How to Become a Fireworks Show Designer

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Whether I go to the location of an actual Fourth of July fireworks show or climb the mountain near my house to look out over the displays of several nearby towns, I enjoy watching the fireworks shells explode in their intricate aerial dance. Indeed, high level fireworks display designers are called choreographers, but just how does one become a fireworks display choreographer?

Doug Taylor, the president and CEO of Zambelli Fireworks, laid out the complete career path for fireworks show designers and choreographers for me in a recent interview. Zambelli Fireworks is one of the largest fireworks show producers in the country, handling as many as 500 separate fireworks events this Fourth of July for cities like Dayton, Ohio, Aurora Colo., Palm Springs, Fla., and Phoenix, Ariz.

What kind of training do fireworks designers have?

There is really no formal way that is accepted by the industry to do it except for on-the-job training. We have four choreographers that do this high level of choreography. They learned it on their own.

[Related: Fireworks Professional: More than 500 Shows a Year]

It's only 12 or 13 years ago that [today's] high level of fireworks choreography was possible because of the computer systems that were developed to make it work. They would design shows by listening to music, before computer-firing and computer-designing, and they could tell the shooter [when they should shoot each shell] electrically. At this second, they should shoot the four red chrysanthemums or send up the smiley face, but the level of choreography that's available now is so much higher. It's a fairly new technology to the industry and there is no formal training program.

Are there apprentice programs for fireworks show designers?

Could you find a really good choreographer and say, "I want to be an apprentice," and work with them? Yeah. For choreographers like we have, which are really world class choreographers, there's really no training school yet. They really just have to work with other choreographers and play on their own, which really means that the level of understanding and emotional attachment to music and fireworks has to be very strong. Plus, they have to have good computer aptitude.

How old does one have to be to get started?

You have to be 18 to actually be out on a show site. You have to be 21 to be the head tech on a show.

Does being a fireworks choreographer pay well?

These people get paid a lot of money. I mean, we get our money's worth, but they're not inexpensive employees because there are so few high-quality ones. One of the things, coming from outside the industry, that I would love to see is for us be able to do is promote our industry more from the aspect of the high level of professionalism that you have to have for this. There are real careers for people in this industry, doing things like high-level choreography.

What would be the career path? Where would you start out if you wanted a career in fireworks?

Let me give you an example of a young guy that I've had some conversations with over the last six months. He's very interested. Now, he's 17 years old, so he's not old enough to be involved yet. He has shown a lot of interest. He has a high level of computer-design capability, he's designed some websites and he's designed games at a low level, but he really has that aptitude. What I'd like to have happen for him is to have him go through our early training program about safety, handling and all the other issues that would give him a preliminary look. That will happen probably this coming spring after he turns 18.

Then, what he'd be able to do is go out on shows and work as a helper. A helper is, initially, pure labor. It's carrying the mortars out to the site. It's carrying the boxes of fireworks out to the site and things like that. More experienced people are actually handling the fireworks and taking care of the shows, but he would go to some show that he would learn on. Depending on the head tech's evaluation of his skills and how attentive he is to safety, he'll gradually get to where he's more and more involved.

It's education related to the fireworks industry that is so important. He has to understand what's going on at the job site to be able to ultimately get to the point where he can design a show. He has to understand the impact of the way the design is laid out so the technicians can efficiently lay it out and really give the customer what they wanted, or more than they wanted.

Then, what will happen is an opportunity to experience the software, hopefully be able to spend some time on the weekends or during the summer actually playing with the software trying to develop some preliminary designs and what we'll do is hook him up with one of our designers who will work with him, show him some ideas. Hopefully, he'll get to work with several of our designers because our designers all have different interpretations of the way a show should be put together based on their own connection with the music.

How long before he gets to design his own real fireworks shows?

If he follows the path, it will really give him an opportunity to work with these high level professionals to be able to develop him. Over, I'm guessing, depending upon how much time he can commit to it, over two or three years, he'll get to where he'll probably get to design some small shows and gradually, if he wanted to when he graduated [from college], he'd get to a point where he could make some very good money doing it.

What's the youngest fireworks display choreographer you have at Zambelli Fireworks?

The youngest choreographer that we have is about 30. He's been shooting fireworks since he was 18. He really developed on his own because of his interest and he was able to work with other people who did choreography. Now, he's got a good long-term career.

Not every show, you said, has that kind of choreography, so what's the level of expertise required for a local county fair or something smaller?

It's the same process, it's just not as detailed because the show will be fired by an electric system, but the head technician will be making the connections on the firing system to cause them to go off. You know, he'll shoot two shells at five seconds, two shells at seven seconds and then he'll wait until 11 seconds, you know, because the shots fired at seven seconds are going to hang. My guess is he'll spend maybe eight or ten hours putting that together. It's not as complicated as a computer firing. It's not as sophisticated.
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