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Lasers and pyro: tips for the “PB & J” of special FX

This Fourth of July, fireworks and smoke will fill the air across the U.S. That means that where there’s smoke, there can (technically) be lasers! Read on to find out how to create a safe and stunning Independence Day show that incorporates these two intense special effect elements.

A quick note up front: laser projectors and pyrotechnics each carry their own unique and serious risks. This equipment, if used improperly, can be very dangerous, and users should only operate pyrotechnics and lasers with the proper training, experience and license for your jurisdiction.

Lasers and pyro: tips for the “PB & J” of special FX

You got smoke in my lasers!

You got lasers in my smoke!

Two great effects that look great together.

With that throwback in mind, lasers and pyrotechnics have had a great relationship over the past 50 years. Both are incredibly breathtaking effects that by nature are ultra high in saturation and possess infinite contrast, making them stand out against the night sky with intensity and grandeur. Here are some tips you should know if you intend to combine these effects for the absolute best show possible:

1) SAFETY FIRST. Everyone says it, but it’s easy to get caught up in the moment and skip a step or two when trying to set up your show. This is not the time to skip anything, so make sure all of your pyro zones are clear. Do not use pyro indoors unless it is designed for that purpose (such as the “Sparktacular” fountains). Know your equipment and the risks associated with it, and follow common-sense safety protocols such as staying sober as an operator, etc. DO NOT fire your lasers into the open air, unterminated, without the proper FAA clearance. Finally, make sure to always monitor the scan field of your lasers to ensure projection safety.

2) Some times less is more. Only very rarely should lasers and pyro be used at the exact same time. The intensity from each system simultaneously can make the resulting effect too busy or washed out, resulting in a “light soup” kind of problem. Ideally, you should use the lasers to fill time between fireworks shells or fountains in the earlier portion of your show. This way, the lasers and pyro can stand out separately from each other. Combine the systems for the show’s climax, but focus on laser “hot beam” effects instead of liquid skies in the meantime. When combining the effects systems in this way, the use of lasers will extend your show, give it more dimension and variation, and allow for a bigger finish than you would have with just lasers or just fireworks/pyro.

3) Pyro smoke is great, but it’s not enough. The smoke from fireworks is dense and great for making a laser beam stand out, but because it’s so dense, the wind carries it easily and you don’t get wide-area coverage. It’s ideal to supplement your pyro smoke with some haze. The audience won’t notice the additional haze in the air, but they will notice that your laser effects are now “bright and brighter” instead of “bright and off”. Outdoors, you will likely need multiple hazers to cover the distance to your audience, and to compensate for wind.

4) Plan out your laser show based on where your audience is. While pyro looks awesome from every direction, lasers look three times brighter when beaming toward you than they do going away from you. Make sure you have your projectors (safely!) aimed over your audience with the beams coming toward them instead of going away from them if at all possible.

With these quick tips and all the appropriate attention paid to safety, you’re sure to have an excellent (and patriotic) show!

Laser “hot beam” effects with smoke from only a fountain-style firework.

Liquid sky laser effects visible with smoke from a fountain-style firework and haze from a haze machine.

Liquid sky laser effects visible with smoke from a fountain-style firework and haze from a haze machine.

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American Disc Jockey AssociationCanadian Disc Jockey AssociationU.S. Food and Drug AdministrationInternational Association of Amusement Parks and AttractionsInternational Laser Display AssociationNAMMSPIE