Arts and Entertainment

Painting the sky

Central PA 4thFest volunteers use IT to design fireworks show

Matthew Lindenberg, a systems analyst in Penn State’s College of Engineering, and a crew of more than 150 community volunteers use information technology to design and set up the choreography and pyrotechnics for the annual Central PA 4thFest fireworks show. Credit: Patrick Mansell / Penn StateCreative Commons

On July 4, 1776, the founding fathers of the United States finalized the Declaration of Independence, proclaiming America’s sovereignty from Great Britain. In a letter to his wife, John Adams wrote that the historic event should be commemorated with “Pomp and parade” and “Bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more.” One year later, a fireworks show with the splendor Adams desired lit up the skies of Philadelphia.

Today, Americans continue to celebrate Independence Day with fireworks, and one of the largest shows — which sends more than 12,000 shells exploding into the night sky — still takes place in Pennsylvania.

Matthew Lindenberg, a systems analyst in Penn State’s College of Engineering, has been volunteering at Central PA 4thFest for 13 years and is responsible for every aspect of the choreography and pyrotechnics for the 45-minute show. He and a crew of more than 150 volunteers use information technology (IT) for everything from setting up and wiring the fireworks in a field near Beaver Stadium on the University Park campus of Penn State to timing the release of each gold willow, orange chrysanthemum and purple peony.

“Every summer, we get the opportunity to paint the sky with fireworks for about 80,000 people — it’s part art and part science,” Lindenberg said. “We start with an idea of how we want to use music, color and explosions to tell a story, but there’s also a lot of science and logic that go into realizing that vision. While many shows across the nation are still fired by hand, ours is run entirely by computers.” 

Planning starts as early as Labor Day, when Lindenberg and a dozen other volunteers begin compiling options for the show’s soundtrack. By October, they’ve whittled a list of about 100 songs down to 20.

With the exception of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” which is included in one arrangement or another every summer, Lindenberg says the committee avoids repeating songs. So, over the years, they’ve developed a tried-and-true formula for creating the perfect soundtrack: equal parts patriotic medleys, movie themes, current hits, modern and jazz tunes, plus at least one country song. Last year’s lineup featured music from the U.S. Marine Band, Pharrell Williams, “The Young and the Restless” soap opera and “The LEGO Movie.”

“With a little bit of everything, we hope that every person watching — young and old — is able to connect with at least one song,” Lindenberg said. “Every melody has its own challenges, so we have to pick music and order the soundtrack in a way that builds in tempo and also marries well with what we know about fireworks.”

Lindenberg says jazz lends itself to fast, low-to-the-ground fireworks that can keep up with the staccato rhythm of the music, while the opposite is true for slow songs with long notes, which work best with fireworks that burst, grow and then hang in the sky.

To ensure that thousands of shells explode chronologically and in time with the music during the show, he uses a digital firing and choreography system called “FireOne” from a local company that also provides software and hardware for fireworks displays in New York City, Washington D.C., Boston and Disney parks.

“As I’m listening to the final soundtrack, I use the software to choose the type and color of each shell by clicking when I want a firework to appear in the show,” Lindenberg said. “After I’m done, the software creates a timecode, which syncs the music to an automated firing system. This timecode tells our computers when to shoot each shell within 1/100th of a second, so that when it bursts it’s in tune with the music.”

Seven months before the show, 12,000 shells are ordered from China (the birthplace and world’s largest producer of fireworks) so they can be manufactured and shipped to State College by June.

“Once the fireworks arrive, it takes about 150 of us two weeks, working 12-hour days, to get everything set up for the show,” Lindenberg said. “I love the atmosphere out on the field — we refer to ourselves as a big family. Everyone from Penn State professors and students to the children and grandchildren of longtime volunteers are on hand to help make the show a success.”

Just a couple weeks before the big night, the team begins building the physical infrastructure that holds each firework in place on the field (using wooden rails and pipes) and then carefully joins each shell to an electronic match that connects to the main computer and automated firing system. The night of the show, Lindenberg only has to press “play” on his laptop to kick off a chain reaction that lights each match (with an electrical current) at the appropriate time.

Computerized shows are not only more efficient, they’re safer, according to Lindenberg.

“Up until the 1980s, someone would have to walk up to the firework, light the end of the fuse and quickly turn away as the show would start,” he said. “About half of all Fourth of July shows are still shot this way, but when you’re hand lighting, you’re within a couple of feet from an explosive that’s about to barrel up into the air. From where I sit at the computer, I’m 300 feet away from the closest shell.”

New U.S. regulations — like those that require shells of a certain size be shot electronically — are helping to keep volunteer crews and audiences safe, which Lindenberg says help him relax during the show and enjoy the culmination of nearly a year of hard work.

“We’re ranked one of the top five largest and best fireworks displays in America, but it’s the people on the ground and in the audience who make the long hours worth it,” he said. “For me, there’s no better feeling than at 10 p.m. on July 4th, when the finale is over and I get to turn around and look at the audience and see the amazement in their faces at what we were just able to do.”

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Last Updated April 26, 2017