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14 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Hollywood Food Stylists

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Hollywood food stylists are little short of magicians—only instead of pulling rabbits out of hats, they’re turning piles of mashed potatoes into ice cream sundaes. Indeed, making food (or food-like products) appear photogenic and appetizing onscreen is a job for a true illusionist. Mental Floss spoke to a few food stylists working in TV, film, and commercials—from Game of Thrones to Taco Bell—to bring you the tricks of their magical trade.

1. MOST OF THE FOOD BEING FILMED IS REAL.

While food stylists are well-versed in the old-school swap tricks—using a pint of white glue to impersonate a glass of milk, for example—those are being phased out. Now, directors want actors to interact with their food, and high-definition camera lenses have made the fake stuff much more obvious. Plastic food props only appear in the background of scenes today, where they're less visible and susceptible to scrutiny.

“I only deal with real food,” says Chris Oliver, who has styled food for movies including Gone Girl (2014) and TV shows such as Seinfeld and Big Little Lies. “You also have to think about how a character would cook something or put a plate together. Realistic food is not all beautiful and perfect. I make ugly food and burnt food, too.”

There’s a trend in commercial food styling to present dishes that are less-than-perfect, too. Shellie Anderson, who styles food ads for clients including Burger King and Ragù, says it’s the consumers who are demanding food look more realistic and therefore more approachable.

“People are tired of seeing something in a TV commercial and then ordering it in a restaurant and it doesn't look the same,” she says. “You don’t want it to look staged anymore. You want a burger to look like the cheese naturally dripped off and landed on the plate.”

2. THEY GO THROUGH A LOT OF FOOD ...

Bowl of strawberry ice cream
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If a food stylist needs one sprig of parsley for a shoot, they’ll often order 10 bunches. They never know what the condition of the parsley is going to be when it arrives from the produce vendor, or if the shoot is going to require more than they originally planned for. Carving a turkey in a scene? That may require two dozen birds if an actor keeps flubbing his line.

“It really depends on how much of a story point the food is and how important the scene is for the director,” Oliver says.

Food stylists usually have relationships with produce vendors, who can look for products with the specific size, shape, and color that stylists need. No bruises or dents, and no frozen lettuce! But stylists can hide those things if they have to.

Ice cream is infamously hard to keep intact because it melts so quickly. Food stylists have been known to replace the scoops with dollops of meringue, which don’t melt, or butter rolled in sugar. Oliver makes her sundaes the day before and sticks them in the freezer, spoons and straws and all. If they freeze rock hard overnight, they can last a few hours on set the next day before being replaced with another sundae lined up in the deep-freeze. Anderson sprays her ice cream with cold spray, an aerosol can of super-chilled gas used for cooling electronics.

3. ... BUT THE FOOD RARELY GOES TO WASTE.

On film and TV shoots, there are rarely leftovers. In fact, good food stylists often compete with the caterers: Actors usually have to eat the food during their scenes, and the crew finishes off the scraps. While shooting a Chinese New Year scene for the show Fresh Off the Boat recently, actress Lucille Soong told Oliver, who was styling that episode, that she was going to skip lunch because she wanted to enjoy eating her food on camera. “That was pretty freaking flattering!” Oliver says.

Because Oliver works on multiple TV shows in a single day, if an item doesn’t get used on set and never comes out of her cooler, she can just take it back to her shop and recycle it for use on another show. If something can’t be used again, she’ll take it home and make salsa or jam. “When it gets really old, I'll just stick it in vodka,” she says.

Commercial shoots tend to have more unused food. Anderson says anything that’s still edible will be given to a food pantry. “I once donated an entire swordfish when we did a commercial for a fish restaurant,” she says. “We never even used it. So I kept it on ice and took it to a men's homeless shelter. They were thrilled to have it.”

4. THEY VALUE FOOD SAFETY.

Another reason food stylists swap out on-camera food so much is because of safety concerns—hot and cold foods need to be kept at certain temperatures that may not be practical on-set. Sushi-grade tuna may be replaced with watermelon, for example, because the fish spoils so easily.

Oliver requires all of her employees to have a food handler’s license. She also only works out of commercial kitchens (including the one on her fully-equipped food styling truck). But not every food styling team does; some prepare food in their homes. “The reason that I get so much work is that everybody knows I'm a chef and I have a real kitchen,” Oliver says. “People trust my food. I’ve done a bunch of movies with Reese [Witherspoon] because she knows that if I’m on set, the food is safe to eat.”

5. WOMEN DOMINATE THE FIELD.

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While there are a few well-known male food stylists, for the most part the key food stylists in the U.S. are women. (Both of Anderson’s daughters are food stylists, too.) The reason for this dates back decades.

Before food styling became its own career in the 1990s, it was up to network employees with home economics degrees (almost always women) to cook on-camera food. Then props departments became responsible. “But props guys can’t even make spaghetti,” Oliver says, laughing. So according to her, these guys would go home and ask their girlfriends or wives to make whatever food was required for the next day’s scene. “Eventually they would just hire their girlfriends or wives to do it; keep the money in the family,” she says. “I know five food stylists who at one time were in relationships with prop masters.”

Also in the 1990s, networks began making more multi-camera TV shows. A lot more food began appearing on screen, and actors openly discussed their dietary restrictions. They were vegan, sugar-free, and low-carb all of a sudden. Oliver trained at the Culinary Institute of America and had worked in restaurants and catering jobs before stumbling into this career. “Because I was a chef, and I understood how food works, I knew how to feed people and make food last on set,” she says. “And I could charge anything I wanted to.”

To get a job as a food stylist today, it helps to know someone already in the industry and have a culinary background. Everyone starts as an intern, and then may be able to work their way up to being an assistant and then a stylist. “Not everybody can be a food stylist,” Anderson says. “You have to be able to cook, but you still have to be creative. And you have to be able to work fast and under pressure.”

6. THEY LIVE OUTSIDE OF LOS ANGELES NOW.

Now that movies and TV shows are frequently filmed all over the world, instead of just on sets in Los Angeles, food stylists can be based anywhere. There is a concentration of stylists who live in Vancouver, British Columbia, for example, because that's where many shows are now filmed. Labor laws also often require production crews to hire locally, so residing outside of L.A. can be a real advantage.

Some commercial food stylists, like Anderson, are flown in for shoots. “Food stylists can make or break a commercial,” she says. “And if you have trouble and you don't know what you're doing, it can be a real problem for production.” This is especially true on out-of-the-country shoots, when stylists don't have the resources that they’re used to. So clients who know her and her skill level, such as Taco Bell, will fly her to wherever they're filming.

7. THEY TALK LIKE CHEFS AND FILMMAKERS.

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Food stylists use a mix of back-of-the-house kitchen lingo and film jargon. Some examples: The “hero” is the food that is written into the script, is being shot, and must appear in front of the actor. “Bite and smile” is when an actor takes a bite of food and pretends to like it. “All day” is the total number of items needed; if they needed five turkeys on a set, they would say “five all day.”

8. NOT EVERYONE WANTS TO BE IN THE MOVIES.

Food stylists usually specialize in different media: film, TV, commercials, or print editorial. Stylists often prefer one over the other. Print editorial is shot in a controlled studio and tends to have more leeway for creativity. Commercials are tied to a brand’s specifications. Film and TV shoots on location are in unpredictable settings and can be physically demanding. But everyone tends to work long, 12- to 14-hour days. For commercials, it can often take three days to shoot one 30-second spot.

When working on a movie or TV show, the actors’ demands usually take precedence over the food needs. After working on one film, Anderson had had enough and dedicated herself to commercial work. “When I do commercials, the food is the star,” she says. “So [the directors] want to make sure I have everything I need. On a movie, they could care less about you.”

9. FOOD STYLISTS DON’T JUST MAKE FOOD.

Laurence Fishburne as Jack Crawford, Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter on Hannibal
NBC

Sometimes food stylists are expected to create sci-fi props—what would a person eat in the year 3000?—or fantasy items that they have no experience with. While working on the TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Oliver made gooey, edible slime from her imagination. “I also had to roll with the [actors’] different dietary needs,” she says. “I had to be able to make vegan slime, sugar-free slime, gluten-free slime, gelatin-free slime … Slime, any way you want it.”

Oliver also has to make items that you don’t really want to put in your mouth. While filming the TV show Big Little Lies, she made green-colored vomit for actress Reese Witherspoon of cucumbers and parsley. She says it was tasty, like green gazpacho. For a war film, she had to make 400 pounds of “dirt” for a group of prisoners of war to eat. She got Pakistani soil shipped to California so she could match it exactly. (Her recipe: ground-up Oreos and graham crackers, mixed with brown sugar and white sugar.)

Janice Poon, the food stylist behind the cannibal-centric TV show Hannibal, had a more challenging obstacle: how to make dishes that resembled human flesh. She refused to do research on cannibalism websites, she told HopesAndFears.com, but she studied a lot of anatomy books. “I’m just like Dr. Frankenstein,” Poon said. “I’m always stitching things, exchanging, putting one kind of meat on a different bone, patching stuff together. ... The key is to let the viewer’s imagination do more of your work.” She transformed veal shanks into human legs, and used prosciutto slices to mimic slivers of a human arm.

10. THEY PACK SOME SERIOUS GEAR.

When shooting, stylists need to be prepared for anything. They carry tools including tweezers, scissors, paint brushes, knives, offset spatulas, wet wipes, syringes, rulers, Q-tips, and spritz bottles.

“Think about your kitchen: all of your mixing bowls and utensils … I have that times 10 in my kit,” Anderson says. She also has a torch on hand for quick-cooking burgers and cold spray for extending the life of ice cream. Other stylists may have glycerin for adding shine or Kitchen Bouquet sauce for adding color. Poon often uses a white ceramic knife so she can see what she's doing on dark sets and work more quietly, so as not to disturb the acting process.

Food stylists sometimes work in erratic environments. Oliver brings her own 17-foot, cab-over truck to shoots. “It has a lift gate and everything's on wheels, so I can take everything out and have a kitchen in the middle of the desert, if I want,” she says. Inside, she has a full commercial kitchen: a six-burner stove, refrigerator, microwave, grill, freezer, prep tables, storage, TV, and a generator.

11. THEY’RE SKILLED AT IMPROV.

When production starts, the prop team sends memos to actors or their reps asking about food allergies and dietary restrictions. As trained chefs, most food stylists are happy to accommodate such limitations, cooking convincing swap-outs. “I find out what they will eat and make it happen,” Oliver says.

For example, Poon once made a convincing vegan “raw meat” on Hannibal using only grains. “I made lamb tongues out of bulgur and water,” Poon told HopesAndFears.com. “It’s like making a Lebanese kibbeh. You mix cracked wheat with water and it makes a kind of mush that holds together. The texture is a little 'nubbly,' so I added a pink food coloring, made little tongues out of kibbeh dough, steamed them up, and they were my little lambs’ tongues.”

Sometimes a director changes his or her mind at the last minute, and what was supposed to be a spaghetti dinner, for example, is now a breakfast spread. So the food stylist will squish down the meatballs and turn them into sausage patties. In an interview with NPR, food stylist Melissa McSorley recalled a time when a movie director suddenly decided to cut open a birthday cake she had made. The problem: It wasn’t real.

“So we had to cut the cake that was made out of Styrofoam, and I had to use a saw in order to do it because none of my knives could get through it,” McSorley said. “And then we had to layer in cake so it did look like it was real and then we had to send people scurrying to many markets to find white layer cake so it looked like people in the background could be actually be eating the cake.”

12. THERE’S ALWAYS THE SPIT BUCKET OPTION.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, David Bradley in Game of Thrones
HBO

Professional actors will often pick at the food in front of them, but not eat it because they know their scenes are going to require a lot of takes; they could be eating birthday cake for eight hours straight. Others dive right in. For a scene in The Guilt Trip (2012), actress Barbra Streisand had to pretend she was in a steak-eating contest. Oliver says they went through more than 300 pounds of meat for that scene’s three-day shoot and Streisand was totally game.

“But there’s a part towards the end where she has to eat really quickly and do a line without, you know, choking and dying,” Oliver says. “So I switched out the steak with seared watermelon. She took one bite and it sort of dissolved in her mouth, so she could do her line. If you watch it, and you really listen, you can hear the crunch of the watermelon.”

Sometimes, though, the spit bucket is the only option. In season one of Game of Thrones, the character Daenerys Targaryen had to eat a whole horse heart. But the actress who plays her, Emilia Clarke, actually had to eat 28. They were made of solidified jam, which tasted like “bleach and raw pasta,” she told The Mirror. “It was very helpful to be given something so truly disgusting to eat, so there wasn’t much acting required. Fortunately, they gave me a spit bucket because I was vomiting in it quite often.”

13. SOMETIMES THEY’RE SURPRISED BY THE FINAL PRODUCT.

Food stylists who work on multiple projects at a time, like Oliver, can’t always stick around to see how their food will be used. They may later find out that a gorgeous spread was relegated to the background, or worse. For a scene in Seinfeld, Oliver was once asked to prepare a perfect, glistening turkey. “Later I was home watching the episode and they had put the turkey on Kramer!” she says. “I was literally crying I was laughing so hard. Never in a million years did I think my turkey was going to end up with a guy’s head.”

14. THEY THROW EPIC DINNER PARTIES.

Food stylist preparing vegetables
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You’d think that being around food all day would make food stylists tired of making things look nice. But most food stylists love to cook, and on the days they aren’t working, they love to throw parties. “People always expect to have beautiful food,” Anderson says. “And I don't disappoint.”

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11 Secrets of Romance Writers
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Some readers may snicker at book covers featuring aerobicized men and titles like The Firefighter’s Woman or The Bull Rider’s Christmas Baby. But if it weren’t for the steamy, escapist fantasy of romance novels, a healthy portion of the publishing industry would cease to exist: According to the Romance Writers of America (RWA), romantic fiction brings in $1.08 billion annually and accounts for 13 percent of all fiction sales in the marketplace.

What keeps readers coming back for more? We asked some of the genre’s top authors for insight into the “secret baby" trope, why pen names are necessary, and the one rule of romance that can never, ever be violated.

1. THEY WEAR PERIOD CLOTHING.

Novelist Shelley Adina (A Lady of Resources, A Lady of Integrity) writes historical, Amish, and steampunk-themed fiction, just a few of the many sub-categories that appeal to niche audiences. To better understand her characters, Adina dresses in period outfits to gather what she calls “tactile details.”

“I like to feel how a heroine would feel in the clothes,” she says. “I’ve been laced into a proper corset and you realize what kind of dance steps you can do, or why a lady’s back never touches a chair—a tight corset won't allow it."

2. THE REASON THEY USE PEN NAMES ISN'T WHAT YOU THINK.

Covers of two romance novels by Shelley Adina
Shelley Adina

The authors of romance novels don't use pen names out of embarrassment. Adina (a.k.a. Adina Senft) says that pseudonyms—many authors have more than one—help readers compartmentalize writers who generate multiple series. “People who read Amish fiction may not read steampunk,” she says. Another, bigger reason: Bookstore software can use “kill orders” on authors who don’t sell a certain number of titles. If they fall below parity, retailers will automatically stop ordering more copies from that author. “If that happens,” she says, “you have to reinvent yourself with a new name.”

3. THEY’LL DIGITALLY REVISE THEIR WORK AFTER PUBLISHING IT.

The analog publishing model has traditionally been one of permanence: Once a book is in print and in readers' hands, there's no going back. But romance novel readers are a very particular clientele with certain expectations about how they’d like their protagonists to behave—and the self-published digital distribution model that's popular within the genre allows for a little customization. Author Heather C. Leigh (the Famous series) found that out when her first books featured a heroine who was a little too acerbic. “My first three books sold well, but there were critiques that my female lead was too sarcastic,” she says. “I understood and took it out. I don’t mind making work better based on feedback.”

4. COVER MODELS OFTEN LOSE THEIR HEADS.

The covers of two romance novels by Heather C. Leigh
Heather C. Leigh

Despite seeing hundreds of new titles published every month, the romance genre still manages to find new ways to visualize their shirtless male protagonists. In many cases, though, the beefcake winds up getting decapitated. “A lot of times, the man will be turned away or cut off at the forehead,” says author Eliza Night (The Conquered Bride series). “Readers want to imagine his looks in their own mind.” Grooming is also a necessity. “I had a cover with chest hair once. My readers did not like it.”

5. THEY HAVE BONUS SCENES.

Self-published authors (who make up about two-thirds of the total romance e-book revenue on Amazon) spend much of their time marketing their work. To help maintain interest from their existing readership, some send out email newsletters with updates on new titles and include exclusive passages that can enhance the experience of a previous book. “My first book was about an actor who had to do a love scene with a woman he hated,” Leigh says. “It was never going to be in the book because that was from his girlfriend’s point of view, but I got a chance to write it as a bonus.”

6. THEY WANT READERS TO BECOME WRITERS.

While resources for aspiring writers of all genres are plentiful, the romance field makes an exceptional attempt to recruit new talent. Industry interest group RWA doubles as a conduit between established writers and novices, hosting conferences and panels on the best ways to break in. “We don’t live in a competitive hierarchy,” Adina says. “There are so many readers with so many diverse tastes. It’s a big community where we support one another.”

7. THEY GET HELP FROM THE AMISH.

An Amish woman walking in a field
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While the Amish sub-genre has received media attention for its peculiarity, Adina doesn't believe it's so unusual: She says readers are attracted to a pastoral environment “without having to leave their wired-up house.” For accuracy’s sake, the author has enlisted an Amish reader to vet her titles for details. The popularity of the books “mystifies them,” she says. “They don’t understand the interest. They just hope the books might be able to point people to God.”  

8. THE “SECRET BABY” TROPE IS A READER FAVORITE.

Readers like resourceful women and skilled, wealthy love interests—and they especially like it when the former keeps their baby a secret from the latter. “The trope is that the hero and heroine have an affair, she gets pregnant, never tells him, and he comes back around five, 10, or 20 years later and finds out,” Adina says. “Reunion stories are popular. It’s the appeal of a responsible man.”

9. THEY’RE HISTORY GEEKS.

The cover of a romance novel by Eliza Knight
Eliza Knight

Knight cringes at the idea romance authors do little more than transcribe their own lurid fantasies. A self-described “history geek,” she travels frequently for research into Scottish history. “Most of us who write history nerd out on it,” she says. While once writing about a zeppelin-riding heroine, Adina jumped into one that offered rides over Silicon Valley to see how it would feel. She also got her motorcycle license for the same reason. “We’re serious about it,” Adina says. “We’re not sitting around in housecoats with barking Pomeranians.”

10. THEY’D APPRECIATE NOT BEING ASKED ABOUT THEIR SEX LIFE.

Many romance authors have at least one story to tell about people in their private life finding out they write for the genre and subsequently losing any sense of boundaries. “Strangers have asked me, ‘Do you test out scenes before you write them?’” Leigh says. “It’s like they lose a filter. It’s not real life. J.K. Rowling isn’t a wizard.”

11. THERE’S ONE RULE THAT CAN NEVER BE BROKEN.

While writing instructors invariably have all kinds of techniques for nourishing a story, the romance genre spells it out in an unequivocal manner. According to the RWA, nothing can be considered a “romance novel” without a central love story (naturally) and what authors have come to refer to as the Happily Ever After ending, or HEA. “Romance is a courtship story,” Adina says. “Readers expect the bond will be created at the end of the book. If not, it’s Nicholas Sparks or Romeo and Juliet. It would be like having a mystery where the detective doesn’t solve the case.”

This story originally appeared in 2016.

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15 Secrets of Fireworks Designers
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The Fourth of July just wouldn't be the same without the colorful peonies, waterfalls, and comets that burst across the night sky above wowed crowds. But designing fireworks and their choreographed displays is a labor-intensive, dangerous job that requires the imagination of an artist and the precision of an engineer. Mental Floss talked to two experts in the field to learn how fireworks designers plan their shows, the history and the chemistry behind their displays, and why you don't necessarily want more bang for your buck.

1. THE ROOTS OF THEIR PROFESSION GO BACK OVER A THOUSAND YEARS.

Humans have been adding bright, noisy explosions to their celebrations by setting fire to chemicals since at least 9th-century China. The very first fireworks were little more than quick orange bursts emanating from bamboo rods packed with charcoal, sulfur, and potassium nitrate and tossed into bonfires. Slowly, these contraptions progressed into flares cannon-fired into the sky by “firemasters” in medieval England. By 1830s Italy, the use of metal salts such as strontium, barium, copper, and sodium added vivid reds, greens, and blues to firework displays—a precursor of the brilliant hues we see today.

2. THEY CONSIDER THEMSELVES ARTISTS.

“Fireworks are our paint or our clay, and our canvas is the night sky—or a building, or a bridge, or a waterway,” says fifth-generation fireworks designer Phil Grucci, CEO and creative director of the Bellport, New York-based Fireworks by Grucci. The company has created fireworks displays for seven consecutive U.S. presidential inaugurations, Olympic games in Beijing and Los Angeles, and commemorations such as the centennial of the Statue of Liberty, among other events. “Working with space, understanding color and the dynamics within the fireworks, what moves very quickly, what sounds very loud, what sounds very soft, what is subtle and elegant”—all of it takes an artist's touch, Grucci says.

Pyrotechnic designers “can visualize exactly how various fireworks devices will burst in the sky,” says Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association. That means they know "how high [fireworks] will reach their apex and burst, how wide they will spread, and how long the effect will ‘hang,' or linger. They can then choose other fireworks to burst above, below, or on each side of an effect to create the image they wish to see across the sky."

Of course, "painting" with fireworks is a little trickier than using acrylics or oils, since the medium is explosive. "The difference [compared to painting] is that we’ve got something that’s dynamic, that moves, it’s constantly moving and it’s very temporary," Grucci explains.

3. THEY START WITH A PAPER SKETCH.

A red and green firework bursting in the night sky
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Old pros like Grucci may know from experience how certain fireworks will look together against a backdrop. But he still sketches out each segment of every show he designs with colored markers on paper. From there, he works with his team to set the show to music, then choreographs it using software called Visual Show Director. Next, his programmers create a script in SolidWorks and/or AutoCAD. “In the past,” Grucci explains, “we scripted it all on a piece of paper, and the pyrotechnicians installed the hardware from that same piece of paper." Now, he says, they can be "taking advantage of the computer age, to visualize [a show] to see whether the product works as you’ve designed it.” Finally, Grucci’s team generates the computer file that will electronically ignite the fireworks at showtime—much safer than the days when a human had to ignite the fuse.

But Heckman says that although the technology is useful, it's made fireworks performances a little more homogenous. "Before electrical firing, computer choreography and a reliance on imported product [mostly from China], I think fireworks companies' unique style was much more prevalent," she says. "Technology has somewhat leveled that out." A few companies do still have distinctive styles, she notes—even if those differences are usually only apparent to true fireworks aficionados.

4. SOME THINGS ARE STILL DONE BY HAND.

A fireworks cartridge contains a series of pellets called stars, which are cubes, spheres, or cylinders about an-inch-and-a-half long filled with explosive materials and color-producing chemicals and metals [PDF]. A star’s colors are formulated via computer, then pressed into a pellet shape by machine. But when it comes to arranging the stars in the casings that will be fired into the night sky, it's usually human hands doing the arranging. The pattern laid out inside the casing determines the pattern of the explosion—a heart-shaped firework blooms from stars arranged in a heart shape—and according to Grucci, automating the task to account for the enormous variety of available patterns would be too expensive. The task can be labor-intensive, since a single shell can contain hundreds of stars.

5. THE VENUE DETERMINES HOW THEIR SHOW WILL UNFOLD.

Fireworks over the Brooklyn Bridge in 2018
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

It's as true in fireworks as it is in real estate: It's all about location. That’s partly for reasons of safety—Heckman says that every show has to follow industry standards for “tables of distance,” which “mandate the size of the largest shell that can be fired safely from a standpoint of fallout distance to spectators, and also public highways, occupied buildings, and public roads.” She says there's a complex regulatory scheme that dictates the type of products that can be used per type of venue, as well as when shows can begin and end.

But the site is also an integral part of the beauty and impact of the show itself. "We’re very aggressive in looking at structures, and trying to highlight their key features," Grucci says. “Whether it’s a tower, whether it’s a bridge, we will be [scouting from] the very highest point of that. If [a structure] is horizontal, I know that we are going to capitalize on the entire width of it. I could be easy and say, 'put some fireworks to the left and right side of a bridge.' But that’s not good enough. We have to take advantage of the undercarriage of a bridge, the steel cables that hold its towers together, and highlight the entire structure.” Grucci says he'll often calculate the entire surface area of a structure, so he can make sure he's taking advantage of every square inch.

6. THEY MATCH THE FIREWORKS TO THE MUSIC.

Not all fireworks displays have music, but when they do, the score and the effects should complement each other—not clash. A delicate classical piece may call for smaller, quieter fireworks, while a piece like the "1812 Overture" might fit bigger, louder bangs.

"So many of the [effects] we’re working with, they may have a baroque feel to them," Grucci says. "They’re very bold and strong and very in-your-face, but then you have that very elegant feel to some of the fireworks, that you would never put onto the canvas when there’s a rock-n-roll sequence on. When the product is so simple or so elegant, it would not match that tempo or that thematic."

7. THEY HAVE HIGH-TECH TESTING FACILITIES.

An assortment of colorful fireworks bursting in the sky
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Say you want to create a streaking green comet with a silver twinkling tail. “We’ll make that on a small scale, then we’ll test it at one of our two test sites, in upstate New York or in Virginia,” Grucci says. “Our pyrotechnicians are in protective bunkers and we have high-speed video cameras, wind meters, and dB [decibel] meters for noise. We record everything that we’re testing, so that we can look back on that and analyze it. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve failed. But we failed at the test site—never on the performance stage.”

8. THEY DON'T REPEAT THEMSELVES.

“My desire is to always make something that’s different,” Grucci says. He tries not to repeat a particular scene more than once in a performance, let alone repeat a whole show—although he notes that it helps that the "canvas" is always changing: “Even though we may use a particular beautiful color scheme with a metallic glitter, putting that on the Washington Monument as opposed to [over] an open baseball field—those are two completely different visuals.” One of his newest innovations turned up in the presidential inauguration in January 2017: a 600-foot by 700-foot display behind the Lincoln Memorial, made up of a series of 800 fireworks shells that burst in sequence into an American flag. “The color red [we used] is from a formula that is probably a few hundred years old," he says. "But delivering these little red dots on the sky at these [different] heights is what [allowed us to create the flag].”

9. LESS CAN BE MORE.

Fireworks at the opening of the New York, New York hotel in Las Vegas
JOHN GURZINSKI/AFP/Getty Images

"Sometimes people get caught in the trap of thinking that more is better," Grucci says, but when it comes to the number of fireworks in a performance, it can be exactly the opposite: More shells equals more smoke, which can white-out the night sky. "When you put too much in the sky ... you’re not really allowing the medium to display the beauty of what the product is about," Grucci says. (Plus, the metallic particles in fireworks smoke can pose a health risk for people with asthma or other health problems, which means it's wise to limit smoke where possible.)

10. THEY HAVE THEIR OWN LINGO.

Fireworks designers love to borrow from nature for the names of their displays. In addition to peonies and chrysanthemums, which both burst into circles (chrysanthemums have longer tails), there are willows (bursts with trails of gold or silver stars), falling leaves (glowing embers that flicker as they tumble to earth), fish (which leave little squiggles of light), spiders (a hard burst with straight, flat legs), and palms (which bursts up and out in a shape like its namesake tree). But there are also fountains (showers of sparks, sometimes also called gerbs), comets (several long trails of sparks), crossettes (a comet that breaks into other comets, usually creating a cross shape), dragon eggs (a delayed crackle effect), salutes (a loud noise without a display), and strobes (which burst with a blinking effect).

While creating their show, fireworks designers may work with cake (a single fuse that lights several fireworks in a sequence), whistle mixes (a combination of potassium and sodium benzoate that burns noisily), and dark fire, which is used to allow a star to change from one color to another (it gives off no light as it burns, allowing the new color layer to ignite below it). They hope to avoid flowerpots (which burst prematurely) and stars that are blown blind—or fail to ignite at all.

11. DANGER IS (UNFORTUNATELY) THEIR MIDDLE NAME.

Fireworks manufacturing presents an enormous danger. In 2016, Slate reported on a preponderance of deadly fireworks-making accidents in China—with an average of 400 workers in fireworks production plants dying every year between 1986 and 2005. Elsewhere, fewer accidents seem to happen than one might expect from the mixing and storing of combustible chemicals. According to Heckman, in the U.S. at least, that’s because the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) “stringently regulates the manufacturing process, including personal protective gear, and employers must train their personnel on the hazards and the [kind of gear that’s] required.”

“We’re mixing powders to create explosive compositions that have to be handled very delicately," Grucci says. The work has to be done in a non-sparking environment (one with special tools and materials that reduce the risk of sparks), and in a room that has plenty of exits. "[You don’t want to be in a] big, giant room filled with fireworks and there’s only one door to get out," Grucci says. Workers in their factory wear conductive shoes, which conduct static electricity through the footwear and into the ground, "because the environment is very dry and you wouldn’t want to walk across the floor and touch something and have an arc spark that goes to a box of open powder and explodes on you.”

Safety is paramount for Grucci, who lost his father, James, in a massive industrial accident in 1983 at the family fireworks plant on Long Island. He says that the secret to safety, from manufacturing through installation, is to “be consistent and never cut a corner.” He says his grandfather always told him, "As soon as you think you know it all, or you want to start cutting corners, [that's] when potentially you’re increasing your odds of getting injured or possibly killed."

12. SOMETIMES THEIR FAVORITE WAY TO WORK IS SMALL.

Yes, it’s a challenge to produce a 30-minute fireworks show off five barges in the middle of Manhattan’s East River—but intimate shows present their own set of hurdles. Grucci mentions a Dolce & Gabbana fashion event held around Lincoln Center’s fountain that he created pyrotechnics for this spring. The flaming bits were a mere 15 feet from the audience and the clothing that was showcased in Lucite boxes. In that kind of scenario, “You can’t afford to have the hard outer casing or the inner paper wrappings” you’d use at an aerial fireworks event over the river, Grucci says. “The last thing you want is debris falling on the audience.” The solution: stationary fireworks comprised of titanium and aluminum particles of a sub-micron size, which burn quickly and don’t sustain heat for more than a few milliseconds—sort of like a sparkler.

13. THEY BREAK RECORDS.

World fireworks records include the largest fireworks display: 810,904 of them, fired off on January 1, 2016 in Manila, Philippines. And the most shells launched per minute: 479,651 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2013. And the longest fireworks waterfall (a long, glittering shower of embers): 11,539 feet, 5 inches, at a fireworks festival in Fukuoka, Japan, in 2008. On New Year’s Eve 2018, the Gruccis broke the world record for the world’s largest single aerial shell at a show they produced on Al Marjan Island in UAE. Weighing 2397 pounds, it was the culmination of almost 40 years of Grucci family trial and effort. “My father attempted the world record for the largest firework back in 1979 [with] a 42-inch-diameter white magnesium cascading flower that we displayed down in Titusville, Florida," he says. "Guinness gave him the world record, but it didn’t launch to the height or break to the size that he wanted it to. He always wanted to retry that and I had the opportunity this past New Year’s Eve to give my family another crack.”

14. THE FUTURE IS BRIGHT (OR PASTEL).

Research is underway on fireworks that are quieter—which could cause less stress to animals, children, and those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder—as well as fireworks that are kinder to the environment by using cleaner, nitrogen-based fuel.

But those aren't the only innovations shaping the future of fireworks. Shapes are changing, too; look for letters and corporate logos. Designers now also have a host of softer and more diverse colors at their disposal. “In the early ‘80s we started developing colors in between ROYGBIV, the basic colors, so now we can produce lemon and tangerine and chartreuse and aqua and every color within the spectrum,” Grucci says. They do so by fiddling with the purity of the metals used and the size of their particles—which also change other parts of their overall effect. Large particles of metals like titanium, iron, and aluminum result in large “splinters” and a glittery effect, Grucci says, while smaller particles lead to fewer splinters and “a very bright light.” He notes that at this point, they can "get pretty much any Pantone color" in a fireworks composition.

15. THEY LOVE TO SEE AMAZEMENT ON THE FACES OF AUDIENCES.

People watch the Macy's Fourth of July Fireworks from outside Brooklyn Bridge Park in 2015
Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images

“I think a crowd, in general, appreciates a lot of action—variations in colors and noise; and pattern shells such as smiley faces, hearts, and dice are always pleasers,” Heckman says. According to Grucci, “This is a very serious business. But it’s colorful and it’s beautiful and it has great, great energy. When we go to a performance, we can see an 80-year-old man and a 5-year-old granddaughter watching the show and their expressions are pretty much the same.” In that moment, “They both [become] children.”

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