Behind the Scenes at the Redding Freedom Festival…

• a fireworks display.
• a brilliant performance or display, especially of a specified skill. “ he thrilled his audience with vocal pyrotechnics”
• the art of making or displaying fireworks.

Matthew Gilfillan, a fifth-generation member of the pyrotechnics company responsible for the Redding Freedom Festival fireworks display, says he put the finishing touches on the show in May. He wouldn’t divulge details, but it’s a guarantee he followed grandfather Bob Souza’s design philosophy: “start big, end bigger.”

“He always said that,” Gilfillan says of Souza, who founded Pyro Spectaculars by Souza in 1976. Bob Souza was continuing the tradition started by his grandfather, Manuel Souza, who brought his unique gunpowder-based firework recipes from Portugal to the Bay Area in the early 1900s. Manuel Souza became so well known for such flashy firework displays at Portuguese festivals that he earned the nickname “Papagaio” (parrot in Portuguese).

Photos by Catherine Hunt

As the thousands who have gathered on the Redding Civic Auditorium grounds for past Freedom Festivals can attest, the fireworks portion of the evening is nothing if not flashy. Gilfillan, who has been producing and designing Redding’s festival since 2007, has plenty of pizazz lined up for this year’s Fourth of July extravaganza.

The 20-minute display, generously funded by the McConnell Foundation, will feature more than 1,800 aerial display shells – a whopping 2,500 pounds of explosives – most of which will “perform” at altitudes of 1,000 feet or higher. “The Freedom Festival is one of the biggest we do every year,” Gilfillan says.
Gilfillan drafts a unique script for each fireworks show he produces, using a computer program to coordinate music with the pyrotechnics. For the music side, Gilfillan likes to mix and match, drawing from classical, country, rhythm & blues and Americana. “I come up with a fresh track every year. Admittedly, they tend to repeat themselves a bit. You need ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever,’ classical fanfares and recognizable marches. I try and touch all of the genres and try to not go too heavily into any one,” he says.

Photos by Catherine Hunt

The software divides each musical selection into timed sequences and pairs them with files representing the multitude of fireworks Gilfillan chooses. “We have hundreds of thousands of effects in stock and we use those to create the script. The database has the mortar size and the altitude it performs at. We put those files into the firing system, then the packing team goes through the magazine, selects the individual devices, puts them in cartons, addresses them and ships them to the show. The pyrotechnical operator opens the carton and places the shell appropriately,” Gilfillan explains.

When the big day arrives, all the files are loaded into a laptop and with the touch of a key, the music pours forth and the sky lights up with sparkling multicolored starbursts, waterfalls and streaking comets. The computer knows when to fire each effect, “from the smallest little flash to largest caliber shell,” Gilfillan says. “The technology has really grown over the years.”

Photos by Catherine Hunt

The Freedom Festival will feature fireworks manufactured all over the world, including Italy, Spain, Portugal, Mexico, the United States, Thailand, Taiwan, Japan and China. “You’re getting the best strobe effects from all over. We’re creating a melting pot of Americana in the sky,” Gilfillan says. Each firework is ball-shaped with a “lift charge” at its base. When the charge is detonated, it propels the shell skyward while also igniting a timer fuse. When the lit fuse reaches the center of the shell, it ignites the burst charge, sending the effect into the atmosphere.

“It’s mind-boggling how effective and consistent these products are. That predictability equals their safety, which is very important with large displays like Redding,” Gilfillan says. The Freedom Festival is designed and produced in close cooperation with the Redding Fire Department and the Redding Community Services Department. “I couldn’t be more pleased with the consistent level of support we’ve received from the city and the fire department,” Gilfillan adds.

Photos by Ronda Alvey

Pyro Spectaculars creates more than 1,200 fireworks displays a year throughout the country, including displays at the Super Bowl and Major League Baseball games. Gilfillan says he personally designs between 140 and 150 shows a year.

The oohs and ahhs are the best part, Gilfillan says. “There’s a concussive and visceral nature to it that you don’t get with other kinds of entertainment. It gets you visually and sensorily. It’s magical and it’s really cool to be a part of it, to bring it to people.”

Redding Freedom Festival Facts

When: July 4, concessions, shaved ice, water, drinks etc. from 6 to 9:55 pm, fireworks at 10 pm. No alcohol, tobacco or drugs allowed

Where: Redding Civic Auditorium grounds

Closures: Sundial Bridge closes at 9 pm; the Park Marina Bridge closes to vehicles once the parking lots are full; the Posse Grounds boat ramp closes on July 3 and reopens on July 5

Simulcast: 10 pm on radio station Q97 (97.3 FM)

About Jon Lewis

Jon Lewis is a Redding-based writer with 37 years of experience. A longtime San Francisco Giants fan, his interests include golf, fishing and sharing stories about people, places and things. He can be reached at [email protected]

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