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Dazzling with pyrotechnics

For third-generation pyrotechnic expert Wilson Mao, who grew up with the smell of gunpowder, staging a fireworks display has become a technology-fuelled, multimedia extravaganza.

"These days, planning, choreographing and presenting a fireworks display is technology-driven," says Mao, the CEO of Pyromagic Multi-media Productions, the largest fireworks-event production company in Asia and whose mother company was founded by Mao's grandfather in 1952.

Mao says technology allows his firm to show clients and the media how an event will appear before the live performance. "Through animation we can show the different effects we can create, the music, and how the show will look and feel," he says, adding that he still includes a few surprises at show time.

With numerous awards and local and international displays under his belt - including taking charge of both the annual Hong Kong Chinese New Year and China National Day fireworks displays since 1998, and the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens closing ceremony since 2001 - Mao says the key to a successful display is good planning. "For an event like China National Day, we usually start planning about four months before," he says.

He adds that a fundamental part of the planning process involves the use of graphic design and animation. "Since technology has become available, designing and presenting a display has changed drastically," he says.

To produce shows like the Symphony of Lights, which Guinness World Records lists as the world's largest permanent light and sound show, Mao relies on a team of software technicians.

"We look for young people who are familiar with Apple Mac computing, but recruit from a variety of education backgrounds," he says.

Mao employs musicians, artists, graphic designers and animators from universities, the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts and vocational training institutes. In addition to a passion for design, Mao says being safety conscious is the number-one priority. "We work as a tight team, where risk assessment and being safety-conscious takes precedence over everything else," he says.

Because of the proximity to buildings of local fireworks displays, Hong Kong has some of the strictest safety regulations in the world. However, it also remains Mao's favourite place to stage a firework display.

"The harbour, with the amazing buildings as a backdrop, is the best place in the world to put on a show," he says. He also ranks his Tsing Ma Bridge opening fireworks display in 1997, where the late Baroness Margaret Thatcher was guest of honour, as one of his most memorable events.