Learn the basics of Pyrotechnics - haunted house special fx

Mon, February 22, 2021
Fire Marshal Friendly Special Effects
Harold "Freddie" Bufford

 
We have all felt the squeeze over the past handful of years of new regulations trickling down into our industry. Nearly every state now has special fire codes directly targeting haunted attractions and we have had to adapt to keep doing what we love. It became very important to understand what was expected of us and how to comply. This is not exclusive to our industry. A myriad of industries that have either been unregulated or loosely controlled have now become subject to regulations and codes. The special effects industry is no exception to this new way of life. Today one must understand not only what one is doing but also how to work the system in order to produce professional special effects.

This essay will tackle two major areas of theatrical special effects, regulated, and non-regulated. We will focus on a number of effects in each category. In the non-regulated category we will look at cryo-cannons, confetti, and streamer cannons. On the regulated side we will look at pyrotechnics and flame effects.


 
Non-regulated
 
Cryogenic
 
            Description:
This is truly one of the most extreme and impressive effects that can be accomplished outside of any governing regulations. A cryogenic effect is produced using a cryo-cannon or cryo-head which equates to a strait vent of liquid CO2 into the air. What this produces is a plume of white smoke than can rise up to 30 feet instantaneously. It is very violent and dissipates immediately when the effect is turned off. This effect has been used in countless movies and plays, and is currently used by a number of musical groups in their live performances.
 
            What is needed:
 
            Cryo effects have three basic components:
 
  1. The cryo-head
 
  1. Cryogenic hose
 
  1. A siphon liquid CO2 tank, or a CO2 dewier tank
 
            Cost:
Generally the heads sell for about $1200. The hoses vary dependent upon length but about $10 per foot can be expected. The CO2 siphon tanks can be rented for roughly $25 and will last for about a 90 second continuous burn. Usually there is a deposit and weekly rental on the tanks as well.
 


            Variations:
Cryo effects can also include: a falling smoke wall, CO2 for a fast down draft, and Nitrogen or Argon for a slow waterfall effect.
 
            Safety:
There are two primary points to remember when using cryo effects. The first is high pressure. Liquid CO2 exists at roughly 1000PSI. Make certain all of your fittings are good and tight and bleed your lines before you fully remove them. A line whipping around with a 1000PSI vent could be very dangerous. The second is cold. Liquid CO2 is at roughly -75 degrees F. This can easily freeze your skin on contact. Do not point the effect directly at patrons or your actors. Another side effect of the extreme cold is that dry ice will form on the outlet of the cannon and periodically break off. The result is small ice chunks being thrown at high velocity. They will not puncture anything, but are a hazard to the eyes.
 
            Conclusion:
When used correctly and with all precautions in mind, this is a very safe effect that can be used over and over again without incident to produce a truly awe inspiring effect.
 
Confetti and Streamer Cannons


 
            Description:
Non-regulated confetti and streamer cannons will use compressed air or CO2 to fire confetti or streamers into the air. They can be reloaded and are relatively inexpensive. The basic principle is that a tube is loaded with either confetti or streams and capped. From the other end, air or CO2 is injected at high pressure expelling everything in the tube causing it to rain confetti or streamers.
 
            What is needed:
                        Confetti and Streamer Cannons have three components
 
  1. A confetti cannon which can be purchased easily over the internet from multiple sources.
 
  1. A CO2 or air cartridge. Usually they are the same ones used in pellet or paintball guns and can be purchased locally at a retailer that carries these products.
 
  1. Confetti
 
            Cost:
The cannons can be purchased for around $200. The CO2 cartridges cost roughly $1 a piece. The confetti or streamers varies greatly depending on what you want. Shredded newspaper can work fine if that is the look you are after.
 
            Safety:
The cannons should never be directly fired at people, Instead they should be fired overhead to allow the confetti of streamers to fall back down on their heads. There is always a risk when using confetti that it will get into someone’s eye. That is why it is better to use larger pieces than smaller. Also certain types of confetti are flammable and should not be used around open flames.
 
            Conclusion:
This is a great effect that can be used at the opening of your haunted house every night, at the end of a stage performance, or even as part of the show if the costs are not beyond your budget.
 
Regulated


 
Pyrotechnics
 
            As we have all learned, dealing with regulations and permitting requires a certain finesse and understanding of the subject matter at hand. While we have all become well versed in the regulations involved with Haunted Attractions, pyrotechnics is a whole other universe. Professionals in this field have being doing it for years and have a huge wealth of knowledge and experience. It takes years to acquire this, thus setting out on your own is a foolish journey. Fortunately, however, pyro is more a labor of love than of profit. The best way to get on the road to having pyro effects at your attraction is to find someone within your organization who is willing to start working in the pyro industry. Contact local companies and offer to work for cheap helping to setup and shoot shows. Because the pay for hands in this industry is rather low most companies are always looking for people to help for cheap. This will give you an inside to local licenses and the industry in general.

            The most important thing to understand about pyro is that not only must you have a permit to shoot at a given location, but you also must have a local license on hand to shoot the show. This is someone who has acquired a license from the state, and possibly county and city, to shoot pyro. This is not a quick process and requires a great deal of experience. Laws vary from state to state, county to county, and city to city. Having a local license on board will help you to understand what is necessary to shoot in your area.

            There is a distinction between outdoor aerial pyro and indoor theatrical pyro. Outdoor aerial is what you see for New Years even and the 4th of July. Indoor theatrical is what you will see at a rock concert. You more than likely will want the indoor theatrical pyro for your event. As long as you are shooting outside, a special license is not needed. If you intend to shoot indoors in certain areas, a different license will be required. All this will be known by a local licenser.

            It is likely you already have some idea of what you are looking to shoot at your event. We all have seen large rock tours and know the basics of what goes on. Be it gerbs, mines, comets, flame projectors, concussions, mortars or anything else available your best friend is in figuring out what to do is your local license. Consult with them on what you want to see. They have been doing this for years and understand the devices as well as how to accomplish a given affect better than anyone. Take their advice and suggestions seriously and you won’t be disappointed.

            The cost will vary greatly on how big you want to go. Be prepared to shell out some change for the local license, but if you make friends with them they won’t charge you much.  You still should always be swinging them some cash as a thank you, as well as several hundred more for the fire detail that will be required. Each device can run between roughly 10 and 20 dollars. If you want to shoot 30 devices per show, with three shows per night, things can get costly quickly. And don’t forget you still have to pay for your license and the fire detail.

            Pyro is definitely not for the faint hearted, but it can be the crowning jewel on your attraction. If you want to go big and push the limits of your attraction right to the edge, then pyro is the bus you want to get on. This is where the big boys play.
 
Flame
 
            A growing trend in the pyrotechnics industry for years has been propane flame effects. These are generally safer than pyro devices and can be fired over and over again. When you take that into account, they end up being cheaper than pyro. What you can expect is a column of flame between 10 and 30 feet, depending on the system you are using. There are systems out there that can shoot as high as 75 feet. These are generally referred to as flame cubes. There are also line burners that can produce a wall of flame between eight and ten feet long that can reach up to ten feet high.

            To do flames you are going to have to either find a company that rents the gear, or pony up and buy it yourself. There are a small handful of companies that sell it, but the prices are astronomical and likely out of reach for most. You will be better off renting. You still need a permit and a license to shoot flames. The regulations governing propane flames varies greatly form place to place. If you get in touch with a company that rents the gear, they will know how the regulations work in your area. As long as you have a licensed shooter most companies will rent you the gear without requiring you to have anyone come out. However, if your licenser is unfamiliar with the gear, it may be better to have one of the company’s guys come out at least to show your licenser how to operate their system.

            From a bang for your buck perspective, flames are the way to go. Propane is relatively cheap and generally the rental prices on flame systems are not out of this world. Plus you can shoot it all night long and not drive your cost through the roof.

            A very recent development in the flame world is the emergence of colored flame systems. Instead of using propane to generate the effect these system use alcohol combined with specific chemicals to change the color of the flames. Current colors include: purple, blue, green, yellow, orange, and red. The effect is dazzling and nothing screams haunted attraction more than colored flames. These tend to be a little more expensive to shoot than the propane system. The fluid they use to make the flames is expensive, but is still cheaper than standard pyro devices for what you get. The advantage they have is that they are safer than propane systems and tend to be more contained. They tend to produce smaller flames, about 15 feet, but when a green flame comes out of nowhere then no one is paying attention to the height.

            Flames are by far the bad boys on the block. Nothing is more violent or impressive than a twenty foot tower of fire erupting in front of you. They are loud, hot, and intense, leaving a lasting impression. If you are looking to take your event to the next level, this is the way to go.


 
Conclusion
 

At the House of Shock we live by the philosophy of “Go big or go home”. We have integrated all of the systems discussed here into a five-minute, onslaught-of-the-senses stage show that makes a KISS concert look like a kindergarten birthday party. This has become so integrated into what we are that it is something people expect from us and has given us an image we are very proud of. We have spent years researching the ideas and effects above and have a myriad of special effects professionals whom are currently working in the industry that we are fortunate enough to have on our staff. We are also very lucky to be aligned with Stage and Effects Engineering who is currently support such acts as Nickelback, Ozzy Ozborne, The Rolling Stones, and Chris Angel to name a few. Most of our gear comes from Stage and Effects and they have been wonderful friends and partners throughout the years.

If you are looking to floor your audience in ways they never knew possible, then this is your ticket. You will have people talking about your event all year long and coming just to see what you will do next. Professional special effects are the next logical step for this industry, and it will become just as widespread as pneumatic props and air cannons. This is where we separate the men from the boys. There is a line in the sand, which side do you want to be on?

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