2015 Celebration of Light
Written by Casey Durette – Photos by Jenn Chan
It was late July and the air had a fragrant sweetness to it as I drove through downtown Vancouver, Canada. With colorful banners hanging from almost every post along the famous Burrard Bridge, it was clear that Vancouver was gearing up for their biggest summer event: The Honda Celebration of Light.
The Honda Celebration of Light actually began in the summer of 1990, although it was known back then as the “Symphony of Fire” instead. Today it is probably one of the best known and most widely anticipated fireworks displays in the Pacific Northwest. Boasting an amazing attendance of around 1.4 million people, the Honda Celebration of Light brings an estimated $37 Million annually into the local economy during this multi-day event. The event is touted as being the longest-running offshore fireworks competition in the world.
These massive displays are shot from large barges connected to one another offshore, and people watch the fireworks from English Bay beach, Stanley Park, and even from Cypress Mountain nearly 28 km away. Actually, any direction 360-degrees around the barges is a good place to view these wonderful displays.
The fact that this was the 25th Anniversary of this pyrotechnic competition made it especially exciting, and it promised to be one of its biggest competitions ever. All three competitors were powerhouses in the display industry: Lidu Fireworks (representing China), Group Vision Show (representing Brazil), and Archangel Fireworks (representing Canada). All three of these companies had competed here before and had either won the competition trophy outright, or had gained the undying respect of the crowd.
To simply say “crews often experience setup challenges” is to horrendously underexaggerate the complexities faced when setting up displays on barges in open water. Let’s not forget that even though this is an inlet area of sorts, the Salish Sea in the Strait of Georgia is still connected to the Pacific Ocean. Just the constantly rocking of the barges themselves can be problematic enough, but couple that with ocean wind and intense rain and teams used to working only on dry land and you have a clearer picture of what the teams were dealing with. This year, Team Luidu’s display setup was stymied for two days by intermittent rain and drizzle. Fortunately, the front moved eastward and was replaced by warm, beautiful weather that made setup much easier.
To really experience “The Honda Celebration of Light” in all it’s splendor you have to walk around in the English Bay area before it begins. On show days (this year the show dates were July 25th, July 29th and August 1st) the city of Vancouver has an absolutely electric feel to it. Just the walk along the coastline from Sunset Beach to English Bay Beach is a wonderful experience. It is literally packed with vendors, concert stages sporting all styles of music and newly erected beer gardens.
Of course, there is the “VIP Lounge” area situated right beside the main performance stage, and tickets can be purchased before the festival. This is unrivaled seating, really (the absolute best) for anyone willing to pay who has a desire to have the ultimate view of the upcoming displays. Considering each ticket comes with the guarantee of excellent food (cooked right in front of you), cocktails and great service, the tickets are actually a fairly good value.
As indicated before, “The Honda Celebration of Light” competition is divided into three separate nights. Each night a different company (representing a different country) performs a 25-minute fireworks display along with expertly choreographed music. The fireworks music is simulcast from a local radio station (LG104.3 FM) and can be heard in the air almost everywhere.
A panel of industry experts judges the overall competition, but several sponsors and a few celebrities are included as judges as well. They use the following criteria to judge the competition:
- Sizing of the Show: 10 Points
- Overall Design and Artistry: 30 Points
- Synchronization: 20 Points
- Originality of Effects: 15 Points
- Quality of Soundtrack: 15 Points
- Quality of Fireworks: 10 Points
Interestingly enough, if any team were to exhibit a lack of professionalism, do a sloppy installation job or disregard local public safety precautions, the “Technical Director” could shave up to five points off their final score. This is highly unlikely, though, because of the high caliber of the participants competing.
1st night: Lidu Fireworks/China
On the first night, the team representing China, Team Lidu Fireworks (https://youtu.be/sXbdTK8g0yQ) , treated the audience to classic Chinese musical choreography filled with colorful displays boldly characteristic of Chinese fireworks pageantry (a style the audience has come to appreciate and expect). The show began with an assertive entrance of red horse tales, and calmly proceeded through six scenes of classical Chinese folk songs contrasted by contemporary Chinese pop music. Throughout their show, Team Lidu used an abundance of cakes to create some spectacular low-level displays. Ultimately, however, it was their high shell punctuation and cake work that ultimately wowed the crowd. Their use of new colors, too—colors the audience had never seen before—was what fundamentally caused the crowd to murmur with excitement, particularly regarding their use of pastel purples, powdery oranges, and light pastel greens.
2nd night: Group Vision Show/Brazil
The Brazilian team, Group Vision Show, had competed once before in Vancouver at the Celebration of Light in 2012. They managed to capture the audience’s imagination with their selection of incredible music and their wonderful use of design. In the months leading up to their highly anticipated return visit, there was a great deal of speculation about what Brazil would do during their segment. As they arrived at the beach on the night of their display, it was immediately obvious that the huge crowd gathered there was almost a third larger than China’s three days earlier. As the crowd-led countdown began, it was also apparent Brazil had captured the audience before their very first shots even hit the air.
Brazil’s display began fearlessly with all of the glitter and glitz—a combination of symmetry and pattern shells, wide comet displays and floral, feathery patterns—you would expect from the land of carnival. The Brazilian music also heightened the excitement of the crowd tremendously as the raucous shells burst, and people further back from the beach (where the audience typically stands) all began dancing! Honestly, what more could a display team ask for? As the display progressed, Group Vision Show expanded their showmanship even further by adeptly using aquatic shells and cakes as beat punctuation (something China had failed to use at all). Amazingly, the Brazilian display managed to keep up their intense pace and powerful rhythm throughout their entire display, and the crowd loved it. If this show was any indication of what to expect during the 2016 Olympics, then we’re in for an absolutely amazing opening ceremony.
3rd night: Archangel Fireworks/Canada
After the Brazilian sensation cooled down a little, it was up to the Canadian Archangel Fireworks team to make certain that their pre-display hype was equal to the buzz about them circulating all around Vancouver. They definitely had the home court advantage, but they would have to prove themselves to win the hearts of the audience—especially after two excellent shows already.
Everywhere in Vancouver people were talking about the previous shows, about China’s colors and Brazil’s wonderful displays and music. Everyone was so excited, in fact, that no one considered the weather and how it might affect the Canadian team.
Canada’s shoot day began very tensely. The air was thick and the clouds hung dark and ominously low on the edges of a city preparing to watch history unfold. Fortunately, the show had been setup quickly enough that it left some time for Mother Nature to figure out her nighttime plan. Everyone began worrying it would rain, and the thick, unmoving air didn’t help the mood of the crowd. The photographers crossed their fingers, and the parents packed garbage bags for their children to wear as ponchos just in case the heavens opened up that night.
Archangel Fireworks started the show by kicking open the door and staging an almost finale-level introduction in place of a safe, gently progressive opening. Instead of any kind of buildup, they launched an all out onslaught of fireworks during their first minute, all to the pounding song “Sabotage” by the Beastie Boys. It not only raised the eyebrows of the crowd, but their heart rates as well. The only thing louder than the fireworks after the first minute were deafening cheers of the audience.
In an attempt to let some of the smoke drift away, Archangel Fireworks then slowed the pace a little to begin using its much large shells to the accompaniment of the lyrics of “Say It Ain’t So” by Weezer. In a sense it echoed the sentiment of the crowd because the persistent smoke was choking out some of the lower level effects. (Hey, at least it wasn’t raining). Rapidly changing pace once again for their 3rd scene was another onslaught of screaming fireworks and music to the pulse of Freddy Mercury’s “Don’t stop me now I’m having such a good time.” Thoughts of all the smoke quickly disappeared entirely as larger shells and innovative ground level work continued battering the crowd like a “Wrecking Ball” for their 4th scene. By this point the audience couldn’t believe their eyes and ears as an almost lyrical symbiosis between themselves and the fireworks began. Then without a moments notice, Eminem started his “One Shot” as another micro finale in mid show began, complete with an amazing aquatic spectacle that literally stole the show and gave Canada a commanding lead over its competitors.
Canada’s perfect musical selection was so thorough throughout the second half of its show design, that by the final scene the entire audience all knew what was coming up next and were simultaneously cheering and singing along with the lyrics, “Some nights I stay up cashing in my bad luck, some nights I call it a draw.”
In the end it wasn’t a draw.
So, how do you win competition like “The Honda Celebration of Light”? Well, it starts with great fireworks, creativity, great music selection and a thorough understanding of the crowd. Oh, it also helps if it doesn’t rain. Overall, Archangel Fireworks created a knockout of a show, and that’s what won them the cup. Such is the nature of celebrating light and fireworks in the Pacific Northwest.