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Demand for pyrotechnics grows with increased customer expectations, so Access talked to Mike Kelt, CEO of Artem about making a big bang

About Artem

Artem is a physical special effects company working across the events industry as well as film and TV. The company, based in London and Glasgow, and will celebrate its 30th anniversary in 2018.

You were involved in the 2012 Olympics, working closely with Danny Boyle and were involved in one particular sequence involving pyrotechnics. Can you please describe this? Do you think the 2012 Olympics marked a change in pyrotechnic practices?

The main thing we did with pyrotechnics in the opening ceremony was the pouring of the molten rings.  The ‘flowing’ molten metal was done with LED lights but on either side,  we had channels where sparks and smoke were being sequentially produced to match the front edge of the lighting effect.  The pyrotechnic effects gave real life to the sequence. I don’t think the Olympic ceremony changed pyrotechnic practice – it has always been a professional activity with a healthy respect for safety.

You’ve worked across film and TV as well as events. What have you learned on film sets that you have been able to apply to events?

Film and TV is a more pressured environment, deadlines are tight and you often only get one go at something, so reliability is imperative.  Also realism is critical, and the requests extremely varied, and carrying this across to events is often fun.  We also tend to use a much wider range of pyrotechnics and explosives to achieve an outcome than would ordinarily be used in events, so this can give a new look to a client’s ideas.

Tell me about a pyrotechnic job you’re most proud of at an event. What were the challenges?

Rather than specific events, the challenges are when you are recreating something more like a film.  Something other than an ‘off-the-shelf’ effect with simple gerbs or flame projectors.  Some years ago, we did a summer at Alton Towers where the Marines were attacking across the lake, so we built flame throwers into boats and set off huge explosions amongst the action.  The audience loved it!

How far in advance do you plan for a pyrotechnics’ project? How many people do you work with on such projects?

This is completely dependent on the demands of the project, and if it used more adventurous effects we would be doing extensive video tests to get client approval.  It may also require special launch systems and rigging which are specific to the venue, not least for safety, so that has an impact.  However, in general we normally have about a months’ notice, although a few days is not that uncommon!  Obviously for something like the Olympics you have many months’ notice, but those projects don’t crop up very often!

You’ve developed various smoke and wind machines. Tell us more about them and how this came about?

When Artem started trading in 1988 we looked around for a lightweight mobile smoke machine, and in the absence of one existing we designed and built our own, but that is no small undertaking so it seemed sensible to produce it for sale.  The ‘Artem’ has become the ‘Hoover’ of film and TV sets.  We have more recently been developing other equipment, in particular 3 wind machines of various types, (small and large electric, and a large petrol machine), and again this is because there is not something suitable on the market, and we feel it is about time professional equipment was available.

How has the industry changed in the past two decades in the handling of pyrotechnics, especially with regards to health and safety?

The industry has changed fairly little in my experience.  There are more ‘off the shelf’ pyrotechnics, which are both more interesting and more varied, which allows a more design-based approach.  Computer controlled firing systems have made control much easier, particularly where microseconds are needed between firing to give a very controlled effect.  Legislation has tightened up a bit, which is a good thing, but relevant training is pretty non-existent. In fact, Artem have started doing our own in-house formal training, and we may expand that externally in the future.