Here’s what it looks behind the scenes at a fireworks show

The view from the barge is “terrible” – but it’s what makes Vancouver’s summertime fireworks displays so incredible.

Fireworks and swans have something in common.

The fable of the ugly duckling tells the story of an ugly young bird who grows up to be a spectacular swan. Fireworks start off in plastic tubes connected by more cables than server farm buried in sand on a barge that’s not all that spiffy.

But, with the right spark, they light up the night sky with sound and colour. And in Vancouver during the summer, that means the annual Celebration of Light fireworks shows. 

To demonstrate what it looks like before the Canadian team Midnight Sun from the Yukon set off their show on Wednesday, July 27, tours were taken on board the two barges used to fire off hundreds of the explosive delights.

Kelly Guille, a pyrotechnics expert and president of Archangel Angel Fireworks (who are helping produce all three shows) explains each team gets the same equipment and five positions to set up mortars on the two barges. Knowing that, teams design their shows well in advance, using simulations.

When they get to the barge each team has a couple of days to set up their display, with mortars buried in sand and custom rigs built. Midnight Sun is preparing a rig to create an image in the sky.

For the larger charges, that fit in the mortar tubes, sizes start at 65 mm and range up to 300 mm. 

“They look different depending on where they come from, but they all have the same function and the same design,” Guille says. 

He notes they work similarly to a gun.

“There’s a pouch of black powder, and when that ignites by the fuse, it pushes this ball into the sky,” he says.

Once in the air, a timed fuse will ignite at a specified moment, causing the firework to explode.

The fuses are controlled by a huge series of cables and a computer, so that all that needs to be done when it’s time for the show to begin is for a human, in this case Guille, to hit the ‘go’ button. He and a crew of three or so are on the barge for the show, in a specialized room (that uses polar bear-proof glass) to make sure things go off without a hitch; Guille has the ability to shut a show down immediately as well.

He describes his view as “terrible.”

“My view of the fireworks is not of the product, it’s of which position may be having issues. It’s about the function of the show, it’s not of the show,” Guille says.

The view is terrible for another reason; he’s watching from the wrong angle.

“These shows are built two-dimensionally,” he says, noting it’s like watching the very edge of a film.

The second night of the Celebration of Light is Wednesday, July 27 with Midnight Sun’s display taking to the sky around 10 p.m. The barge is located in English Bay off of Stanley Park and Kitsilano Beach. The show can be seen almost anywhere in the city with a view of the air above English Bay.

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