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 London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games were heralded as a huge success, a sporting triumph and an occasion that made the nation proud. While sport was the headline act, the opening and closing ceremonies for the Olympic and Paralympic games were, in the words of Danny Boyle “the warmup act”. After the success of the Beijing Games, London had a very tough act to follow, there was huge expectation and the nation demanded an event that it could be proud of, the Opening ceremony promised to be different. Now 8 years on the pride of a nation seems to be a dim and distant past, especially with these very unprecedented times we are living in, where events themselves have ceased overnight. We thought it would be a positive approach to look back fondly on more happier times while we wait for the current pandemic to disappear and allow the events industry back to what we do best, wow, dazzle and amaze.
Prior to forming Titanium Fireworks, the four directors, Darryl, Simon, Toby and Ian were responsible for the design, logistics and delivery of the London 2012 ceremonies, this is a story of our Olympic journey. The road to the ceremonies started in early September 2011, when the tender and procurement brief was issued, we were one of 52 companies who had registered an interest to deliver the fireworks element of the ceremonies. Upon receiving the tender documents, myself and Simon went through the documents listing all the responses required, creative, technical, financial, sustainability, licenses, qualifications, experience, credentials, transport, storage, firing systems, redundancy, working at height and rigging assembly to name but a few. We then allocated the various aspect of the response between the three of us and with only two weeks to complete a full response, time was of the essence. Toby came to live with me in my house for ten days and we brainstormed the creative response, formulating our concept first in words, then in simulation. We put in some long days and nights, eventually with the response complete and printed off, I set off for the 80 minute drive to three mills studio, East London, at 06:00am where I hand delivered the tender response in time for the midday deadline, little did I know at that moment we had signed up for something that would be all consuming, filled with anxiety, worry, stress, doubts and fear, but equally, balanced with adrenaline, elation, enjoyment and pride. The final process would involve a shortlist of five companies, which went down to three and finally we found ourselves in the last two, culminating with a creative meeting in front of Danny Boyle himself before we would receive the news on 11th November 2011 with the arrival of an email via the portal confirming we were successful. All this activity occurred during the busiest November season we had ever experienced and with a little over six weeks before the small matter of firing both London and Edinburgh’s New Year’s Eve celebrations, in fact London for me that year had added pressure as Danny Boyle himself turned up to watch the display. The fireworks and pyrotechnic contract for the Olympic and Paralympic games opening and closing ceremonies were now a very real challenge and a long journey lay ahead.
One of the most significant challenges with a unique event of this nature is starting with a complete blank sheet; there is no precedent to follow, from every aspect of creativity and design to the technical and logistical planning, the entire process would have to be developed from scratch. Combined with the very high profile and incredibly prestigious nature of the Olympic Games, being watched by over 2 billion people worldwide, the months and weeks leading up to the Opening Ceremony were going to be full of anxiety and stress.
As part of the procurement process we had already presented several creative ideas, but as soon as the contract was awarded our creative themes were more fully developed in consultation with Danny. He wanted the live audience to feel inclusive; TV will largely look after itself he said, what he did not want was a spectacular firework display appearing within the Olympic Park, which would look great on television, but be missed by most of the audience in the stadium. Out of these discussions developed the “ceiling of fire” as he described it, pyrotechnic effects being fired from the roof of the stadium over the field of play, which had not been done before on this scale, from our perspective this element of the display would become the most challenging, one that would provide the most significant degree of attention and planning, as well as giving me the most number of sleepless nights worrying about delivering this aspect. We were proposing to fire pyrotechnics from the inner gantry of the stadium over the heads of an 80,000 strong audience, 2,500 Athletes and 4,500 performers, not a simple task.
From a creative point of view we felt the stadium had to be the centre piece of the display, as the jewel of the Olympic Park where the focus of the athletics would take place, the stadium boasted a stunning architectural form comprising of a large perimeter truss, covering 900 meters circumference, with 14 triangular lighting paddles emanating from the roof, 62 meters above the field of play, our proposal was to utilise the geometric form of the stadium roof and create a stunning crown effect that would provide the focus of the firework finale. The stadium firing positions consisted of three separate locations, the outside circumferential compression truss, (CCT) with 56 equidistantly located firing positions approximately 16 meters apart, the lighting paddles of which there were 14 and finally the suspension ring gantry, (SRG) consisting 56 firing positions 13 meters apart firing over the field of play.
While the stadium would provide the focal point, we also needed to create a wider spectacle utilising the entire park. An aerial view of the Olympic Park will show the river Lea running through the site from North to South, wrapping around the stadium creating an island and continuing to join the Thames. The river would provide the spine to the display utilising a frontage of effects fired from the river and towpath.
It is worth pointing out that the Olympic Park now does not resemble the built environment that we had to deal with, it was a highly populated and crowded park is with both permanent and temporary structures, other sporting venues like the Velodrome, Basketball Arena and Aquatic Centre to the East and the Hockey venue, Handball Arena and media centre to the west. Either side of the river comprised newly manicured landscaped gardens which would provide viewing and recreational areas for the visitors and would provide us with limited fallout areas, the average distance from the river to a structure was about 250 meters, this would limit the size of shell in average wind speeds to 125mm and 100mm for stronger winds.
A detailed inspection of the site using scaled architects’ plans would highlight the minimum safety distances afforded from various firing locations to buildings and an assessment of hazard drawn up for various wind speeds and directions. There were several significant hazards highlighted, for example the Basketball Arena was made of a non-flame proof material, its location from the river also meant it was potentially 350 meters downwind of a barge position in prevailing wind conditions.
We also had the natural elements to contend with and the Olympic Park and the River Lea afforded its own unique challenges. London 2012 Ceremonies, the name of the production team who we were responsible to, had provided a 100 year average weather forecast for each of the ceremony dates, based on the best information available, we made an assessment of final firing location, maximum calibre of shell, maximum angle of trajectory and the safety distance achievable from each position to the nearest hazard. A detailed curtailment plan was drawn up for all wind variations, both direction and speed up to force 7, the curtailment plan was used to get all parties with a vested interest to sign up to and agree the protocol in the advent of unusual wind speeds and directions and what level of display would be fired should such a wind prevail on the day.
With the firing locations in principle agreed and the necessity to try and ensure the display was as robust as possible, even in unfavourable wind directions and speed, it was crucial to consider at the design stage a high degree of redundancy, no long burning effects like kamuro or willow and tail would be used, the display would also be designed on a number of levels which could be scaled back with the 125mm shells removed first without detracting too much from the overall impact and again with the 100mm shells in more extreme wind conditions. Utilising the priority disable function of the FireOne software, we were able to create up to 4 levels of display to ensure as reasonably practical that we would be relatively robust in most wind conditions.
The final plan was to fire from 5 barges positioned 200 meters apart along the river Lea, with flanked barrages of shells producing an overlapping wall of star bursts covering one-kilometre distance of the park. To produce an extra dimension and to add continuity to the display we also opted to fire lower level roman candles from multiple front positions running along the tow path which ran alongside the river. In all we fired from 75 equidistant firing positions stretching 1.5 kilometres from the Velodrome to the Orbit. From these positions we could fire fast chase effects of single shot comets racing towards the stadium, or a lift from all positions of flanked silver tail comets creating a kilometre and half lattice of interlocking effects.
The final firing location within the Park was identified as the ArcelorMittal Orbit, a 115 meter high sculpture and observation tower which is located to the east of the stadium. This sculpture which was part of the legacy of the games would require a special reveal in the ceremony to offer a unique firing platform and become part of the event. The display was starting to take shape utilising the stadium, the park and the orbit, consisting of nearly 250 separate firing locations providing a 2.5 kilometre frontage, all of which had to be coordinated and synchronised in a carefully choreographed sequence of moments or pyro buttons as they were known, with some synchronised to a both live and recorded music.
The creative vision of Danny Boyle along with the protocol of the ceremony itself required three main buttons in the opening ceremony, the first was just after the athletes parade after a confetti drop where we would fire in synchronisation from the inner gantry and lighting paddles to the Arctic Monkeys performing “you look good on the dance floor”, the second button was a protocol moment, after the Queen declared the games open, where we fired a 25 second sequence from the stadium only, the last button was the finale which would commence with the Orbit reveal and then encompass all firing positions, stadium and park wide, synchronised to Pink Floyds Eclipse from Dark Side of the Moon, for me an absolute dream as this was one of my favourite albums I grew up with.
With the creative element locked down we could start with planning and developing the technical aspects required to fire a display of this complexity. The tow path and barges are relatively simple from our point of view, we have fired from many barges before as well as creating long linear frontages, it is just that we have never achieved such effects over significant distances before as we were hoping to achieve for the opening ceremony. The barges would be rigged and loaded off site at a dock on the Thames. Prior to each ceremony the barges would be towed up Bow creek, through a lock and take their final journey in to the Olympic Park, where we would lay and connect the final home runs from the central control position located at mid-point adjacent to barge 3.
Very early on in the planning process of barge movements and position within the park, we were informed of a 100-year event where the river Lea had the potential to flood and potentially a section of the Olympic Park as well. This eventuality could occur given several circumstances and weather conditions coming together, at first it is easy to question the relevance of such a report and to appreciate the impact it may or may not have on our operation. From our perspective there were a few implications, least of all a swollen fast flowing river taking loaded firework barges from their moorings, the result would not be worth thinking about. A significant amount of contingency planning was undertaken, and scenarios thought through. Given the lag between heavy rain fall and flooding, ultimately, we would get 24 to 36 hours’ notice of a flooding river and decisions could be made not to even try and move the barges in to the park. A decision ultimately needed to made on the moorings for the barges, like so many decisions it came down to cost, the larger and more substantial the moorings, the higher the cost, looking at how narrow and gentle the river flowed on the many site visits we made, the decision to go with the more costly moorings was really tough, 1 in a 100 years, in July surely not. For those who can remember, the summer of 2012 saw constant heavy rain throughout May, June and July, beating all records, while the park did not flood in accordance with the 100 year event, the river turned in to a raging torrent on two occasions during the set up and I am glad we stumped up the extra money for the larger moorings. This taught me a great lesson, it is one of life’s experiences, expect the unexpected and plan for every eventuality, they say, you never need insurance until you need it, well I was glad of it then.
While the Olympic Park aspect was a pure logistical challenge, organising the quantity of crew, fireworks, equipment and firing system, the stadium was more of a technical challenge where we had to develop three unique and bespoke rigging solutions for the three different locations on the stadium roof. Not only did the rigging solution have to be effective in providing a secure location for the fireworks and firing system to be housed, but it also had to be versatile and flexible to allow for a rapid deployment and reload. One of the most important aspects we had to consider was a very fast turnaround of reloading the pyro props attached to the structure for the subsequent ceremony. As soon as we had fired the opening ceremony, we had to remove all the props within three days, return them to our Cambridgeshire base, remove all the fired pyro units which took a further two days, reload the props with the new pyrotechnics for the closing ceremony, with each prop taking approximately 4 hours to reload this aspect of the reload was by far the longest taking 12 pyrotechnicians 5 days to complete, once reloaded the rigging crew would take over with just 4 days to reload each of the props back in to position. We had just 1 day of contingency, so the evolution of the reload had to be carefully planned and swiftly executed.
The solution was developed from what we had learnt firing from the London Eye on New Year’s Eve, where speed of rigging the pyro was a priority. We developed a two-part assembly which consisted of a cradle which was permanently attached to the structure which housed the FireOne firing module in a waterproof enclosure connected to our shielded data cable, this meant that the modules and wiring network were installed for the duration of the games. We started rigging the CCT in May with a two week install to load the 56 props plus three rehearsal props and a further two weeks to install the data cable and network the modules, the pyrotechnics were not loaded until early July. The module and cabling would remain in place until the last ceremony on 9th September, some 18 weeks in total. For this duration fixed to the truss of the stadium some 42 meters high exposed to the elements, we needed to ensure a very robust waterproof enclosure for the FireOne module and data cable connections, as well as protecting the data cable itself from chaffing against the metal structure as it moved in the sometimes high winds. As with the London Eye we knew that we would also experience high electromagnetic interference from the huge array of lighting, PA system, 4 of the largest LED screens in the world and the most extensive cable net flying system operated and driven using 60 high powered winches, we invested in 8 kilometres of shielded data cable to ensure a robust network that would not be affected by the busy stadium roofs network of power cables and broadcast wireless networks.
The second part of the rigging solution was a pyro prop which consisted of a cage mounted on a fixing plate that could be quickly and easily attached to the permanently installed cradle, the cage would have the pyro units individually cable tied and wired in to our FireOne printed circuit board compact rail with a 36 way plug which was connected to the external side of the enclosure which in turn was connected to the firing module.
This cradle and prop was used for the truss and lighting paddles due to the difficulty of obtaining access, the truss via a mobile elevated platform or MEWP which we had to access from the podium level which was 42 meters high and the lighting paddle which was accessed via a near vertical ladder and latch way which was 62 meters high. The inner gantry in comparison was relatively easy to access and the rigging solution comprised of an all in one prop which was clamped to the handrail of the gantry with only the cabling which remained in position permanently.
The compression truss proved to offer a few more additional challenges, on the west side of the stadium was a VIP block and reception centre which jutted out from the back of the stadium and using up all of the available podium level, we could not access this section with the MEWP. The VIP block affected 5 positions which could be reached via rope access only. We employed the services of Unusual Rigging to assist in climbing to the truss, dropping steel cables at each of the 5 positions and providing a small two man hoist that would climb the steel rope and access the 5 positions. We had to forward load the props at these positions as it was too time consuming to keep moving the hoist from one position to another, therefore a preloaded prop would go up with the riggers, where they would remove the fired prop and replace it with the new prop, therefore only having to access each location once for each ceremony.
With the designs completed and a prototype cradle and prop assembly constructed, a test event was arranged in February where we could firstly assess the suitability of the rigging solution and then rehearse the rigging of the pyro prop to establish how long each aspect of the evolution would take, this would assist in trying to establish the number of crew and MEWPS required to complete the task within the short time scales. The test event was also used to demonstrate pyrotechnic product for the creative team to view and decide which effects they would like to see in each button. On the whole we were left with a free rein to design the most stunning sequences we could, however the test also proved valuable for us to decide on the suitability of certain product fired from the three locations, in terms of performance and debris patterns. Clearly firing over the heads of the audience would require zero debris effects where we had to be confident in its performance and reliability. We choose to fire zero debris arena and stadium single shot comets and mines sourced from a pyro company in America and Spain.
With the technical aspects taking shape, our focus concentrated on the practical and legal aspects of the event, including our risk assessment and method statement, permits to work and licensing. As the Olympic Park straddled three London Boroughs, Newham, Hackney and Tower Hamlets, a Joint Local Authority Regulatory Service, JALARS, was set up to deal with the licensing of the park, from our perspective this would cover the storage of hazard type 4 fireworks and pyrotechnics, as well as two process sheds and a working compound within the Park. The only location suitable was behind the warm up area to the south of the stadium. A working group was set up to include representatives from London 2012 Ceremonies, ourselves, JLARS and the Health and Safety Executive.
Due to the very unique nature of this event, given the size and quantity of fireworks used in conjunction with the requirement to fire 4 ceremonies over a 10 week period, we would be unable to deliver the four ceremonies and comply with all of the regulations of MSER, in particular given the significant lead in times required to rig certain aspects of the display we would need to store fireworks on site for more than three days. In consultation with the HSE the working group sort to agree an exemption certificate for the Olympic Park from the requirements of specific regulations in relation to the storage of explosives at the site, subject to certain conditions which were drawn up to safeguard the operation and execution of the firework and pyrotechnic displays. An additional license was required for the barges which were loaded at a dock on the Thames, a license under the Dangerous Substances in Harbour Areas Regulations was sort again with the HSE.
Security was a further factor which was to consume a considerable amount of time in planning and logistics, for a period of 12 weeks the Olympic Park was to be one of the most secure locations in the country, clearly trying to get a few tonnes of fireworks in to the park by road and waterway was not going to be straight forward. A very sensible and satisfactory compromise was agreed with the security representative. Each road delivery was notified and registered with transport 12 days in advance detailing the make, model and registration of the vehicle together with the details of the driver and their identity; this required a carefully planned schedule of deliveries and what pyrotechnics and the quantity required. On the day of each delivery a specialist security representative would visit our factory in Cambridgeshire and supervise the load of the vehicle, once loaded a security seal was placed over the doors of the load compartment, the vehicle could then be driven direct to the park where it was expected at a particular time driven by a specific driver. The load was then escorted direct to the HT4 compound and the fireworks loaded into the licensed store ready for use and preparation by our team for the following day.
The barges were inspected before they were first lowered into the water and taken to the dock on the Thames, this was a secure area and a compound constructed with 24 hour security. Once the barges were ready to be towed a final inspection was conducted by a police diving team to ensure that no improper devices could have been attached to the hull of the pontoons. Once inside the park the barges were moored up and secured ready to fire. For both Opening ceremonies the barges were in position a few days prior to the event, however for the closing ceremonies because the park was still open to the public up to 4pm on the day of the ceremony, the barges could not enter the park until the public were cleared on the day of the ceremony.
Utilising barges for the larger aerial element of the display proved to be invaluable as we were required to remove all fireworks and tackle from all areas of the park known as the common domain. This was any public space which was not a specific venue and had to be clear by 6am the following day, considering the display finished at 00:30 we had five and half hours to clear all the tow path positions and move five barges out of the park before it was due to be open to the public for the start of the sport. The stadium had to be derigged during the games, however all the work had to be conducted at night from 11pm to 6am. As soon as we received clearance two MEWPS would, one by one bring down the fired props to be taken to the HT4 compound and reloaded, while a separate team had just three nights to clear the lighting paddles and gantry before the roof was closed in preparation for the Athletics. The reload would all so be conducted at night and had to be completed within 3 night shifts.
One final aspect of the opening ceremony, we were asked to provide a pyrotechnic moment for the final journey of the Torch. We were sworn to secrecy and the details of this element had to be kept from even our own employees, code named project max the final journey of the torch was to be enhanced with a pyrotechnic display at Tower Bridge and final section of waterway within the Olympic Park. Tower Bridge would consist of a waterfall suspended under the Bascule of the road way bridge and single shot effects from the upper walkway, these would be fired in sequence as the power boat carrying the torch sped up the Thames and under the bridge driven by David Beckham. In the Olympic Park, a waterfall was rigged on the final bridge as the boat entered the park with the last 500 meter stretch of the river Lea dressed with a 120 position frontage of gerbs and single shot mines chasing along the river with the boat as it raced passed the aquatic centre. Tower Bridge would appear again along with two additional barges either side for the closing ceremony of the Paralympics.
The control of the display was centred at the stadium, in one of the marquee tent structures on the roof. Three FireOne XL4 control panels were used to fire each of the three separate locations on the roof, truss, gantry and lighting paddles, with a backup for each. Time code was sent from the main show control in the stadium which would keep the panels in synchronisation with the music and with each other. The FSK time code was broadcast and received at the satellite locations around the park including the Orbit and the control for the barges and the tow path positions. An extensive comms network was in place to provide voice communication with each location and our spotters who could report back with any potential debris issues as the display fired.
As we approached the opening ceremony the crew was 50 strong working tirelessly to deliver what was to be the greatest challenge, running 15 kilometers of data cable, connecting and wiring 12,000 igniters which would ignite 20,000 fireworks which would be launched from in excess of 350 firing positions around the park. One of the few benefits the Olympic Ceremonies offer is the opportunity to conduct two rehearsals, this is normally unheard of from a firework point of view due to the prohibitive cost and time required to reload. In order to provide fireworks for the rehearsals we rigged additional positions from all locations around the park. The rehearsals would provide two main opportunities to test the firing system and ensure the fire files were accurate and the time code correctly sequenced, but secondly it would give the broadcasters the opportunity to see where the fireworks were positioned and the different camera angles required to capture the display as it unfolds.
It is very simple to describe how I felt as we approached the day of the opening ceremony, fear of the unknown and anxiety born from any number of eventualities which could occur that would lead to a technical problem, even with meticulous planning there are so many external factors which can cause problems, electromagnetic or RF interference with the data cable and comms to the modules, or unfavourable weather conditions, with a potential worldwide audience of 2 billion, the pressure is immense, added to that the extremely tight time constraints, the nerves certainly took a bashing. Now that 8 years have passed, the memories of the July to September 2012 lives on, it was an incredibly rewarding time which offered immense pride to all our hard working team who delivered the best summer games and achieved what we thought would be impossible, eclipse Beijing.