The pride and the theatre of the men who launch Canada Day's fireworks

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TORONTO - They are as plentiful and myriad as flowers — and they have names like peonies, chrysanthemums, palm trees, coconuts, falling leaves — but if you think there's little difference between these classifications of fireworks, there's a whole industry of professional pyrotechnicians who will argue you down.

Every year on Canada Day, the explosive burst of fireworks streak across night skies. No matter how big the final performer is, a fireworks show is always the closer — and they always draw a crowd. But no matter how long or colourful the show is, plenty of foresight, pride and artistry go into designing each of these shows.

David Whysall, who has designed the Niagara Falls fireworks show for more than a decade, has been in the industry for more than 40 years. He was born in England where one of the local industries was a fireworks factory, and an early acumen in chemistry led him to the work he does today.

"I never wanted to blow anything up like some of the youngsters do today, coming in to talk to me looking for a job," he says. "If you want longevity in this business, that's not the approach. The approach is safety."

While safety comes first — he says becoming a fireworks designer is a months-long process that includes a rigorous federal regulatory course — he is passionate about the choreography of a show set to music, or a "pyromusical." He says pyromusicals should build out of the most important element: the music.

"I drive around places and all the time I'm listening to compilations and getting a general feel, then when I get back into the office, I lock myself away," he says.

"You can't just take any song that's successful and take it and turn it into a successful firework song. To get a well-choreographed display, you really need each song to have different aspects within it — you like the highs and the lows, the quiets and the louds, the big finale, and that's what we look for in a song... If it's a vocal song — a good example is Louis Armstrong's 'What a Wonderful World,' 'trees of green, red roses too' — you try to match colours to the words, as well."

Ross MacKeen, inspired by his father firing Roman candles by the lake during his youth, is now the display fireworks manager at Archangel Fireworks in Winnipeg. He agrees that music is crucial, but he has a slightly different strategy.

"I want to make sure I open big and finish big, but through the middle you want some ups and downs to keep people's emotions going," he says. "Personally I try to use colour combinations that go well together — greens and yellows go well together, and Canada Day of course will have lots of reds, lots of whites."

Canada Day presents a different kind of challenge, too. Our country's songs, many find, lack the peaks and valleys and the bombast that spark a fireworks designer's imagination, especially compared to the brassy pride of American tunes.

"I find our country is very patriotic, but it doesn't comes out through our music," said MacKeen, whose only regular Canada Day pyromusical song is the national anthem. "It's usually Canadian artists, as opposed to a Canada song."

Fred Wade, president of Fireworks F/X in Grand-Pré, N.S., says he can't even remember the last time his company produced a pyromusical on Canada Day.

"It's usually red and white motifs, classically fired."

Whysall, for his part, speaks with eager pride when discussing his go-to Canada Day song.

"There's no doubt in recent years the best Canadian song for fireworks has been Celine Dion's 'Titanic' theme. Without any question — it's got everything that a choreographer would need."

Fireworks shows are more complicated than ever. There are more different types of blasts than ever before, each with their own intricacies. Designers use computer programs to calculate out their shows, and fireworks are purchased as much as a year in advance. Mark Rice, whose Ancaster, Ont., company FX Worx has handled Canada's Wonderland's fireworks shows since 1998, says it's the complexity that appeals to him.

"We shoot to one-hundredth of a second—so we can basically drop a shell in the sky and make it hit on a downbeat, where it's got to be. Wonderland, this show alone, consumes 85 firing modules, runs on ... five computers, and it's all time-code-based."

But if a firework launches even a few degrees off, the designers — often harried, and thinking of multiple shows at once — notice.

"I get horrible butterflies all the time," says Wade. "It's because it's time-sensitive, you're dealing with a high-energy material and thousands of people and you want it to be perfect, and that puts a lot of stress on your shoulders."

"Before the show I will walk miles and miles and miles with that sort of worried feeling, but as soon as you push go, that feeling of stress is gone," says MacKeen. "I've got that picture in my mind, so I'm just hoping it happens the same way that I want it to, and you're listening for audience reactions at the points when you think it should happen, and it's just a really good feeling when they give you the reaction you think you're going to get."

Indeed, Whysall says size doesn't matter, as his company actually abandoned seeking the contract for Ottawa's Parliament Hill show because it took time away from his other smaller shows. Wade agrees with the sentiment.

"Sometimes I will get more enjoyment out of a small event for $15,000 than putting on a $100,000 display. The smaller events are more intimate, you have a connection with the audience.

"We're not going on stage like Kiss. We're behind the scenes, we're invisible when we perform. You see the results of our work and we're there underneath those fireworks going crazy as the show progresses, listening to the audience getting more and more excited. We can't take a bow ... but every person involved in fireworks is a performer, there to entertain an audience."

Rice, who started doing fireworks in 1981 after studying and working in theatrical production, agrees. For fireworks designers, all the sky's a stage.

"You've got to think of it as theatre: It's opening night and closing night, all within 14.5 minutes."

Geographic location: TORONTO, Niagara Falls, England Canada Winnipeg Grand-Pré Ancaster Ottawa

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