Pyrotecnico FX

Let Three Fireworks Technicians Teach You About Blowing Stuff the Hell Up

by Luke O'Neil at

Each year around the Fourth of July, Americans of all political persuasions set aside their differences and come together in celebration of one inalienable truth: Watching shit blow up in the sky is cool as hell. While fireworks displays have become an inextricable aspect of contemporary Americana, it's easy to overlook just how long they've been with us. The practice is, of course, a tradition that stretches all the way back to seventh-century China, which is appropriate, since the majority of the 17 million pounds of fireworks set off in July every year by professionals, and 170 million pounds by amateurs at home, are actually made in China. USA! USA!

For all the wonder and spectacle that fireworks evoke, they're also a pretty efficient delivery system of another tried and true American pastime: fucking ourselves up. In 2013, for example, an estimated 11,400 people went to the hospital for fireworks-related injuries.

While there's certainly a thrill to setting off your own display in your backyard, and getting wasted and handling explosive devices that scare the shit out of your neighbors is undoubtedly a good idea, more often than not, as with many things, it's best to leave fireworks to the professionals. I asked a few of those professionals about what goes into becoming a fireworks pro. My panel included Mike Tockstein of Pyrotechnic Innovations, a California group that trains prospective pyrotechnicians, who's done shows for the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and New Year's Day at the Rose Bowl; Jonathan Gesse of Chicago's Melrose Pyrotechnics, the group behind the 2012 Super Bowl show; and Rocco Vitale of Pyrotecnico, one of the biggest operators in the country.

VICE: What exactly is it that you do?
Mike Tockstein: I've been doing pro fireworks displays as an operator for about 15 years now. I'm basically the guy that is in charge of putting together a crew and setting the display up and firing the display, whether it's just the display itself or choreographed with music or whatnot. I train a lot of the new technicians that come in. I originally got my license back in 2001. I started Pyrotechnic Innovations to recruit people to work my crews. Usually when you first start you have the "Friends and Family Crew," and it's a lot more stressful for the operator in charge because you're responsible for the success and execution of the show. The "Friends and Family Crew" are more there to hang out, like, "Hey, this is kind of cool!" They're not the kind of people that you can say, "I need you to set up this part of the show and knock it it out." That takes a lot of training. You need people who are passionate about pyrotechnics.

Rocco Vitale: Our company dates back to 1889. My great-grandfather started it. My brother runs it, and we are both fourth generation. It's a family business. Our company now has offices all over the US, from New Hampshire out to Los Angeles, so we cover the majority of, not every state, but we have a big footprint. We've got about 85 full time employees and do 2,500 displays a year. We're a fireworks company, and we have a special effects division that handles indoor pyro, close-proximity effects, lasers, and so on.

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