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What is a pyrotechnician, and what do they do?

Everytime you see something that involves fire, smoke and/or explosions in a controlled fashion, you see pyrotechnics. Most firework is in theory pyrotechnics, but setting off firework does not make you a pyrotechnician.

A pyrotechnician is usually someone who has taken one or more courses on the subject. The art of pyrotechnics not only requires a substantial amount of chemistry knowledge; Most pyrotechnicians have taken fire safety courses, first aid courses etc. In most countries, although you can buy pyrotechnics in a ready-made, small scale (as in fireworks), you need a license to buy heavier pyrotechnic effects and / or the material to make these effects.

What can pyrotechnicians do?

The main objective of a pyrotechnician is obviously to do things that people don't see in normal life. The key to being a good pyrotechnician is to do things that look awfully dangerous, but are as safe as, say, peeling a banana.

Where are pyrotechnics used?

  • On stage: Rock concerts (Metallica, for example) often involves some pyrotechnics, but it is also used for effect in theater and other stage performances. The pyrotechnic licenses for this sort of practise is usually called Pyrotechnic license type 1
  • In film: The use of body squibs, explosions, fires, smoke and many kinds of stunts. The pyrotechnic licenses for this practice would be the Pyrotechnic license type 2
  • Live: Large fireworks displays and those kinds of things - basically the same as the two previous cathegories, but (you guessed it) this needs yet another license. In some countries this is called a licence type A, or just a display fireworks license.

(just in case you are absolutely dying to know, I have licenses 1 and 2)

On stage

On stage, pyrotechnics are usually not used for the sake of the pyrotechnics, but as an effect. When Metallica lashes into their Master of Puppets, for example, 6 meters (20 ft) high flames make a nice way of underlining the music.

Effects that are often used on stage include minor explosions (stage work is tricky because there is a lot of audience, and blowing up a fan is never good publicity), flames going high up in the air, smoke effects, sound effects (like gunshots) and sparkly effects. All of these are (if safety distances are held) reasonably safe. Body squibs might also be used, although splattering the audience with (fake) blood usually isn't very popular.

Although rockets and other projectile pyrotechnics can be problematic indoors, one can usually have great impact using so-called line rockets. These run along a steel wire, and can fly very low over the audience without being dangerous.

Smoke effects, although effective, are rarely a good idea here, because of spectators who might have asthma, and because it may stop audience from actually seing what goes on on stage.

On stage, one usually uses chemical (gunpowder etc) or gas effects. The latter is usually just usable for fires etc. The problem with large stage effects is that to be safe, quite some emergency personnel should be available. This has a tendency to scare the crowds, and a scared audience may ruin a performance by not reacting the way they would otherwise.

On film

On film, the pyrotechnicians can do lots of more "fun" things, for several reasons. For one thing, a camera can be on a safe distance with a tele lens, eliminating danger in case something goes wrong. In this setting, the pyrotechnics are often used for the sake of using pyrotechnics, instead of for effect (in other words, in many cases, the film would be just as good without the biggest pyrotechnic effects)

Another advantage with film is that large teams of fire and emergency personnel can be present without alarming anybody. Besides, professional stuntmen and other experienced people can help giving the effects credibility. This advantage means that you on film can have people running around burning (in an asbestos suit, preferrably. A bit painful otherwise) and being "thrown away" by explosions, by using wires etc. that can be edited away later.

Effects often used in films are gunshots, body squibs, buildings and cars exploding.


The nice thing with live shows is that most of it is usually outdoors, for concerts etc. This means that you have a virtually unlimited distance for effects upwards. Unfortunately, the audience is usually a large crowd, and accidents happening here can lead to real disasters, not only because of primary damage (an explosion going wrong, injuring a spectator) but also secondary damage, such as panic erupting, people getting pushed, squeezed and trampled. All kinds of nasty stuff.

Live performances usually involve large-scale smoke effects, high flames, spark effects and rockets, both "free" rockets and line rockets.

Back to the node on pyrotechnics
Please read the disclaimer. Also, make sure you have read the Pyrotechnics safety tips. SAFETY FIRST

Pyr`o*tech*ni"cian (?), n.

A pyrotechnist.


© Webster 1913.

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