Painting the Sky with Fire
Thunderous booms echo through the night sky before going silent. Immediately following the grand finale, there’s a brief moment for Chuck Johnson, owner of Vortex Fireworks Artists. That’s his favorite part of the job.
“The 20 seconds after you're finished, after you’ve put all that work together, and just before you got to go do the monstrous job of cleaning up. The 20 seconds or so while the audience is screaming, that's quite rewarding. You're a rockstar for a few minutes there,” he says.
Chuck first got his start in pyrotechnics in Hollywood, where he started out as a cue card guy on the Donny & Marie Show in the late 1970s. From there he transitioned into specialty props and then, finally, fire.
“With motion picture explosions,” he says, “the art and the fun isn't in blowing stuff up. It's in making it look like it blows up. Instead of one big explosion for a movie, it's 11 or 12 miniature explosions that you set off at the same time, aiming stuff in different directions. It looks hellacious on film, but when it comes right down to it, you can dust it up and do it all over again.”
From there, he got into fireworks and started doing fireworks shows as a hobby. Though he was on a comfortable career path in the movie business, he developed a passion for fireworks and forged his own path to make it a full-time career. Now, if you watch a big-time fireworks show in the vicinity of Salt Lake City, Utah, it’s likely that Vortex is the company behind it. A typical job for Chuck starts with a whole lot of permits and paperwork, followed by a careful plan for the show. At his storage facility 100 miles out of Salt Lake, his crews pull the necessary fireworks and then start getting them set up on the morning of the show. Everything is wired into a firing board control panel. Once electricity is hooked up, Chuck and his crew are ready to make the magic happen.
Of this magic, Chuck says if it’s done well, it’s a form of performance art.
“I pay a lot of attention to color and patterns and cadence,” he says. “The idea is to coordinate and use certain types of fireworks with certain types of music. It’s not just shooting fireworks in the air. I like to coordinate them to make something special, so it ebbs and flows and has high points and low points and fast points and slow points. And then of course have a huge finale. And even then, I try to span those out so that each little shell has its place in the sky. I want to get the most out of each one.”
The attention to detail it takes to pull off a great fireworks show isn’t all about planning each burst for maximum audience enjoyment. Doing it all safely is even more important. “It’s funny, because these things look quite innocuous when they’re just sitting there,” Chuck says. “The primary thing I teach my people is to give yourself plenty of time. Time is the best safety feature, because with time you can work out any problems without being in a hurry.”
When giving demonstrations and discussing safety, Chuck often holds up his hand to reveal several missing fingers. “I don’t really come completely clean,” he says. “I actually had a lawnmower accident, but I milk it for all it’s worth as a safety lesson anyway.”
Though Chuck and his crew will be hard at work while most everyone else enjoys the Fourth of July off work, he says that his job and his life-long fireworks obsession mean that it’s still one of his favorite days of the year.
“When I was a kid, there were two holidays: Christmas and the Fourth
of July,” he says. “I couldn’t decide which one I loved most.”
Thinking about it a moment longer,
he chooses the Fourth.
“Because fireworks,” he says. “I was just
fascinated from the start.”
SHOP NOW >
SHOP NOW >
SHOP NOW >
SHOP NOW >