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July 4th Fireworks: Jim Souza, America's Fireworks Designer, Tells Us What New Shapes To Watch For

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You've likely seen Jim Souza's work before, and you may see it again today. The designer, whose family has worked with fireworks for five generations, is one of the most prolific fireworks providers and designers in the world. Souza and his company, Pyro Spectaculars, handle more than 2,000 shows each year -- they've led the Macy's Day Parade show for 27 years, booked Super Bowls and Olympics, and they're behind 400 odd shows that will light up skies across the country today.

Souza spoke to us during one of his busiest weeks of the year about the firework designs premiering across the nation this Fourth and how the ancient art of fireworks has changed as much as it's stayed the same.

You're probably extremely busy today.

I am, it's been real crazy today. I had to just go into my office and shut the door.

What are you most excited about tomorrow?

What I'm very excited about, as I sit here getting ready, is we've got over 400 shows, from the largest in New York all the way to Los Angeles, then up the coast to the Bay Area and Sacramento and Hawaii. I'm really excited to see it all come together.

Is anything site-specific? Like in San Francisco do you have fireworks in the shape of the Golden Gate Bridge? That'd be cool.

Well, all of our shows are really custom and catered to the venue, definitely. Whether it's a community park or a stadium, in Seattle by the Space Needle. Everything is designed for the site and how big we're able to make the show. And of course the budgets affect the type of shows we can do. But New York is the grandaddy of them all.

What kinds of stuff will we be seeing in the big shows?

This year we're introducing three new products. There's a wagon wheel firework, which is symbolic of America's frontier, and two other ghosting shells. One is a spiral that starts in the center and spins its way all around, turns into this red white and blue, and then it kind of disappears. Then it comes back and turns into crackling tips. Another specific one is a 360-degree shell bursting in 3-d, we call it "the eclipse." It starts on one side in yellow and then it transforms into another color and then both light up again.

Woah. And what's coming next? Anything amazing you think we'll see in the next few years?

It's still the ancient art of fireworks, but now we've got modern technology. We're working all the time, analyzing everything and seeing what we can come up with. Adding some new ideas and working with our strategic partners in China and seeing what they're developing. We're always thinking how we can add this color, or that would look cool, and then come up with new effects.

What's changed the most since you first started working with fireworks?

I think back to my first Macy's show 35 years ago and I still have the same ideas. There's still patriotic music mixed with great fireworks to create the oohs and aahs of the crowd. But I can do it a lot better because of the technology we have now. We've got new graphics, animation, and testing data. We can now know how long it takes for shell to go into the air, how long does it burst, what color and what hues are they -- that can all be logged in a computer now.

Do you like using computers to design or do you prefer the old way of doing things?

I still think the ultimate computer is the one inside one's brain, but it becomes more sophisticated using computers for design, and now we have digital technology, which enables us to fire with more precise timing.

How big is the staff for one of the larger shows?

The staff size of Macy's in NYC is 40. You've got the immediate production team, plus barge captains, the crew, and we have our veterans doing that.

Are you passionate about fireworks laws? Does it bother you that there are so many?

I am passionate, but also with the regulatory process. Both my father and myself have been two-term presidents of the American Pyrotechnical Association, we both have lifetime achievement awards. We work to promote safety and we feel regulations are important for safety.

Are there any major concerns as far as fireworks go this 4th of July? Anything you're worried about?

I think the big thing is to continue to look at new ways of manufacturing that become more environmentally sensitive.

How do you mean?

In some areas, especially on the coastline of California, that's a concern. I love the beach and I love the ocean, and it's always interesting to deal with environmentalists and consumer businesses. But we're compliant, we work with them.

What are their concerns?

Could be things in the air, the fallout into the ocean, things like that.

Is Pyro Spectaculars still a family business? Will it stay in the family?

The Souza family spans five generations. My two sons are very active in the business -- one's in NYC, the other is in Los Angeles and working at the Rose Bowl and their [fireworks] display. They're fully involved.

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