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Tue 18 Jan 2011 03:15 PM

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What a blast

Oman hosted the 2010 World Fireworks Championships last month – the largest ever in the contests history. Mark Wooding, CEO of the event, takes us behind the scenes at what was a dazzling end to the Sultanate’s 40th National Day celebrations.

What a blast

The skies of Muscat
were lit up for over two weeks last month, as the World Fireworks Championships
descended on the Sultanate. The largest of its kind in the world, the contest,
which ran during lavish celebrations for Oman’s 40th National Day and has been
two years in the making, brought six international competitors together to
battle it out for the 2010 title.

And while winning team Lacroix-Ruggiere put on what the
judging panel deemed the best, competing displays were spectacular in their own
right. Set amongst the palm trees and fountains of the Al Qurum Natural Park,
each pyro-musical display saw fireworks choreographed to music and linking to a
chosen theme, explains Mark Wooding, CEO of the World Fireworks Championships.

“Each display should be around 25 minutes and each
competitor has the same budget, but is at liberty to add whatever firework
stock they like,” he explains. “There are restrictions on some of the kinds of
pyrotechnic product they can use, largely for safety or shipping issues, and they
can only bring eight team members to prepare the display.”

Wooding says that the six competitors at the event were
where chosen from a long list of 50 international organisations, which was then
whittled down to 10, and then the final six, based on proposals submitted.

An international panel of expert pyrotechnic judges boasting
over 100 years combined experience in large-scale fireworks presided over the
championships, including: Andrew Fielder, a UK-based veteran of ‘the art’ of
fireworks; Vicente Caballer Ramirez, who has nearly 60 years of experience at
Pirotecnia Caballer, which was founded in 1880; Anthony Busuttil, founder of
Malta Fireworks; and David Weimer, owner of Pyro-Art, the only firm to ever
complete a show at the ancient Acropolis in Greece. Fielder, chairman of the
judging panel, said choosing an overall winner wasn’t an easy task. “The scores
were very close and the judging panel found it to be really difficult to
announce the winner,” he said. “The criteria for the championship were 15 but
they were taken into consideration broadly in four areas like innovation,
technology, safety and subjective impression of the judges and mood of the

Wooding further explains that the judging criterion goes
beyond the aesthetics of the final products. “They look at safety and site
management - is safe practice well observed, does the team manage the set-up
area effectively?” Also under scrutiny in artistic interpretation and technical
merit: “Is the soundtrack a good choice? Does the show interpret the theme and
music? Are the fireworks particularly unusual or beautiful? Do the fireworks
synchronise well with the soundtrack?”

The final criterion is overall effectiveness, with the
judges considering audience reaction in their score.

According to Wooding, a competition of this nature is not
just about the entertainment factor and the final trophy. “It’s to encourage
excellence in the pyrotechnic production arts, but also to help the audience
appreciate the difference between an excellent and an average display.”

Excellent or average, the event garnered considerable
support, with locals and tourists turning out to see the spectacular results
over the duration of the contest. “We think we had well in excess of 100,000
from various points around Muscat,”
says Wooding.

10 minutes with Vulcan

Joint second place winner Vulcan, based in Hong
Kong, is predominantly a pyrotechnics manufacturer, but pulled out
all stops to put on an impressive display inspired by the Omani culture and landscapes.
We caught up with John Werner, technical director at the firm, who has over 30 years
of experience in the business of fireworks, to find out more about the team’s entry
in the championships.

How did Vulcan nab a place in the contest?

We were contacted by the organisers I think as a result of a
couple of shows we did in Hanover,
Germany. We did
a competition there two years in a row and took first and second place, and I think
that indicated to the sponsors that we were capable of putting on a show of the
dimensions they were looking for.

What kind of preparations took place in the lead up to the event?

Cindy Cheung [also part of Vulcan’s technical team] and I went
over to Oman, once we accepted the application, in June to meet with the organisers,
inspect the site and get an idea of what we were dealing with in terms of the layout
of the site and also to see who the competition was. We then had a very tight schedule
to put the show together.

How was the design of the show developed?

We had to put together a musical proposal first that sponsors
looked over and submitted to the National Day High Council, and once that was approved,
we started the choreography for the show. And what that involved was giving the
sponsors an idea of the quantity and they types of products that we were going to
be shooting and how we were going to stage the themes for the show. At that point,
that was a very rough outline. And I flew over the Hong Kong
to choreograph the show with Cindy in July, so it was a collaborative effort between
the two of us.

We had to very quickly firm up the music, make sure the timings
were all right – we had a time interval of between 20 and 25 minutes for the entire
duration of the show. So once we got our final soundtrack cut, we sat down for two
weeks and, every day, for eight hours or more a day, we selected products and put
the whole show together.

What tools do you use as part of the design process?

We do it much like TV or movie production where we actually do
a story board. My background is in fine arts so I would do the story board and we
had several shoots with the site layout and how we wanted to stage where the effects
were coming from and then for every scene and major portion of the music, we’d draw
a little picture of what we had in our minds and what effects we were going to use.
It really helps us keep track of the products we’re using. There are thousands of
items in there so the value of having a story board can’t be underestimated. And
it’s nice to flip through it and remind yourself what you were thinking and make
some colour and effect notations.

Are products manufactured specifically for a project like this?

Since we’re a manufacturer, not just a display company per se,
we have to have all our products manufactured – we don’t have a warehouse stocked
with shelves of materials ready to go. So once the choreography was complete, we
made up a list of what we envisaged for the show and send that to our two major
factories in China.
It’s obviously then a big job to keep track of it all, labelling it correctly so
we know what part of the show it goes into and where it gets hooked to on the computer
firing system. It took about six weeks to produce all the products for the show
and then it needed to be shipped. It was a pretty hectic timetable – typically you’d
want a bit more time but we managed to get it all there and ready in time.

How much stock was used for Vulcan’s entry?

It was roughly half a 40 foot container worth of fireworks and
the number of cues - incidences where the computer tells something to fire - was
over 3000, which is a pretty big cue count. And that doesn’t mean there’s over 3000
things that are fired, it’s actually much more because some things get fired simultaneously.

What was the theme of your entry?

The overall theme was harmony and the show was split into eight
sections each with their own theme as well. The opening theme itself, most people
will know as the theme from 2001 – it’s somewhat corny but it’s very powerful and
we wanted something that would get people to turn in the right direction and look
where they should be so they were aware that something spectacular was going to
happen. We had a lot of shots and a lot of noise in the opening, just to get people

We wanted to show what we felt were the different aspects of
the Omani culture and their way of life. They are a very proud people and are very
conscious of their strengths. And we wanted to emphasis the landscapes – the water,
the palm trees, the desert.

What would you rate as the key element in competing at this level?

The key is getting a whole heap of effects to mesh together perfectly
to get the desired effect. I think in terms of uniqueness and quality of product,
we were strong competitors. Winning was not our main purpose, we wanted to really
show what we are capable of.