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Pyrotechnician Jeff Jordan uses art and science to light up the sky

Jim Jordan, co-owner of Flambeaux Fireworks
Jeff Jordan
Jeff Jordan's interest in pyrotechnics started as a hobby, but it's grown to a seasonal business that includes friends with a shared passion of fireworks from around the world.

Jeff Jordan, owner of Flambeaux Fireworks talks about the new innovations in pyrotechnics and why Katy Perry's song Firework is a no-go for him.

Independence Day is just around the corner which means we’re smack dab in the middle of Fireworks Season.

Before you head out to celebrate, be sure to check out our Fireworks Superlist. It’ll give you details for finding the best displays in our area.

The Superlist takes care of the where and the when, but have you ever wondered how those beautiful, choreographed explosions happen?

We caught up with Jeff Jordan, co-owner of Flambeaux Fireworks (on his busiest week of the year) for a quick chat about the art of pyrotechnics, new innovations and lighting up the sky.

What’s the biggest change in firework shows in recent history?

The biggest change is really the change from wired systems that were fairly clunky to wireless systems using Wi-Fi chips. It takes less effort to deploy the wireless systems. The other big change is the wireless systems are much more affordable than the old wired systems. It's much safer to use a firing system than to hand-light. And so that's the biggest change.

There's much more choreography now and ease of use and better tools to do choreography than there's ever been before. It's not as significant as the wireless shift, but the sense of doing a pyro-musical, which is having choreography along with your pyrotechnic effects, is much more common now than it ever used to be, just because of the modern tools out there that enable you to create a display with music.

What would audiences be surprised to know about your shows?

I would say just how much preparation is behind a 15-minute show. For a fair-sized corporate client, it would take two weeks of someone working part-time on a computer to choreograph. Another person like me would spend a week or two looking at the stock levels of what we need to order so we get the product that's required to do that 15-minute display, then spend 2 to 3 days with a crew of ten getting all the product pooled and basically ready for transport to the shoot site, then another couple of days of prep to get all the gear and the mortar tubes and the racks and everything that we need. For a 15-minute show we have a month of effort, easily, if not more.

Are fireworks more art or science?

I think it's a combination. The science is pretty well known and is based a lot on the original Chinese and also European chemistry formulas. There are some new wrinkles that have come out recently, but the art form is more artistic than it's ever been. It's possible now to do more technical, more precise and more artistic fireworks than ever before, which is less about the science, and more about the art right now.

I was lucky enough to be in Paris for the Millennium and I had never seen fireworks like that before. Instead of exploding overhead like flowers, the fireworks were more like a fountain that came off the Eiffel Tower.

And that's the kind of innovation you see.

One of the biggest fireworks companies in in the world--I think it's called Groupe F and it's out of France--do shows where the fireworks are launched from the drones in formations. It's a spectacular mix of a drone light show, coupled with aerial fireworks that are launched from the drones. We know people in the industry who have drone-like show companies. and that's certainly a rising entertainment vehicle, but Groupe F has really taken that combination art form to a whole another level. Hardly anybody in the world does what they do.

Do you have a favorite song for fireworks choreography? 

I can't say I have a favorite song, but I know the song that most pyrotechnic people don't like is Katy Perry's Firework. It's been requested like 3 million times to the point where it’s like, no, we won't shoot to that.

We want a mix of some martial music, some entertaining music and then some heartfelt, timeworn classics. Just a mix up for every age group and every constituent group to kind of have a snippet of a song that they would enjoy to cover the bases.

I guess some music works better than others.

You know, what we're really trying to do is hit the high points of a song. When there's a crescendo in the music, we want five shells going off at the same time. Not before the crescendo. Not after the crescendo. Right on top of the crescendo or whatever effect.

What's the most unexpected thing that has ever happened at a show?

We actually had a display a couple of years ago and we thought the firing system was gone because it wouldn't ignite the first effect. As it turned out, one of our settings was wrong. We reset everything and hit the right setting and then it started up. We went from total catastrophe--show canceled, letting everyone down, to within 5 minutes we fixed the problem and miraculously we figured it out and everything was fine.

What keeps you awake at night?

Well, probably these days, fears of inflation and recession [laughs]. But we're just normal people with white collar jobs. Seasonally, we do this July 4th stuff and a nice side effect of doing what we do is we've met hundreds of pyro fireworks lovers throughout the U.S. and even some folks from out of the country. It's not really about the professional displays and making money. It's more about the depth of the art form and having friends who love the same things we do. So, I don't know what's keeping me up at night. I would just say, looking forward, what's been good about our journey is making so many friends who love fireworks and I think that is a good, healthy thing to have.

Fireworks are pretty loud. What do you do when you want quiet?

Most pyros are hard of hearing. We don't really have to worry too much about secluding ourselves. Our hearing sucks. We just have to take out our hearing aids if we want quiet.

If you’d like to learn more about fireworks, including how to create safe displays, check out Pyrotechnics Artists of Texas and Pyrotechnics Guild International.

In Good Question, we're getting to know movers and shakers in the arts a little bit better with a few quirky and thought-provoking questions. Who should we talk to next? E-mail me at tpowell@kera.org.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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