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Monday, October 26, 2015

Pyrotechnic Art

Angelfire Indoor fireworks. Fifty years ago, indoor fireworks were all but unheard of.
Cinderella Castle Spectacular,
Charles Ridgway photo print.
It's not surprising that almost since the first universities back in Medieval times, that they've offered degrees in "Arts and Sciences." Of course, there are many apt instances when art augments the sciences and vice-versa. Usually one tends to predominate over the other. As the traditional means of creative expression, art tends to dominate the sciences. In others media, such as creating with glass, lights, gemstones, precious metals, and the proverbial "earth, wind, and fire," the sciences are beautified by art. Sometimes the two meld together on something approaching an equal footing. To some extent the art to science ratio in a given type of creative expression, has chang-ed noticeably in the past hundred years as the technical control elements of art have been strengthened and refined. That has certainly been he case with what I termed "earth, wind, and fire." When they combine with a degree in the science of mathematics, we've come to call them "fireworks," or the more modern term "pyrotechnics."

Royal Fireworks Display, London, 1749, hand painted etching.
A fireworks castle (tower) built to support
fixed pyrotechnic images, at an international
competition in Tultepec, Mexico, 2013.
Certainly the sciences are important in pyrotechnic art. If the science is slighted, people die. In May, 1983, eleven workers were killed in an explosion at a secret, unlicensed, fireworks factory hidden away on a farm near Benton, Tennessee. By the same token, without the element of art, pyrotechnics would be little more than deafening explosions. Today, thanks to advanced "rocket science," computerized controls, enhanced by carefully orchestrated recorded mus-ic, I find myself questioning whether pyrotechnics are now more art than science. It seems that once the science is mastered and deference to it carefully observed, the element of art, with its near-infinite depth and possibilities, begins to dominate. We have only to observe the work of a probably frustrated British artist in 1749 (above) as he tried to do justice to a no doubt spectacular (for its time) fireworks display along the banks of the Thames in London, to realize how far we've come. Unlike Disney's efforts (above, left) today, the "castle" in the background was real, the monotonous golden fire fountains, despite their numbers, were but crude imitations of volcanism.

Fireworks, 1912, Isaak Brodsky
Even as late as 1912, even with the advent of modern-day oils, even with the freedom of rampant Expressionism at the time, artists such as Isaak Brodsky, in his painting Fireworks (above), still found himself struggling to even hint at the awesome spectacle of a London fireworks display. Note the use of variously colored bombshells in the distance. If early 20th-century painters struggled, photographers, with their lagging exposure times and black & white film, didn't even try when it came to fireworks. Why bother? Under the best of circumstances the results would equate to taking a shower with your clothes on. You wouldn't see much. Today, of course, the reverse is true. Few painters would dare go up against an experienced color photographer in trying to capture a fireworks display. Locally, my wife and I try every year to attend the Marietta, Ohio, Sternwheel Festival (below) fireworks extravaganza. Notice the waterfall display from the bridge in he lower right corner.

The best fireworks display in West Virginia (seen over the Ohio River).
Today, even small cities like Marietta boast of their signature fireworks festival, often on July Fourth, but also on other holidays such as New Year's Eve, Veterans Day, Labor Day or, as with Marietta, merely the second weekend in September. One such community apparently sets off fireworks on Easter (below). What a joyous manner in which to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ!

While all shell bursts tend to have a somewhat flower-like shape, this one in particular would seem to set the gold standard in that regard.
St. Louis' Gateway Arch silhouette
New Year's Eve, precisely at midnight local time, virtually every major city around the world has a tendency to EXPLODE with pyrotechnical lights and color, usually forming a backdrop to their most famous urban landmark. In New York it's Times Square (below, left); in Sydney, Australia, their Opera House and Harbor Bridge (below); as well as in San Diego, Dallas, Milwaukee, and Williamsburg, Virginia. In St. Louis (left), the fireworks highlight their Gateway Arch (July Fourth), while in Paris (below, right), it's the Eiffel Tower, (July 14th, Bastille Day). In our nation's capital, the fireworks erupt every July Fourth and (both figuratively and literally) every four years on the night before a President is inaugurated.

New Year's Eve 2012, Times Square
The Eiffel Tower, Bastille Day, Paris,
Sydney, Australia, the Opera House and Harbor Bridge, New Year's Eve
Don't try this at home.

Fireworks can be art, but also inspire art,
as with this fused glass sculpture, Pyrotechnical-1,
by the husband and wife team, Jeff & Jaky Felix .



  1. Hello Jim,
    Just wrote a blog post on CGI and visual aspect of movies. Would love to know your thoughts as an expert.

  2. Raj--

    You pose an interesting question moviemakers have had to deal with for generations: Why do some movies stand up well to the passing years while others appear dated after as little as ten years. One factor has to do with the era the movie was set in. Costume dramas tend to age better than contemporary pieces. I'm still wowed by Cleopatra and Ben-Hur, as well as GWTW, all of which were state of the art when made and did not depend upon visual effects for most of their original appeal. It the script is good, the direction top-notch, the acting good to great, then with, or without, edge-of-your-seat action, the movie will age pretty well. Casablanca is a good example. The problems, the relationships, the dialog is ageless. Your discourse on the original Mad Max is excellent in describing a movie that has not aged well. Most don't, in fact, only the best rise above becoming an anachronism.

    Thanks for your comment.

  3. Thanks, Jim, for the quick reply. You are absolutely right about the ageless elements that make up the movie. I like Casablanca, too and I still watch The Longest Day. I sometimes fear where the excessive CGI in today's movies is going to lead us.
    Thanks again for your comment.