That is basically exactly what I wanted my credentials to look like ever since I was old enough to know what credentials were. - Danny McDowell
With Canada Day upon us and the promise of fireworks in the air, SCENE asked local pyrotechnical expert and award winner Danny McDowell of Archangel Fireworks how he got into the business of blowing things up and putting it to music.
How did you get started? Like many young boys I had a fascination with fire, explosions and "creative destruction". My fascination with combustion led me to start building my own fireworks in grade 3 while living abroad at a boarding school.
I know this is starting to sound like the bio of a firebug or an arsonist, rest assured that my exploits never did anyone harm save for a few plastic army men.
Fast forward to 2001, the year I learned that it is possible to answer the questions, "what do you do for a living?" and "what do you do for fun?" with the same answer; "I blow things up!" 10 years later I still have all my fingers and I still love what I do.
What is the one big thing that made you choose your career in fireworks?
I don't know if it was really one thing that led me to this career, it was more like this career was made for me. Forced to narrow it to one thing though, it would be the inherent awesomeness of having the freedom to simply create.
I get to take a huge blank canvas and fill it with colour, light and sound; for me, it does not get any better than that.
Give an example of how you learned how to do this work?
It is basically an apprenticeship. If you want to work in this industry you have to pursue it and take every opportunity possible to learn. Ten years in and I still learn something on every single show I work on.
How do you program fireworks to coincide with the music?
I don't program music; I just take the music and use it as the backdrop to create the fireworks show.
Trying to sync to mediums into one coherent piece is a challenge. I use a computer program in conjunction with a large database of fireworks effects to create the show in conjunction with the music. The software helps cut down on the math required to figure out exactly when an effect needs to be fired so it explodes right on cue with the music. Everything else comes down to experience and familiarity with the effects.
Give one example of how you pick the specific fireworks to go with the music?
There are literally thousands of effects to choose from. You have to listen to the music and try and translate the message and feelings it creates into something visual. When you close your eyes and listen to the music, what do you see? What do you feel? Now take those images and feelings and try to make them come to life in the sky.
How do you rehearse your show?
A lot of time goes into setting up a fireworks show. We use a simulation program to create a 3D visual representation of the show to avoid having to fire a show live just to see what it looks like. Certain events, like concerts or live performances, do require that require live firing rehearsals to ensure that all the elements of the production work together.
Give an example of where your inspiration comes from?
It sounds cliché to say that it just comes to me, but that is usually how it works. Sometimes I will be sitting at my computer listening to a piece of music thinking, "I have no clue what to do with this thing". In those situations I just start adding effects and as I do I get more in tune with the track and things just seem to starts clicking into place. It just takes one effect fitting perfectly into the music to spark that inspiration and bring the whole piece into focus.
What was the one most memorable show you did?
The very first huge competition show I worked on will always be one of the most memorable. To have the opportunity to mingle with some of the best in the industry and see their work live for myself was and invaluable learning experience. I loved seeing what the other teams had to offer in comparison to the show we shot. There is nothing quite like a competition show. All the stops are pulled out and everyone brings their best work.
The worst show?
I worked on one show where everything was working out well all day. We were set up on the opposite shore of a lake from the audience so 2 way radios were being used to communicate with the sound tech. The show started firing as planed until we lost the music feed. A show synced to music with no music loses a huge chunk of its impact.
The worst part was we could not raise anyone the radio to find out what had happened and were forced to stop the show until we could reach someone. Having to stop a show is one of the worst feelings for a pyrotechnician, especially when all communication breaks down and you are left with no information.
If you could do the show of your dreams, what piece of music would you use?
I have always wanted to try working with a composer to create a piece of music for fireworks as opposed to using existing music and adapting fireworks to it. Actually I would love to go one step further and shoot the show while the music is performed live. It would be difficult to sync the fireworks to live music verses pre-recorded but I like a good challenge.