Everything’s been planned, down to the tiniest detail. Sketched. Built. Tested. Tested again. Cameras roll…"Fire in the hole!" You turn a key, sending an electric current from a briefcase containing a battery to the explosive device, and then…KABOOM! A cheer goes up from the crew. The place: the set of an upcoming action movie. You: the pyrotechnician, a highly trained expert in the art of explosives technologies. In short, the guy who blows things up for a living. Okay, so it isn’t a Wile E. Coyote box of TNT with a two-mile fuse, but what kid doesn’t love playing with fireworks? Being a pyrotechnician means your inner 12-year-old never has to grow up.
Tools of the Trade
Most pyros have extensive workshops where they tinker with every kind of explosive device, experimenting with different substances and ignition methods. Common household items often get drafted into service, from tupperware to toys.
And pyros rarely leave home without…condoms. Filled with gasoline, they create small explosions; filled with fake blood, they become “squibs” – bullet hits on an actor’s body. Other substances and quick thinking also come into play on set. Dominic, a Hollywood pyrotechnician, tells the tale of a fire suit too tight for an actor who had to walk through a wall of flame. A hapless assistant had to go buy 20 tubes of KY Jelly to get him into it.
Still, pyrotechnicians increasingly rely on sophisticated technology to make things happen. Some complicated explosions for the film Armageddon were triggered by the camera itself, via infrared cues, as it moved along the asteroid at the end of a crane.
Sometimes It Blows – Or Doesn’t
The downside? Danger and unpredictability, those rare times when something goes wrong, or doesn’t go at all. “It’s embarrassing when everybody’s ready and they call ‘action’ and you count it down and nothing happens,” says Dom, who’s worked on movies as well as private fireworks displays. “And then somebody has to go in there and find the problem, and you don’t know if you have a live fuse or what.” Frank, a veteran who recently blew up a full-scale F117 Stealth bomber, agrees. “I’ve been doing this for 22 years, but it’s still a little scary. Believe it or not, I still say a prayer before each gag.”
One famous screw-up occurred on the set of Blown Away, a movie about a Boston bomb squad. They were blowing up a yacht in Boston Harbor, and they so underestimated the percussive effect that office building and apartment windows were shattered 30 blocks away. Luckily, the studio’s insurance paid for the damage; and because 14 cameras captured the explosion from every conceivable angle, the mishap became the centerpiece of the studio’s marketing strategy.
Years of apprenticeship training, rigorous testing between levels of classification, and stringent licensing laws ensure that the person lighting the fuse really knows his or her stuff. The pros earn $30 to $65 an hour, and when overtime kicks in, well, that’s a lot of bucks for the bang.
So if you frequently dream of putting an M80 – that’s a quarter stick of dynamite for you tyro pyros – inside a cantaloupe and lighting the fuse. . . dream on!