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Rusty Johnson: Lighting up the city on New Year’s Eve

howard & sons
(Image credit: City of Melbourne)

Master Pyrotechnician, Howard & Sons Pyrotechnics

"What we want is to have a display that is visible not only to the people in the City of Melbourne but also to everyone in the surrounding suburbs.”

When a city has been promised the most spectacular New Year’s Eve fireworks display to date and you’re among those responsible for delivering on that promise, a touch of anxiety is both understandable and permissible.

Yet there’s not even the faintest trace of it in Rusty Johnson’s voice as he talks about this Saturday's plans.

Rusty is after all the Master Pyrotechnician at Howard & Sons Pyrotechnics, which has been thrilling Melburnians with New Year’s Eve fireworks displays for over a decade. This year, the display is touted to be “thicker, higher and wider than ever before."

“The idea is to have a city with a crown of fireworks right across the top,” Rusty says. “Ideally what we want is to have a display that is visible not only to the people in the City of Melbourne but also to everyone in the surrounding suburbs.”

At the stroke of midnight on 31 December, Rusty’s eyes will join thousands of other pairs within the city and beyond as they follow the perfectly synchronised "comets" arcing across the sky and bursting in glorious vivid showers of colour.

The next day, after taking in the news coverage of their work, Rusty and his team will salute each other for another job well done and begin sketching out plans for New Year’s Eve 2017.


This year’s display will use 13.5 tonnes of fireworks, more than the 10 tonnes last year and bigger than Melbourne has ever seen. It will cover nearly eight square kilometres of city.

Do you remember how you felt when you watched your first fireworks display as a child?

Not really but as a kid I loved to play with fireworks and go to bonfire nights. So that’s probably where it all started.

How about the first time you managed your first display? Do you remember that?

Yea, very much so! It was down on the Mornington Peninsula at a school fair about 20 years ago. Back in the days when I first started it was all hand lit. Totally different from what we do now which is fully computerised and planned out well ahead.

The fireworks will be lit from an unprecedented 22 rooftops across Melbourne city and four live sites in Docklands, Flagstaff Gardens, Treasury Gardens and Kings Domain.

What is it like to watch your own displays up ther?

Before, we didn’t see what our displays looked like because we were hand lighting them and running around underneath. Now that it’s fully computerized, once we start the display we actually have a chance to step back and monitor it. That makes it better from a design point of view and also a lot safer because if something goes wrong, we see it and we can shut it down.

It never gets old, does it?

I never ever get tired of watching it. I love seeing how it all comes out. But the majority of what we do is not watching the display. It’s logistics, paperwork, risk assessment and all that sort of stuff.

More than 65 pyrotechnicians from around the world will prepare, install, fire and pack up the fireworks display.

How far in advance did you start planning for New Year’s Eve this year?

We started planning in April or May and that’s the sort of timeline we have to work towards to get the quantity of products we need designed, produced, tested and imported. And because we shoot from buildings across the top of the city, it’s also a fairly lengthy process to negotiate with the building owners for approvals and permits.

Did you choreograph this year’s display?

Not this one because it’s logistically such a large show. Stuart Bensley is the choreographer. I’m the displays manager and I assign everyone roles, make sure the roles are working properly and that we’re keeping to schedule. We’ve had 60 people out loading rooftops since 26 December. To do that and choreography would be just too big.

The fireworks will be synchronised to a specially curated 10 minute soundtrack by iconic Melbourne DJ and producer, DJ Ransom.

What would the average Melburnian find most intriguing about your work?

It really comes down to personal interest. I have a Fine Arts background so if you come from that side then the big interest is in the programming and the designing of the show. Whereas if you’re a technical person then you’d be interested in the technical elements like how every shot is colour coordinated and how the right number fits into the right tube and fires at the right time.

What’s your favourite part of a display?

It always has to be the finale. The last 30 or 40 seconds when we just go crazy and put up as much as we possibly can that will turn the sky white.

The City of Melbourne will spend $532,000 on the fireworks as part of its $3 million New Year's Eve costs.

What fulfils you most about your job?

Working with an eclectic group of people. Pyrotechnicans come from all walks of life. We’ve got pyrotechnicians from Japan and a couple from New Zealand working with us. We have bricklayers, builders…you name it. What we basically have are people with a passion for fireworks.

What would you say to someone who wanted to pursue a career in pyrotechnics?

Align yourself with a reputable company that will guide you through the processes. It’s not a job for everybody. It’s a physical job with a lot of manual lifting and carrying. And it’s an obviously dirty job too!

For full details of the night's activities, visit the City of Melbourne's NYE website.

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