May I Borrow A Cup Of Flash Powder?
Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines a staple as "a commodity for which the demand is constant; something having widespread and constant use or appeal." In our parents' and grandparents' time, staple ingredients included butter, milk, salt, sugar, eggs, flour and baking powder. These were the basic ingredients assumed to be present in any well-stocked kitchen, and sometimes the only ingredients found in poor kitchens. Today's homemakers might consider microwave burritos, Diet Pepsi and pudding cups as staples -- I know I do! However, the fact remains that anyone hoping to actually cook a meal will probably need at least one of the staples.
In the special effects industry, we have staple ingredients, as well. These products are used on a regular basis to create any number of effects, from flashes of fire to clouds of smoke. While the "spices" (color and sparkle additives) may vary from shot to shot, these ingredients will always be in demand. Let's take a look at some of the staples you might find in a pyrotechnician's kit flash paper is one of the most basic -- and most versatile -- ingredients for creating special effects. It can be used by itself and lit with a match or cigarette to create a quick flame effect; or it can be used to hold pyrotechnic powders such as flash powder for airburst effects or sparkle additive for a burst of flame with crackling sparks. Flash paper can also be used as a primer, ensuring that all of the powder in a flash pot burns evenly. When flash paper is burned in a confined space (such as the barrel of a flash gun or confetti launcher) the gasses produced act as a propellant for the flash paper itself and, sometimes, for the confetti or streamers loaded on top of it. In addition to its many uses, flash paper is also a relatively cool-burning product that produces no smoke or fallout, and is available in a wide range of sizes and colors.
Flash cotton is similar to flash paper in many respects, which isn't surprising when you consider that they're just different forms of the same material (nitrocellulose). The light, fluffy form of flash cotton, however, means that it is much more volatile than flash paper and burns at a quicker rate. This makes flash cotton an excellent choice as a primer in devices that use a glo-plug or spark wheel for ignition, since the cotton will ignite at a lower temperature than even flash paper. In addition to this, flash cotton can be coated with sparkle additive to create a burst of sparks with little visible flame, or it can be used by itself to create a small, instant flash of fire in devices such as the Flint Flasher or Thumb Thing.
Flash powder is the primary ingredient in any effect calling for an instantaneous puff of smoke. Because of its volatility, and the force with which it burns, flash powder is almost always used in a flash pot -- and is *never* used in a handheld effect. Flash powder is often used on its own to create a quick burst of light and cloud of smoke; but it can also be used with sparkle additive to create a giant burst of sparks. The flash of light produced by flash powder can be white (the most popular) red or green. There is also a sonic flash powder available that produces loud reports when it's fired in an appropriate pot.
Colored smoke powder is a much slower burning effect than flash powder, but it produces thick clouds of smoke in a wide range of colors. The smoke from flash powder, even colored flash powder, is always white. Because smoke powder is less volatile than flash powder and has no fallout, it can be used in effects that occur at close range to an actor. This makes it perfect for (dis)appearances, magical lamps and malfunctioning machinery.
All of these powders and papers are pretty unimpressive until they actually start burning, which is why any well-stocked pyro kit will contain a variety of igniters. The Surefire electric match is one of our most popular igniters, it can be used in any of our flash pots for igniting flash powder and colored smoke powders, or it can be fired by itself to create a miniature firecracker effect. Because the electric match combines a piece of nichrome wire with a pyro compound, it will fire at a lower voltage than the standard Surefire igniter or bare nichrome wire, making it ideal for effects using a low-voltage power supply.
Just as every kitchen has its unique assortment of herbs, spices and favorite ingredients, so too will every pyrotechnician's kit contain a mix of color and sparkle additives, igniters and flash devices. However, these products truly are the staples of a good pyro kit. Try working without them for very long and you'll soon find yourself over at the theatre next door, cup in hand.
Theatre Effects Customer Service Department
Theatre Effects, 1810 Airport Exchange Blvd. #400, Erlanger, KY 41018
Phone: 1-800-791-7646 or 513-772-7646 Fax: 513-772-3579