ian who design and oversee the production of this display. Each year we need to challenge ourselves to bring new innovative ideas to the display to keep it fresh and exciting. We have been fortunate enough to get permission from the speaker of the House of Commons to fire form the top of the tower which houses Big Ben, we have been part of a multi-sensory display with fruit flavours and smells to accompany the fireworks. This year we will be utilising some material form two new European manufacturers which will bring some new effects as well as brighter and more defined colours. For the first time this year we have created a frontage of equidistant firing positions spanning the entire width of the site, form these positions we are firing a variety of single shot effects at precise angles to achieve what we hope to be some stunning sequences to compliment the innovative effects fired from the Eye. As ever the unique soundtrack also assists in keeping the display new and different from previous years.
J is for Jack Morton Worldwide, the production company responsible for the delivery of the event from public safety and crowd management to creative lead, Jack Morton Worldwide, (JMW) are a multinational brand experience agency who have been responsible for some of the largest stadium scale events including Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games, Melbourne 2006, Manchester 2002 and Athens 2004 Olympic Opening and closing Ceremonies. Contracted by the Mayor’s office and the Greater London Authority, JMW have the sole responsibility to manage and produce the marking of the midnight moment which includes the country’s largest firework display along with a substantial lighting installation and PA system to broadcast the soundtrack to over 200,000 people along the river bank. JMW have been responsible for producing this event since 2003.
K is for Kilometres, to create a performance such as the London New Year’s Eve display requires many kilometres of cable, over 2 kilometres of data cable is required to network the 40 firing modules on the London Eye with a further 1.5 kilometres to connect the remaining modules on the barges and pontoons. Nearly 15 kilometres of bell wire is required to connect the 12,000 fireworks. As well as the fireworks there is an extensive lighting rig requiring 17 kilometres of mains cable as well a substantial PA system to broadcast the music utilising 5 kilometres of cabling. Finally over 17 kilometres of barriers are set out prior to the event for the crowd safety. In all tis is a substantial production in every aspect.
L is for London Eye, 2016 will be the 12th year this event has been fired from the London Eye, in that time the London Eye has become the iconic image and the focal point of the display with 32 firing positions rigged to the inner truss of the structure and a further 256 single shot pyrotechnics rigged to the hub or central spindle. The Eye consists of 32 capsules, one for each borough that makes up the Greater London Authority. At 135m, the Coca Cola London Eye is the world’s largest cantilevered observation wheel. As one of the busiest tourist attractions in London, time to work and rig on the Eye is at a premium. Our crew have to work through the night when the attraction is closed to rig and attach our bespoke cradles and network all the FireOne modules. The stressful and very critical operation is attaching 1,500 pyrotechnics to the structure from any one of 90 positions in under four hours on the actual night of the display. We hope you enjoy the results of our work.
M is for mortar racks, with over 12,000 fireworks ignited into the night sky over London in 11 minutes, a significant quantity of mortar tubes are required to deliver the volleys of aerial star shells. Rigging on a barge is a challenge as the steel deck barge does not allow for hammering in stakes or supports. Our mortar racks have to be free standing and not only support the mortar tube securely but also provide the angle for the desired trajectory. The mortar tubes consist of fibreglass tubes with a reinforced bung at the base of various sizes ranging from 75mm up to 150mm in diameter. Each tube is loaded in to the racks which have been designed to ensure that adjacent tubes remain intact and upright even in the event of a neighbouring tube failing, or a shell being faulty and bursting in the tube.
N is for Network, with over 175 field modules located on three barges and on the 450m circumference of the London Eye, a great deal of data cable is required to network and connect all the modules to one of three firing control locations. The London Eye requires a special data cable, made to our specification to ensure that the network is robust from interference, whether that be RF or Electromagnetic, which can play havoc with our comms. The data cable is shielded and contains a drain wire which can be grounded to earth to eliminate any ground differential. It takes two nights to run the data network on the Eye using 2kilometers of cable. Two complete revolutions are installed to firstly reduce the number of modules on each run and also to bunny hop each position so that we can minimise the effect if we lost an output and every other position would cease rather than an entire wedge.
O is for Operations, in our experience the operations behind the scenes and the planning and preparation undertaken months in advance are absolutely crucial to the success of the event. A complex display requires a detailed schedule with a large experienced crew. With a wide range of roles and responsibilities it is the operations team who ensure that the correct crew are in the right location with the required tools and equipment to fulfil their roles, it is very much like lining up all the jigsaw pieces in order so that you can build the puzzle without stopping to make sure you have the right piece.
P is for PLA, the Port of London Authority control the river and have the task of making sure the river traffic have a safe and enjoyable new year. A notice to mariners is sent to all river users informing them of the event and the details of river closures and boat movements. On the night the river is closed between Westminster Bridge and Jubilee Bridge for 30 minutes. The PLA provide launch boats at either end of the exclusion zone to enforce the river closure. The river is very busy with hundreds of boats jostling to get the best view, it is the PLA’s job to ensure that all craft are safe and abide by the river closure. As well as policing the river, the marine services lay a temporary mooring for one of the barges so that it can be moored in to position and held in the water for the display.
Q is for Quality Control, without doubt the Mayor of London New Year’s Eve display is the largest and most prestigious firework event of the year, and in fact in quantity and explosive content, it is bigger than the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games. With over 12,000 fireworks fired from any one of 206 firing positions synchronised to a specially commission soundtrack quality control and attention to detail is paramount. To ensure the correct product is fired from the correct location at the precise time at the right angle requires a quality control system and cross check similar to a NASA launch. It takes 8 experienced pyrotechnicians five weeks to prepare, fuse, label and attach all the fireworks to their various holders.
R is for Rigging, the preparations for the barges and the London Eye start just before Christmas with a pre install day at the barges and overnight at the eye, the barges are loaded up with all the mortar racks and tubes along with all the ancillary equipment and a steel container for the firing control. Once the racks are built and tubes loaded, each tube is labelled with a number so that the corresponding shell can be loaded in to the correct mortar tube. The loading of the shells takes a crew of 24 two days to complete including the wiring in of over 2000 electrical igniters. Once the shells are all loaded and waterproofed, the remaining fireworks including roman candles, single shot tubes and mines are attached to their holders and wired in to the firing system rails. Finally a complete systems check and continuity test is undertaken to ensure everything is connected and ready to fire.
S is for Simulation, this is an important tool for us to review the show design as well as provide the BBC with a full animated simulation of the display so that they can decide the best camera angles to capture the display as it unfolds, the one thing that is impossible and prohibitive is to rehearse a large scale firework display. Once the display has been designed and choreographed, the fire file is imported into our simulation software, a 3D model of the London Eye and surrounding buildings are loaded and the 206 firing positons are plotted on to the model. Each cue then requires an animation of the firework effect to be loaded along with its duration, and angle of trajectory. Once the display is programmed the simulation has to be rendered which requires a powerful computer to achieve a full render within eight hours. The simulation is a great tool to play with different ideas for choreography to various pieces of the soundtrack as well as to view the speed of a chase and to ensure it is not too fast or too slow.
T is for Thames, the river is a very powerful and challenging river and if underestimated will bite. The tidal change can be as much as 7 metres and the flow of the river requires substantial barges and even more substantial moorings. With the bulk of the display fired form three barges and up to 15 positions spread across the pier and pontoons to create a wide frontage, the river plays a crucial role. Months of planning are required to confirm the final position of the barges and pontoons and to arrange for suitable moorings to be dropped to ensure that everything stays in the desired place. The river is also very busy with commercial and tourist boats, the New Year’s Eve display attracts hundreds of boats to the Westminster reach, with a full river closure for the duration of the display and ten minutes after.
U is for Unicef, for 2016 Unicef is partnering with the Mayor of London’s New Year Fireworks, bringing people together offering a new year resolution for children. People are encouraged to get the happy blue year mouth and join the fun, download the app “happy blue year and place your phone in front of your mouth, the strap line is, put your money where your mouth is. Unicef is also partnering with Edinburgh’s Hogmanay which we are also proud to be a part of.
V is for viewing audience, when designing the display we have to consider the two different viewing audiences, the live audience who come to watch the show and the broadcast audience which consists of over 13 million viewers live on BBC 1. The two audiences are very different and each will get a different experience. Clearly the live audience get the full multisensory feeling of the visual and audible experience as well as the smell and feeling of the explosions in the sky. For the broadcast audience great care is taken to ensure the display is captured by the many cameras including an aerial shot from the helicopter. The display is designed and framed for the wide screen view using the 16:9 aspect ratio.
W is for Working at Height, one of the hazards rigging and firing fireworks from the London Eye is that we have to work at height, in fact our crew are at an eye watering 70 metres when rigging the Hub. Access is via a near vertical ladder inside the leg of the main support of the structure. It takes about 45 minutes to climb from the ground up to the hub, so we have to make sure we don’t leave any tools behind as a trip back to the store will not be welcome. In order to work and operate on this structure our crew have to undertake specialist on site training which includes theoretical class room work as well as a practical climb to the hub. We provide all our crew with specialist climbing and fall arrest PPE as well as warm and waterproof clothing. We are fortunate to have a depth of skills within our work force some of whom have climbed and rigged from a wide variety of structures including Tower Bridge, the Orbit, Olympic Stadium as well as Twickenham and Wembley stadiums. As the old saying goes you don’t have to be mad to work on these firework displays but it does help.
X is for explosive, fireworks are classified within UN Class 1 explosives and while they provide enjoyment and entertainment to millions of people around the world, they are hazardous and they have to be treated and handle with care and respect. The London New Year’s Eve display is made up of nearly 4 tonnes of net explosive content. The fireworks have to be stored in licensed explosives magazines prior to being transported in ADR approved vehicles and drivers. We reduce the quantity of fireworks being transported spreading the transport across four separate loads. We also have a licensed store within the dock area to temporarily store the fireworks prior to being loaded on to the barges. We have to take great care handling the fireworks, making sure the fuses do not get wet and protecting the electrical igniter once it is attached. If we have the threat of a thunder storm then we cease work and evacuate the barges. All the fireworks are transported in approved packaging for storage and transport.
Y is for year, New Year’s Eve has been celebrated around the word for centuries and recent years the celebrations have become national celebrations in some countries. London has celebrated the marking of the midnight moment with a large firework display centred on the London Eye and River Thames since 2002. Previously fired by a French company, it was 2011 when Darryl was first involved in the design and delivery of the event introducing the pyromusical element to the display. Year on year the event has become so successful that the number of people attending has had to be controlled by ticketing the event.
Z is for Zone as in exclusion zone, for the second year running the prime audience viewing zones are ticketed, this is to control the numbers of people who come down to the embankment and watch the display and improve safety. The event has become so successful that numbers of people descending to the area around the London Eye needed to be managed. There are three main viewing zones and tickets go on sale during the year and normally sell out quite quickly. You need to book early to get the hottest tickets in town and watch the best firework display in the country.