True To Me Too: How did you get started in the pyrotechnics industry?
Martin Landy: A buddy asked me what i was doing over the weekend. I said “nothing”. He said “why don’t you come to Vancouver with me I have to do a little show”. That little show was a Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton summit. It was the first time an American President and a Russian Prime Minister ever met outside of either the U.S. or Russia. So Vancouver had a party, it was a big, big show, a half hour pyromusical, and it was a lot of work. I came back the next day and quit my job. That’s how I got into it.
What did they have you doing that weekend?
Setting up a show. I was humping mortars in the rain, digging them into the sand, loading them, all the grunt work. It was three days of set up. I had no idea what I was doing, I was a complete and utter rookie… and they made so much fun of me.
I guess you didn’t go to college or university for this, is there any kind of specific training you need?
No, if you know science it helps but it’s all just sort of manual labour. You have to be licensed by the government of Canada, they have the ERD, which is the Explosives Regulatory Division, through Natural Resources Canada. They have a fireworks supervisor license, which was you spent half a day in a class listening to some guy from Quebec speak bad English and then if you stayed awake the whole time you go blow off a few shells in the backyard and they give you a license. It’s one of the only explosives license that you can get anywhere where you don’t need to do a test. No tests, no background checks.
You just sit there for the day and you automatically pass?
Now I think there might be an open book. But it’s open book so anybody can get in. The course is geared for guys who want to do fireworks on Canada Day once a year so they make it for the lowest common denominator.
What kind of people does the pyrotechnics industry usually attract?
It seems to be a lot of young kids in Quebec like doing it, a lot of kids from Europe who are exposed to it more will get into it. But it’s usually young french kids, they get into it young. Usually everybody there was somebodies buddy and they would all work for nothing and they were easy to get.
What’s the atmosphere like on the job with everyone coming in with their friends?
The job site can be a lot of fun. Once you get a good crew together it’s a lot of camaraderie because you’re doing a lot of nifty shit and a lot of wiring a lot of manual labour so you spend a lot of time with the group of guys. So if you get a good crew it’s a lot of fun, you get to know people, you chat around. There’s a lot of hurrying and rushing and then a lot of waiting. You’re quickly humping a lot of dirt and sand and mortars and then you have to wait until they figure out the wiring patterns. There’s a lot of little nifty wiring, you need to wait while they trouble shoot and then you have to run out and fix the connections if there is false electrical.
Once you got your license how did you go about starting your career?
You contact every fireworks company around and you say “do you need somebody to work Canada Day” because Canada Day and New Years are the two busiest days of the year for fireworks companies and they are always looking for crew for those two days. So once you start doing a couple of those then you can become a regular and if you’re good people will see pretty quickly. The good guys get more and more work.
It seems like there is the freelance options, where you go from job to job, and then the more consistent path working for a company that caters specifically to a certain area.
Ya but those companies usually hire freelance workers, they don’t hire a lot of staff. You need to pick up a lot of shows and just keep going. When I worked for Fiatlux we would do a couple hundred shows a year, so we were busy.
Actually have you seen that show Pyros? On Discovery? That’s my old company, so if you watch that show you’ll find out a lot about it because they have these people that just started and you get to see what the work is like. If you watch the first season there’s like eight hours of it, you get to see two or three shows, and you’ll understand the repetition of the job, the rhythm and the danger. But these guys look like a bunch of fools all the time cause they make all these stupid mistakes but that’s just all for the storytelling, to make drama. But it’s a good way to get a sense of the kind of people and what it’s like.
Do you think the show is an accurate depiction of the job?
Yah some of it is, I mean they do some really big stuff but if you go to the basic shows where they are digging in the sand and the mud and putting in mortars, you get to see what the average show is like. The big big pyromusicals, in Toronto on the waterfront and in Montreal, most people never get to work those shows.
How do you get to do the bigger shows?
That was flukey for me. I went into a big company and I was good. If you’re good at it you’re doing the big shows and you never go back to small ones.
How should other people go about getting onto the large teams?
By showing up. By how good you are. By working a lot of small shows. It’s somewhat what you know but it’s a lot of who you know. Most people will only put good, safe people around them. You don’t want your cousin who’s an idiot smoking and loading firework shells while your back is turned. It’s a lot of trust, so you always hire people who you trust.
What are these events like, working on a big team? You worked on the Canadian team and competed internationally against other countries.
Those are a lot of fun, again it’s a lot of camaraderie but it’s serious shit. It’s three days of hard work, no mistakes, double checking, triple checking, doing everything by the book. Doing it the way we are told to because the designer wants it done a very specific way. So you have to be able to follow a lot of direction but be able to think on your feet but not over think. A good pyrotechnician does what he has to do, does it well, and doesn’t do anything else. Cause if you’re doing something that nobody knows about then you’re creating danger.
I’ve always been very impressed by the big competitive shows but I never knew exactly how they were judged.
Usually there’s a couple areas. For pyromusicals it is always synchronization, how it is synchronized with the music, is the music appropriate? Duration of the firework shells, the different colours, the different uses of levels, the different types of effects, originality and design play a big part. A good fireworks shell, like the Chinese shells, they’ll go up and go boom and last one or two seconds and then their gone, whereas a good Spanish shell will break and hang for three, four, five, six, seven seconds. So the bigger the shell the longer the duration, the better effect you get.
What do you do with your downtime between jobs? How do you stay busy and employed throughout the rest of the year?
I was fortunate because I was hired full time to work for a company. Most people have a day job. Most of my crew worked as firemen or realtors and only worked on shows evenings or weekends as a second job.
Have you ever worked on indoor shows?
That’s a different license. That’s a pyrotechnics license. That’s indoor, theatre, special events, special effects, Disney On Ice does a lot of it. Rock and roll concerts, when Nickelback got big I designed their show. I used to do the World Wrestling Federation ( Now World Wrestling Entertainment, WWE) for all the Wrestlemania events.
What’s the difference between indoor and outdoor shows?
Warmth (laughs) outdoor you’re dealing with really big shells, indoor it’s all special effects, it needs to be a product that is reproducible time after time after time. So if it says it’s seven seconds long it has to be seven seconds long, if it says it’s twenty-five feet tall it better not be anything over twenty-five feet tall. That’s how you get fires in bars, where people are getting killed, they’re using improper fireworks that aren’t suited to the space that they have. Actually it’s much more dangerous to do indoor fireworks. You have to know your product and you have to know your clearances.
What were you doing for the WWE?
I travelled around doing their tours. The guy walks out and they have all the big pyro shots for him, it’s usually mostly entrance and exit stuff because you can’t do a lot while their wrestling cause it’s dangerous. It’s just big opening stuff, doing something to get the audience involved and get them hyped. Whenever the Kane came in we had flame throwers rigged in the pillars and that was his signature entrance. The Undertaker used a lot of fire and pyrotechnics in his entrances too.
So you just toured exclusively with the WWE setting up their shows every week?
I did Boyz II Men tour, Nickelback tour, WWE, Disney on Ice. And that’s just doing the same thing every night. That’s indoor fireworks, it’s repetitive.
Which do you prefer?
I like outdoor cause it’s bigger and better, but indoor is more of a challenge cause it has a limit to the amount of effects you can use. It’s harder, you need to be smarter to do indoor fireworks.
What’s the biggest show you’ve ever worked on?
Biggest money wise or biggest influence wise?
I was at Bill Gates house doing his fireworks December 31, 1999 but that was a show I couldn’t talk about for seven years under contract. That was one of the most prestigious doing Bill Gates house at the turn of the millennium. Biggest most expensive… probably one of the competitions where we had a shit load of money. Madrid! I did a show in Madrid, It took five days to set up and was an hour long show, it cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
What about your biggest audience?
Well that show was pretty much three-quarters of the city of Madrid, so a couple million people.
Is five days a normal length of time to physically set up a show? How long does it usually take?
I worked an average of 19-20 hours a day and on that show I was one of 15 people so 20 hours a day times 15 people times 5 days (1,500 hours). It can be that big, or you can go in and three people can do it in three hours for a little show on a beach. The big stuff is usually a couple days and you’re working at least 12-15 hour days.
What does setting up the show involve?
Setting up your mortars, which are the tubes that fire them up. Laying out your bombs so they all fit in the tubes that you want and then you have to wire all the bombs into the order. Then you need to test the firing system to make sure every button you push will fire. Then you test the show two or three times and then fire the show and then you clean up after the show which is another two or three hours. So if I was doing Canada Day in say Medicine Hat, Alberta, I’d show up the night before, spend four hours digging everything in that night. Come in at 8 AM the next morning to set everything up. Finish by 9 PM, have dinner, shoot the show at 11 then 2 or 3 hours to clean up after. Go home the next day.
It sounds like you do it all but you’ve also mentioned different jobs, what are the different kinds of roles within the industry?
In the big picture there is the fireworks designer that designs the show. A fireworks supervisor who is in charge of the show, whose name is on the licence. Then you just have the technicians who are the guys that help set it up. Those are the three basic levels of people.
There are a lot of computer programs now like 4D Visual Show Director that help digitally plan the shows. How did technology change during your time in the industry?
We had to do all that work when I started. In the beginning you used to find music you liked, music that had a beat or a rhythm and you would start listening to the music and get a feeling for the fireworks, whether they were ground level, mid level or high level. You’d look for music that had a lot of differentiation, it’s like a roller coaster, you wanna build it up, have some great fanfare, then bring it back down for awhile and build it back up again and finish with a big finale. So you want to find the appropriate piece of music. Then you have to know your product, so I know this shell is going to break, it takes five seconds for the product to break and it takes four seconds for it to get up and then it takes half a second from when I know it’s time to push the button until I actually push the button, so you need to figure all that in to your music.
Back in the day one of the first music editing programs would just show the levels and you could see where the spikes were so you could track your music. You’d try to track the music, my partner Patrick was a savant like that, he knew that if he heard the music, hears the boom where I want the break then he could figure out depth, the time it took the shell to break, the lift time, he could figure that out so that five seconds before the song hit that beat you had to push this specific button. It was a lot of closeness to it, hit and miss, with computers now you find that one beat, you see the bar on the computer, you look for the spike with the loudest noise, you tag that and the computer does everything. All you’re doing is painting in the sky now, I wanna see this effect, I wanna use this music, and the computer does it all. You don’t really need to think about it anymore, there are even programs that tell you what shell to use in what situation. Computers have made it easier but it doesn’t mean they’re better.
What’s the difference between designing a traditional show and a pyromusical?
Traditional shows are easy. It’s just what you like. What’s the pacing? What’s the colour? What do you want to show? It’s like a shell display. Pyromusicals are very different and designed to the split second. It takes years to know how to plan those. It usually takes three or four hours of planning for every minute of fireworks, so if you’re doing a 20 minute show it will take you probably 120 hours to design it properly.
I saw a program where you can plug it all in and it will actually show you what the show will look like.
People like my partner Patrick, it was all in his head. I learned from guys who could hear a piece of music and automatically see the end result and then make it happen, which is the real artistry. Now you know they play Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World, he says “I see fields of green” and people are just putting up green fireworks. It’s so literal the designs now. I had hours of music and soundtracks that were very different, that were uniquely designed, I used a lot of Joe Jackson, nobody used Joe Jackson when I started because they used nothing but orchestra pieces. When we came out I used Apocalypse Now, which was my favourite piece of music to design to. We won a lot of awards to that.
Do you think it helps to take an unconventional or original approach?
Yah, find a piece of music you love or one that means something to you and then you can make it yours. That’s how I did it. I’d hate it when they’d tell me they want to have a western theme and you gotta use Bonanza and all these stupid songs and you’re trying to design a show to music that should never be used for fireworks.
It sounds like you’ve travelled a lot, what kinds of places did you get to go to?
I did Nunavut when it became a territory in 1999, spent a week up there. I’ve been to every province in Canada. I did Bill Gates’ house and shows for the Kennedy family in the states. Florida for Disney. All over Europe and Africa. I didn’t go to China cause I didn’t want to. So I pretty much travelled anywhere I wanted to around the world.
My buddy just did the largest fireworks show for the Guinness Book of Records in Kuwait. It was in celebration of the anniversary of their governments constitution and they spent $15 million on the show.
Fifteen Million? How long was that show?
One hour? How exactly do you pack fifteen million dollars worth of fireworks into one hour?
Well a lot of it is planning. Plus he had 19 or 20 barges, so you have to load up all those barges. You had to get everything down to Kuwait, pay for all the labour and all the permits. It sounds big and sexy but a lot of it goes to the labor.
Did you ever have any difficulty transporting your explosives?
Fireworks can only travel by ship and there was a point in time when the shipping companies weren’t transporting fireworks, they would rather take something else, so it was difficult, it raised the price of shipping. After 9/11 you couldn’t ship any explosives to New York State at all. When Great White set that bar in Rhode Island on fire and killed all those people it changed relations with shipping again. So it’s a reaction to whatever is going on in the world.
Generally I can throw a firework at you and nothing will happen. It will only explode under heat, friction or flame. You can play baseball with it and nothing will happen, but if you put a static charge across it… boom.
Exactly how dangerous is working in the fireworks industry?
It’s dangerous, it can kill you in a heartbeat, it’s that simple. It can kill you if you fuck up. But if you don’t fuck up it’s fine. It’s respectful, it’s like driving, you don’t drive with your eyes closed. You don’t handle explosives if you don’t know what you’re doing. So with fireworks if you know what you’re doing and you respect them you should be fine.
I had all my accidents when I was just starting out, which is good. I had a truck blow up full of fireworks, almost took out a whole building. Had one explode right beside me and almost set me on fire. I also had a show where I pressed one button and the entire show went up at once. What happens then? Nothing. Once the buttons pressed and they go up there is no reseting. So I had a 20 minute pyromusical waiting to go, it went for 5 minutes normal, then one button and everything went up. What do you do? The music keeps playing and the audience is standing there and you have egg all over your face.
You successfully retired without injury?
It’s just my hearing. I have a ringing in my ears, tinnitus it’s called. And that’s because my head was to close to the booms with no earplugs.
But if you wore earplugs it could have been avoided?
Big time! Wear ear plugs.
How do you get good enough to stay busy throughout the year?
Watch fireworks shows. Try to understand the science of it. Know what you’re getting into. It’s hard work, digging in the sand, it’s cold or it’s hot, it’s long hours. Go see a show. You know there will be a show on Canada Day, get out early get a good spot and watch. One of my guys kept coming to shows and he kept bugging me for a job and finally I said okay and he was smart enough to become my number two and he travelled all over the world with me. He was a zookeeper but he liked fireworks so he came out for all the shows and eventually started working them.
Going to shows is kind of like studying?
Ya, go watch, ask questions. Why do you do that? The fireworks course helps, you gotta go to them first. It’s changed a bit in the last few years so I’m a little outdated on that. But go to them the government website it will tell you all the prerequisites and where to take the course. Then go to your local yellow pages and find the guy with the biggest ad and ask to help out.
You mentioned designers before. What steps would you need to take to get there?
You gotta work. You need to understand you just don’t start as a designer. I started designing after my third or forth year because I knew what I was doing, I knew the product and I knew what I liked. I had a finale that I would design, I liked to fake them out and make them think they had the finale, then bring it down, wait for a bit and then blow their shorts off and surprise them.
Any final tips?
You have to be serious about it. It’s not really work where you make lots of money, it isn’t sexy, you’re usually working while everyone else is partying. I worked so many New Year’s eve’s that when I retired my buddy threw a party for me cause I hadn’t been to a New Year’s eve party in twenty years. You have to want to do this kind of lifestyle, you travel a lot, it’s a lot of hard physical work but if you enjoy fireworks and you want to see your own work and put on a good show. All the great pyrotechnicians say “I did that” or “that’s my show” or “that’s my work” because everyone is really proud of the work they do. You have to be very detail oriented and you have to be able to work outdoors in all kinds of weather. You have to want it, it cost me a lot of things, it cost me my marriage, I never had any kids, I was on the road a lot. There’s a lot of travelling you have to like that lifestyle. It was good for me, I was very selfish I got to travel the world and do all these things early in life. There is one summer I did 65 shows in 75 days, I just travelled and worked, I only had a couple days off that summer.
If you’re good you’re busy?
Oh yah. If you’re good you’re busy, you’re travelling all the time.
What was the worst condition you’ve put on a show in?
100 bellow with the windchill in a blizzard, in Iqaluit. It was so damn cold. I was also in Barcelona when it was plus 45 and I had spend all day carrying equipment up a big rock, it was brutal, I lost pounds and pounds of sweat. The wiring is really hard in the cold. I’ve also skied down a mountain with fireworks off my back, waterskied with fireworks on my back.
Wait you waterskied with fireworks on your back?
Ya, I sold Disney a concept.
Pyro-skiing. Waterskiing while fireworks are launching off your back. Sold it to Disney in 1998. They incorporated it into the shows they do at Epcot and Magic Kingdom.
How did you come up with that?
We got really really drunk and thought, what’s the stupidest thing you can do? Then we tried to figure out how to do it. Being fearless helps.