iStock
iStock

18 Secrets of Criminal Defense Attorneys

iStock
iStock

It's one of the more thankless jobs in the legal arena. Criminal defense attorneys, who stand beside clients accused of everything from minor offenses to mass murder, must mount the most effective defense of their client possible no matter how heinous the crime. While their work enforces a person’s constitutional right to a fair trial, some observers chastise them for representing society's villains.

In their view, that’s missing the point. In addition to making sure the scales of justice are balanced, criminal defense attorneys find satisfaction in tackling cases with high stakes. "It's an all or nothing game," says Jeffrey Lichtman, a New York-based attorney who has represented John A. Gotti and accused Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. "It's win or lose. There is pressure, excitement, and responsibility in being a criminal defendant's only protector and support."

To get a better understanding of this often emotionally draining work, Mental Floss spoke with three high-profile defense lawyers. In addition to Lichtman, we talked to Chris Tritico—the subject of the first episode of Oxygen’s In Defense Of docuseries premiering June 25, and who represented Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh in 1997—as well as Bryan Gates, practicing in North Carolina. Here’s what they shared about life as a devil’s advocate.

1. ATTORNEYS DON'T ALLOW THEIR PERSONAL FEELINGS TO TRUMP DUE PROCESS.

Some defendants have clearly committed terrible crimes, but they still have constitutional rights—so attorneys don't let their personal feelings about a crime get in the way of a client's defense. “There’s never been a day I stood up for someone accused of a crime where I would endorse that crime,” says Tritico. “I don’t justify the act of blowing up a building and killing 168 people. But McVeigh has to be protected and his rights have to be protected. People like me have to be willing to stand up and say, ‘I will stand up for you.’ You do it for McVeigh and you do it for everyone.”

2. BONDING WITH CLIENTS IS KEY, REGARDLESS OF THE CRIME.

It can be hard to find common ground with someone accused of misdeeds that could land them life in prison or even a death sentence, but defense attorneys say that there’s usually a way to relate to their clients as human beings—and the case will be better off for it. Lichtman became friendly with Gotti by discussing family; Tritico found McVeigh to be amiable. “I wanted Tim to like me and I wanted to like him,” he says. “I wanted him to trust my decisions. It doesn’t happen every time, but the vast majority of the time, I like them.”

3. THEY RESEARCH JURORS' BACKGROUNDS.

A criminal defense attorney addresses a jury

Examining a potential juror, known as voir dire, is an art. Both defense and prosecution want people in the jury box who can be swayed, though circumstances are usually stacked against the defense. "The jury is coming in ready to convict, as no one generally supports crime," Lichtman says.

When quizzing would-be participants, Lichtman talks fast: "I’m speaking a-mile-a-minute, looking to get the potentially problematic jurors to either knowingly or unwittingly expose their natural biases so that I can get them kicked off the panel for cause. The jurors who I think can keep an open mind or are anti-police I will not question at all, because I’m afraid they’ll reveal those biases and get struck by the prosecutor when he uses a peremptory challenge [an objection to a juror]."

Once in court, Lichtman focuses on finding the one person in the box of 12 to connect with. “I look up the backgrounds of jurors,” he says. “I’m looking for anything in the background I can exploit in order to tailor my summation to something that’s happened in their lives.”

4. THEY'RE ALWAYS WATCHING THE JURY'S BODY LANGUAGE.

Keeping tabs on a jury means being able to assess which direction they’re leaning. Lichtman says body language can tell him a lot. “You can feel how a trial is going,” he says. Jurors who laugh or smile at his jokes are on his side. Jurors turning away from him are not. “You can tell who’s following you. They’re energized by your arguments.”

Evaluating how jurors are reacting allows Lichtman to make real-time adjustments to his arguments. "As I’m questioning a witness or beseeching the jury during a summation, if I see someone turn away from me, I keep that juror in mind and what may have turned him or her off, and try to rectify or address it down the road," he says. "If I have someone laughing, I know that there’s a juror who may not be acquitting my client but he or she is at least open to it, so I spend a lot of time working on them."

5. THERE’S A REASON THEY STAND SO CLOSE TO THEIR CLIENTS.

A criminal defense attorney stands near his client

The image of an attorney standing up next to their client as the verdict is being read is usually interpreted as a sign of solidarity, but lawyers may have another reason. Tritico says that early in his career, he took on a client charged with aggravated robbery. Despite Tritico’s advice to take a plea bargain, the man took his chance at trial—and lost. His sentence was 40 years. “I was looking at the jury as the verdict was being read and felt something moving,” he says. “He had passed out. From that point forward, I always grab my client by the arm to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

Sometimes, it's the attorney who might need the assist. According to Tritico, hearing a man being sentenced to death, as he did with McVeigh, "might be the most sobering thing you'll ever hear in your life."

6. A CLIENT CAN BE THEIR OWN WORST ENEMY.

The adage about never, ever talking to police without an attorney present? It’s probably the single best piece of advice any defendant will ever get, yet many still refuse to let the message sink in. “I can’t think of anyone who has ever talked their way out of being charged,” Gates says.

It doesn’t stop there, though. Defendants idling in jail before their court dates can wind up digging themselves an even deeper hole. “They’ll write letters to people. The district attorney, at least in North Carolina, can get a copy. It might not be an outright confession, but there can be things that won’t put them in the best light. Phone calls are the same.” If they're upset with their counsel, some clients will even write letters of complaint to the DA or a judge, which might let slip some damning information that can be used against them later. “That will just devastate a case," Gates says.

7. THEY GET HATE MAIL.

A hateful message is written out on paper

Representing public figures like John A. Gotti, the son of notorious mafia figure John Gotti, often leads to attorneys being damned by association. Lichtman used to get hate mail, which later morphed into hate e-mail and other displays of contempt. “I’ve been spit on walking into court,“ he says. “I’ve been [called names] while sitting at the defense table by a witness walking off whose clock I just cleaned.” None of the vitriol has impacted Lichtman’s drive to mount the best defense possible for his clients. “I’ve never once apologized for what I do. Representing a suspected murderer does not mean I’m pro-murder.”

8. INNOCENT DEFENDANTS CAN MAKE THEIR WORK HARDER.

It might seem like an innocent client would be easier to defend. But according to Gates, having a strong belief that a client is falsely accused creates additional strain on the defense. “It’s very stressful because you’re really identifying with the person,” he says. While no attorney wants to see any client found guilty, it can be gut-wrenching to know the person might be punished for something they didn’t do. “We had one lawyer here [in North Carolina] who worked for 15 years for someone he felt was wrongfully accused, and he was ultimately able to prove it.” But that's unusual—more often, attorneys suspect their clients are innocent and have to look on as juries convict them.

9. SOMETIMES THEY GIVE THEIR CLIENTS MAKEOVERS.

A man admiring himself in a mirror in a menswear shop

If a defendant is partial to ripped jeans and heavy metal t-shirts, attorneys will often advise them to spend some time shopping. “It’s not about creating an illusion,” Tritico says. “But if someone comes in with, say, a mullet, I’m taking them to the barber. We’re buying slacks and a button-down shirt. You need to show respect for the system.”

10. THEY LOVE THE EXCITEMENT—BUT TRIALS DON'T MOVE AS FAST AS YOU THINK.

Ask a criminal defense lawyer why they chose that legal subspecialty and the most common answer is that nothing gets their blood going more than a case with high stakes. “Cases move faster and they’re just more interesting than civil cases,” Gates says. “There’s nothing worse than an extended conversation about Article 2 of the Uniform Commercial Code. It’s just more interesting to talk about a bank robbery.”

That said, no trial moves along at the speed presented by true crime documentaries or popular fiction. “Trials are not interesting to watch," Gates says. "They take a long time and many stretches are just boring. CourtTV, when they would put a camera in the court room all day? Like watching paint dry.” While many trials are over in three to five days, some take weeks or even months. In 2013, jurors spent seven weeks on the federal trial of notorious Boston gangster James "Whitey" Bulger and another five days deliberating on a verdict. (Guilty on 31 counts, including extortion and involvement in murder.)

11. THEY DON’T STAND UP AS OFTEN AS YOU THINK.

A serious-looking lawyer standing up and arguing her case in court

Another popular television trope is the defense attorney pacing, gesticulating, and thumping tables in an effort to exhibit some swagger in front of a jury. While rules for grandstanding vary by state, Gates says that, at least in North Carolina, he doesn’t spend a lot of time on his feet. “We have to question all witnesses from a seated position behind the counsel’s table,” he says. “We can’t pace around the room or pound on a rail. Most judges are not going to let you do a lot of dancing in front of a jury.”

12. THEY THRIVE ON CAN’T-WIN CASES.

Sometimes prosecutors are so determined to nail defendants—particularly in federal trials where ample government resources can mount suffocating cases—that defense attorneys see no obvious way to win. For Lichtman, that’s part of the appeal. While Guzman has yet to go to trial, Lichtman successfully defended Gotti against a litany of racketeering charges in 2005. “When I took on the 'El Chapo' case, I got calls from lawyers I respect saying, ‘You’re crazy, you don’t need this,’” he says. “What am I doing this for if not to take this case? How do you not want to take on challenging cases?” And the greater the obstacle, the more Lichtman prepares. “The more you work, the more you understand the facts, and the better your chances at trial.”

13. THEY BELIEVE THE BAIL SYSTEM IS BROKEN.

A car is parked in front of a bail bonds office

Jailed for a crime? You might be innocent until proven guilty, but that presumption doesn’t mean you’re free to walk the streets. Gates believes the bail system for freeing jailed clients is fundamentally unfair and designed to force plea bargains favorable to the prosecution. “They will reflexively argue for $250,000 bail when a person is unemployed,” he says. “There’s no chance a person could post it. A bondsman will charge at least $20,000.” In the Bronx, for example, the average wait time for a jury trial is 827 days. The longer someone is forced to live in a cell, the easier it is for prosecutors to make a deal—and avoid the dice roll of a jury trial.

14. PUBLIC DEFENDERS GET A BAD RAP.

While it’s true a high-profile attorney can deliver a compelling defense in exchange for a sky-high bill, the stereotype of public defenders assigned to indigent clients as being incompetent is undeserved. “It’s mostly television that gives them the bad rap of being an overworked, under-prepared lawyer,” Tritico says. “But at any of the public defender’s offices I’ve been in, they do good, solid work. It’s a rare day I see someone there who isn’t working as hard as I’m working when I’ve been retained.”

15. THE TRUE CRIME TV CRAZE IS CHANGING THEIR APPROACH.

Every week seems to bring a new docuseries obsession, from Making a Murderer to The Staircase. For lawyers addressing jurors, they have to factor in what these shows have "taught" viewers about the criminal justice system, even if it's not quite accurate. "True crime shows on TV have turned every layperson into an expert in their minds," Lichtman says. "So juries are less likely to believe expert witnesses, police officer witnesses, and prosecutors and defense lawyers because they know better."

Instead of fighting it, Lichtman leans into it. "For me, I don’t mind this new mindset because I play into juries’ natural skepticism in my theory of defense. I exploit the facts that seem impossible to believe, even when true, and beseech the jury to use their common sense gained from a lifetime of experience. And TV watching."

16. PUBLIC OPINION CAN INFLUENCE CASE STRATEGY.

Newspapers are stacked in a pile

Criminal cases can often draw local or national headlines, making prospective jurors aware of the personalities and details involved. A good attorney will always take notice of which way the public tide is turning while preparing a defense. "Public opinion has a huge impact on how I handle a case," Lichtman says. "After all, the jury is a small slice of that public opinion going into a trial, and I need to persuade them or dissuade them during my brief time before them. So it’s important to know what I’m dealing with beforehand. What are the areas of concern or preconceived notions for me at a trial that I need to develop or combat?"

Not doing so, Lichtman believes, is a gross oversight: "A lawyer who does not do his due diligence before the trial starts in learning what public opinion is about his client, or the conduct allegedly committed by his client, is a lazy fool."

17. THEY DON'T HAVE AN OBLIGATION TO DISCLOSE A CLIENT'S ADMISSION OF GUILT.

A lawyer walks away from a crowd of people

If a defendant decides to use their lawyer's office as a confessional, their counsel is under no obligation to turn around and pass that information along to law enforcement. "If a client discloses his guilt to me, I’m obligated to do one thing and one thing only," Lichtman says. "Not let him lie on the stand while under oath."

Defendants don't often testify on their own behalf anyway, but that kind of admission would make sure they don't. "It’s not the defense lawyer’s obligation to do anything but fight the government’s evidence. The search for the truth in a trial does not necessarily include me, the defense attorney," Lichtman says.

18. CLIENTS SOMETIMES WANT ADVICE BEFORE COMMITTING A CRIME.

A gavel rests in front of law books

It is legally and morally forbidden for lawyers to counsel anyone on the best way to commit a crime, but that doesn’t stop people from asking anyway. "I get it a lot, even today," Lichtman says. "'If I do this, is this OK?'" Lichtman will tell them what’s legal "up to the line" and no further. "All the advice is legal and above-board. I treat every conversation as if someone is listening."

All images courtesy of iStock.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
11 Secrets of Romance Writers
iStock
iStock

Some readers may snicker at book covers featuring aerobicized men and titles like The Firefighter’s Woman or The Bull Rider’s Christmas Baby. But if it weren’t for the steamy, escapist fantasy of romance novels, a healthy portion of the publishing industry would cease to exist: According to the Romance Writers of America (RWA), romantic fiction brings in $1.08 billion annually and accounts for 13 percent of all fiction sales in the marketplace.

What keeps readers coming back for more? We asked some of the genre’s top authors for insight into the “secret baby" trope, why pen names are necessary, and the one rule of romance that can never, ever be violated.

1. THEY WEAR PERIOD CLOTHING.

Novelist Shelley Adina (A Lady of Resources, A Lady of Integrity) writes historical, Amish, and steampunk-themed fiction, just a few of the many sub-categories that appeal to niche audiences. To better understand her characters, Adina dresses in period outfits to gather what she calls “tactile details.”

“I like to feel how a heroine would feel in the clothes,” she says. “I’ve been laced into a proper corset and you realize what kind of dance steps you can do, or why a lady’s back never touches a chair—a tight corset won't allow it."

2. THE REASON THEY USE PEN NAMES ISN'T WHAT YOU THINK.

Covers of two romance novels by Shelley Adina
Shelley Adina

The authors of romance novels don't use pen names out of embarrassment. Adina (a.k.a. Adina Senft) says that pseudonyms—many authors have more than one—help readers compartmentalize writers who generate multiple series. “People who read Amish fiction may not read steampunk,” she says. Another, bigger reason: Bookstore software can use “kill orders” on authors who don’t sell a certain number of titles. If they fall below parity, retailers will automatically stop ordering more copies from that author. “If that happens,” she says, “you have to reinvent yourself with a new name.”

3. THEY’LL DIGITALLY REVISE THEIR WORK AFTER PUBLISHING IT.

The analog publishing model has traditionally been one of permanence: Once a book is in print and in readers' hands, there's no going back. But romance novel readers are a very particular clientele with certain expectations about how they’d like their protagonists to behave—and the self-published digital distribution model that's popular within the genre allows for a little customization. Author Heather C. Leigh (the Famous series) found that out when her first books featured a heroine who was a little too acerbic. “My first three books sold well, but there were critiques that my female lead was too sarcastic,” she says. “I understood and took it out. I don’t mind making work better based on feedback.”

4. COVER MODELS OFTEN LOSE THEIR HEADS.

The covers of two romance novels by Heather C. Leigh
Heather C. Leigh

Despite seeing hundreds of new titles published every month, the romance genre still manages to find new ways to visualize their shirtless male protagonists. In many cases, though, the beefcake winds up getting decapitated. “A lot of times, the man will be turned away or cut off at the forehead,” says author Eliza Night (The Conquered Bride series). “Readers want to imagine his looks in their own mind.” Grooming is also a necessity. “I had a cover with chest hair once. My readers did not like it.”

5. THEY HAVE BONUS SCENES.

Self-published authors (who make up about two-thirds of the total romance e-book revenue on Amazon) spend much of their time marketing their work. To help maintain interest from their existing readership, some send out email newsletters with updates on new titles and include exclusive passages that can enhance the experience of a previous book. “My first book was about an actor who had to do a love scene with a woman he hated,” Leigh says. “It was never going to be in the book because that was from his girlfriend’s point of view, but I got a chance to write it as a bonus.”

6. THEY WANT READERS TO BECOME WRITERS.

While resources for aspiring writers of all genres are plentiful, the romance field makes an exceptional attempt to recruit new talent. Industry interest group RWA doubles as a conduit between established writers and novices, hosting conferences and panels on the best ways to break in. “We don’t live in a competitive hierarchy,” Adina says. “There are so many readers with so many diverse tastes. It’s a big community where we support one another.”

7. THEY GET HELP FROM THE AMISH.

An Amish woman walking in a field
iStock

While the Amish sub-genre has received media attention for its peculiarity, Adina doesn't believe it's so unusual: She says readers are attracted to a pastoral environment “without having to leave their wired-up house.” For accuracy’s sake, the author has enlisted an Amish reader to vet her titles for details. The popularity of the books “mystifies them,” she says. “They don’t understand the interest. They just hope the books might be able to point people to God.”  

8. THE “SECRET BABY” TROPE IS A READER FAVORITE.

Readers like resourceful women and skilled, wealthy love interests—and they especially like it when the former keeps their baby a secret from the latter. “The trope is that the hero and heroine have an affair, she gets pregnant, never tells him, and he comes back around five, 10, or 20 years later and finds out,” Adina says. “Reunion stories are popular. It’s the appeal of a responsible man.”

9. THEY’RE HISTORY GEEKS.

The cover of a romance novel by Eliza Knight
Eliza Knight

Knight cringes at the idea romance authors do little more than transcribe their own lurid fantasies. A self-described “history geek,” she travels frequently for research into Scottish history. “Most of us who write history nerd out on it,” she says. While once writing about a zeppelin-riding heroine, Adina jumped into one that offered rides over Silicon Valley to see how it would feel. She also got her motorcycle license for the same reason. “We’re serious about it,” Adina says. “We’re not sitting around in housecoats with barking Pomeranians.”

10. THEY’D APPRECIATE NOT BEING ASKED ABOUT THEIR SEX LIFE.

Many romance authors have at least one story to tell about people in their private life finding out they write for the genre and subsequently losing any sense of boundaries. “Strangers have asked me, ‘Do you test out scenes before you write them?’” Leigh says. “It’s like they lose a filter. It’s not real life. J.K. Rowling isn’t a wizard.”

11. THERE’S ONE RULE THAT CAN NEVER BE BROKEN.

While writing instructors invariably have all kinds of techniques for nourishing a story, the romance genre spells it out in an unequivocal manner. According to the RWA, nothing can be considered a “romance novel” without a central love story (naturally) and what authors have come to refer to as the Happily Ever After ending, or HEA. “Romance is a courtship story,” Adina says. “Readers expect the bond will be created at the end of the book. If not, it’s Nicholas Sparks or Romeo and Juliet. It would be like having a mystery where the detective doesn’t solve the case.”

This story originally appeared in 2016.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
15 Secrets of Fireworks Designers
iStock
iStock

The Fourth of July just wouldn't be the same without the colorful peonies, waterfalls, and comets that burst across the night sky above wowed crowds. But designing fireworks and their choreographed displays is a labor-intensive, dangerous job that requires the imagination of an artist and the precision of an engineer. Mental Floss talked to two experts in the field to learn how fireworks designers plan their shows, the history and the chemistry behind their displays, and why you don't necessarily want more bang for your buck.

1. THE ROOTS OF THEIR PROFESSION GO BACK OVER A THOUSAND YEARS.

Humans have been adding bright, noisy explosions to their celebrations by setting fire to chemicals since at least 9th-century China. The very first fireworks were little more than quick orange bursts emanating from bamboo rods packed with charcoal, sulfur, and potassium nitrate and tossed into bonfires. Slowly, these contraptions progressed into flares cannon-fired into the sky by “firemasters” in medieval England. By 1830s Italy, the use of metal salts such as strontium, barium, copper, and sodium added vivid reds, greens, and blues to firework displays—a precursor of the brilliant hues we see today.

2. THEY CONSIDER THEMSELVES ARTISTS.

“Fireworks are our paint or our clay, and our canvas is the night sky—or a building, or a bridge, or a waterway,” says fifth-generation fireworks designer Phil Grucci, CEO and creative director of the Bellport, New York-based Fireworks by Grucci. The company has created fireworks displays for seven consecutive U.S. presidential inaugurations, Olympic games in Beijing and Los Angeles, and commemorations such as the centennial of the Statue of Liberty, among other events. “Working with space, understanding color and the dynamics within the fireworks, what moves very quickly, what sounds very loud, what sounds very soft, what is subtle and elegant”—all of it takes an artist's touch, Grucci says.

Pyrotechnic designers “can visualize exactly how various fireworks devices will burst in the sky,” says Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association. That means they know "how high [fireworks] will reach their apex and burst, how wide they will spread, and how long the effect will ‘hang,' or linger. They can then choose other fireworks to burst above, below, or on each side of an effect to create the image they wish to see across the sky."

Of course, "painting" with fireworks is a little trickier than using acrylics or oils, since the medium is explosive. "The difference [compared to painting] is that we’ve got something that’s dynamic, that moves, it’s constantly moving and it’s very temporary," Grucci explains.

3. THEY START WITH A PAPER SKETCH.

A red and green firework bursting in the night sky
iStock

Old pros like Grucci may know from experience how certain fireworks will look together against a backdrop. But he still sketches out each segment of every show he designs with colored markers on paper. From there, he works with his team to set the show to music, then choreographs it using software called Visual Show Director. Next, his programmers create a script in SolidWorks and/or AutoCAD. “In the past,” Grucci explains, “we scripted it all on a piece of paper, and the pyrotechnicians installed the hardware from that same piece of paper." Now, he says, they can be "taking advantage of the computer age, to visualize [a show] to see whether the product works as you’ve designed it.” Finally, Grucci’s team generates the computer file that will electronically ignite the fireworks at showtime—much safer than the days when a human had to ignite the fuse.

But Heckman says that although the technology is useful, it's made fireworks performances a little more homogenous. "Before electrical firing, computer choreography and a reliance on imported product [mostly from China], I think fireworks companies' unique style was much more prevalent," she says. "Technology has somewhat leveled that out." A few companies do still have distinctive styles, she notes—even if those differences are usually only apparent to true fireworks aficionados.

4. SOME THINGS ARE STILL DONE BY HAND.

A fireworks cartridge contains a series of pellets called stars, which are cubes, spheres, or cylinders about an-inch-and-a-half long filled with explosive materials and color-producing chemicals and metals [PDF]. A star’s colors are formulated via computer, then pressed into a pellet shape by machine. But when it comes to arranging the stars in the casings that will be fired into the night sky, it's usually human hands doing the arranging. The pattern laid out inside the casing determines the pattern of the explosion—a heart-shaped firework blooms from stars arranged in a heart shape—and according to Grucci, automating the task to account for the enormous variety of available patterns would be too expensive. The task can be labor-intensive, since a single shell can contain hundreds of stars.

5. THE VENUE DETERMINES HOW THEIR SHOW WILL UNFOLD.

Fireworks over the Brooklyn Bridge in 2018
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

It's as true in fireworks as it is in real estate: It's all about location. That’s partly for reasons of safety—Heckman says that every show has to follow industry standards for “tables of distance,” which “mandate the size of the largest shell that can be fired safely from a standpoint of fallout distance to spectators, and also public highways, occupied buildings, and public roads.” She says there's a complex regulatory scheme that dictates the type of products that can be used per type of venue, as well as when shows can begin and end.

But the site is also an integral part of the beauty and impact of the show itself. "We’re very aggressive in looking at structures, and trying to highlight their key features," Grucci says. “Whether it’s a tower, whether it’s a bridge, we will be [scouting from] the very highest point of that. If [a structure] is horizontal, I know that we are going to capitalize on the entire width of it. I could be easy and say, 'put some fireworks to the left and right side of a bridge.' But that’s not good enough. We have to take advantage of the undercarriage of a bridge, the steel cables that hold its towers together, and highlight the entire structure.” Grucci says he'll often calculate the entire surface area of a structure, so he can make sure he's taking advantage of every square inch.

6. THEY MATCH THE FIREWORKS TO THE MUSIC.

Not all fireworks displays have music, but when they do, the score and the effects should complement each other—not clash. A delicate classical piece may call for smaller, quieter fireworks, while a piece like the "1812 Overture" might fit bigger, louder bangs.

"So many of the [effects] we’re working with, they may have a baroque feel to them," Grucci says. "They’re very bold and strong and very in-your-face, but then you have that very elegant feel to some of the fireworks, that you would never put onto the canvas when there’s a rock-n-roll sequence on. When the product is so simple or so elegant, it would not match that tempo or that thematic."

7. THEY HAVE HIGH-TECH TESTING FACILITIES.

An assortment of colorful fireworks bursting in the sky
iStock

Say you want to create a streaking green comet with a silver twinkling tail. “We’ll make that on a small scale, then we’ll test it at one of our two test sites, in upstate New York or in Virginia,” Grucci says. “Our pyrotechnicians are in protective bunkers and we have high-speed video cameras, wind meters, and dB [decibel] meters for noise. We record everything that we’re testing, so that we can look back on that and analyze it. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve failed. But we failed at the test site—never on the performance stage.”

8. THEY DON'T REPEAT THEMSELVES.

“My desire is to always make something that’s different,” Grucci says. He tries not to repeat a particular scene more than once in a performance, let alone repeat a whole show—although he notes that it helps that the "canvas" is always changing: “Even though we may use a particular beautiful color scheme with a metallic glitter, putting that on the Washington Monument as opposed to [over] an open baseball field—those are two completely different visuals.” One of his newest innovations turned up in the presidential inauguration in January 2017: a 600-foot by 700-foot display behind the Lincoln Memorial, made up of a series of 800 fireworks shells that burst in sequence into an American flag. “The color red [we used] is from a formula that is probably a few hundred years old," he says. "But delivering these little red dots on the sky at these [different] heights is what [allowed us to create the flag].”

9. LESS CAN BE MORE.

Fireworks at the opening of the New York, New York hotel in Las Vegas
JOHN GURZINSKI/AFP/Getty Images

"Sometimes people get caught in the trap of thinking that more is better," Grucci says, but when it comes to the number of fireworks in a performance, it can be exactly the opposite: More shells equals more smoke, which can white-out the night sky. "When you put too much in the sky ... you’re not really allowing the medium to display the beauty of what the product is about," Grucci says. (Plus, the metallic particles in fireworks smoke can pose a health risk for people with asthma or other health problems, which means it's wise to limit smoke where possible.)

10. THEY HAVE THEIR OWN LINGO.

Fireworks designers love to borrow from nature for the names of their displays. In addition to peonies and chrysanthemums, which both burst into circles (chrysanthemums have longer tails), there are willows (bursts with trails of gold or silver stars), falling leaves (glowing embers that flicker as they tumble to earth), fish (which leave little squiggles of light), spiders (a hard burst with straight, flat legs), and palms (which bursts up and out in a shape like its namesake tree). But there are also fountains (showers of sparks, sometimes also called gerbs), comets (several long trails of sparks), crossettes (a comet that breaks into other comets, usually creating a cross shape), dragon eggs (a delayed crackle effect), salutes (a loud noise without a display), and strobes (which burst with a blinking effect).

While creating their show, fireworks designers may work with cake (a single fuse that lights several fireworks in a sequence), whistle mixes (a combination of potassium and sodium benzoate that burns noisily), and dark fire, which is used to allow a star to change from one color to another (it gives off no light as it burns, allowing the new color layer to ignite below it). They hope to avoid flowerpots (which burst prematurely) and stars that are blown blind—or fail to ignite at all.

11. DANGER IS (UNFORTUNATELY) THEIR MIDDLE NAME.

Fireworks manufacturing presents an enormous danger. In 2016, Slate reported on a preponderance of deadly fireworks-making accidents in China—with an average of 400 workers in fireworks production plants dying every year between 1986 and 2005. Elsewhere, fewer accidents seem to happen than one might expect from the mixing and storing of combustible chemicals. According to Heckman, in the U.S. at least, that’s because the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) “stringently regulates the manufacturing process, including personal protective gear, and employers must train their personnel on the hazards and the [kind of gear that’s] required.”

“We’re mixing powders to create explosive compositions that have to be handled very delicately," Grucci says. The work has to be done in a non-sparking environment (one with special tools and materials that reduce the risk of sparks), and in a room that has plenty of exits. "[You don’t want to be in a] big, giant room filled with fireworks and there’s only one door to get out," Grucci says. Workers in their factory wear conductive shoes, which conduct static electricity through the footwear and into the ground, "because the environment is very dry and you wouldn’t want to walk across the floor and touch something and have an arc spark that goes to a box of open powder and explodes on you.”

Safety is paramount for Grucci, who lost his father, James, in a massive industrial accident in 1983 at the family fireworks plant on Long Island. He says that the secret to safety, from manufacturing through installation, is to “be consistent and never cut a corner.” He says his grandfather always told him, "As soon as you think you know it all, or you want to start cutting corners, [that's] when potentially you’re increasing your odds of getting injured or possibly killed."

12. SOMETIMES THEIR FAVORITE WAY TO WORK IS SMALL.

Yes, it’s a challenge to produce a 30-minute fireworks show off five barges in the middle of Manhattan’s East River—but intimate shows present their own set of hurdles. Grucci mentions a Dolce & Gabbana fashion event held around Lincoln Center’s fountain that he created pyrotechnics for this spring. The flaming bits were a mere 15 feet from the audience and the clothing that was showcased in Lucite boxes. In that kind of scenario, “You can’t afford to have the hard outer casing or the inner paper wrappings” you’d use at an aerial fireworks event over the river, Grucci says. “The last thing you want is debris falling on the audience.” The solution: stationary fireworks comprised of titanium and aluminum particles of a sub-micron size, which burn quickly and don’t sustain heat for more than a few milliseconds—sort of like a sparkler.

13. THEY BREAK RECORDS.

World fireworks records include the largest fireworks display: 810,904 of them, fired off on January 1, 2016 in Manila, Philippines. And the most shells launched per minute: 479,651 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2013. And the longest fireworks waterfall (a long, glittering shower of embers): 11,539 feet, 5 inches, at a fireworks festival in Fukuoka, Japan, in 2008. On New Year’s Eve 2018, the Gruccis broke the world record for the world’s largest single aerial shell at a show they produced on Al Marjan Island in UAE. Weighing 2397 pounds, it was the culmination of almost 40 years of Grucci family trial and effort. “My father attempted the world record for the largest firework back in 1979 [with] a 42-inch-diameter white magnesium cascading flower that we displayed down in Titusville, Florida," he says. "Guinness gave him the world record, but it didn’t launch to the height or break to the size that he wanted it to. He always wanted to retry that and I had the opportunity this past New Year’s Eve to give my family another crack.”

14. THE FUTURE IS BRIGHT (OR PASTEL).

Research is underway on fireworks that are quieter—which could cause less stress to animals, children, and those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder—as well as fireworks that are kinder to the environment by using cleaner, nitrogen-based fuel.

But those aren't the only innovations shaping the future of fireworks. Shapes are changing, too; look for letters and corporate logos. Designers now also have a host of softer and more diverse colors at their disposal. “In the early ‘80s we started developing colors in between ROYGBIV, the basic colors, so now we can produce lemon and tangerine and chartreuse and aqua and every color within the spectrum,” Grucci says. They do so by fiddling with the purity of the metals used and the size of their particles—which also change other parts of their overall effect. Large particles of metals like titanium, iron, and aluminum result in large “splinters” and a glittery effect, Grucci says, while smaller particles lead to fewer splinters and “a very bright light.” He notes that at this point, they can "get pretty much any Pantone color" in a fireworks composition.

15. THEY LOVE TO SEE AMAZEMENT ON THE FACES OF AUDIENCES.

People watch the Macy's Fourth of July Fireworks from outside Brooklyn Bridge Park in 2015
Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images

“I think a crowd, in general, appreciates a lot of action—variations in colors and noise; and pattern shells such as smiley faces, hearts, and dice are always pleasers,” Heckman says. According to Grucci, “This is a very serious business. But it’s colorful and it’s beautiful and it has great, great energy. When we go to a performance, we can see an 80-year-old man and a 5-year-old granddaughter watching the show and their expressions are pretty much the same.” In that moment, “They both [become] children.”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER