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How it's done - Behind the scenes at the competition

The Montréal International Fireworks competition is the largest event of its kind in the world. Each year, seven or eight teams compete by putting on pyromusical displays of a minimum of thirty minutes each. Unlike many competitions, there are no financial rewards for winning, rather, the teams compete purely for the glory and prestige of winning a gold, silver or bronze Jupiter.

The public only sees the fruition of the several days hard labour that go into setting up the shows. The behind-the-scenes events which have to take place to bring the public their enjoyment are an unknown mystery to most people. Here I'd like to attempt to go behind the scenes and show what goes into each of the competition displays.

I'm going to show the materials used, describe the four firing ramps and give some insight into the electronic firing systems used to produce the pinnacle of the pyromusical art.

The materials

All types of pyrotechnics devices are used, with shells of a maximum calibre of 305mm. Mines, gerbes, flares, aquatic devices, rockets, girondolas, single-shot comets, Roman candles, waterfalls and lancework all find their way into the displays.

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100mm mine 250mm Italian shell 305mm Pyro Products shell
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Mounted Roman candles Pre-mounted special effects 200mm shells

The firing site

The firing site is composed of four launching ramps. Ramp one is the farthest from the audience at a distance of approximately 300 metres. This has permanently installed large calibre mortars, in five groups protected by two metre high concrete blast shields. All of the large mortars, the largest permitted being 305mm (12"), are steel tubes buried in sand. All shells which are larger than 100mm (4") are fired from this ramp, which is directly adjacent to the Saint Laurence river. Ramp two, at the back of Lac au Dauphins, is at a distance of approximately 200 metres from the audience. This is used for shells and mines of up to 100mm calibre, plus candles, set pieces, rocket cones etc. Ramp three is pontoon floating in the lake and is used for set pieces, candles, gerbes and nautic shells. This ramp is at a distance of 100 metres from the audience. Nautic shells are permitted to be fired to a distance of 50 metres away from this ramp, and so these shells explode only 50 metres away from the audience. Ramp four is the roof of the control room, which floats in the lake just behind ramp three.

Ramp 1

ramp1-1 ramp1-2 loading1
One of five groups of blast-protected area for 200mm, 250mm and 305mm shells, St Laurence river to the left Other side of blast shields, showing smaller shield for special 150mm shells Group of 150mm guns adjacent to the St Laurence, between groups of blast-protected areas

Ramp 2 and Ramp 4

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General view to the right of ramp 2. Ramp 1 is behind here, with a road in-between. Protective covering is used to prevent rain from disturbing the setup. Eric Tucker of PPA is in the foreground. Ramp 4 is the top of the floating control room which sits behind ramp 3. This houses all the patch boxes for the firing controllers.

Ramp 3

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Ramp 3 floats in the lake. The angled mortars are used to fire nautics devices into the lake. Note that setup is not complete yet in this photo. Loading racks of 75mm shells and mines. Another view. The three white squares at the back of the lake are the audio control room, next to the main seating area. Bonnie Pon of Starburst Pyro from South Africa is the gentleman in the hat

The firing systems

The competition is very fortunate in having access to the most sophisticated permanent pyrotechnics firing site in the world. The organizers recently invested $250,000 in a state-of-the-art firing and setup system. Permanent cables are connected from the firing room, which directly overlooks the site and affords the same view as the audience, to a central control station which then distributes signals to junction boxes on all the firing ramps. The system has been designed to allow traditional electrical firing, using a "Goliath" 500 cue firing console designed by Concept Fiatlux, and also to interface to the PyroDigital and FireOne computerized firing systems. This infrastructure allows the organizers great control over the setup of all the displays and is a major safety feature. Prior to installation of the new system, up to 30km of wiring was required for each show. The new junction boxes and interfaces greatly reduce the amount of wire required, thus decreasing the setup time and increasing safety. There was an incident several years ago where a flight of shells was fired due to an electrical storm in the vicinity of the shoot site. Long firing wires are more prone to pick up stray electric fields which can induce sufficient current to fire an electric match. At the same time as this incident, a metal mortar tube was struck by lightning, launching some 60 shells and startling the pyrotechnician setting up the display, who was stood only 10 feet away.

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16-cue PyroDigital firing module connected to a rack of 75mm shells and comets PyroDigital field Controller (photo used with permission) Patch panels in the control room beneath ramp 4. FireOne uses RJ11 jacks; PyroDigital uses XLR connectors
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Connections from the control room to one of the five groups of ramp 1 Connections boxes on ramp 2 Eric Tucker of PPA (left) with your host

Audio facilities

The Lac aux Dauphins is surrounded by a system of thirty two loud speakers, connected to an audio control room with a capacity of 100,000 Watts. Each team provides a DAT tape with their audio track. In the case of electronic firing, this will contain the necessary time-codes used by the firing controllers to synchronize the display to the music. The audio track is also simulcast on a local radio station, Cité Rock Détente 107,3FM.

The competition setup

The competition planners work for the entire year to bring together the creme de la creme of the pyrotechnics world. Potential participants are approached by the competition's artistic director, (formerly Maestro Giovani Panzera until his untimely death last year), immediately after the end of the current year's competition. Once the teams have been chosen, they are sent detailed technical information about the firing site, regulations on the material they can use and the date when they will be competing. Each team is given a large amount of money (the current figure is not published) by the event sponsors to pay for pyrotechnic material. The organizers pay for all shipping costs for up to a maximum of 700Kg net explosive weight (correct as of 1999), all transportation and accommodation for the team members plus all the setup, tear-down and insurance costs for the display. The list of competitors is made public in early January each year.

The organizers provide two crews, one of seventeen people to setup the shows and another of ten people to tear-down and clean up afterwards. The setup crew is composed of two coordinators, two senior pyrotechnicians, three other pyrotechnicians, six heavy equipment operators for installing racks and moving sand around and one other assistant, as well as office staff. It takes approximately three days for this crew to setup a display. After the display has finished, half an hour is allowed for safety in case of hang-fires and then the pyrotechnics crew inspect the site for live material which is then removed. At midnight, the crew of ten spend eight hours tearing down the display and cleaning up so that the next display can be assembled. The pyrotechnics crew work from 8am to 6pm each day.

Judging and Rules

The competition uses a "popular jury" system for judging, rather than using appointed judges. The jury is chosen from applications sent in by email. (Previously, applications were made using forms from the media sponsor, La Presse). For the 2002 competition twelve people people were selected, with a balanced mix assured between the sexes and different ages groups. Previously, there were twenty five jurors. Three "spare" jury members are also selected to ensure that each display is judged by a full quorum. Update: in 2010 the popular jury is composed of 19 members. Their marks are recorded after each show in the following judging criteria used:

Pyrotechnic pieces:
diversity and quality of the pieces as well as diversity and richness of colours used;
precision of simultaneity between the music, fireworks elements and sound effects;
selection of music and the mixing from one musical piece to another;
Technical design:
use of space, density of products and the ability to sustain the same level of quality performance throughout the display;
Pyromusical concept:
how the music relates to the quantity and the choice of pyrotechnic pieces and the originality and dynamic rhythm of the entire display.

At the end of the competition, the jury can readjust their scores to a limited extent.

The rules for the competitors are very straight forward. Each display has to have a minimum duration of thirty minutes. No shells of a calibre greater than 305mm (12") and no devices using parachutes. Any special effects or unusual devices have to be tested and approved for safety where deemed necessary by the Explosives Regulatory Board of the Canadian Natural Resources department. However, there is no requirement that any pyrotechnic material used has to be approved for general use within Canada. This effectively means that there will be material used in the Montreal displays which would not otherwise be seen at a regular Canadian display. There is also no upper limit on the amount of material a team can use, though the organizers will only pay for the shipping of a maximum of 700Kg net weight of explosives per display.

Spectators and other information

The Montréal International Fireworks Competition is the most popular festival in Québec, according to a recent market survey with up to 2.3million people watching per season. The exact number of spectators for each display is hard to estimate. There are 7,200 paid seats at La Ronde with space for another 26,000 people at the site (the fire limit at La Ronde is 33,000). There are upwards of 70,000 on the adjacent Jacques Cartier bridge, which is closed to traffic from 8pm onwards on fireworks nights. However, the total number of people watching on the banks of the St Laurence, in Vieux Montreal and other places around the city has been estimated to be in excess of 500,000 people when the weather is warm.

A few final statistics:

I'd like to thank Paul Csukassy (chief pyrotechnic director), Martyne Gagnon (competition director) and the staff of Parc Jean Drapeau for the information information supplied to compile this article and for permission to take the photographs used. I'd also like to thank Eric Tucker of PPA and Ken Nixon of PyroDigital for their permission for some of the photographs and finally also Dana Echtner for use of some of her photographs.