Imagineering with John Werner Written by Michael Richards

Imagineering with John Werner Written by Michael Richards

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An imagineer is “a person who devises and implements a new or highly imaginative concept or technology.” OK, that about sums up the crux of John Werner’s career in just one sentence. And although he may shy away from garish awards and has managed to stay out of the public limelight, John Werner has truly been an integral part of the fireworks foundation in a way that defines our industry. He is one of the “old veteran fireworks guys” who has indelibly left their mark on the field and continues to literally define what we do.

If you’ve never heard of John Werner, then you’ve probably never attended an international symposium or any other major pyrotechnic convention or conference in the United States, because John generally goes to all of them. He is also a member of the Pyrotechnic Guild International (PGI), on the Board of the National Council on Fireworks Safety, and is a member and former president of the National Fireworks Association (NFA). He sports an incredible résumé that is certainly worth studying (and envying) that includes an immensely varied career that humbly began as an art and design major at the Rochester Institute of Technology and then moved on to basic electronics at Monroe Community College. From that unassuming start he secured his first position as “head technician” at the Eisenhart Auditorium (part of the Rochester Museum and Science Center in New York) where he was responsible for stage lighting. From Eisenhart he moved on to become a “Special Effects Consultant” at Seabreeze Amusement Park in New York, and then after that, a “Laserist and Optical Designer” for Laser Images (Laserium) in Van Nuys, California. Next, after a brief stint as a “Technical Specialist” for the Strasenburgh Planetarium in Rochester, he finally entered the world of pyrotechnics by becoming Kelly’s Fireworks “Designer of Commercial Fireworks Displays” in Buffalo, New York.

For most of us, the list of jobs I’ve already mentioned would probably define our lifetime of work, but for John Werner he was just getting started. It was his next job, working as the “Special Effects Designer For Theme Parks” for Disneyland, Walt Disney World and EPCOT Center that set the stage for phase two of his career. As Disney’s special effects designer, John was responsible for creating and developing optical and mechanical special effects that included creating park mockups, as well as supervising their eventual construction, manufacture and installation. After 4 years of doing that, he moved on to become a “Pyrotechnic Specialist” at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, where he designed and implemented experimental pyrotechnic training devices. Eventually, he moved on yet again to become “Technical Director” for WETLABS, the research and fabrication division of WET DESIGN. After two years there (proving it IS a small world after all), John went back to working for Disney as the “Special Effects Designer for Walt Disney Imagineering” in Glendale, California. As part of the Imagineering team, he was responsible once again for designing optical and mechanical effects for the Disney theme parks. He was also involved in developing what became known as the “blue sky” design concept for rides and enhancements at EPCOT, Disneyland and Euro Disney. You see, any time that the designers all met together for general “brainstorming” sessions at Disney, new ideas were referred to as “blue sky” concepts. This wasn’t anything technical, but simply meant that the “sky was the limit” when it came to ideas—regardless of how crazy or impossible (or expensive) the idea might seem. The “blue sky” methodology became an integral part of the creative process at Disney when generating highly inventive, innovative ideas that required unfettered imagination. After three years in Glendale, it was off to Elkton, Maryland where he finally settled down for almost a decade as the plant manager for Patriotic Fireworks. Patriotic Fireworks is a major east coast manufacturer and supplier of consumer fireworks, and John was responsible for the company’s day-to-day operations while he was there. It was 2001 when he left Patriotic Fireworks—after a total of 31 years of extraordinarily fascinating work already—to become the “Technical Director” for Vulcan Fireworks in Hong Kong. When the rest of us would probably be thinking about retiring, John began yet another new job.

Ewan Cheung established Vulcan fireworks back in in 1974 (Mr. Cheung is an exceptionally nice man, by the way, and a wonderful photographer). If you’re not familiar with their company, Vulcan is considered one of the oldest companies in Hong Kong that exports Chinese fireworks directly to the United States and Europe. Their company actually offers two brands of fireworks: Shogun and Vulcan. The Vulcan brand was launched first to manufacture high quality hydraulic machine pressed rockets and European style display shells. The Shogun brand came next and was introduced in the U.S. around 1998. It began as a popular generic Chinese fireworks brand and eventually evolved into a product line with better-designed packaging and improved overall performance. Shogun now boasts a full range of over 1000 different products primarily marketed in the United States as a consumer fireworks brand, while Vulcan is their premium display fireworks brand.

As Vulcan’s technical Director, John has a myriad of jobs. First and foremost, John is supposed to develop and design new products. He is also supposed to develop better, faster ways to expedite work at the factories. This can mean anything from dreaming up new names for consumer products to designing innovative ways of make shooting display fireworks easier and/or safer. Since the company is involved more and more frequently in professionally choreographed shows and competitions, John has been heavily involved in developing new products that allow greater freedom to shoot displays in a variety of ways. Obviously, innovative development is John’s forte.

Besides his Disney work, John’s biggest claim to fame is that he is the inventor and designer of the electric match connectors supplied on all Vulcan display products. These igniters make it possible to more easily and safely attach or detach the leaders on shells, fountains, mines, and candles, etc. He designed these igniters back in 2003, and it quickly became the standard on almost every display product manufactured worldwide. The photo below shows the T-Shape design (in PVC plastic) he came up with that still is used by a variety of companies that copied his idea. The white plastic one is the design Vulcan and Shogun used for several years before they switched over to the more versatile black design that allows components to be connected together with a “Twist-Lock” feature. This not only allows faster connections with electric matches, but also allows finale chains to be daisy-chained together and time delays to be inserted between the igniter and the shell that it fires. They now make the connector in clear plastic for safety reasons.

JohN WernerAnother contribution John has made to display fireworks that has essentially redefined the way professional displays are set up and are choreographed (another idea brazenly “copied” by everyone) is his invention and design of the “Modular Cake.” The modular cake is sometimes referred to as “slices,” and basically is a single row of multiple tubes that are always ignited by an electric match and form disposable prearranged straight or fan arrays of comets, mines, and bombards. Regardless, Vulcan supplies the widest number of effects by far, firing sequences or patterns and tube calibers for the show designers to take advantage of when putting together a choreographed show.

In the last two years, John and Vulcan have introduced what they call “Lollipops.” These Pyrotechnic Magazine #61 (copy 2)are incredibly cool 360-degree versions of the modular cake section, that again has prearranged disposable arrays of comets, mines, and candles that are intended to be shot from elevated positions off cranes and bridges to make spectacular effects possible and an easy set up.

There is an interesting story I heard about John Werner as a teenage pyro that I think offers some genuine insight into the kind of creativity that has been John’s most salient characteristic throughout his life. Having read George Weingart’s book, Pyrotechnics (an anachronistic pyrotechnic cookbook of sorts John still considers one of his most prized possessions) the teenaged John Werner learned some basics, then purchased enough chemicals with his friends to make display rockets, small shells, wheels and lancework. You have to realize that chemicals were much easier to get ahold of back then than fireworks. Anyway, after they were finished they set it all up one night at a local playground down the street from John’s house. At the end of his first makeshift “show” he was both surprised and unnerved when a state trooper came walking out of the shadows and said, “Who’s the scientist here?” Everyone there (including the parents who had attended his show) all pointed their fingers at John. And the trooper walked over to him and said, “You know son, fireworks are illegal and we’ve had a complaint from a neighbor, but I was enjoying the show so much that I waited until you were finished. So, please don’t shoot anymore tonight. Good job.” Then the trooper left. It was probably a defining moment for John tantamount to Steve Jobs being allowed to use the garage to build computers. Don’t you wish you could let that trooper know somehow that the boy he encouraged that night and let off the hook eventually became a creative designer for Disney?

In addition to the other jobs I’ve mentioned that John does for Vulcan, he also works with Shogun and Vulcan customers to develop custom-made products and fields questions concerning product performance and quality issues. Now when he attends U.S. fireworks conventions, he’s part of the Vulcan design team and has taken on trade show responsibilities as well. It is important to note here that John works very closely with Cindy Cheung (Ewan Cheung’s daughter and the current manager of U.S. operations and de facto CEO of Vulcan and Shogun). They work together as part of a team designing and choreographing most of Vulcan’s firework shows and competitions. Quite often these wonderfully choreographed shows introduce devices and effects that have never been seen before as part of any firework display.

When it comes to competitions, John has certainly traveled the world to compete. Working jointly with his colleague Cindy Cheung, he has performed displays in Oman, Calgary, Manila, Berlin, and most recently put on the display opening night for the International Symposium on Fireworks in Bordeaux, France. John and Cindy competed twice in Hannover, Germany, where they placed 2nd one year and another year placed 1st. It is probably wrong, however, to give the impression that it was just the two of them involved in something as elaborate as Vulcan’s 1st place medal at the 19th International Fireworks Competition held in Herrenhauser Garden in Hannover (2009). The following is a more accurate rundown of the number of people and companies involved in just this one competition: First, Vulcan (with an real knack for assembling a great team) put together an incredible multi-lingual, multi-national Vulcan crew to work on the show: Joe Wan, Erik Vermeulen, Ricky Tan, Steven Wong, Giles Keyser, Danny van Leeuwen, and Mark Boeken (along with Cindy and John). And they had Vulcan owned Vulcan Golden Dragon and Vulcan Tong Tai Fireworks manufacture 100% of the fireworks used in their competition. John Werner specifically made all the wheels, set pieces and gerb rack designs.

Vulcan’s most recent competition was in Montreal (Canada’s biggest firework event) at the 2015 L’International des Feux Loto-Quebec representing Hong Kong. https://vimeo.com/134361040 The custom holding racks that John designed and built for the show allowed very precise setup of the single shots and modular sections. As fate would have it, there was no wind that night and the second half of the display was somewhat smoked out. Even so, they still managed to take Bronze in the competition and received another award for best soundtrack. One more note: John’s daughter Kelsey designed the artwork for the poster that Vulcan used for their show in Montreal.

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A Conversation With John Werner

PM: You go to a great many fireworks conferences and symposiums worldwide. As you are well aware, the industry quite often comes under fire in several different countries. If you were given the opportunity to talk to the people who want to see the industry more heavily regulated, and/or wish to see consumer fireworks made completely illegal everywhere, what would you say to them?

JW: I would try to carefully explain to them that fireworks are in fact extremely safe to use and have a very low accident rate compared to many activities that we all take for granted, and that over regulating them or banning them completely serves no purpose except to encourage people to misuse them or experiment with dangerous alternatives. This is quite easy to prove with facts and data. Unfortunately the fireworks industry, as a whole, does a relatively poor job of responding to the hype and misleading impressions that the anti-fireworks people constantly present in the media and on the Internet.

PM: You’ve often been at the forefront of innovation when it comes to fireworks production and displays. Name a couple of innovations you’ve been privy to lately that have impressed you.

JW: Many of the innovations now are behind the scenes at the factories in China, and by necessity they have had to come up with production solutions because of a dwindling work force in the Industry. More and more I see quite clever machines being developed to try to replace some of the handwork formally being done by human laborers such as tube rolling, shell pasting, and firecracker braiding. On the down side however with less and less people willing to make the very labor intensive items we saw even 10 years ago, there has been a very noticeable simplification of product lines and I’m sorry to say that things I used to love such as “Happy Lamps” and novelties are fast becoming a thing of the past. In Display fireworks I do see companies now looking for more unique products to add to their repertoire of effects available for large choreographed shows. This is where I have largely focused my design ideas now with Vulcan, and in the near future you will see much more use of patterned single shot runs and letters or writing projected into the sky for instance.

PM: If you could look ahead some 50 years into the future, what would you prophesize modern fireworks displays will look like in the year 2065?

JW: That is a tough question I’m afraid, especially since most people turn out to be very wrong when it comes to predicting the future. Fortunately I think fireworks and people’s enjoyment of them is timeless and the basic products of this Industry, such as shells, rockets, fountains, and wheels are still basically the same as they were hundreds of years ago. I expect they will still be that way 50 years from now and that it is extremely unlikely anyone will have come up with a substitute even remotely as exciting and dynamic or as simple and beautiful as a well done firework display. Less smoke though would be nice I suppose, but this seems to be an industry that continues to delight and entertain with the simplest of traditional materials and methods.

PM: What kinds of recommendations would you make to the fireworks industry to better alleviate environmentalist concerns regarding potentially harmful chemicals used in current fireworks production?

JW: Here again, as with the public perception of accident rates, I have honestly seen very little in the way of actual facts that prove fireworks to be anything but a minor environmental concern. The Industry itself has done a pretty good job of limiting dangerous chemicals and procedures used in manufacturing as a way of preventing explosions and harm to it’s workers. This has translated into public and professional display companies limiting harmful byproducts to any significant degree that might enter the environment from the use of fireworks. I have not seen any studies that show lasting effects at display sites, even when the site is repeatedly used night after night by like at Disney’s Theme Parks. Unfortunately, the media and the Internet continue to spew out misleading and downright incorrect information concerning certain toxic chemicals they they think we use. My only recommendations to the industry would be to stay open and honest about what we do, and also to be very concerned about the proper disposal of spent devices and to thoroughly clean up display sites after a show—especially around water sites. It’s always in the best interest of everyone involved to limit the amount of plastic used and prevent trash and debris from creating an ugly mess after a show.

PM: In looking back over your incredibly interesting career, what do you feel was your favorite job, and what do you feel was the most important contribution you made while you were there?

JW: This is an easy question. Basically all my jobs have been related and what I do is generally the same—try and innovate unique ideas and elegant solutions to the job at hand, whether it be water fountains, theme parks, or firework shows. However, I particularly enjoy the fireworks industry since for me it is a perfect blend of art, technique, and traditional values that I love. I have never been that intrigued with computers or the latest cell phones, but the magic of black powder—especially its versatility—continues to hold my fascination. I believe I have made rather small, albeir important contributions to the fireworks industry with some of the developments I have designed and promoted while working with Vulcan Fireworks. I think the electric match connector and our Modular Cake sections were important. For me it is extremely gratifying to see almost every display device worldwide now equipped with the small plastic igniter connection that I believe has made a big difference in safety and reliability, and I have appreciated the opportunity that Vulcan has given me that allowed that to happen.