Cover photo: ArtEventia’s Abracadabra’ at Festival D’Art Pyrotechnique 2016.

After Cannes famous film festival’s red carpet is rolled up for another year, the city becomes the stage for one of the world’s premier fireworks competitions. Throughout July and August, the heavens above Cannes’ harbour are lit by a glittering celebration: the Festival D’Art Pyrotechnique.

I like to move the public, touch their sensitivity, surprise them with the divine choreography of music and fireworks – Edouard Gregoire

For the last 20 years, some of the world’s greatest pyrotechnicians – the creators and handlers of explosives and fireworks – have flocked to this event to show their worth in this unique artistic field. Teams from guest countries assemble to compete for three grand prizes: the coveted Silver Vestale d’Argent, the Prix du Jury and the Prix du Public. To judge these spectacles, the jury is on the lookout for originality in the use of theme, staging, colour and soundtrack – the combination of which provide for dazzling spectacles unlike any other.

Or, to put it in the words of Edouard Gregoire, artistic director of French pyrotechnics company ArtEventia: Fireworks have a magical side; unreal and abstract. Everyone can build their own universe in a fireworks display. It speaks to all cultures without distinction.”

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Magical music: Fireworks light the sky over La Croisette during the Pyrotechnic Art Festival. Courtesy of Jean Christophe Magnenet

Festival D’Art Pyrotechnique

Held across six nights in July and August, the Festival D’Art Pyrotechnique is a showcase for some of the world’s finest firework displays. It’s a battle of colour, sound and light, where each demonstration is focused on a specific theme. Barges sail out into the open bay between the unspoilt Îles de Lérins and the Pointe de l’Estérel bedecked with artistically crafted fireworks. Eager spectators line the seafront, jostling for the best view.

In 2016, Gregoire’s ArtEventia won the special jury prize thanks to its show-stopping Abracadabra, La Magie!’ extravaganza, which brought together ideas about light and dark magic against a backdrop of dramatic rhythms. Writing and composing pyrotechnic shows has always been a real passion,” Gregoire tells us. I like to move the public, touch their sensitivity, surprise them with the divine choreography of music and fireworks.”

This year’s festival will be held on July 14, 21 and 29, and August 7, 15 and 24 with Canada, France, England, Austria, the Philippines and Italy all represented in the lineup. Each evening, the sky will form the stage for one of the six competing teams. Their brief is simple: devise a spectacular scene lasting at least 25 minutes using fireworks, digital technology and music.

Johan Holländer, the founder of Finnish company JoHo Pyro and winner of the top prize – the Silver Vestale – in 2016, explains: The fireworks setup is a huge undertaking. Working out on water, with a 400-metre range, is a technical challenge in itself.” While the challenges facing these virtuosos of the heavens are fairly abundant, their road to the grand prize is not.

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A winning combination: JoHo Pyro’s Conquering the Rough Northern Seas’ at Festival D’Art Pyrotechnique 2016. Courtesy of Maurits Verbiest.

How to win at Cannes

As one of the oldest pyrotechnic competitions in the world, Cannes firework festival is where the industry greats flex their muscles. Still, remaining in control of your own aspirations is crucial when gunning for victory. For a pyrotechnician, it’s necessary to put the ego to one side and give himself over totally to his creation,” states Gregoire. It must be created for the public, while still preserving its emotion and artistic personality.”

Next step towards the grand prize? A keen understanding of space. I think the first thing you need to understand is the site and how the project will work in the space, to see if the show has the right dimensions,” Gregoire continues. But, ultimately, it just needs a really good theme.”

Every four years the Silver winners are invited back to compete in a champion-of-champions event for the Vestale d’Argent. The last Gold competition took place in 2014 and saw Russian company Khan take the top prize. Since then, the team has gone on to devise pyrotechnic shows for the Vyborg Film Festival and the 750th anniversary of the city of Kaliningrad.

However, the opportunities that present themselves to winners of the competition doesn’t seem to measure up to the thrill of planning and performing. That much becomes apparent, when asking Holländer, what exactly it took for him to win back in 2016. In fact, when drawing together all the performative components, the fireworks seem to be only the beginning, as Holländer explains: The show must tell a story that catches the audience’s attention from start to finish. In fact, most importantly, it must capture the emotion between the music and fireworks. If you’ve put your heart into the design and capture that emotion, then you can win.”

With that much effort behind the spectacle, it’s no wonder that the marvelous displays capture the attention of 200,000 spectators every Summer. If you’re keen on witnessing the magic with your own eyes, we highly recommend, that you head over to La Croisette at dusk for a cocktail and a spot of people watching before the show begins. Many of the waterfront hotels also turn their rooftops into viewing platforms, though you can get a closer look at the aerial show from a boat floating in the bay. Then, all that’s left to do is look up and enjoy the artistry of the likes of Holländer and Gregoire.

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