As U.S. residents crane their necks skyward this week during their local Fourth of July fireworks displays, they may not realize the degree to which increasingly sophisticated software technology is behind all of the booms, blasts and starbursts.
"These programs have created a whole new genre of artists, with fireworks as their medium," said David Whysall of David Whysall International Fireworks.
Whysall's Orton, Ontario, company, for instance, uses a product from Finale Fireworks to choreograph shows.
Designers pick a music track and lay down a background picture of the backdrop location, according to Finale's website. Then they can choose from thousands of graphical effects that mimic various types of real-life firework shells, rockets and effects, simply dragging and dropping them onto a timeline.
The result is a video simulation that gives pyrotechnics companies a visual artifact that they can use to fine-tune the show or display to potential clients.
Finale and competing products, such as ShowSim, can also export script files to a variety of fireworks firing systems, which execute the actual show. In addition, ShowSim offers a 3D environment that allows users to change camera perspectives and get a sense of how the show will look from various audience viewpoints.
These software programs have gained in sophistication over time. One Whysall used many years ago "was a typing thing," he said. "It wasn't a visual thing."
Computerized firing systems have been around for a few decades as well, according to Kyle Kepley, who developed ShowSim and is also an award-winning pyrotechnics expert.
"Prior to that, electrically fired shows were fired using manual switch panels, and prior to the invention of the electric match (called e-match in the trade) shows were fired by hand using road flares to light the fuses directly," Kepley said in an email interview. Hand-fired shows are now rare, both for safety reasons and to ensure well-timed shows.
That last point is key for today's events, which incorporate many "lower-level" fireworks, according to Whysall.
The very largest fireworks shells can take several seconds to reach altitude and explode. But with lower-level fireworks, or ones meant to go off anywhere from ground level to 200 feet, "it's instant ignition," Whysall said.
To ensure this part of the show crackles with precision, software-aided choreography is a must. "You can be more creative and accurate," he said.
But software helps pyrotechnics pros get the most bang out of high-altitude fireworks as well, according to Kepley.
"If a firework needs to burst at a specific time to align with the music, it must be fired several seconds prior to that time," he said. "It would be very difficult to manually fire a show that needed to be synched with other events without very noticeable timing errors."
Not every fireworks show uses software like ShowSim, however.
"Your typical small-town 4th of July show is not choreographed to music or even pre-planned as to which shells are going off at what time, so there is no need for the design and planning that goes into a higher-budget show," Kepley said.
But the software is a mainstay of costly, high-profile shows such as the New Year's Eve display in New York's Times Square, which is choreographed with ShowSim.
Still, not every fireworks expert is sold on the idea of simulation software. The subject drew mixed opinions during a discussion on the Pyro Universe forum earlier this year.
"Choreography cannot be given an advantage by software or secrets, it is something you either have a talent for, or you do not," one forum member wrote. "I have seen people with the best product, firing system and crews in the world shoot [lousy] displays."
But the programs do have their place, another poster wrote. "Many [people] only get to design a handful of real shows every year and these programs give them an outlet to enhance their skills."
Kepley acknowledged the limits of value that technology can bring to fireworks shows, which adherents consider to be a genuine art form.
"The human ability to channel the emotions of the music with the appropriate effect at the right time can't be imitated by a machine," he said. "Software can only go as far as taking the tedium out of that process."
Chris Kanaracus covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Chris's e-mail address is Chris_Kanaracus@idg.com