Boom! Inside the making of a fireworks spectacular (pictures)

Anyone who has watched a fireworks show in the San Francisco area has seen Pyro Spectaculars' work. CNET recently spent a day with one of the company's crews as they produced a "Star Wars" fireworks show for the Oakland A's.


Daniel Terdiman

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OAKLAND, Calif.--What does it take to put together a major fireworks show? The folks at Pyro Spectaculars should know. As one of the biggest pyrotechnics companies in the United States, they're responsible for putting on shows all around the country.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, they're the biggest show around, and they've produced fireworks for New Year's Eve, the Golden Gate Bridge's 75th anniversary, and during the baseball season, a series of shows for the Oakland A's.

CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman recently spent a day with the crew that produced the annual "Star Wars" fireworks show for the A's. Over the course of a full day, the crew built the show almost from scratch, arriving in an empty parking lot, unloading everything from a truck, putting everything required together, and then firing off 15 minutes of spectacular pyro.

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The "Star Wars" show was just 15 minutes long, but from directly underneath, with explosions shaking the ground and lighting up the whole sky, the show felt like it went on much longer.
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The truck carrying the fireworks, and all the gear needed to put it together was driven by a crew member with a special license to drive pyrotechnics.
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Truck full of mortars

When the crew opened the back gate of the truck, they found stacks and stacks of mortars to pull off and set up.
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Bucket brigade

The Pyro Spectaculars crew works together to carry racks of mortars off the truck.
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Checking the plan

The plan for a Pyro Spectaculars fireworks show is created well in advance, and every mortar has a specific place. As the crew set up, members checked a chart showing where each mortar, or gun, was supposed to go.
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Building the racks

Crew members pound nails into boards that hold several racks of mortars together.
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Mortars in two directions

During the show, some racks fire off matching shells in opposite directions so that the same effects are seen in two different locations. In order to do that, the racks are angled away from each other, as seen in this photograph.
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Burned shells from previous show

As the crew sets the racks of mortars up for the "Star Wars" show, they first cleaned every one of them out to make sure there were no live shells left inside from a previous show. While none were found, there were plenty of remnants from burned shells.
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Warning: Dangerous explosive

A warning printed on the outside of the shells indicates that care must be taken when working with the unexploded fireworks.
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The pyro crew runs the show from this controller, which receives radio signals containing cues timed to "Star Wars"-themed music playing inside the Oakland Coliseum. The controller has various safety features to ensure that the show can be stopped if necessary.
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Safety briefing

Dan Ramsauer, the operator in charge of the crew, speaking during a safety briefing hours before the show.
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Shells resting on mortars

When putting together the show, the crew did everything in stages. Here, the individual fireworks shells are laid out atop the mortars in which they'll be put. Before that can happen, though, they must first be wired to a series of modules mounted on the sides of the racks of mortars.
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Wiring up the shells

The crew works methodically to wire up the individual shells to the mortars. Each mortar is individually addressed, and each shell is meant for a specific mortar. Because of that, the show's producers know exactly which fireworks will go off in which order.
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Shell 415

This is shell 415, which is meant to go into a mortar in rack 41. Each mortar has a specific address, and the firework inside it is meant to be fired in a specific order.
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Module addressed

Each rack has what is known as a module mounted on its side, and by setting switches on the module, the producers can be sure that each shell is placed in the precise mortar it's supposed to go in.
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Dropping in finale shells

Two crew members carefully lower shells that will be fired as part of the show's finale into mortars.
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Putting shells into mortars

Crew members carefully stuff individual fireworks shells into their designated mortars. These are finale shells, which will go off together at the end of the show.
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Finale shells wired together

A rack full of finale shells are wired together, ready to be fired during the show hours later.
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All wired up

A module is packed with wiring coming from a group of shells already installed inside individual mortars.
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Covering finale racks

Racks full of shells meant for the finale are covered in aluminum foil so that embers or sparks from other shells don't accidentally ignite their fuses.
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Get no response

After all the shells are wired up, the crew conducts what's called a continuity test. The idea is to be sure that all the wiring has been done properly, and that each shell has been installed in the correct place. During the first test, the box addressed number 48 returned no response, meaning it hadn't been wired properly.
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Testing for continuity

After the first test revealed a number of non-responsive addresses, a crew member checked the wiring of one set of shells to make sure it was done properly.
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Ready to go

With all the set up work done, and the crew moved safely away, the racks full of fireworks sits ready to go just minutes before the show begins.
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First shot

Several members of the crew watch the first shots fired from above.
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Fireworks explode overhead as the show gets going.
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A shell is fired, lifting its rack slightly off the ground.
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Checking the BART bridge

Fireworks shows at the Oakland Coliseum happen alongside a bridge over which people can walk between the stadium and the nearby train station. During the show, the bridge is closed, and afterwards, the pyro crew walks from end to end, checking to make sure no unexploded shells have landed anywhere members of the public might walk.
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A look at one of the racks after the conclusion of the show.

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