Simulated Fireworks

How computers have helped to reinvent fireworks displays through timing and elaborate simulation techniques. It’s kinda like a mix of old and new technology.

Today in Tedium: Fireworks are fundamentally easy to understand. You put a bunch of flammable materials in the air and watch them explode in interesting ways. But the space, in ways that are rarely discussed, has become incredibly innovative in recent years for reasons that have less to do with the explosives and much more to do with the programming. We build public fireworks displays way differently than we did half a century ago, and in ways that look far more like a video game than lighting a sparkler. Today’s Tedium talks about fireworks, computers, and choreography. Explosives look way cooler with a little timing. — Ernie @ Tedium

70%

The percentage of pyrotechnic materials that come from two Chinese firms owned by a single man, Ding Yan Zhong, according to The Washington Post. Ding has a strong hold over most of the modern pyrotechnics market in both China and the United States, essentially ensuring that you can’t put on a Fourth of July celebration without the help of the guy’s fireworks.

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(The Complete Computer Fireworks Celebration Kit screenshot)

How computers of the 1980s helped light a fuse under the pyrotechnics field

Is there a more American way to celebrate the birth of our country than to watch 8-bit fireworks flash on your computer? I don’t think I’ve found it.

Which is why I found myself celebrating with a fireworks simulation tool for the Commodore 64 to celebrate my Fourth of July.

A little explanation: There was a period in the late 1980s and early 1990s when “construction kits” were all the rage. Basically, these programs were fancy editors that allowed players to create their own programs of sorts without having to actually learn how to program themselves. Often, these were games built on specific engines, but also things like disk-distributed greeting cards.

The thing that made computers better than mere video game consoles was the sense of creation, and programs like the shoot-em-up maker SEUCK and the later 3D Construction Kit played this idea up. You could say that later games, like Rollercoaster Tycoon, the various variants of SimCity, and Minecraft have helped to play up this sandbox-like approach to creation.

A curious addition to the kit trend came in 1985, Activision released The Complete Computer Fireworks Celebration Kit, a program that allowed for the creation of fireworks-themed greetings with a variety of visual on-screen explosions.

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It effectively was a greeting card maker for people who owned Commodore 64s: Build out what you want your card to say, program a series of visual effects, and put it on a disk to give to your pal. It was nerdy, but allowed for just the right amount of creativity.

Rawson Stovall, the first nationally syndicated video game reviewer in the country (who, by the way, only happened to be in his early teens when he gained national syndication), wrote of creating an elaborate display for his loved ones:

I really enjoyed Fireworks. I had salutes, Roman candles, twisters, crackles, parachutes, smoke bombs and large fireworks in the shape of ovals, willows, palms, stars, and watermelons. I played the United States Air Force theme and put the New York City skyline in the background. My final result was a five minute patriotic graphic and musical extravaganza that awed all my friends and family.

But early personal computers weren’t simply being used to create onscreen fireworks displays. In some case, they were actually making them, allowing for the complex programming needed to organize an elaborate fireworks display.

A 1986 New York Times article laid out how Fireworks by Grucci, the firm that is responsible for at least 21 separate fireworks performances this July 4 alone (including the one in D.C. this year), had combined standard IBM PC programs of the era—the database program dBase III and the spreadsheet “killer app” Lotus 1-2-3—with custom programs that helped to manage the organization’s fireworks choreography.

It’s believed to be one of the earliest examples of computers being used to plot out pyrotechnics—and it was used for one of the biggest celebrations of the entire year.

Leading the programming was a member of the Grucci clan, Felix Grucci, who teamed with a college classmate, Scott Raso, to program a pyrotechnics system that managed to shoot off more than 40,000 projectiles around the Statue of Liberty’s 1986 100th anniversary rededication, known as Liberty Weekend.

The COBOL-based system, programmed with that language well after its heyday, was a bit rickety and required a lot of bug-squashing. But the result was impressive and significantly more efficient than the alternative.

“It enabled us to put together in days a program that would have taken weeks, maybe even months, if anybody had tried it the old way,” Lawrence Estrin, who helped manage the sound systems for Liberty Weekend, told the Times.

The Times piece wondered aloud if adding computers to the fireworks creation process was taking some of the creativity out of fireworks displays, but the fact is that it actually did the opposite: It allowed for better fireworks design and programming.

And it wasn’t long before many more examples of pyrotechnics-enabling computers emerged. For example, a 1987 article in ST-Log magazine highlights how 8-bit Atari computers were being used to program elaborate fireworks shows for the firm Astro Pyrotechnics.

“The Atari 800XL at Astro Pyrotechnics produces the most spectacular graphics you’ve ever seen,” the piece starts out. “Its screen is the entire night sky.”

The article described how the firm used a mixture of custom software and the popular database program Zoomracks to help manage fireworks shows, both in terms of choreography and expense management—those fireworks, and the labor used to load them up in a mortar, aren’t cheap.

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A modded Atari 800XL that was used for shooting off fireworks in the 1980s. (Kevin Savetz/via Atari Age forums)

In 2017, Kevin Savetz, a podcaster and retro computing expert who I’ve interviewed a couple of times over the years, got a hold of Robert Veline, the pyrotechnics expert who was interviewed in the piece, and asked him about it.

“As a team, we shorted out several Atari 600XLs and 800XLs … [laughs] … but we finally came up with something that we could stuff in a box, press a button, that shot fireworks,” Veline told Savetz.

“The biggest changes in the industry have not been chemical. They’ve been artistic. The trend toward choreographing large shows such as Boston has been phenomenal.”

John Conkling, a Washington College professor and a former executive director for the American Pyrotechnics Association, describing the evolution of timing in public fireworks displays in a 1992 interview with The Boston Globe. Conkling—who, it should be noted, knows a lot about the chemical parts of what makes pyrotechnics work, having literally written a college textbook about the subject—has noted over the years, including in a Popular Science interview from 2017, that the basic design of fireworks have largely remained the same for hundreds of years, with perhaps more access to chemicals that allow for different colors and additional effects. “It’s an absolutely intriguing area of science,” Conkling told the magazine. “The sky’s the limit.”

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(Finale 3D screenshot)

How technology and timing has helped advance the pyrotechnics game

When it comes to fireworks, timing is everything—and the perfect visual display often comes down to perfectly matching a series of musical cues.

A firework on its own exploding in the sky is interesting, but the moments that stand out the most in your minds are the ones where the timing of the explosions come together, creating a maximum impact.

And the thing is, such choreography would be difficult to plan manually, in part because of the nature of fireworks. You can’t fire off the explosives at the same time as the music—because the fireworks have to be already in the air by that time, so you’re working seconds ahead of time to sync everything up.

It’s effectively an analog variant of multimedia in its purest form, unlike similar types of visual effects such as laser light shows. But fireworks, despite those concerns from the 1980s that computers would ruin an ancient process, took pretty well to computerization—and continues to do so.

A key turning point for the medium came about in 2000, when a company named Infinity Visions introduced a program called Visual Show Director, which is at its core a 3D modeling simulator, but one purpose-built for displaying fireworks. At its core, it’s effectively a creation program like Blender or AutoCAD, but it also has the ability to communicate directly with “firing” hardware—essentially purpose-built electronics that send the fireworks into the sky.

In a 2002 interview with Wired, Alberto Navarro, the founder of Infinity Visions and himself the developer of fireworks displays at venues such as the Space Needle, noted that the approach allows for more significant planning of fireworks displays, in ways that more creatively use small fireworks.

“This is going to change how fireworks shows are conceived,” Navarro said. “It’s going to be based on the quality of the experience rather than the quantity. Sometimes people fire too many things at once, and it’s more messy.”

The software has allowed Navarro and other fireworks designers to get increasingly creative, including on massive, million-dollar displays of light and explosives.

A decade ago, Fireworks by Grucci—the fireworks-via-computer innovators I mentioned earlier—put together a display at the launch of Atlantis The Palm, a hotel in Dubai, a display for which no expense was spared. It’s worth watching in full because, holy crap, it really underlines what’s possible with a whole lot of choreography and a clever planning. You could not imagine something like this being created without the help of a computer—the sheer level of sophistication needed to plot something like this out there is just wild to think about.

But the best part of fireworks sim software is that it often finds use in less elaborate settings, like minor league baseball games, and allows pyrotechnics professionals to gain many of the benefits of the software.

Rod Smith, who puts on fireworks shows for the El Paso Chihuahuas baseball team, noted that simulations had significantly changed the nature of the field, so that things no longer have to be hand-fired. He can even do test runs of the shows from the press box.

“You’d be amazed how accurate the simulation is to the actual event,” Smith told El Paso Inc. back in May. “So when I go to shoot the show, I’ve already seen the show.”

Visual Show Director is probably the best-known fireworks design program, but it’s not the only one—with programs like ShowSim and Finale Fireworks helping to plot out displays of pyrotechnics that are difficult for most people to envision ahead of time.

Innovation is still happening in the pyrotechnics space, even into 2019. Finale Fireworks, which until recently had only offered 2D simulators, recently released an elaborate overhaul of its own program, called Finale 3D, which has the ability to create fireworks displays directly from literal locations in Google Maps that can be designed and rendered in 4K. This program has gotten a lot of buzz in the fireworks community, and it’s understandable why.

Public fireworks displays are generally best thought of as a symphony of sight, sound, and darkness. But perhaps they should also be considered as masterful displays of perfect timing—something humans aren’t very good at but computers excel at.

What’s interesting to think about with the evolution of pyrotechnics software in the modern day is how close in result it ended up being to the old greeting card software from the Commodore 64.

The Complete Computer Fireworks Celebration Kit, while obviously extremely simplified and not involving any actual programming, was designed to let you program what appeared on the screen, what kind of fireworks showed up in which places, and set a basic script for how the fireworks would appear and the messages that would display.

Just a short time later, computers were managing actual fireworks with a very similar strategy. And not long after that, computers became capable of simulations that look like friggin’ high-end computer games. In fact, the developer of one such simulator, FWsim, actually sells a version of its program as a game on Steam, but then sells a full-fledged version to pyrotechnics professionals.

The simulators are so elaborate that the only real comparison point I can think of for a simulation that is really good for actual professional use are flight simulators, which actual pilots say actually help them learn things.

With the addition of a lot of technology and a lot of added visual capabilities, this is basically what modern pyrotechnics programs like Visual Show Director and Finale 3D allow you to do.

In its own weird way, the computer-enabled improvements in pyrotechnics might be the best example of improved display technology out there. Sure, OLED and Liquid Retina are pretty cool, but bringing innovation to the entire night sky remains awe-inspiring in ways you’d never get with a foldable screen.

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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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