Grucci: A Truly Historic Fireworks Dynasty
An Interview with Phil Grucci, CEO
Interviewer: Michael Richards
Now that I’ve reached an age when I can begin to look back and marvel at some of the events I’ve personally witnessed or watched on television, I’ve begun to make a mental list of the things that have truly astonished me during my lifetime. Of course, watching Neil Armstrong take his first steps on the moon was astounding, but so was using my first calculator, buying my first Mac 512K or living to see the first African-American get sworn in as President of the United States (especially after growing up during an era of such overt discrimination). Added to my personal list, however, is Fireworks by Grucci (www.grucci.com). How does that possibly qualify? Well, on October 1st, 2009, the Chinese celebrated the 60th Anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. After decades of being almost entirely closed off to the West, China had finally opened its doors to the world and had begun to truly flourish once again. What astounded me the most about this event, much more than the 10,000 troops marching in unison or the 100,000 civilian participants who danced and sang that night, was the fact that China had hired an American—Phil Grucci—to design and create the massive fireworks show at the end of their anniversary extravaganza. An American! I’m still amazed. But somehow, this astonishing fact has since been lost to the world amidst the political hype and pageantry that took place there. More unbelievable to me, is the fact that this incredibly important historical footnote is not even mentioned online in Wikipedia’s entry for the “60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China”. The article only mentions that there were fireworks placed in each of the 56 “pillars of national unity” in Tiananmen Square, and that the fireworks displayed at the end of the ceremony were reportedly “double the firepower of the 2008 Olympics opening ceremony.” Here is another fact for you: the incredible fireworks for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Olympic games in Beijing were also designed by Phil Grucci (along with his close friends and fellow artists, Cai Guo-Qiang, and Jennifer Wen Ma). Am I the only person who understands how incredible it is that China—the birthplace of fireworks and vocally anti-American for decades (under Mao Zedong)—hired an American to design the fireworks displays for their two most important events so far this century?
Phil Grucci is currently the President/CEO of Fireworks by Grucci, Inc. and Pyrotechnique by Grucci, Inc. His family’s name has been synonymous with fireworks in the United States since the early 1900s, and their Grucci Italian fireworks history dates all the way back to the early 1850s. To say Phil Grucci has gunpowder running through his veins is an understatement, but it is probably more apropos to point out that the Grucci family is currently in its 6thgeneration of fireworks ancestral evolution. Today, Grucci fireworks is a high tech operation with two main facets: the first is “Fireworks by Grucci” that creates its phenomenal shows and displays; the second is “Pyrotechnique by Grucci” which manufactures military and commercial pyrotechnics and explosives and has an extensive research and development section devoted entirely to developing new, state-of-the-art creations as well as improving the ecological soundness of its designs.
The list of Grucci accomplishments is long and robust. From producing the pyrotechnic displays for seven consecutive U.S. Presidential Inaugurations, to an incredible display off Lower Manhattan for the Centennial of the Statue of Liberty, to their jaw-dropping fireworks displays during the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics (2008), as well as their signature pyrotechnic productions for previous Olympic Games in Lake Placid (1980), in Los Angeles (1984) and Salt Lake City (2002)— the Grucci family has truly left an indelible mark in the world’s collective understanding of what a professional fireworks should always look like. Because Fireworks by Grucci continually awes everyone, we now expect to be regularly awed by every fireworks show we see. In fact, bigger and better, incredible, phenomenal, spectacular, amazing and stunning, etc., are all worn out adjectives used to describe the Grucci family’s pyrotechnic expertise and their creative use of fireworks.
On New Year’s Eve in 2013, within Dubai’s central city and spread out along 60 miles of its extensive coastline, Fireworks by Grucci shot 479, 651fireworks to put them firmly—and indisputably—into the Guinness Book of World Records for completing the “Largest Fireworks Display” ever fired. Although the Norwegian nonsense shot in 2014 appears to have temporarily upset that record, I personally believe Guinness’ original particularization of Grucci’s original record will prevail.
To add to their seemingly exponential list of accomplishments, Fireworks by Grucci was hired this year to create a very special display commemorating the 200th anniversary of America’s national anthem written by Francis Scott Key. Grucci’s fireworks were to be part of the finale of a large number of festivals and events scheduled to stretch from Baltimore to the historic waterfront communities along the Chesapeake Bay (all of which played significant roles during the successful American defense of 1814), and to honor the song, “The Star Spangled Banner,” considered to be pivotal in helping define our national identity.
On September 13, 2014, the Grucci pyrotechnical highlight of Baltimore’s weeklong “Star Spangled Spectacular” to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Francis Scott Key’s “Star Spangled Banner” began. The show was destined to be far different than other Grucci displays because Pyrotechnique by Grucci had completed development (and patented) an entirely new technology called “PixelBurst™.” This creative new technique essentially used the sky as a pixelated screen, and Grucci awed the crowd by setting yet another Guinness World Record for “The Largest Pyrotechnic Image” ever recorded, by filling up the sky with a 600 foot by 900 foot wide American “Old Glory” over Fort McHenry.
Of course, the flag display was fired just as the “Star Spangled Banner” was being sung, and the sounds and the colors poetically mimicked the historical sounds of war with “bombs bursting in air” that had inspired Francis Scott Key to write the original lyrics.
Performance Facts for the “Star Spangled Banner” display:
- Number of days to install: 9
- Number of pyrotechnicians: 40
- Largest firing mortar: 8-inch
- Number of hours to choreograph: 38 hours
- Number of man-hours to install: 4,320
- Number of firing cues: 12,800
The Music chosen for Baltimore:
- “Fanfare: Celebrate Discovery” – John Williams
- “Spirit of America” – Spirit of America Ensemble
- “Star Spangled Banner Opening” – performed by Jimi Hendrix
- “America America” – BeBe Winans
- “Twilight’s Last Gleaming” – performed by Cher
- “Halls of Glory” – Jon A Kull
- “Spirit Fanfare” – Spirit of America Ensemble
- “America the Beautiful” – Jennifer Hudson & Sandy Hook Children’s Choir
- “Broad Stripes and Bright Stars” – performed by Military Academies
- “Armed Forces Medley” – US Marine Band
- “Ramparts Gallantly Streaming” – performed by Em Hartt
- “America’s Song” – Faith Hill & Company
- “Rockets Red Glare” – performed by Faith Hill
- “America the Dream Goes On” – John Williams Ft James Ingram
- “Our Country” – John Mellencamp
- “Gave Proof Through the Night – performed by N’Sync
- “Overture of 1812” – Tchaikovsky
- “God Bless America” – Daniel Rodriguez
- “Banner Yet Wave” – performed by LeAnn Rimes
- “God Bless the USA” – Beyonce
- “O America” – Celtic Women
- “And the Home of the Brave” – performed by Whitney Houston
- “Stars & Stripes” – John Philip Sousa
The following interview was conducted by phone on November 23, 2014. It reflects a conversation between Phil Grucci, Grucci’s President and CEO, and Michael Richards, the editor of Pyrotechnic Magazine.
The fireworks program that Fireworks by Grucci put on in Baltimore was located at multiple positions and covered a distance of approximately 2-1/2 miles. It was comprised of three main segments: a powerful audience-engaging opening; a main performance of multi-level and multi-effect sequences; and a world-renowned Grucci grand finale. The performance was a very American story of patriotism, unity and inspiration utilizing Grucci’s patented PixelBurst™ and SkyEtching™ technologies.
Our conversation covers a mixture of Grucci family history, current projects and details about the Baltimore production.
PM: Before we start the actual interview, I thought I’d give you a few minutes to brag about your children, Loren and Christopher. How are these two 6th generation Gruccis doing? What are they up to?
Phil Grucci: Well, they are doing very well. I’m very proud of them. In addition to my daughter and my son, though, I should also mention my nephew, Korey is working with us full time. That’s my sister’s oldest boy. Actually, he’s he oldest of the 6th generation of the family because he was born three years earlier than Loren was. He’s 29 now. Also, Crystal, my younger cousin is part of the family business as well, as are all the other little nephews and cousins. We’re definitely a family business. Loren is actually in Cambodia at the moment. She left four weeks ago to go on a seven-week trip through Indonesia, Cambodia, and Thailand. She wanted to do something like this while she still has time. Loren is still working on a free-lance basis as an aspiring professional photographer and she also works for us part-time. She captures a lot of our photos and is responsible for most of the recent images you’ve see on the Grucci website. Christopher is 20 now and is currently a sophomore in college working towards an accounting degree. He has been “on location” with our family business since he was able to walk. Once he turned 18 and could handle fireworks on his own, he has participated as a pyrotechnician in a variety of displays: Taiwan NYE 2012, Dubai NYE 2013, Atlantis 4th of July, Maldives NYE 2011, etc. He just fired his first solo display last year as one of the lead system operators on the break wall of The World Islands in Dubai. He contributes to the equipment testing and warehouse operations when he is not in school. Some of my proudest memories are seeing Christopher and Loren engaging with different teams on our sites or within our facilities. My wife, Debbie, and I are blessed with having great children.
PM: Did Loren get some good pictures of your show in Baltimore?
Phil Grucci: Yes, she did. We also have a full-time visual and creative person here that does a lot of our photography: Tom Buchanna. He’s works in-house and has captured a great many images of our shows. Originally, I had Loren here working full-time doing all the archiving (which is what we really set out to do in the beginning), but the shows are coming so frequently now that it is difficult for us to keep up. Jokingly we keep telling ourselves we’ll get to it during our “off-season,” but our off-season just never seems to come.
PM: Fortunately, with all of the Grucci footage appearing online, maybe YouTube can be your makeshift archive?
Phil Grucci: (Laughs) That’s right, but what I mean by archiving relates more to all of our old photographs that date from 1929, the 1930s, the 1940s and 1950s, etc.—images we currently have filling cardboard boxes and old fashioned scrapbooks in our office, but haven’t had the time to digitize or catalog. For example, we often get asked for images of our great grandfather, and we have three or four good images of him that are originals. Since they aren’t digitized, we have to scan the originals to send out. All of this takes time that wouldn’t be necessary if we had everything properly archived.
PM: I’ve always wondered why you haven’t put something out like a like Time-Life book about the Grucci family.
Phil Grucci: I agree with you, we really should, but there are so many things we want to do. You envision them, but there is just isn’t time. I’d love to do a coffee table book, or a Time-Life book; we have such great photographs of our work, but it is a matter of putting them all together, assembling a team to lay it all out, and then finding a third party willing to print it for us. Anyone who’s ever published a book knows that’s a daunting task. Plus, our core revenue source is producing firework’s performances. Books will have to come second, if and when there is actually time.
PM: Although Grucci research and development has come up with some exquisite creations lately, in a sense you are kind of like pyrotechnic magicians. Do you think NOT knowing how everything is done somehow adds to the excitement?
Phil Grucci: Yes. Exactly. When I look at what we do, the performances are always exciting. But the excitement comes mainly from what’s behind the scenes—via building and designing and engineering, testing and failure. We do quite a lot of testing at our facility in Virginia, and most of our experimentation is a failure. But that is why you have a testing facility. The Flag in Baltimore is a great example of R&D at its best: we fired in excess of 1,500 shells at our testing facility before we finally got it right. After each firing, we refined the process, rethought our device and procedures, and kept refining everything until it worked the way we wanted it to. We only felt pressure to succeed because September 13th was looming close by. Of course, the way we formulate the shells is really cool, but if you know everything about how its all done, like you said, the magic comes partially from not knowing. We may provide some technical information about the shells, but our secrets—the most colorful parts of what we do—guard the magic behind what we do.
“The National Anthem holds a special place in the hearts of all Americans. It’s more than a song; it’s part of our collective DNA.”
—Phil Grucci, CEO of Fireworks by Grucci
PM: Well, the flag was truly spectacular, and we’ll talk about that more in a minute. I just wanted to mention I got an email from Tony Gemmink this morning (he’s the publisher of Pyrotechnic Magazine) and we’ve both been watching videos of your show in Baltimore to properly prepare interview questions. Anyway, he wrote me this morning—and you have to understand he’s Dutch—and told me that after he watched a video of your performance it “gave him chicken skin.” He meant “goose bumps,” but I think I like the Dutch version better.
Phil Grucci: (Laughs) I’ve heard that “chicken skin” statement before. But that is very complimentary just the same. To hear heartfelt compliments like that makes all of our hard work worthwhile. You know, there are a great many financial aspects to the fireworks business, and sometimes it goes counter to the bucket list I have on my iPhone. This wasn’t the case in Baltimore. When that RFP came in, well, it has always been a dream of mine to display a large American flag. We just never had the event or the budget to support the R&D necessary to create something that massive.
Then this project came along it was just a natural for us, and the beauty of it duck tailed off of our experiences in Dubai at just the right time. We were coming back from Dubai on cloud 9 after our world record, and the momentum was there and Joe decided to create an elaborate proposal for the 200th anniversary committee that included a render of the flag idea. Once they selected us, it was like, okay, now it’s time to turn our render into reality. Our goal was to make certain the demonstrated effect we proposed looked very close in scale and content to the original render.
So, it was all hands on deck at the plant, and I’ve got to say, I have a dynamite team (excuse the pun) there at our Virginia facility. Honestly, we have pyrotechnicicans and senior pyrotechnicians—all very devoted to what they do. They might be outside shooting or testing at 11:00 at night or midnight, out in the rain, out in the snow—all because we have such a tight timeline we have to follow, and if everything doesn’t work perfectly, we have to immediately figure out what went wrong. Anyway, they dove right in to perfecting this flag project immediately, and when we finally set it off in the harbor during the show, I got “chicken skin” myself. I mean, our whole team was up on the roof of this elevated building in Baltimore where we could see the entire harbor and the expanse of the river all away down to Fort McHenry; we positioned all of our control gear so we would be looking straight at Fort McHenry where the flag would be fired, and the gigantic USA would be fired and our other SkyEtching™ effects would be happening. Then the first flag went off (you see, we were only contracted to produce one flag, but because we were going for another Guinness World Record, and also because of the importance of the moment, we felt two made more sense), so instead of once, we fired it twice: once at the beginning of the program (to avoid the potential of too much smoke and to make sure we got a good photo of it) and then again at the end of the program. After the first flag went off, we all had “chicken skin”. It was the perfect combination that night for every face of the event: first, Fort McHenry was the perfect stage; second, it was the 200th anniversary of the “Star Spangled Banner” and we had just created something large, colorful and wonderfully symbolic. Add to that all the excited radio chatter we heard from our pyrotechnicians, and the crowd’s heightened noise we heard after the fireworks displays—it was a very rewarding experience for everyone involved.
PM: I have to admit, I watched the video of your PixelBurst™ American Flag about a dozen times, and it really was an incredible feat.
Phil Grucci: Well, thank you.
PM: I notice you have a really brutal schedule. Tonight you have a holiday show at Sax 5th Avenue in downtown Manhattan, then on the 29th you’ve got a River Christmas Boat Parade, and after that, you’ve scheduled New Year Eve’s shows in both Las Vegas and Waikiki and four other places. Do you ever rest? Do you ever have downtime?
Phil Grucci: Unfortunately, I was in the hospital recently for nine days with pneumonia. I guess that was my way of resting.
PM: That’s terrible. I’m so sorry to hear that, but I meant vacation time, not a hospital stay. Are you OK now?
Phil Grucci: I’m not up to full strength yet, but I’m getting there. The doctor told me to go home, stay in the house and not go to the office. I was required to stay in the house for a week, which I did. Then I was off all last week, so I did get the rest I needed. I am very fortunate to have some amazing people working for me. I have a gentleman right now in Saudi Arabia working on an upcoming project there. I also have another person in Dubai, and another in Europe working on our upcoming events. I’m very fortunate to have such a strong, competent team—all very passionate about what we do. We also have a really good engineering team here at our offices in New York. They’ll handle the Sax 5th Avenue show tonight. I have essentially been grounded until New Year’s Eve, so I can’t go. That doesn’t stop the momentum, however. The list you saw online for New Year’s Eve was only half complete. There are other projects that we’re currently contracting to do that I can’t speak about yet, but they’re in the works.
PM: I would suggest you go to Waikiki for New Year’s and let the sun and the salt air heal your pneumonia.
Phil Grucci: (Laughs). You’re probably right. Plans aren’t complete yet for New Year’s Eve, but we are contracted to do a “Grand Finale” in Waikiki using more than 1,800 shells. We have another show to do around Honolulu in February, which is always a joy after dealing with the harshness of winter in New York. It is a very therapeutic trip for us. I especially love setting up two or three barges with fireworks, and looking out over the beautiful blue water to watch the fish swim by. You can even jump off the barge and go for a swim if you get tired and need a break. Believe me, you can’t do that in East River in New York.
PM: You’re probably glad you’re not in Buffalo, New York at the moment. I think they got over 2 feet of lake-effect snowfall yesterday.
Phil Grucci: No, we dodged that bullet. Hey, I don’t know if you know this, but we’ve expanded our manufacturing facility with the purchase of a 110-acre Research and Development facility in Delanson, New York. The facility was an explosives manufacturing and storage facility previously owned by Arthur Rozzi Pyrotechnics.
I also hired Bob Lapietro as Chief Chemist and Research and Development Manager of the Delanson facility. He is a shell builder from the early 80’s who has been in business as a chemist and has over 30 years of experience in the Fireworks and Explosives Industry. I hired him to run the Delanson operation, and do our chemical R&D as well as some our mechanical testing out of that facility. The idea is to perfect what we’ve been developing in Delanson (work out any bugs or kinks there) and then send it down to the Virginia facility for mass production. Speaking of snow, they are getting hammered just outside of Albany right now. We had discussions about weather in October because it was already snowing there this fall.
PM: Yeah, they got an amazing 80 inches of snow already in Albany.
Phil Grucci: I know, but not like Buffalo. Not nearly like Buffalo. I was speaking to my friend Jim Young from Young Explosives, and he’s up in the Rochester area. He’s had a few shows scheduled at weekly festivals already canceled because of snow. I feel for him, but I asked to please keep that weather up there away from us.
PM: I have a great Aunt who lives in Muncie and she’s been pretty snowed in herself. Getting back to our questions, though, who was the first person to approach you about putting together the 200th Anniversary show in Baltimore Harbor? Did they give you a map to start you out?
Phil Grucci: Fireworks by Grucci was selected through an open RFP (Request for Proposal) process led by the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts on behalf of Star-Spangled 200, Inc. and the Maryland War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission. The RFP they posted regarding the 200th Anniversary was pretty general, really, and it was basically open to anyone interested. Each of the participants was asked to bring a creative brief with them explaining exactly what they thought was the most appropriate way to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the “Star Spangled Banner.” Our response, of course, was to create the world’s largest pyrotechnic American flag. We had to make a formal presentation and show some of the renders and visuals of the flag we envisioned, as well as showing them the plans for the rest of the performance (which included seven barges up the river, three rooftops as well as downtown). So, you see, it wasn’t just the flag idea that won it for us. The idea itself hit a definite bullseye with the committee right off, and the proposal was chosen because of its “superior artistic and technical plan.” In truth, I think the expansiveness of our proposal excited the Bicentennial Commission, and the fact that we wanted to connect the entire river from the harbor to Fort McHenry with a necklace of barges. Another thing I liked about having our Baltimore proposal accepted like it was, was because this was our first major event in the United States in a long time. We had produced the last seven presidential inaugurals, but President Obama didn’t want fireworks at his, so that stifled that idea. There really hasn’t been a major celebration in the U.S. for a while, so this was perfect timing coming on the heels of our Dubai success. Not to mention it really felt good that we were focusing on something really patriotic, which is pretty much the foundation of our industry.
PM: So, did you “officially” set the world’s record for the world’s largest pyrotechnic American Flag?
Phil Grucci: Yes, we have the Guinness certificate sitting in our office. Officially, it is for creating the “World’s Largest Pyrotechnic Image.” You have to use your imagination a little with this because it had to be made up of a large number of shells and couldn’t be just one 24-inch shell or like a peony.
PM: Was Fort McHenry supposed to be the focal point? I’m not that familiar with the harbor, so I’m unclear as to how the set up was determined. Was it mostly in the East Channel?
Phil Grucci: Fort McHenry was the place where Francis Scott Key watched the cannons fire while standing on a British ship. There he watched the battle ensue while looking at the fort and watching the American Flag continue to wave throughout the battle. As long as that flag stayed there and waved up on that pole, it meant we were still in the fight and had not surrendered. That was his inspiration for writing the national anthem, and that was why it was the center of gravity for the celebration. We displayed our huge American flag as a series of shell bursts off a 900-foot floating platform right where Key wrote the “Star Spangle Banner.” Keeping it precisely historical, we discharged the shells in the space where the ship was located when he watched this battle and wrote down the lyrics. We displayed all of this on LED screens placed all the way up the river so the audience could see a remote broadcast of the Fort McHenry fireworks displays, whether they were positioned near the fort or up river.
PM: Channel 11 out of Baltimore did a really nice job televising your displays.
Phil Grucci: Yes, they did. I thought their camera shots were spectacular and their cuts to the flag were all done at the appropriate times and it was produced very well. What probably helped them were the meetings we had with them, and the storyboards we shared with them so the knew precisely when to cut to the correct imagery. It was a little schmaltzy perhaps, but all in all, they did an excellent job.
PM: That’s what live TV is all about.
Phil Grucci: If I had to give them a grade it would be an A- for their effort. I wish other stations were as conscientious.
PM: You had an amazing array of patriotic music in this show. Did you pick all the music or did they tell you specific pieces they wanted you to include?
Phil Grucci: We essentially scored the entire production, and the music was predominantly selected by us, but it is probably fairer to say it was a collaborative effort between the anniversary committee and us. Obviously, when it comes to music selection there are always personal opinions that come to play. Everyone has there own personal favorites. In this case it was a little easier since almost every piece needed to be patriotic in some way. I don’t know if you listened to the sound track very closely, but interweaving the lyrics of the national anthem with fireworks throughout the entire performance was our intention. I thought that would be better than simply playing the National Anthem at the beginning—which they did live that night in conjunction with the fireworks. So, throughout the entire sound track we kept putting snippets of the lyrics in to match the pyrotechnics. For example, just as “broad stripes and bright stars” was sung, we created heavy white stripes coming off of the barges with blue stars above it; and obviously “bombs bursting in air” and “rockets red glare” were produced dramatically with pyrotechnics as well (even though many other companies have done similar things before). I love it that we also included Jimmy Hendrix’s, “Star Spangled Banner” version and Whitney Houston’s, “And the Home of the Brave” into the production. I think those pieces added interest and variety to the mix.
PM: Well, it was certainly beautiful. Ironically, the first three versions of your show I watched had no music with it. They were just amateur films posted on YouTube from that night. The Fireworks were beautiful, but it wasn’t until I watched the Channel 11 version that I could really get the feel and intention of the entire show.
Phil Grucci: Yes, you really need to see and hear it all to fully understand the experience.
PM: Because we have a lot of pyrotechnic aficianados who read our magazine, I wonder if you could explain your new PixelBurst™ technology to them. You obviously patented this technology and then trademarked it, too?
Phil Grucci: Yes, we did.
PM: So, it was PixelBurst™ technology that was used to create the large, world-record-breaking pyrotechnic flag, as well as the giant USA and the illuminated dates in the sky? Can you explain to us how it works without giving away any proprietary information?
PG: To simplify it as much as possible, the term “PixelBurst™” was chosen because of the distinctive nature of what the term “pixel” means. A pixel is essentially a dot, and each of our bursts—just like on a computer screen or television—make individual dots, only this time it is up in the sky. If you can make all of the “dots” explode on cue at specific heights (dependent on their scale and size) and connect them as part of a precise sequence, then you can create some very abstract images at a very large scale. The American flag we produced took a little over 750 PixelBursts to create—all exploding at somewhat the same time. Only in this case, they weren’t set to explode simultaneously because I designed the flag to actually unfurl from the top down
PM: I think I counted 7 waves, but I’m not sure. It is hard to tell watching a video. The explosions did a really good job sonically punctuating your flag, though, as it unfurled.
Phil Grucci: Actually, there were 13 waves because each wave represented a stripe on the American flag. So, there were 13 very precise explosive lines displayed up in the sky. I animated it specifically to make it look like it was unfurling itself from top to bottom.
PM: Is your PixelBurst technology similar to MagicFire, those precision electronic initiators? Is that how this all works?
Phil Grucci: PixelBurst might share some minor similarities in some ways to MagicFire, but it really represents an entirely new technology and required a completely different type of electrical engineering than the MagicFire chip. We had used the MagicFire chip in the past, but there are definite limitations to it, so we decided we needed to develop something completely different—you have to understand I can’t share too many technical details with you because they’re all proprietary—but we felt we needed to change several safety aspects and also alter the control aspects of the electronic igniter so it would work better for what we were planning. I think the most common use of MagicFire is for hitting beats of music so your fireworks can go boom, boom, boom, precisely to the audible beat of your soundtrack. We developed a completely different type of electronic scheme for our chip housed inside each shell that is more responsive and better able to adapt to our specific needs and regularly changing requirements. Plus, it has its own casing and shape made with an organic polymer. It looks like it is made of plastic, but it is not. In order to get the ballistic precision necessary, we couldn’t use the traditional paper-covered ball; we had to go with something molded, but environmentally sound. When you’re shooting 700 PVC plastic balls into the sky that will ultimately wind up in the water, they have to be biodegradable. Our casing is very environmentally friendly.
PM: It sounds like Disney could learn a lot from you. They had some trouble in California not too long ago regarding the chemicals they were constantly putting into the air and the water around Disneyland.
Phil Grucci: Right. With all due respect, I lean toward Disney’s side of that particular argument. I think it is really important to look at the actual science involved with what we’re doing, and not just say it’s bad without scientific evidence to back that up.
That said we do need to continually evaluate what we put into the air. Carbon emissions and heavy metals are all serious topics we need to regularly concern ourselves with. As a whole, I think the fireworks industry is very concerned about the pollutant issue. I know my company is spending an inordinate amount of time, effort and resources in addressing how we are perceived from an environmental standpoint, and we are constantly reevaluating our practices. That is why we have spent so much time, effort and money to ensure the casings we’re using are truly biodegradable.
For me (and the rest of my family) it is important that we maintain an environmental conscience and act responsibly to reflect that conscience. Obviously, everything is not perfect, but you keep moving forward and try to meet your progressive goals and standards. There are no clear-cut solutions at the moment other than to stop doing shows, but that is not the way we think. I sincerely believe ingenuity, innovation and creative problem solving will find viable solutions to all of these issues, and fortunately, we live in a county that excels on that front. It is important to note that all of the PixelBurst™ shells that were fired to create our giant “USA” in the sky were all manufactured in the USA. Although many of the traditional shells at the core of the Baltimore program were made in Europe and China, the shells used to create the world record “Flag,” “USA,” “1814” and “2014” were all made at our plant in Virginia.
PM: I also noticed several 3-D shapes incorporated into your Baltimore display like cubes and stars. Was that just experimentation? There weren’t very many of them used, but they were definitely there.
Phil Grucci: Those types of shapes are really nothing new and they’re built right into the shells themselves. They are just like “ring shells” or a “happy faces.” I’m not downplaying their usage, but most of the standard pattern shells have been around for a while and are not as special as they were when they were first used. We make some of the custom shells at our Virginia facility, but five-pointed stars, hearts, cubes, etc., can come from many suppliers in China and Europe.
PM: I also noticed several shells that looked very similar to Baraq shells from Malta. Did you buy some of the Maltese shells to put in your show?
Phil Grucci: The ones we used were not Maltese but Maltese-style shells made in Spain. The problem with buying shells from Malta—and their products are absolutely beautiful—has to do with production and shipping. Obviously, when you see them you want to buy a container load of them, but there are a number of serious difficulties in procuring them. The first problem relates to the amount of flash powder used. These shells are very large and carry a 1.1 explosive classification. Believe me, it is very difficult to find an ocean carrier willing to transport 1.1 explosives. Their explosive size also goes contrary to US regulations, too, so you cannot legally transport that size of shell here.
PM: I’ve interviewed (via email) some of the people who make their fireworks at several factories in Malta, and I’ve always had the feeling they really don’t want to give up any of their secrets. I mean, they take great pride in filling the skies with their amazing shells, but don’t want to take the chance that anyone else can figure out how they do it.
Phil Grucci: And even if they did more openly sell their shells, they have serious limitations on the quantity they can produce. Because of how small all of their individual factories are in Malta, each factory spends almost an entire year just preparing for their own needs and festivals. So, forget the insurmountable regulatory problems, I seriously doubt they could meet the production expectations of a company like ours who might order several containers. The way we solved our dilemma for the world record show in Dubai was to work around many of the regulations. When we put together our first proposal, the idea was to fire a 24-inch shell manufactured from each continent of the world—and so we planned on purchasing fourteen 24-ich shells (2 per continent). The problem was that we couldn’t arrange shipping for most of these—or at least within the timeframe we had. Remember, these carry a 1.1 explosive classification. The way around it, though, was to make the component parts here in New York, and then set up another facility in Dubai to put the component parts together.
PM: Those were some amazing shells, though.
Phil Grucci: Oh they’re gorgeous. But let’s give respect where it is due: the shells we manufactured were probably in the B- range; the shells you get out of Japan are definitely A or A+. We did the best we could, but our fledgling production is new compared with countries that have developed their shells over hundreds of years. We may succeed in emulating them—and I think we did a pretty good job—but even though our large shells broke nicely and were nicely symmetrical, they didn’t really compare to the Japanese shells we’ve seen. Just like trying to reproduce a Maltese shell. The first time we might get somewhat close, but their shells have been perfected over generations.
PM: Since this was a patriotic show, I noticed almost all the shells you used were red, white and blue. Did you determine that by using a formula of some kind? What determined whether a shell used was red, white or blue?
Phil Grucci: Color choice was dictated entirely by the event. Naturally, the “Star Spangle Banner” called for a great deal of red, white and blue. No formula—just the feel of the songs, their lyrics and mood. There were some songs like “God Bless America” that we steered away from the red, white and blue and used colors more in conjunction with one another: reds by themselves, blues by themselves and gold and kamuros. There was one sequence that was a gold palm trees and green mines and things like that. You are right that the core color scheme was certainly a patriotic red, white and blue, but some pyrotechnics were intentionally manufactured to be brighter than normal like our bright white magnesium comet scene. We had a golden glitter split comet, a crossette scene that was all gold antimony and the old traditional gold glitter crossettes. My father (although he didn’t develop the crossett itself) developed a way of displaying crossettes right before the finale that actually became a kind of trademark of ours for a long time: a saturation of gold crossettes. Well, in Baltimore we got to bring that tradition back to our show using products all made in the United States. I just think it is important to underscore that we used to get most of our product from Spain, Italy and China, but now all of those shells are being made in New York.
PM: So, your company manufactured all of the gold glitter crossettes used in the show?
Phil Grucci: Yep. We made everyone of them in our facility in New York. We also manufactured the bright white magnesium comet sequence, which was really a magnolia comet. That whole scene was produced at our New York facility. The special features of the Flag, USA and the digits were all manufactured in Virginia.
PM: I have technical question for you. I know what E-match is and how it is used, but what is G-match?
Phil Grucci: It is the name for the computer chip we use to make PixelBurst™ technology. We called it G-match rather than a computer chip because we needed to differentiate it some specific way in order to patent it.
PM: I like it. The term makes sense now. I just didn’t know what it was. In a show of this magnitude do you have several people manning several different locations? I know you had 7 barges for this show, but did you have two people or one person posted at each barge? OR am I completely mistaken and you just push a button and the entire show runs itself?
Phil Grucci: Actually, we have a definite hierarchy when we develop a display like this for any multi-location program. First, we have a producer, which is myself; we also have a creative director for the design. Next, there is a chief pyrotechnician, who has the designated responsibility of making certain we are completely compliant and safe at each of our installations and locations. Then we break it down to site captains. There is a site captain for each barge, a site captain for each rooftop (and there were three for this program). All total, there would have been 10 site captains. However, we added an extra site captain—the 11th—just for the flag. And each site captain had underneath him/her a series of other pyrotechnicians. We also have production assistants, people who are runners, people in charge of meals, people who get hotel rooms for the staff, etc. Overall, in Baltimore we had approximately 74 people working on the project.
PM: So, your operation is really like a movie production company, then, isn’t it?
Phil Grucci: Yes, it really is.
PM: Do you physically wire all the barges together for a production like this, or are your shows predominately wireless now?
Phil Grucci: For this show the fireworks were hardwired to a panel or slat or board. That in turn got hardwired to a module. The whole show was then fired using one computer system. The modules were hardwired to the computer on one of the barges inside of a steel container used as a protective shelter for the crew. The only wireless aspect was a wireless time code signal that was transmitted from a central location to the seven barges, three rooftops and the flag barge. For this show we had two central locations that broadcast the music, and then the core time code signal was coming from Fort McHenry. That signal then got sent wirelessly up to our show control, which was on an elevated building central to all the locations. It was from there that we sent the wireless signal out to all of the barges and the rooftops.
PM: Did you use mostly FireOne™ firing systems for this show?
Phil Grucci: We exclusively use FireOne™. We used FireOne™ predominantly for the displays in Baltimore, and also in Dubai last year for our world record production.
PM: That was an amazing show, too, by the way. I’m sure you have been told that a great many times.
Phil Grucci: You know, it took 5 months from start to finish to produce that show in Dubai. But we had 9 months to produce the show for the 200th anniversary of the “Star Spangled Banner.” It was nice to have additional time to prepare and plan.
PM: I know the “Flag” took a lot of R&D and preparation, but what about the letters “USA” you put up? Did those letters use the same basic technology? Was it easier or more difficult to create a pyrotechnic “USA”?
Phil Grucci: No, it was the same basic technology. If you look closely at “USA” as it was fired, it used the same basic grid pattern we used for the flag. When I say grid, I mean you have certain fireworks that fire vertically, so those are your vertical lines, and then your horizontal lines are basically data points. The “USA” was a setup of block letters making use of vertical heights and horizontal data points. We were able to use the same set of data points for both of these, but the “USA” was easier because it didn’t require the massive quantity of shells the Flag did, and it didn’t require multiple shots.
PM: Right. Technically, just looking at it from my standpoint (and I don’t pretend to know exactly how you did it) the USA appeared to all go off all at once, versus the 13 different waves of the explosions that occurred in the Flag.
Phil Grucci: Actually the “U” went off first, then the “S” and then the “A” because it was meant to punctuate the lyric line at the end of the song “God Bless the U-S-A”.
PM: Did you use the same technology for the “1814” and “2014,” too?
Phil Grucci: No, the “1814” and “2014” were fired using a completely different technology. Those were arrays of comets that were fired at approximately a 45-degree angle. They were fired from a very precise—almost rifled— type of a ballistic system. The numbers didn’t use computer chips likeour PixelBurst™ technology. Instead, they used a very refined balled comet that could color change as from dark to bright gold. Think of it this way: if you fire a series of mortars that have very high velocity bullets coming out of them with tracers, and you fire them into the sky in a very precise array, you can outline a number that way. And that is how we did it.
PM: That was great. When the 1814 went up in the sky, the crowd just loved it. And then when 2014 filled the sky, there was a noticeable emotional response from the crowd.
Phil Grucci: That’s when you know you nailed it. When you hear the audience and the emotional Richter scale goes from a 5 to 10. We knew instantly that the pyrotechnic 1814 and 2014 had gone over well with the crowd, but the Flag got the biggest response.
PM: From the crowd response I heard throughout the program, I’d say you scored a perfect 10 many times.
Phil Grucci: Thank you, Michael.
PM: I had the privilege of interviewing you right after you had finished doing the Olympics with Cai Guo-Qiang and Jennifer Wen Ma in 2008, and I thought you raised the pyrotechnic bar to new heights with that production. Then you raised you raised the bar again when you choreographed the fireworks for the 60th Anniversary of the Peoples Republic of China, and yet again when you created the incredible opening for the Atlantis hotel in Dubai. Now, you have awed once again you’re your Baltimore harbor production. Do you foresee a time when you have done everything you can possible do with pyrotechnics, or do you think you will continue to take fireworks to newer and greater heights?
Phil Grucci: I believe there is great deal more that can be done creatively with fireworks. And I believe I still have the energy and fire in my belly to continue to be innovative. I certainly believe I can continue to come up with new special effects—I already have a great many ideas I haven’t had the time to try out yet. I feel this way because I am a very lucky man: I have a very passionate team behind me, and have family and friends that are as committed to this company as I am. I am intent on making sure we stay at the forefront of the pyrotechnic game, and the only way to do that is to be innovative. Not to be overly dramatic, but I am also very committed to maintaining a core of innovation here in the United States. I am spending a tremendous amount of money and devoting substantial resources to operating a factory here that can manufacture a creative variety of unique things as we come up with them. Waiting 7 months to get pyrotechnics from China is not the way to keep our company in the forefront—especially if it means taking the chance that our ideas can easily get copied the world over by some competitor’s manufacturing company. I love having the capability of looking at our ideas on the drawing board and knowing I have a factory fully capable of creating whatever idea we can devise. And if our design fails for some reason, we can recreate it, redesign it, alter it, improve on the design and successfully bring our idea to fruition. Current technology is what limits us in a lot of ways. But I think there are a great many ideas that are not currently feasible that might become so if we can just devise new technology to make it possible. So, to answer your question in a purely American way: I don’t see us ever stopping or slowing down. Innovation is in our blood and there will always be newer, bigger and better things to come. Right now we have few very interesting things on the drawing board that just need the right venue and opportunity to unveil. As I stated earlier in the discussion, a big part of innovation is to find the venue for your ideas and have the budget to support it. You can only follow your passion if you have the resources to fund it. Personal investments are fine, but it is foolish to invest in innovative ideas if there is no chance of long-term benefit to the company. The American Flag using PixelBurst™ technology is a good example. I invested in that knowing full well that if we were able to show that technique on a worldwide or national stage (like we just did in Baltimore), that that capability would put our company in greater demand. As expected, because of that innovation, we are getting a variety of inquiries from places we’ve never heard from before.
PM: Well, you certainly awed the crowd when you set off the American Flag. The first time I saw it, I think my mouth actually dropped open. Technical prowess aside, it was a really cool idea.
Phil Grucci: That’s a big compliment, Michael. Believe me, I cherish every single compliment we get. Like the one you just gave us a few minutes ago by scoring our performance in Baltimore as a 10. Those are greatly encouraging words. When you get compliments from your peers in the industry, it always means a lot. Consumers are one thing, you know you have to deliver on what you propose, but when you get compliments from peers or competitors who appreciate your accomplishments, and genuinely can’t figure out how you pulled it off, well, that is a very satisfactory feeling. It certainly reinvigorates you and reignites your creative juices.
PM: You definitely gave us chicken skin.
Phil Grucci: Yeah (laughs). Tell Tony I like that. I’m going to have to start using that phrase more often.