Pyrotechnic effects have been eliciting oohs and ahs from audiences for centuries. In fact, fireworks were such a big hit in Elizabethan England that the Queen established a "Fire Master of England" position in her royal court. Since then, many stage productions, including rock and roll shows and Broadway plays, have taken advantage of the wide array of different pyrotechnical effects available. The occasional mishap notwithstanding, the art of stage pyro displays continues to delight.
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Kentucky supplier of pyrotechnics Theater Effects breaks down its wares into three main categories: Controllers, igniters and the effects themselves. As the name suggests, igniters touch off the effects electronically with heat or a spark. Controllers send power to the igniters and effects by means of a switch or button. Foot- or finger-activated controllers are designed to be operated unobtrusively by the onstage performer while larger, multichannel controllers are operated offstage by a pyro technician. The effects include such devices as flash pots, airbursts, hand-held devices, flaming torches and others.
Used by magicians and actors on stage in wizardly roles, these devices shoot fire or sparks from the users' seemingly empty hands. The Pyrowizard Electronic Flash Gun, for example, is small enough to be hidden in the hand but is capable of shooting a ball of fire 15 feet. This AA battery-ignited flashgun uses flash paper and lighter fluid to create the effect. Another handheld device is the stage torch. This device uses butane to simulate an oil-fuelled torch.
Other Flame Effects
These effects feature fire shot from cylindrical containers mounted on the stage. When smokeless gunpowder in the device's container is ignited, the flame is directed either as a column or wall of fire that can last several seconds. This type of device made the headlines in 2003, when flame effects used by the rock band Great White ignited soundproofing material near the stage of a Rhode Island nightclub, resulting in one of the deadliest fires in that state's history.
Sparks and Flashes
Suspended from lighting trusses at least 10 to 12 feet above the stage, "airbursts" are self-contained units that create a ball-shaped "explosion" of sparks in the air that cool before raining down on the stage. Airbursts sold at Theater Effects shoot sparks from 6 to 12 feet, depending on the device. Flashpots -- another favourite of rock and roll bands -- create a flash, a loud bang and smoke. These preloaded devices come in multiple sizes and can create a flash from 1 to3 feet in diameter, depending on the size of the device. Flashpots sold at Theater Effects create red, white or green flashes.
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