These days, CGI and VFX are responsible for many of the explosions and fires seen in films. However, before this digital revolution, Hollywood had a long history of using pyrotechnics in films to create fires, flashes, and explosions.
Pyrotechnics in film is an umbrella term for explosions, fires, smoke, fireworks, etc. It covers any practical effects that involve combustion on set in front of the camera. These are controlled practical effects done on location with the help of certified professionals.
Filmmakers use pyrotechnics in film production because it adds intensity and authenticity to the scene. However, it is expensive because there are a lot of safety considerations. Do not compromise the cast and crew’s safety to achieve these effects for cheap.
If you are considering movie pyrotechnics as an option, this article will provide an overview of how to get started. We will cover the planning, hiring, permitting, insurance requirements, and safety measures required for success.
Planning and research are vital if it is your first time creating pyrotechnics in film. These effects involve many moving parts and require coordination between multiple companies, agencies, and departments.
In some cities, such as Los Angeles, New York, or Chicago, there is an established industry of professionals skilled in using movie pyrotechnics. Reaching out to these companies should be your first step.
Regardless of your shooting location, consider contacting a recognized organization or company that can provide you with information and contacts within their network.
Different locations have different laws, so communication with organizations such as the ASEPO (Alliance of Special Effects and Pyrotechnic Operators) will be beneficial. The relevant film commission might also have experience with similar productions and can point you in the right direction.
A special effects coordinator is responsible for practical effects such as weather effects, stunts, and pyrotechnics. Individuals working with pyrotechnics are known as pyrotechnicians or pyrotechnic operators. They must have a special license to operate pyrotechnics in film productions. Regulations differ based on the location, so make sure to do your research.
For example, in California, to operate pyrotechnics in film productions, the special effects coordinator must carry a Pyrotechnic Operator Special Effects license issued by the State Fire Marshall.
As a producer, it is crucial to convey the scope and intention of the effect to the special effects coordinator during the pre-production stage. This will give them time to develop a detailed plan and test different materials to create the ideal outcome.
These coordinators are also responsible for many of the to-dos listed in this article. They will work closely with the production department, the shooting location, and local authorities.
Additionally, they are responsible for safely transporting, handling, storing, rigging, and executing pyrotechnics in film productions.
Along with a Fire Safety Officer (FSO, a liaison from the local Fire Department), the pyrotechnician must make sure that everyone follows the established safety requirements.
Hiring an experienced pyrotechnic operator will make a producer’s job much easier. Their experience in handling these materials and obtaining the necessary permissions makes them vital if you want to use pyrotechnics in film.
Once you have hired a pyrotechnic operator and secured a location, you must create a comprehensive plan of action. Aside from helping with permits, it will help keep your crew safe.
Cool guys might not look at explosions, but you absolutely should plan for them.
The lead special effects coordinator will work with pyrotechnicians to map out all the details and sequence of events. Let’s take a detailed look at what information this plan must cover.
You must describe the scene and the effects taking place (explosion, fire, smoke, flash, etc.). Include a detailed description of these effects, their execution, the duration, and the number of times you will perform them.
If you intend to create a big explosion, you will not have many attempts. So make sure to plan and determine how many times you will need to perform the pyrotechnic effect.
Include a layout and description of the site in your plan. An annotated map that highlights key areas, such as the placement of the pyrotechnic equipment along with the area of the effect, is necessary.
Other points of interest include the location of fire safety equipment, staging area, video village, and location of the cast and crew. Clearly show a perimeter that separates the crew and the area affected by the movie pyrotechnics.
It is also vital to obtain approval from the location owner to use movie pyrotechnics (more on this later).
You should describe the type of equipment, materials, and chemicals used to achieve the pyrotechnic effects. Additionally, you will need a plan of how you will safely transport and store them.
Fun fact! For his recent film Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan chose to re-create the famed Trinity Test practically. Special effects supervisor Scott R. Fisher used a concoction of gasoline and propane to create the blaze. They then combined magnesium and aluminum powder to make it brighter, mimicking the look of an atomic bomb.
Pro tip: make sure the special effects team has enough time to plan and test the pyrotechnic effects. This allows them to find a solution that looks great on camera but is also safe.
Highlight the team and how they will rig and execute the movie pyrotechnics. Describe in detail the movement and actions of any cast members involved in the scene.
If you are combining stunts with your pyrotechnics, make sure to work with a stunt coordinator to block out the scene beforehand. A detailed description of their movements helps keep them safe during the shoot.
List the steps taken to ensure fire safety, such as the location of exit lanes, fire extinguishers, hose lines, water trucks, and fire hydrants. Pyrotechnicians will also establish restricted zones to keep the general cast and crew safe from live movie pyrotechnics.
Conduct a safety briefing while on set, and communicate the safe zones and the emergency evacuation plans.
To use pyrotechnics in films, you must coordinate between the location, the local film office, and the local fire authority. Each establishment will require a point of contact within your production and special effects departments.
Securing an iron-clad insurance plan should be the very first step. A Certificate of Insurance (COI) is required for location agreements, film location permits, and special effects permits. You must also provide a COI for the movie pyrotechnics equipment.
Apart from general liability insurance, movie pyrotechnics will require additional premium coverage. These plans must be custom-made depending on the scope of your project.
The best practice is to work with a specialized broker who understands your needs. Refer to Wrapbook’s Essential Guide to Film Production Insurance for more information.
While negotiating a location agreement with the property's owner, you must disclose using movie pyrotechnics. Explain the scope of the effects to move this process along efficiently and gain quick approval.
Conducting a location scout with the special effects coordinator is essential. This allows them to check if the location meets safety and logistical requirements.
Like any other production, you must file a standard location permit with the local film commission. However, you must disclose using movie pyrotechnics in the special effects section. The information from the planning section will be helpful as it will cover much information the film office needs.
You will also need an additional special effects permit from the local authorities. For example, if you are in Los Angeles, you must apply for a permit with the LAFD. Once again, regulations will differ based on the location, so inquire with the local film commission.
Part of the application process will likely require liaising with the fire department. They will establish certain safety requirements that the production must follow.
Then, a Fire Safety Officer will follow up with an on-site inspection (more on this below). Communicate any changes made to creative elements of the production that might affect fire safety.
You might require other special permits based on the specific type of effects. For example, welding or open flames will require special permits in Los Angeles. Different cities will have different requirements, so communicate all fire-related activity to the local fire authority to obtain the necessary permissions.
Using pyrotechnics in film is dangerous. Therefore, safety checks are a must. Below is a general breakdown of standard procedures when operating pyrotechnics in a film production.
Conducting tests with the pyrotechnic equipment and identifying potential risks is always good practice. It allows you to build safety and evacuation plans as needed.
Wrapbook’s Essential Forms for Film includes a risk assessment template you can use to mitigate any issues that may arise.
Protective gear, such as fire retardant clothing, is required for anyone involved with the pyrotechnic effects. Additionally, special safety procedures must be in place if stunt performers interact with fire.
For longer indoor shoots, creating a fire drill allows your production crew to familiarize themselves with the evacuation plan in case of an accident.
To obtain a special effects permit, you must follow certain requirements that the fire department will create. A Fire Safety Officer will conduct a site inspection to confirm the safe use of movie pyrotechnics.
They will also make sure that all the safety standards/procedures are met, identify potential hazards, and verify all the necessary paperwork is filed. Depending on the scale of movie pyrotechnics in use, they might require an FSO on standby for the entire duration of your shoot.
Conduct a production meeting to make sure that all cast and crew know about the use of pyrotechnics. You can also conduct additional safety meetings before specific shots or set-ups to remind everyone of the safety procedures.
Clear communication through walkie-talkies between all departments is vital.
An initial walkthrough is required to make sure that the cast and crew are on the same page before going for a shot. Inform everyone of the areas that the pyrotechnics will affect. If multiple pyrotechnics occur within the scene, establish a sequence during rehearsals.
Rehearsals are critical for the successful execution of pyrotechnics in films. Dry rehearsals, without the pyrotechnics, allow the cast and crew to prepare for the money shot. Often you will need more than one take, but you might not have the luxury. So, rehearsals are vital for the cast and camera team.
Creating pyrotechnics in film requires time, planning, and communication. Depending on the scope of the effects, it might also be expensive. But there is a special charm to practically creating fires and explosions that CGI can’t match. Hopefully, this article gives you more insight into how Hollywood creates explosions.
Stunt actors are invaluable in helping sell the pyrotechnic effects. To learn more about executing stunts on set, check out this article on Stunt Coordinators. And if you’re ready to take your first steps, head to Wrapbook’s Insurance Quote Builder to work with our in-house insurance specialists.
At Wrapbook, we pride ourselves on providing outstanding free resources to producers and their crews, but this post is for informational purposes only as of the date above. The content on our website is not intended to provide and should not be relied on for legal, accounting, or tax advice. You should consult with your own legal, accounting, or tax advisors to determine how this general information may apply to your specific circumstances.