Fireworks shows have a formula, whether you’re watching the Macy’s 4th Of July Fireworks display over the Brooklyn Bridge, with Idina Menzel singing “The Star Spangled Banner” as the show nears its climax, or sitting in Homestead Park in Highland, Indiana, as the town sets off its annual display. It goes something like this: Initial burst of color, steady stream of explosions with rising and falling action, brief lull, grand finale. If you were raised in the U.S., you probably figured out the basics of it when you were about ten years old.
But within that format, there’s room for remarkable amounts of creativity–and that’s especially true as technological advances have changed the face of fireworks the same way they’ve changed the face of everything else. That’s something that Amy Kule, the executive producer of the Macy’s 4th of July Fireworks show, finds fascinating as she prepares to unveil a display she and her creative team spent two years developing.
“This particular show is actually two years in the making,” Kule says. “We were ramping up in celebration of the 200th anniversary of ‘The Star Spangled Banner.'” The national anthem will be sung by Frozen breakout star Idina Menzel as the display builds to its climax, Kule reveals–following a quieter moment involving the Pledge of Allegiance–but all of this is part of a tradition that she and her team are keen to follow.
“Every fireworks show ends with a grand finale, and ours does too,” she explains. “We have two pieces that people generally look forward to within the fireworks. One is what we call ‘The Golden Mile,’ and it’s the biggest part of the fireworks leading into the finale. We’ve been doing that for years. And the finale itself, what may look like just ‘set everything off that hasn’t gone off yet’ is really a well-tuned, well-planned finale, and it is big and it is explosive.”
From the spectator’s perspective, fireworks shows haven’t changed much in the past couple hundred years: Things go up, they explode, everybody goes, “Oooh.” Maybe there are some new bursts in the sky, but you could take someone from a fireworks display 200 years ago, bring them to a show today, and they’d have a pretty easy time recognizing it as familiar. But from the creative standpoint, technology has reshaped what a display can accomplish.
“Technology and science enable us to do what we do these days,” Kule says. “Computers are a very big part of what we do these days, because you could send fireworks up in the sky second by second, and you could really fully program what takes place in the sky at every level–from 800 feet in the air to the low-lying stuff that really just seems to sit on the water. And then colors and shapes and sizes are all really part of that technology.”
Those colors and shapes have some new innovations to them, as well. A few years ago, smiley-face patterns came onto the market; this year, those smiley faces can actually wink at the audience. But innovation in fireworks isn’t just about special effects–an emoticon in the sky is neat, but a single neat effect isn’t what keeps fireworks fascinating. And Kule understands that these effects are really about getting an emotional response from the people watching.
“Technology enables us to be even more creative, and to tell an even more wonderful, expansive story in the sky,” she says. “It’s not something that we really want to change. What we want to do is work with those subtleties that bring these shows to life. Although there’s a lot of high tech behind the scenes, a lot of what comes to life is really quite pure, and really quite spectacular. I’ve never met anybody who didn’t like fireworks. Loving fireworks as a jumping off point, and then seeing our show? There’s a whole lot of smiling faces on the 4th of July. Not just the ones in the sky, but the ones that are looking up to the sky.”
Still, Kule has favorites among the new products out there–she’s fond of multi-colored bursts, and mentions a new one she saw this year that has a puff in the center that’s one color, and everything that comes out of it is another, as a particular favorite–but she says that she and her team always approach them with an eye toward storytelling.
“It’s always ‘What more can we do to tell a more beautiful and complete story in the sky,’” she says. “You just have so many more assets at your disposal to use. It’s a great thing.”