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"The canvas we have is the sky": Fireworks, explained by a pro

Grucci fireworks at the 2004 inauguration.
Grucci fireworks at the 2004 inauguration.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Don't ask Phil Grucci how many tons of fireworks he'll shoot off during his biggest shows.

"When I look at a painting, I don't wonder how many gallons of paint you used," he says. "From an artistic perspective, I shake my head at that."

Grucci is the President and CEO of the Long Island-headquartered Fireworks by Grucci, a company that's performed at seven presidential inaugurations, won multiple international fireworks competitions, and had shows everywhere from empty Colorado fields to hotel openings in Dubai. The family-owned business started in 1850, and since then it's expanded to worldwide productions and fireworks manufacturing.

You may think you know fireworks. You may even know about their chemistry. But how are fireworks shows actually designed? Grucci shared with me how his creative process works.

Humidity, light pollution, and the venue all affect design

Fireworks over Portland, by Grucci

Fireworks over Portland, by Grucci

Pabo76 via CC

"The canvas we have is the sky," Phil Grucci says. "The beauty is in the vast palette we have to work with."

And the selections made from that palette can greatly affect the show. For example, if they use too much red in a production, "it gets so hot you start losing the richness of the color."

Another concern is humidity, which Grucci compares to an "organic hazer" because it makes smoke hang in the air. Even worse, it can make it harder to ignite the fireworks.

Light pollution is a factor, too. "In Las Vegas, colors don't register there as they would in Denver, Colorado." And blues and subtle golds won't pop as much, because they have to compete with natural light that drowns them out.

"If it's for a grand opening of a building or a bridge, I look at that being the stage," Grucci says. "I learn toward those programs that are the most difficult." While Grucci says he enjoys this type of challenge, there's also an appeal to an area free from light pollution that can provide a "black crisp," low humidity sky as its canvas.

Planning (and sometimes making special fireworks) takes at least seven months

Grucci's technology, like the flag seen above, allows them to create unique shows.

Grucci's technology, like the flag seen above, allows them to create unique shows.

Grucci

If you want to start a large-scale show with one of Fireworks by Grucci's 400 pyro-technicians, you need to get in touch six to eight months ahead for planning and production.

"If there's an inspiration I may have," Grucci says, "we can go to our factory and make it. The more lead time, the more creative the project can be."

Costs include securing appropriate permits, coordinating a launch site for the fireworks, and, often, manufacturing the fireworks themselves, which Grucci does in its own factory.

He notes that Grucci makes its fireworks in the United States — which allows for quicker experimentation with new types of pyrotechnics, since they're can make and test them quickly. As a family-owned American business, it also provides a distinct marketing advantage for patriotic events (you don't perform at inaugurations if all your fireworks are all made in China).

That's paired with other technological advances that give the company new artistic tools and a marketing advantage. At Grucci, patented technology allows them to detonate a firework with precise enough timing to make images, like an American flag.

Grucci storyboards the show to create a classic build-up and finale

The fireworks at the 2005 inauguration. The Obama administration has skipped fireworks displays.

The fireworks at the 2005 inauguration. The Obama administration has skipped fireworks displays.

Travis Lindquist/Getty Images

A fireworks company can't do a trial run, but they come as close to sketching as they can. Grucci will typically storyboard out an entire show — occasionally it involves computer animation. From there, he can request the fireworks he'll need.

A show starts with what Grucci calls a "Broadway type" opening with a strong beginning. "We premiere the strong bold shells and the soft delicate glittering effects. At the end, the peaks and valleys start to grow taller and taller."

In a modern show, music is key as well. Sometimes, the company commissions specially composed music, and other times they select from a vast library of licensed songs. Then, they match the fireworks and music together. "We might say, 'here's a moment when it needs to sound like a sunrise,'" Grucci says. "It needs to sound like a rainbow in music." In case you were worried, Grucci has made an app to help viewers listen along if they don't have a radio handy.

Of course, one of the most important parts of a great show is a big ending. Grucci says, "Ninety-nine percent of the performances will end at the ultimate peak."

That should be familiar to every fireworks fan, from the pros to the people sitting in the grass, looking up — a great show always has a big finish.

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