What glitters in the sky? The dark side of fireworks and other attractions

Marie Drahoňovská, the Czech Republic

The Wenceslas Square slowly fills up with the curious ones, who came to see the non-traditional New Years Eve celebration. Instead of traditional firework, the Municipality of Czech capital decided to astonish its citizens with New Years Eve videomapping this year. But the conservative Czechs have mixed feelings about such decision. Groups of people standing in front of the National Museum, which is going to serve as the projection screen this evening, are alternately praising or lamenting. But whether they like the idea of videomapping or not, they pipe down when the show begins. The building of the National Museum comes to life. Shield, pillars, and also the bricks itself are dancing and the building changes its outlook. Suddenly, we are standing in front of St. Vitus Cathedral, then in front of Petřín hill or at the Prague main train station. Finally, the building shakes its sides and instead of the National Museum, thousands of visitors stand in front of the Dancing house. Dramatic music accompaniments the viewers on their journey from the history of Prague, through the present, to a glimpse into the future.

Photo by Art4promotion

The idea to organize New Year´s videomapping instead of firework came across the mind of the members of the Municipality of Prague in the beginning of the year 2019. “We want to demonstrate that it is possible to celebrate New Year´s Eve without loud cracks, smoke and injured animals,” explains the decision Mayor of Prague Zdeněk Hřib. According to the PR manager of the Municipality, Vít Hoffman, the city was inspired by other world metropolises. There was a videomapping in a combination with the light show instead of New Year´s fireworks in another Czech city Brno, and just across the borders in Germany the government ties down the use of pyrotechnics among the amateurs.  Also, the Netherlands implements limits to the use of pyrotechnics as well as Ireland, where only professionals are allowed to use it. Fireworks are also banned in more than 400 cities across China, due to air pollution it causes. In Shanghai, fireworks were replaced by a drone show. New Year´s fireworks didn´t happen this year even in the Australian capital Canberra, because of the threat of bushfires. But Prague is the first city to replace firework completely by videomapping.

Half our of suffer

Apart from the air pollution, fireworks have negative effects on animals, whether they are the house pets or the wild birds. Czech Society for Ornithology draws attention to the impact that fireworks have on wild birds in a long-term period. “Birds react on the sound, light, probably also the pressure waves, which arise with the explosion of firecrackers. The result could be the increase of hearth rhythm by anxiety, fear, flee or panic,” explains Věra Sychrová from the Czech Society for Ornithology. The fireworks take place during the night when birds are the most vulnerable – they see poorly in the dark. Even worse is it for them to orientate in the smog caused by the firecrackers.

We can observe the distress that fireworks cause every year to our pets. “The explosion of a firecracker in the immediate proximity is, of course, the worse. The animals perceive such a loud crack not only as an unpleasant and terrifying sound, but it also causes them pain and disorientation, because the hearing of most of the animals is much more sensitive than ours. Moreover, when the fireworks crack at the place, which the animal considered safe, for example garden or courtyard or in close surroundings of the house, the animal loses its territory, flees and is afraid to come back,” explains Hana Žertová, the vet, who specialises on creating a good relationship of dogs and their owners. According to her, even half an hour-long projection for a dog in panic and his unhappy owner is infinite. The dog can destroy the flat in a panic, or bite his owner, who tries to calm it down.

The town must go first

Videomapping was just a first step, by which Municipality of Prague points out that using firecrackers has consequences. At the moment, the Municipality consults an announcement, which would limit the use of firecrackers by a civil person in the city. And also other Czech towns got inspired by the courageous decision of Prague. For example, the Municipality of Jihlava has decided to decline the New Year´s fireworks as well and replace it by videomapping, laser show or other light show next year. 

According to Councillor in Jihlava, Silve Čermákové, it is not only about New Year´s fireworks. She would like to find some way to limit the use of firecrackers in public. “The town must lead by example. It is not possible to ban fireworks for citizens and at the same time organise municipal ones,” says Čermáková about the announcement of the cancellation of New Year´s firework next year. She points out also the sad facts in statistics made by firemen, for whom the New Year´s night is a nightmare, as well as for animals. It shouldn´t be just about bans, Čermáková claims. “To criminalize some activity doesn´t mean to solve it. I would rather make some positive regulation,” says Čermáková. The solution could be limiting the availability of firecrackers in shops and also a decree, which would limit the personal use of firecrackers.

The town magazine Jihlavské noviny should inform the citizens about the actual steps Municipality makes. “We want to be sure that we go with the trend, which is in the interest of our citizens. Of course, there are many people who like fireworks. On the other hand, I believe that as with circuses, the interest in fireworks will fade out,” recons Čermáková. 

It is not scientifically proven, whether one long fireworks organized by the city is better than the whole night firecrackers shooting done by individuals. “In general, the fireworks organized by town, which lasts for about half an hour, is less harmful to birds. When the fireworks take place only at one place at the moment, the birds can flee, compared to the shooting done by amateurs which lasts all night long. Flashes and explosions come from every side and the birds can´t find a safe place,” Sychrová expresses her concerns. According to Sychrová, no fireworks is the best option for birds.

(Ir)replaceable show

While vets and ornithologists are pleased by the decline of the New Year´s Eve fireworks, many Prague citizens criticize it. Even though the first New Year´s fireworks were first organized only in the year 1999, people got used to this loud light show and after 20 years, it happened to be a tradition.  For this reason, the previous suppliers of firecrackers for the past New Year´s celebration have decided to organize the firework anyway, even without the support of Municipality. Lead by Jan Šaršoun, they´ve established an organization called “The firework for Prague” with an open account for the people who would like to add any spare money for traditional New Year´s show. “Fireworks are irreplaceable for me. I can imagine videomapping at some less important event than the New Year is. For example, when an old building is reconstructed and is opened again, or at the celebration of Children´s Day, but it has nothing to do with New Year,” says Šaršoun.

Divine Prague or future Prague?

Finally, fireworks were organized anyway on the New Year´s Eve at Prague´s park Folimanka. “I like fireworks. They are a symbol of the upcoming New Year. One New Year´s merriment can´t cause as much trouble as the battlefield, which happens at last day of the year,” recons Pavla, a visitor of the New Year´s firework at Folimanka. After the fireworks, she left with her friend Michal straight forward to the Wenceslas square, so they could compare the firework with videomapping. They agreed on being disappointed by the videomapping. “It seems to me that everything is called videomapping nowadays. But mapping the building and moving it´s elements, the visual work with the look of the building, that´s what I miss frequently,” Pavla evaluates the videomapping show, which was compound by seven pictures. Some of them were working with the construction of the building, others showed primary school children pictures or animation of the talking animals, which are happy to see that this year they don´t have to worry about loud cracks of fireworks. This year, they could watch the show together with people.

The purpose of videomapping was to show people how future Prague could look like. “I consider it very infantile, poorly executed. I might be caused by the lack of time for the organizers to prepare,” says Šaršoun. It was the Czech company Art4Promotion which won in November the contract for the preparation of New Year´s videomapping. According to the co-owner Lenka Střítecká, the company managed to prepare the New Year´s show according to the plan and they are happy with the result. “The fact that animals can also watch the show was, of course, symbolic and exaggerated. We wanted to make it clear, that we realize we are not living alone in Prague. Considering fellow residents, whether animals or humans, is ordinary decency for us,” proclaimed Střítecká.

Culture cultivates

Video mapping has a long tradition in the world. The first company to come up with this show in 2006 worked under the name AntiVJ. They were European artists based in Belgium. The key idea of ​​videomapping is to use the existing elements of the building – with doors, windows, pillars, gables, roof, and make it move, using lights and techniques.

The first videomapping shows were projected on the facade of family houses. Today, usually a church with many architectural elements is used because it leaves same room for creativity of artists. It is very important for a successful show to find a suitable building. “It´s not about the size, but about the shape and materials. Asymmetric buildings or houses with large glass surfaces should be avoided. For example, a projection at the Prague´s Dancing house is a science fiction,” laughs Střítecká. The reason is that the building, often nicknamed as Fred and Ginger, is curvy and made out of glass. The glass does not reflect the projected picture but absorbs it. During the projection, the windows of any building must be darkened from behind. And the more windows building has, the more it takes to prepare it.

When preparing videomapping, it is necessary to create a 3D model, copying the real proportions of a building. Based on the model, the artists prepare the projection. “We need at least one full night to adjust the projection to the real building and prepare it for the projection. We also test our projections before the official show, in case it would need to be reinstalled. It is not possible to prepare it during the day, you wouldn´t see anything because of the daylight,” explains Střítecká.

Martin Pošta, the director of the Prague Light Show Signal Festival, appreciates the New Year’s videomapping. “When we organized the Signal Festival on the streets of Prague in 2013, people wouldn´t know what videomapping is. I am pleased that six years later, videomapping is part of New Year´s celebration and people already know, what to expect,” says Pošta. Also for the organizers of Prague´s Signal Festival, it is very difficult to find the perfect building for their show, admits Pošta. “It is not just about a building. There also has to be sufficient space in front of the building and you need many various permits, proclaiming that the safety of visitors is secured. For example, restricting traffic at the venue is a necessity, “describes Pošta the possible complications. He admits his company is likely to join the competition of the intermediary of the videomapping next year if the Municipality of Prague announces it again. “I like the idea that every year someone else can grasp videomapping artistically in a different way,” he says.

According to Střítecká, videomapping is the best way to tell a story, getting emotions, moments of surprise and wow effect. Viewers can imagine some new perspectives of a building, its history, present and imaginary future, or look into systems usually hidden to men eye. As if you were wearing X-ray glasses and suddenly could see the water pipe systems and pulsating water inside it, or electrical system of the building. “It is time consuming, technologically and creatively demanding discipline. The artists need powerful computers, the best software and projectors. But it is not just about technique. It is also about the artist himself. He needs to invent a concept, be creative and have experience. But the outcome is worth it! Videomapping is a cultural experience that communicates a message, it is a culture that cultivates,” Pošta smiles.

Price on the first place? Who gets the money for New Year´s show

After watching fireworks and also the videomapping, Pavla and Michal go to the pub, where they talk about both shows for a long time. It is visible that videomapping has won for Michal. “There’s something new, interesting, there’s more room for creativity. The fireworks are just firecrackers and music, you can´t get more out of it,” he argues. The theme of New Year’s fireworks was Prague divine, to honour all the deceased in the past year, especially the artist Karel Gott or Daniel Nekonečný. According to Michal, however, this topic was chosen unfortunately, without any meaningful message. “I have heard that some Prague´s New Year´s fireworks in the previous years were good, but this time they just played three or four songs by Karel Gott along with the fireworks,”says Michal. According to Šaršoun, a limited budget played a major role. About 250 thousands of Czech crowns were collected from the fireworks supporters, which is about a seventh of the price of New Year´s fireworks in previous years.

The advantage of videomapping is that, unlike the fireworks, it could be repeated, thus reducing the number of viewers watching it at one time, but also the final price of one projection. The New Year’s videomapping was projected three times, in one-hour interval from 18:15. Also, the tools needed for the creation of videomapping could be used repeatedly, so in contrast with firecrackers, there is no unnecessary waste. The money used to pay for videomapping is a reward for local artists and not for firecrackers producers from China, where most of the world’s fireworks are made. It is therefore, no wonder that the location of the production also influences the price of the light show.

The price of last New Year’s videomapping was about two million Czech crowns. That’s about 200,000 more than the cost of New Year’s fireworks in 2019. “In my opinion, the result did not match the price. Last year, the New Year’s celebration was firework very tastefully combined with beautiful music. I left with feelings of pride on Prague and the Czech Republic… but this year, neither the videomapping, nor fireworks left any similar feelings for me” says Pavla.

David Zaorálek, a specialist in modern audiovisual technologies and the owner of Spectrum Production confirms her words. “Prague has already hosted a better light show than this year’s New Year’s videomapping,” he admits. The creators from the Spectrum Production organization provided New Year’s videomapping in Brno, which was also connected with a light show. David Zaorálek prefers the combination of videomapping with other digital technologies, although he acknowledges that their use can increase the price. According to him, the money invested by the Prague´s Municipality was just enough to cover the videomapping cost. Zaorálek things that creating a videomapping show of high quality takes a lot of time and also many experiences are needed. “The organizers need to realize that planning a light show for New Year´s celebration takes at least nine months, sometimes even several years, if preparing something unique,” he appealed to anyone interested in organizing another light show other than fireworks.

Photo by Art4promotion

The message is important

According to David Zaorálek, on the occasion of the New Year’s celebration the City of Prague could invest in something more magnificent, such as a drone show, even for a higher cost. Projecting the videomapping three times in a row might disrupt the uniqueness of the New Year’s Eve celebration. But there is still something special about it. People don’t cringe, stallholders sell a mulled wine and punch, and everyone rejoices that the queues aren’t too long this time so they can refresh and warm up easily. The atmosphere at Wenceslas square is exceptional. “Oh, that’s beautiful,” a wave of joy comes from groups of standing people astonished by some part of the projection. At the end, the building of the National Theatre fills up with colourful dancing figures, which finally grouped into the inscription: “US, PRAGUE” and the audience reward the organizers with cheers and loud applause. “If I look at the whole situation as a proclaim of the city that the arrival of the New Year could be celebrated differently, without fireworks, then I like the idea,” concludes Pavla.

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