When I switched to wholesale buying after Fourth of July 2004, I quickly found myself immersed in calculations of volume discounts, case splits on group buys, per-unit price, etc. At one point, a member of our buying group (who has since gone on to become a 1.3G pro shooter) created an online database to help us calculate everything. The group eventually broke up and I've slacked off the past couple of years, but there was once a time when I could quote you the cost-per-shell price down to the penny off the top of my head.
Most newbies to the forum are, I suspect, a lot like I was when I first discovered PyroU: Astonished by the sheer size of other people's stashes, feeling chagrined at the fact that what you paid retail would have bought you more than twice as much if only you'd known that you could buy wholesale. For about a year -- my small retail 2004 show got ruined by rain, and I was determined to avenge myself in 2005 -- I was absolutely obsessed with the idea of creating the most massive show possible. That's OK. The "364-day planning cycle," I call it.
As you're making the transition from a small, disorganized shoot with retail-purchased fireworks to doing a large, planned show with wholesale fireworks, newbies need to be aware of the importance of doing the math.
COST PER ITEM & COST PER EFFECT
One of the disappointments of buying wholesale is that you're looking at a boring, dull price list, instead of either (a) standing with your jaw hanging open in a retail showroom or (b) staring at the Phantom catalog like a nine-year-old kid dreaming of Christmas. (I know a thing or two about marketing and publishing, and if any wholesaler wants to create his own Phantom-style "wish book," just let me know.) To get the best value -- the most bang for your buck -- the newbie has to try to get past the marketing and packaging, and the way to do that is to do the math.
Let's examine one example: On page 11 of this year's Phantom catalog is their G-183 #500 Double Break tube package -- four tubes, eight breaks, for $119.99 retail. We assume that the wised-up newbie has figured out that the BOGO is a marketing pitch intended to make clueless people think they're getting some kind of special deal. Except for a few days before the 4th of July, everybody always gets the BOGO, so in reality the G-183 sells for $60.
OK, that's $15 per tube, you see. Now, look at the bottom of Page 10 of the Phantom catalog and you'll see the #500 Round Red Dahlia (G-650) retails for $24.99 which, once you include the BOGO, comes to $12.50 per tube. Last time I checked, the #500 RRD was the primo single-shot tube on the market. Maybe those double-break tubes are good, but in terms of jaw-dropping awesomeness, what are the odds they top the RRD?
If you do the BOGO and get two of the G-183 packages, that's eight tubes with 16 breaks for $120. However, for $125 with the BOGO, you can get twelve (12) of the #500 RRDs, which would be a finale barrage of mind-blowing spectacularity. Go in with a buddy and buy two cases (i.e., 24 RRD) and that boosts your purchase total before BOGO by $480, thus qualifying you for extra "freebies" (which aren't actually free, but that's another story).
Of course, this kind of calculation involves a comparison of quality -- 16 breaks with the G-183's vs. 12 RRD breaks -- and that's a subjective decision for the individual consumer. However, unless you do the math, you can't make that subjective decision in any sort of rational way. This is why the average retail customer walking through a showroom is such a total chump: "Hey, look! There's four of them! And they're buy-one-get-one free!"
The retail chump doesn't know enough about the product to make quality comparisons, he doesn't bother to do the math, and is therefore a sucker for slick packaging and marketing come-ons. This is why, even after I switched to wholesale buying, I never became a Phantom-hater. The problem isn't Phantom -- they sell good stuff at prices comparable to other retailers -- but instead the problem is that idiot customer pushing his shopping cart through the aisle and thinking to himself that he's getting such bargains that if he buys a few hundred dollars more, Phantom will be selling him stuff at a loss.
Wake up, chump. You've got to do the math.
QUALITY, QUANTITY & CONVENIENCE
Having thought about the difference between the G-183 and the #500 RRDs, let's now think about comparing those to (a) the shell kits on pp. 6-9 of the Phantom catalog and (b) the 9x3 racks on p. 12. Ultimately, no matter whether you're buying retail or wholesale, mortar shells are your best total value. But the 3" racks -- essentially nine #500 tubes -- have bigger breaks, and you don't have to worry about buying/building mortar racks and fusing them up.
Time is money, and the value of the time you spend building a rack, loading shells and then fusing the rack is a cost worth thinking about. Of course, for most of us, fireworks is a hobby, a pastime, a labor of love, and we thoroughly enjoy the time we devote to planning and assembling a show. Eventually, however, if you want to get the maximum show value from your time, you have to start thinking about the time-efficiency factor, otherwise known as convenience.
When Jeff Wilson posted video of his 2004 finale, I remember being surprised to discover that nearly all of it was done with cakes. No shells? No candles? No rockets? It doesn't make sense, unless you think about the fact that (a) Jeff buys at the rock-bottom discounted wholesale price, (b) he lives in a 1.4G-legal state where he can go out in his backyard and shoot every night if he wants to, and (c) this was just another 4th of July show like he does every year.
Maybe some of you guys are such fanatics you relish the thought of spending several hours in the July sun loading and fusing mortar racks. But you can't deny the time-saving logic of Jeff's approach: Just fuse together more than a hundred 500-gram cakes . . .
OK, you're a newbie and you don't have a few thousand dollars to throw around this year, so you haven't reached that point. Still, you see that the convenience factor involves legitimate calculations of the value of your time (and sweat, and stress) when it comes to putting together a show.
If you had just hit the lottery and quit your job, so that money was no object and there was no limit on the time you could devote to preparing your show, you might do things completely different. As it is, there is some maximum limit on how much money you'll spend, and some maximum limit on how many hours you'll spend, putting together your show.
Therefore, to get the most bang for your buck, you have to do the math on your time, as well as your money. The quality of any given effect is subjective, and therefore impossible to measure. However, you can calculate what an effect costs, and you can think about the time spent achieving that effect -- loading and fusing 27 mortar shots vs. fusing together three 9x3 cakes -- and by doing the math, you therefore are able to make a decision that is still arguably rational, despite the subjective nature of the decision.
S.P.S. & THE K.I.S.S. PRINCIPLE
Complexity is the enemy of efficiency, which is the basis for the K.I.S.S. principle -- Keep It Simple, Stupid. And as any student of design will tell you, there is a beauty to simplicity.
When I was obsessively planning my 2005 show, several more experienced pyros tried to tell me that I was over-thinking it. And it wasn't until I'd watched the video several times through that I realized how right they were. For all my elaborate planning, what I finally achieved with my finales was nothing but a gigantic sky-puke effect. As sky-pukes go, it was pretty awesome, but it was still just a sky-puke.
Newbies need to think hard about this question:Near the very end of your finale, you want to reach a peak where breaks are popping at a rate of >10 per second. The size, the colors, the effects, the loudness -- all of this will vary, but what produces the characteristic intensity of a finale is the machine-gun rapid-fire of a high S.P.S. factor. Now, apply the K.I.S.S. principle to the S.P.S. factor and ask this question:Q. What makes a finale?
A. S.P.S.: Shots per second..For example, think about a 25-shot 200-gram cake with a duration of 40 seconds that fires 20 single shots and then a five-shot barrage at the end. (There are lots of cakes like that.) Now, think about a full case of 12 cakes like that, set up in a 3-angle "W" fan formation, and fused to fire simultaneously. What you will get is 240 shots over the duration of the cake, ending with a nearly-simultaneous barrage of 60 shots at the end.Q. What is the absolute guaranteed way to maximize the intensity of your finale peak?
A. Simultaneously fuse multiples of identical cakes that feature a multi-shot finale barrage
It's not rocket science or brain surgery, you see. You can augment this formula and improve on it, but you can't really beat it: Keep It Simple Stupid.
That's why some of the old-timers on the board always give approving comments whenever they see a set-up that involves firing case-load barrages. You really can't go wrong with that approach, because you get a high S.P.S. number without the sky-puke randomness of mixing different cakes.
FRONTS, ANGLES & LAYERS
Because my shows were a male-bonding project with my twin sons (who were 11 when we shot our first show in 2004), I got into the habit of firing my finales in three parallel stations, spread on a front across the spectator's field of vision like this:
SON A STATION <---90ft.--> DAD STATION <--90ft.---> SON B STATION
So the barrage field is spread over a width of 180 feet. You could make it wider or narrower, depending on what kind of space you're shooting in and how far back you are from your spectators. And you could shoot from four, five or however many stations you want, depending on how you want to set it up. The point is that this idea of multiple stations spread across a front allows you to get more stuff in the air at once, and fill a wider barrage field. It's a cool effect, and if you've never thought about it, you should.
A guy in upstate New York (excuse me forgetting the name) did a show in 2004 that taught me the next trick of overlapping angles. Envision that three-station front, with each station firing effects that go up at angles, such as a "W":
W ------- W ------- W
Two cool things happen here:
- The barrage field is widened by the angles on the outside; and
- You get a criss-cross effect from the overlapping angles on the inside.
Think about those three W's as being three simultaneously-fired Z-cakes and imagine the overwhelming visual impact on the spectators. Whether it's cakes, shells (with tails) or candle racks, if you can get this overlapping angle-fire effect working for you, I guarantee your Fourth of July guests will go home impressed.
The next consideration is vertical layers. That is to say, you want to try to fill the sky not only from side to side, but from top to bottom, like this:
Your #200-#500 tubes or 9x3 finale cakes will generally give you the highest lifts and compose the top layer of the barrage field. Mortar shells and most 500-gram cakes will break slightly lower; 200-gram cakes and premium roman candles will break below that. You'll have a stream of comets and tails going up, with mines bursting up from the ground, and down at the ground level you want to have some extra visual excitement.
The idea is, at the peak of the show, you want to fill the spectator's field of vision, in both the vertical and horizontal aspect. For that last 30 or 40 seconds, there will be more visual information -- light, color, motion -- than the spectator's eyes can perceive at once, and more than his mind can process.
Sensory overload, the "mind-blowing" effect, is the result. The psychological factors involved create a sort of adrenaline rush that shuts down conscious thought processes. This is where the spontaneous shouts and screams come from. And that sudden surge right at the end, when the S.P.S. factor peaks, is something that your guests will remember, even if they can't quite put into words what it felt like at the moment.
NOISE & THE DON'T-THINK FACTOR
Just a few more considerations, among them whistling, crackling and, er, loud. On that third item, I can only offer all "kEwL bOmB dOoDz" this caution: "The first rule of Fight Club is, nobody talks about Fight Club." The insane quest to achieve sonic enhancement is your business, but if you end up in federal prison, don't blame me, OK?
As to crackling, for the past several years pyros have been complaining about the tendency of manufacturers to end every cake with the crackling-flowers effect. Maybe we get tired of it because we see it so much, but folks at the shows never complain. If you're shooting a long show with lots of different cakes, though, you might want to arrange your sequence so that the audience doesn't get bored: "Ho-hum, another crackling finale."
Maybe you don't care much for whistling effects, either, but from the spectator's perspective, no finale would be complete without some whistling, which is why I always mix in a few whistling shells in my racks.
A cheap trick I learned: Get yourself some of those cheap cuckoo fountains that come 6 to a pack. Stick a bunch of those on your finale boards and fuse 'em together. You'll get 30 seconds of whistling (not to mention the ground-level visual effect) but in the intensity of the moment, your audience won't realize that it's the fountains producing that sound. They hear the whistle and see stuff going up in the sky and their minds connect 2+2 in such a way that they think that the aerial effects are whistling -- to the extent that they "think" at all.
That "don't think" factor is something the newbie overlooks. It's like when a rock band is playing and the guitarist accidentally hits the wrong note -- as long as he quickly recovers and keeps playing, the audience doesn't really recognize the mistake. Fireworks is show business, and so you're always going to have something that "goes wrong" (e.g., a cake that doesn't fire) that the audience won't really notice. Your inner perfectionist can't stand this, but you can't let it bring you down.
Sometimes, this kind of "accident" (as long as it doesn't involve a safety risk) can produce a cool effect. The last couple of years, shooting in Alabama, I've gotten into the habit of making runs to the local stands, buying random cakes to fill out the boards. Given the limitations of performance descriptions on the labels, you don't really know what you're getting until it starts shooting. And so I'm standing there watching the boards go and suddenly I'm like, "What the heck was that?" A spiral turbillion, a blue comet, a sharp break -- some effect I hadn't expected, and maybe with two or three cakes firing together, there is a really cool combination that was totally unplanned. Sometimes I've watched the show video over and over again, comparing the effects to my list of stuff on the boards, and I still don't know what caused that cool-looking "accident."
Same thing when you mismeasure a fuse, or when a cake fails to ignite, causing a lull or a delay in the show. When your goal is 100% ignition, you get mad every time this happens, but even if the audience notices, they won't really remember it once that big finale is over and their ears are ringing.
What else? Oh, yeah, smoke: If you're lucky, you'll get a steady breeze during your show, so that the smoke from your lift charges floats away without obscuring the clarity of the breaks. Generally speaking, you can avoid this problem if don't fuse together a barrage sequence that lasts more than a minute. Even on a relatively windless night, you can just pause between sequences and wait 15 or 20 seconds to let the smoke dissipate before you start firing again.
'BETTER THAN DISNEY' -- IT'S TRUE!
After my first big show, I had people telling me it was "better than Disneyworld" and kind of thought they were just flattering me. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized they were telling the truth.
If you do it right, there is nothing in the world better than a consumer fireworks show. Why? In a word, proximity. Professional displays require a substantial "set back" distance between the spectators and the firing stations. With consumer fireworks, you're usually firing no more than a couple hundred feet from in front of the spectators.
When you're shooting a consumer fireworks show, the spectators can look down and see the lift charges firing right there in front of them, an effect they almost never see at a pro show. And when they look up . . .
OH! MY! GOD!
The highest breaks are only 200 or 300 feet over their heads, and that case of 36-shot Happy you fused together -- heh heh heh -- is breaking rat-a-tat-tat so close in front of them, it's scary. Buddy, when those Z-cakes start ripping, you'll hear the girls scream and the guys say, "Wow." And when you fill the sky with willow breaks, all the girls will wet their pants and all the guys will be jealous, wishing they were as cool as you.
Proximity makes the consumer fireworks experience superior. As a spectator once told me, "It feels like being inside the show."
All right, sermon over. Sorry I went so long, but I haven't posted here in a while, so if any newbies need extra encouragement, I aim to give them all they can handle:
- Plan it just right boys, never be afraid to give your fuses an extra ziptie for good measure.
- When in doubt about what to do, pack more into the last few seconds of the finale.
- Above all, keep it green. Nothing is more important than the safety of you and your guests.
If you do all that, then shortly after sundown, when everything is set to go, you can calmly and confidently tell your guests, "I am about to blow your freaking minds."
The best part? Next year, you'll get twice the crowd, because the folks who went downtown to see the fireworks this year will hear about how much better your show was.
Honestly, it is better than Disney.