We can all remember those hair-raising, spine-tingling autumn nights standing well back while our dads manfully lit fireworks in the garden. Those gaudy, garish boxes of promise contained awesome little rockets that could shoot all of about 6m into the sky. Our love of fireworks is tied to such memories, which is something that David Zolkwer, director of public events at global brand experience consultancy Jack Morton Worldwide, understands.
’Fireworks and pyrotechnics produce an effect and an impact unlike any other medium. It’s not just about pretty shapes and colours,’ he says. ’There’s the smell, the sound, the rhythm, the sense of anticipation, the darkness, being outdoors, the way fireworks burst to illuminate the surroundings and create a buzz in the air. No matter how sophisticated the display and the technology driving it, there is something primitive and visceral about the experience. It’s hard to witness a major display live and remain impassive. Displays don’t automatically have good taste, but they usually have heart. No other medium delivers all of this in one package.’
Zolkwer is well placed to talk about the emotional impact of fireworks, having used pyrotechnics to produce some of the world’s biggest events and experiences – among them the ceremonies for this year’s Fifa 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the Athens 2004 Olympic Games, the Manchester 2002 Commonwealth Games and the Hong Kong handover and farewell ceremonies in 1997. In recent years, he has seen shifts in technology that enable previously impossible displays and effects. ’From a creative point of view, we have a greater range of products to choose from, including colours, patterns, bursts and shapes, and more precise and faster firing and detonation controls. What was a fairly blunt tool can now be deployed with a greater degree of subtlety and creative finesse than ever before,’ says Zolkwer.
Alex Selby, display designer at Phoenix Fireworks, which has had a hand in everything from the London Eye New Year’s Eve fireworks to Sony Bravia’s famous 2006 council house paint ad, describes recent technological advances as ’a quantum leap… that means displays now are only limited by the designer’s imagination, which in terms of design is hugely liberating’. But he warns that it’s easy to be blown away by the technology and to forget the most important rule – that technology is merely a tool. ’At one of the national championships this year one show stood out for being technically amazing, but after a while it began to feel a bit clinical and slightly boring. It lacked that organic element that gives a display its flow and rhythm,’ he says.
What was once a fairly blunt tool can now be deployed with a great degree of subtlety than ever before
David Zolkwer, Jack Morton Worldwide
Like Zolkwer, Selby’s enthusiasm for the medium is palpable, best illustrated when he tries to identify the most unusual display he’s ever designed. ’They’re all unusual,’ he says. ’From being stuck on a barge on the Thames for more than four hours because the tide has gone out, to being on the roof of a gentleman’s club in London surrounded by James Bond impersonators climbing through the windows, to standing in front of a housing block in Glasgow waiting to explode thousands of gallons of coloured water and flour. It’s a very unusual job.’
Zolkwer recalls the Athens Olympics as a career highlight, not only in terms of technical excellence, but for something else, too. ’The flaming comet we created to ignite the Olympic rings in Athens was conceived because of the obvious symbolism of fire within the context of the show, the idea of the spirit of Olympia arriving in the stadium in Athens, the desire for the dramatic sequence to travel over or through the audience, and other good reasons,’ he says. ’Most importantly, it looked bloody great and it felt great in the stadium, too.’
Unsurprisingly, both Selby and Zolkwer have favourite kinds of displays, but they’re not the ones you might expect. ’Subjectively, I tend to enjoy displays that are site-specific in their design,’ says Zolkwer. ’They respond to, enhance or “play” with not just architecture, landscape or geography, but also action. These appeal to me more than general or generic displays, because by connecting to the defining characteristics of the moment, what occurs is unique to that time and place,’ he explains.
’Sometimes,’ says Selby, ’a private customer display will be a lot more enjoyable for me than a competition display, because I’ll have a lot more artistic freedom on it. I like the US Air Force Independence Day displays we do, because you can do quite kooky things with them and use unusual effects, sounds and music, including quieter or more delicate notes.’
To understand some of the art and expression of display design, Selby recommends a musical display. ’Really immerse yourself in it and watch what’s happening in terms of the choreography, because that’s what you’re actually looking at,’ he says. ’If it’s any good, it’s pure choreography.’