STEP UP Creatives Ensemble 2013: Pyrotechnics Workshop at Create Theatre Mansfield – Special Effects

During the afternoon, Daniel Ivory-Castile, Mandy’s husband and highly experienced Pyrotechnician showed us some stuff that went bang and some other stuff that looked pretty as it went bang. At least, this sums up how much I knew about Pyrotechnics at the start of the session.

Dan has worked on everything from small theatre productions to rock concerts and even the gold twinkling waterfall effect on the Olympic rings at the 2012 Opening Ceremony, so we were very lucky indeed to be getting a masterclass from an expert in the field.

Needless to say, I learned a lot listening to Dan talk through the various types of pyrotechnic effects, and it was great that he’d brought so many examples to show us first-hand. In turns we screamed, went ‘ahhhh’ appreciatively (as if we were at a firework display), potentially traumatised a group of children taking a dance lesson next door with some VERY loud explosions, and eventually set off the building’s smoke alarms. It was a LOT of fun, and we did our best to put the Create Theatre back together again before we left, so no lasting harm was done. Adam from Create was very understanding, and hopefully they will still allow us back for the show this summer..!

IT’S ALL IN THE DETAILS

At the beginning of the workshop, Mandy took us through the special effects used in New Perspective’s recent production of A Christmas Carol. I had been fortunate enough to sit in on some rehearsals last October when the finer details of some of these effects were still being worked out, and then saw the show both on its first night, and then again nearer the end of the tour (also at Create), so it was a nice conclusion to this little journey for me to hear Mandy re-cap the effects used in the show, and those who had not had the chance to see A Christmas Carol too seemed captivated by the magic of the effects.

Pyrotechnics Workshop at Create Theatre Mansfield

We were shown matches that emerged from pockets or walls fully aflame, glasses that magically changed water into wine as it was poured, a glass and lamp that apparently moved by themselves, and a coat that lifted one arm to point out Scrooge’s gravestone. Talking through how these effects were done (for example, drilling tiny holes in the set and colouring in matches to hide them from view until the moment they were produced, already lit, or making a contraption containing a piece of phosphorus paper to hide in the actor’s pocket so a match would emerge from the waistcoat pocket already burning) it was remarkable how thrilling even relatively simple effects can be. It was easy to appreciate that, together with stage lighting, sound, atmospheric smoke and of course the gift of an actor to draw the audience in, all these things help to create and make believable the magical world of the storyteller in the play.

Pyrotechnics Workshop at Create Theatre, Mansfield

MISDIRECTION

With these more manual effects, Mandy explained that they are always much more successful when the audience is not concentrating on the object that is undergoing the effect. For example, when Kern, the actor in A Christmas Carol, was pouring the water from the jug that turned red in the first glass and green in the second, he continued his storytelling, placing no particular importance on the task of pouring the water. The audience was therefore engaged by his face and what he was saying and so was much more surprised and delighted by the effect than if they’d been concentrating on the glasses and thinking about how it was achieved.

As with magicians, misdirection plays a key role with the simpler special effects. Another example of this was the effect where the coat sleeve seems to lift itself up and point. Earlier in the play, the actor puts his own arm overtly into the coat sleeve as part of his showmanship style, to illustrate something with a gesture, and then removes it. As an audience, you are left thinking ‘I see what he did there’, and this sets up an expectation, so that when he later goes back over to the coat, as a member of the audience you assume the same effect will be repeated, but when he walks away this time, the coat sleeve remains lifted in a pointing position. This surprise elevates a simple effect into something more magical in the audience’s mind and by doing so, reinforces and brings a greater reality to the ambience of the play.

“SHALL WE HAVE A TEA BREAK AND THEN BLOW SOME THINGS UP?”

I think it’s fair to say there was quite a bit of enthusiasm for this plan, so that’s exactly what we did. Dan took us through a lot of different effects, giving us more information about and demonstrating most of them as he went. These included:

  • “Dragon Breath” (Lycopodium)

Basically mushroom spores, it is an incredibly fine powder that looks a little like custard powder and, once airborne, if it comes in contact with a flame it causes a big plume of fire. It is, however, inert if you were to dip a lit match into it as there is not enough oxygen surrounding the particles to allow for a combustible explosion.

Pyrotechnics Workshop at Create Theatre, Mansfield

  • Flame Shooter (wear it concealed on your fingers with an AA battery etc.)

You would put some flash paper or flash cotton into the flame shooter. It burns up really bright and fast leaving nothing behind, allowing an effect such as shooting a flame from your fingers.

Pyrotechnics Workshop at Create Theatre, Mansfield

  • Mylar / Flutterfetti

Rather expensive confetti. It hangs nicely whilst floating down and is not too visible once on the ground, so it is good for a falling glitter effect. Think: Adele’s performance at the 2011 Brits.

  • Flame Mortar

Ignites from the surface, a surface-burn pyro. Most effects are conversely lit from the bottom. The standard flame colour is orange and they are available in different sizes, with large ones costing around £50 each.

  • Stage Flash

Also known in the trade as ‘genie flashes’, presumably because they are used a lot in panto when the genie appears out of the lamp! They go bang (as well as flash).

Pyrotechnics Workshop at Create Theatre, Mansfield

  • Sparkle Flash

These came in various sizes and sparkle prettily as the name suggests!

  • Martinez Igniters

Made in the USA, these are an electrical means of ignition, and look a little like a fake match-tip. Dan placed one on the end of 2 bits of copper wire, and created a slow-burn fuse effect which travelled a metre in 10 – 12 seconds before ‘self-destructing’. Think: Mission Impossible.

  • Omni-directional SPDs (Spark Producing Devices)

These are good for a small or quick effect. You can’t predict exactly which way the sparks will travel, so we were shown this demonstration outdoors.

  • Airburst

These look like a wire with a little bundle wrapped in clingfilm on the end(!) but it is in fact a fireproof plastic film. They produce a firework-like effect with little gold stars, leaving behind lots of mini smoke rings! In the UK you have to buy them pre-made but in Europe they can be made on-site. You have to make them carefully to avoid remnants of burning plastic floating down after the effect is set off.

  • Shock Tube

Dan got the front row to hold on to a long thin plastic tube, coated on the inside with high explosives. 100km of this was used in the ‘internet’ segment of the 2012 Opening Ceremony, with each line on the floor containing 50 pieces of shock tube. When it was set off, the light shot along the inside of the wire at an incredible speed with a loud BANG, making us all jump!

  • Whistle

As suggested by the name, this effect made a very loud whistling noise like a firework, and produced an upward shower of sparks.

  • Maroons

These produced the most screams, as they were LOUD, and Dan set off four in a row. They were cylinder-shaped and contained in a bomb box for the demonstration, to restrict any fragments.

Pyrotechnics Workshop at Create Theatre, Mansfield

  • Flitter Mine

This produced a projection of stars from the floor and wasn’t very loud, but was very pretty!

  • Flashes (two sizes demonstrated)

You could feel the heat when they were set off!

Pyrotechnics Workshop at Create Theatre, Mansfield

  • Jets (¼ second and 1 second)

These produced silver upward sparks and can be used to do chaser effects if they are set off in sequence. Dan showed us a row of three ¼ second jets and a row of five 1 second jets, 3 of which went off. These effects are mostly wired in parallel rather than series, so that, as in this case, if some do not work, you still get the overall effect with the ones that do.

  • Gerbs

These are duration burners, lasting around 10 seconds. The one we saw sent silver sparks upwards.

  • Flashes

Dan attached one of these SPDs to one of the lighting scaffolding poles and set it off. It produced the kind of electrical explosion ‘spark shower’ effect that we often see in dramas and films. Think along the lines of a ‘system overload’ type explosion in a sci-fi drama, for example.

  • Sparkle Flash

Dan demonstrated three sizes; small medium and large.

Pyrotechnics Workshop at Create Theatre, Mansfield

We saw our fair share of explosions, some were fairly terrifying, others more pretty and glittery, and Dan also talked us through some other effects such as smoke-filled bubble machines (as used on Strictly), snow machines, comets and waterfalls (In the Opening Ceremony, each Olympic ring had 180 waterfall pyros on it!).

SAFETY FIRST!

Rules of thumb regarding safety zones are 3m clear between effect and audience member. This distance can be reduced for the actors on the stage as they are aware what is going to happen, when and how, and are reduced further for the Pyrotechnicians. This distance is increased for some effects such as the Lycopodium fireball effects (4m), and others, but the paperwork with the effect should advise on the safety distances you need to observe.

At outdoor events it is especially important to observe not only the safety distances, but also the wind direction and speeds. Otherwise, for example, at a firework display, the smoke and fallout can end up over the audience, which no one wants happening!

The special effects operator at an event always has the power to override the DSM’s cues for safety reasons, and there are other safety measures in place such as firing systems that can be set up but will only work once the key is in place, or systems with removable firing system units, and there is often a ‘Deadman’s Button’ which can be held down by the technician to override a pre-programmed display if it gets out of synch with the music, for example.

The transportation of pyros was also touched upon, and we learned that there is a document called a Transport Emergency Card (or Trans Card) which is kept in the cab alongside the driver, so in the case of a crash the fire brigade have the information they need to know what was being transported and are aware of the potential risk to them and how to deal with the goods. We were also shown that there are certain types of boxes in which to transport goods, with the appropriate warning labels on them.

TESTING, TESTING…

One of the major points made that afternoon was that you cannot exactly do a ‘trial run’ with a pyrotechnic effect in the same way that you would with, say, a lighting cue. Being single-use, if you test them you’ll have to re-load and keep your fingers crossed – there is always the possibility that the next one won’t work!

It is even rather difficult to accurately test effects such as a smoke or haze machine, when it is used on a touring show. No two venues are the same and this can cause differences in the way the effect plays out. Even the same venue in different temperature conditions, for example, can cause an effect to behave very differently each time it is used.

As for pyros not going off, with some products, you can shake the canisters and hear if the contents sound like they’re alright. If you notice any problems like this with a pyro you’ve only recently bought, Dan told us, you can call the manufacturer and quote the LOT number noted on the label, so they can test or recall a batch.

The key words that came out of this session were tension and repetition!

WHEN THE SMOKE CLEARED…

At the end of the session, we had the set and lighting to de-rig and load back into the tour van before heading back towards Nottingham. We swapped roles so that those who had learned to set up the lights during the get-in were now taking apart the set, and vice versa. A little bit of sweeping the floor and things were back to normal with virtually no sign that we’d ever been there (well, except a lingering sheen of smoke that is).

Pyrotechnics Workshop at Create Theatre, Mansfield

It was a really useful and interesting day, nicely rounded off with some laughs down the pub, and thanks to New Perspectives, the folks at Create Theatre and of course Dan Ivory-Castile, I think we will all be a little less apprehensive now when it comes to putting on our own STEP UP Creatives touring show in 4 months’ time.

Now all we have to do is work out how we can get as many explosions into the scripts as possible..!

Emma Pegg, STEP UP Creatives Ensemble 2013.

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