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Making sparks: How pyro pros make concerts go boom

'You’re blowing up stuff and people are paying you for it. That’s a cool feature of it. But the other thing is that you’re a part of lasting memories,' says Max Freedman, who helped create this 2017 Coachella display for Marshmello. (Christopher Polk/Getty Images for Coachella)

When you go to a concert by Macklemore, Pitbull, or Marshmello, it’s not just for the music — you’re also going for an elaborate spectacle, and often that means waterfalls of sparks raining down from the ceiling or pillars of fire erupting from the edge of the stage. In short, pyrotechnics.

Pyrotechnics can incorporate anything from fire and confetti to sparklers and something called a concussion — basically a huge bomb sound. That’s according to Paul “Arlo” Guthrie of Toss Film & Design in Roseville, Minnesota.

Guthrie (who’s nicknamed after the singer) has been working in live entertainment for 35 years, starting with doing lighting for bands on the weekends when he was 15 years old. “Bands come to me and say they’re going on tour, and I design their stage, lighting, and what the show is going to look like.”

It takes a lot of planning, collaborating, and chemistry in both the scientific and interpersonal sense to pull off concert pyrotechnics. “Whether you’re working with titanium to zirconium to magnesium, all these elements and chemical composures make pyrotechnics,” says Max Freedman of Sparktacular Inc., a multifaceted Florida-based family business that includes FX Machines, a leader in pyrotechnic innovations.

Production managers like Guthrie hire specialists like Freedman to provide the literal spark for the shows. They don’t come in, though, until the later stages of Guthrie’s thorough planning process.

A Paul “Arlo” Guthrie design for Halsey’s performance at the Armory in Minneapolis.

Packing the powder

When a musical artist recruits someone like Guthrie, they’re hiring him to set up the environment they’ll be practically living in for the next year or so. That’s why Guthrie likes to meet the artist first and listen to their music. “It’s no good if I don’t sit down with them and see what they like and just learn more about them,” he says. “Normally I’m inspired by the person I’m going to work with or what they say.”

Those talks establish what the artist has in mind for the overall atmosphere of the concert, what instruments they’re playing, and any physical or financial constraints. After that’s settled, Guthrie can start designing the perfect stage inspired by the artist he’s working with and his love of architecture and photography.

He plans and designs as much as he can for the overall stage. Then, during rehearsals, Guthrie and the artist start to build individual songs, determining which will have certain colors and which will have explosions on every fifth beat, for example. “Each song is going to have its own identity or own look,” Guthrie explains. “And then, maybe in two or three songs, you’re going to do something really special and really cool. You get to keep building.”

His first rendering, or artist impression, of the stage provides an overall picture of what everything will look like if things go according to plan. Once the artist approves the renderings, his technical CAD drawings are given to the vendors hired for sound, lighting, staging, and pyrotechnics.

“I would have a discussion with the companies that supply these effects and a lot of times they have new, cool things they’ve been working on,” Guthrie explains. “Especially these last five years, people have been pushing it a lot harder so there have been a lot of really cool things that they have that they’re willing to try out.”

According to Freedman, artists today can create effects “that have never been done before.” An innovation Freedman likes to promote to artists and production managers is his Pyrotechnic Simulator, which allows an operator to control more variables than they would have with previous pyrotechnic effects technology. “For the first time ever,” he says, it’s possible to “change the height of [pyrotechnic] machines just by pressing buttons.” In other words, with machines like the Pyrotechnic Simulator and other new technology, it’s not left up to chance what flames decide to do or how big they end up getting on stage.

Whether it’s 10-foot sparklers lining the stage or confetti dropping from the ceiling, Freedman supplies what’s needed to execute an idea. Sometimes, he says, artists and production managers “have specific visions that they want to be brought to life but just don’t know how to put all the elements together. So we will assist them in really designing show set pieces to what they have in mind.”

Freedman elaborates: “Sometimes it’s, ‘Hey, we don’t know much about the equipment, but we know that we want flames every time this happens during the show.’ Or, you may have companies who come in and tell you exactly what they want, like, ‘We want 50 hits of this every five minutes for the duration of the event.’”

Macklemore performs with pyrotechnics by Paul “Arlo” Guthrie. (Photo by Zoe Rain)

Show time

“We go out, do a show, and either high five each other or start crying,” Guthrie says about putting a plan into motion. “Sometimes both!”

Although everything is carefully planned, spotters are in place to ensure to the best of their ability that all performers are out of harm’s way when it’s time for effects to deploy. If someone happens to be standing out of place, says Guthrie, the crew members can activate kill switches to stop any potentially dangerous effects. “They can either just squeeze the switch or step on the switch that will basically disable the system.”

The new planning tools don’t just help keep everyone safe, they allow today’s artists to rock displays that even Spinal Tap could never have imagined. “We just did a Halsey show at the Armory [in Minneapolis] a couple of months ago,” Guthrie gives as an example. “And the company that we used for her had these cool pipes that had these holes drilled kind of in a helix pattern going up the pipe. It had propane in it and it kind of looked like a twirling flame bar.”

Freedman’s most memorable project was two years ago when he and his team were asked by EDM star Marshmello to come out to Coachella and bring his effects to life for the Sunday night closing performance. Freedman says working for a client of his stature and on such a grand stage was what made the experience the one that tops all others.

Though Freedman’s job can be stressful, he says, it’s also a lot of fun. “One, you’re blowing up stuff and people are paying you for it. That’s a cool feature of it. But the other thing is that you’re a part of lasting memories for a lot of people,” he explains.

“There’s something insane about putting cans of propane under the stage and lighting them up in the air near other people,” adds Guthrie. When pros like Guthrie and Freedman do their work right, the results are mesmerizing. “The audience goes crazy for it! Something as simple as confetti, they go nuts. Simple pleasure.”

This article was produced as a part of a collaboration between The Current and The Growler, a monthly craft beer lifestyle magazine covering the best stories in beer, food, and culture. Find this article online and in print in the August edition of The Growler.