That's what your parents told you countless times when you were a child. While most people listened to this wise advice, I have taken what is considered dangerous and turned it into a career now spanning over two decades. In dealing with special effects, all employees must adhere to an important motto: When in doubt, leave it out. Education, training, and experience, as always, is on the top of the list when using pyrotechnic special effects.
For new crew members fascinated by the glitz and excitement of the business, we have a responsibility to take the time to educate them on the safety issues — train them on the equipment, products, redundant safety systems, and why you need a second set of eyes. The amount of responsibility pyrotechnic operators must assume is in direct relationship to the severe consequences of possible mishaps. With pyro, it's not like a bad lighting cue. If you make a mistake, hit a wrong button, or are unsure about the location of an artist or performer on stage, you are not just having a bad cue, you are endangering someone's life.
The tragic fire at the Station Nightclub in Rhode Island has drastically changed the pyrotechnics industry. This tragedy could have been avoided had the proper protocol of safety procedures been taken into consideration. Whoever was responsible for the pyrotechnics probably did not test the materials or fabrics around the venue to see if they were flammable. They did not have a fire extinguisher, and there was no permit or license to do that show. The technician was using a 10 by 20, meaning 10 seconds by 20', under an 8' ceiling, so the 20' dissipation was bouncing off the ceiling and the back of the wall.
The general public assumes that professional technicians are behind the wheel and know what they are doing. They entrust us with their health and safety, and we owe it to them to protect them. Everyone is really nervous about the whole pyrotechnic industry now. It's unfortunate that some companies are out there doing things that are unsafe and unprofessional. I feel bad for all the smaller companies starting out; I don't think they are going to be able to afford the insurance rates that have doubled and quadrupled since Rhode Island.
We have worked with pyrotechnics and propane fire effects for Metallica for the past 12 years. What I'm doing with these guys is not usually done. I sit down with the band, and we go through the set list every night. I get called to the dressing room, and I go over the songs we want to change with band members Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield. I've got 15 different songs from which we can choose to use pyro. Of course, there are key songs like “Enter Sandman” and “One,” that they're going to play most of the time. Some nights, however, they don't play “One.” It's a very odd situation for these guys, especially considering what happened with James.
Prior to our starting to work with the band in 1993, James, Metallica's lead singer, had an accident. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and was severely burned on stage. Now, however, they know safety is our first priority, so they have that comfort zone with us. They don't have to stick to any particular set list. They don't play to a click track. This is a band that likes to ad lib, and you have to expect that in a live show.
We're at the point where they don't restrict my suggestions. It can be a great relationship when you have that trust. There are no fountains, no sparks, no gerbs, no purple or pink colors — that's not their look. They may have something in mind, but for the most part, they give me carte blanche. I come back to them and show them an idea and they either say they love it or not and then we make some changes. For the most part we're in tune with each other.
Obviously, safety requirements are more stringent today than ever before, especially since September 11 and the Rhode Island incident, and differ from state to state. The main differences are laws concerning alcohol, tobacco, and firearms — the ATF license. I have around 30 different licenses in different cities and states across North America. They vary in their regulations to some degree. Some areas require a 5-lb. limit per propane unit and others a 20-lb. pound limit. One must be well-acquainted with the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1126: Pyrotechnics Before an Audience; NFPA 160: Standard Flame Effects Before an Audience; and NFPA 5855: Proper Storage of Propane (to review these standards, visit www.nfpa.org). Hazardous goods, transportation, and storage laws must also be considered.
As far as risks, we have designed some pretty radical scripts — particularly on Metallica's Load tour. During the “Destruction Scene” toward the end of the show, we planned for a technician to be set on fire. In addition, spot ops fell out of their baskets attached to a static line, and another guy fell off the tower and swung into the deck. It was extremely impressive, and all scripted.
We perform these awesome antics while conforming to strict regulations, including demonstrations for fire departments and bomb squads. When we say, “we're going to set a guy on fire,” they can't believe it. We have to carry special licenses for the company and for me as an operator. Each operator on tour is required to obtain the proper license for working in each location, and the company must assume responsibility for adhering to local bylaws. Some cities only allow local residents to obtain the license for that jurisdiction. Often, a person is hired and dubbed the “local shooter.” This person holds a valid license for that city or country of jurisdiction and must be present to oversee the operations.
We employ 75 people and have expanded services to cover pyrotechnic displays for touring productions, theatres, and movie and television productions. Our new laser light show division also has to adhere to strict safety bylaws. Every show must be filed with both state and federal government bodies advising them of the venue, what type of lasers will be used during the performance, output power of the lasers, and what effects will be used. We must ensure proper clearance of beam paths/scans, proper termination of beams, and absolutely no audience scanning.
AND ONE CASE STUDY…
Finally, an example of “When in doubt leave it out”: On one of our tours, after performing over 100 shows, Metallica member Kirk Hammett was drifting to a different part of the stage for his solo. He ended up standing over a flame projector recessed under the stage. The cue to detonate came, but instead, I turned the controller off and removed the key. Hence, I missed the pyro cue for that song. James immediately looked over at me standing by my control and yelled, “What the F#*K?” thinking I missed the cue. I then pointed over to Kirk, as he was still standing over the pyro device. James then ran over to Kirk and yelled at him instead. After the show, the band called me into the dressing room. Kirk walked up to me and gave me a hug and said, “Thanks, man, for looking out for me.” Never become complacent. When in doubt, leave it out.
Doug Adams owns and operates Pyrotek Special Effects, which has supplied special effects to artists such as Metallica, KISS, Paul McCartney, Bon Jovi, Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, and Kid Rock to name a few. Pyrotek has recently relocated to facilities in Toronto and Las Vegas and opened a new laser light show division, Laser Design Productions. Visit www.pyrotekfx.com.
Doug Adam's Laser Design Productions for the Trans-Siberian Orchestra's 2003 tour
Top Ten Rules of Special Effects
- Pyro can be extremely dangerous if misused and should only be used for professional applications by a competent adult using the manufacturer's instructions.
- A pyrotechnic crew chief should be made responsible for setting up and firing all pyrotechnics.
- Ensure that the operator has a clean line of sight to the devices at all times.
- Position all pyro devices so that there is no possibility of bodily injury.
- Position all pyro devices so that there is no possibility of setting fire to adjacent materials, fabric, costumes, or scenery.
- Always remove the key before plugging in the controller. Keep the key in your pocket during set up and loading. Only put the key in the controller when you are ready to test or fire the devices.
- Ensure that suitable firefighting equipment and an emergency first aid kit are available and that personnel are trained in their correct use.
- Ensure that no smoking or any other source of ignition is allowed in the vicinity of the pyro material.
- Take only sufficient devices for each performance. Do not store excess material on stage.
- When in doubt — leave it out!