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Working With Pyrotechnics On Set

Exclusive article from the New York Film Academy.

Getting the chance to work with pyrotechnics is about as exciting as it sounds, but not nearly as dangerous as you’d imagine (when handled properly, that is.)

Still, there are a few key things to consider when working on any scene which features live fire and other active visual effects.

It’s Not All About Explosions

Firstly, it’s important to understand that the umbrella-term ‘pyrotechnics’ applies to more than just violent explosions. Unless you’re Michael Bay, chances are you won’t be blowing up oil tankers and entire buildings while on set but that doesn’t mean you aren’t dealing in pyrotechnics.

Even something as simple as using squibs and smoke pots – which don’t produce any significant fire – fall under this category. And that brings us to the Golden Rule of pyrotechnics.

The Golden Rule

The worst mistake imaginable would be to assume that just because you’re working with very simple pyrotechnic effects, you’ll be able to wing it yourself with homemade devices while on set. Chances are you will be absolutely fine, but as a director with a duty of care to everybody on set, you don’t want to risk something going wrong.

As such, it’s vitally important to budget for a pyrotechnician. Expect to pay between $30-$70 per hour for this necessity, which isn’t bad given the level of professionalism and responsibility an expert pyrotechnician brings with them to the set. In addition, the peace of mind and fantastic results make the fee more than worth it.

It’s also advisory to make sure you’re happy with the pyrotechnician’s credentials and capabilities. Meet early to discuss the script and storyboard; if nothing else, it’s useful to get an expert opinion on what you’re trying to achieve and limitations.

Either way, in most jurisdictions it’s illegal to prepare and use pyrotechnics while filming without a licensed professional on board. But if you cannot make budgetary arrangements for this, or cannot find a suitable pyrotechnician, all is not lost – just drop the scene, or rewrite the script to get around the lack of pyrotechnics.

Best Shooting Practices

With the cautionary note out of the way, it’s time to get down to the shoot itself.

Naturally, ensure that everyone on the set – from the lead talent to the dolly grip – knows exactly what’s going to happen, even if it’s as straight forward as grouping everyone together and stating “we’re going to have a small fire in this area”. The pyrotechnician will be responsible for overseeing any such scenes (and will liaise directly with stunt specialists) but it’s a good opportunity to field questions from the production team.

Safety aside, arguably the most important person to speak to is the lead camera operator. Filming certain kinds of pyrotechnic effects can be challenging, and you don’t want a one-off, expensive shoot to quite literally go up in smoke. Thankfully, most exposure issues these days can be fixed in post, but it’ll make everyone’s life easier if you can accommodate for lighting conditions and the speed/brightness level of pyrotechnics ahead of time.

Again, It’s Not All About the Explosions…

In closing, pyrotechnic effects can massively enhance the production value of your film and are great fun to work with. However, depending on the genre you’re shooting, they can easily become overbearing to the viewer (and even the best of us succumb to getting carried away after planning an expensive pyro display.)

Like all types of visual effect, remember that pyrotechnics should supplement the overall film rather than dominate it. The last thing you want is for your lead actress’ poignant two-minute monologue to be undermined by a three-minute explosion sequence; an audience can intuitively identify an over-focus on set pieces, and even if they’re not aware of it, this kind of thing can mar their overall experience.

A director must equally rely on their intuition in order to prevent this from happening. One sure-fire way of attaining this eye to detail is with formal training – the NYFA filmmaking school in particular is keen to train its students to pay attention to the nuances of composition…

… with or without the explosions.

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