▲ Pyrotechnics Director Kwak Chang Seok. Photographed by Park Tae In.
About Kwak Chang Seok
Kwak Chang Seok is a Korean pyrotechnics director and, also the head of Hwarang Art Pyrotechnic, an organization that creates pyro-theater using fire. Kwak’s representative works are Song of Gongmudoha, Hwasandae, Hwa-Hee-Nangnak, and Path & Passage. He has been directing many invitation performances abroad for over 30 years and is now announcing the recreation of the shows mentioned above at street art festivals of Korea.
Every year, millions of people gather in Yeouido to take part in the Seoul International Fireworks Festival to see the fantastical scenes of colorful flames scattering across the night sky. Fireworks have now developed into an art, namely pyro-theater, as they convey emotional messages, in addition to excitement. In the center of these heated performances are pyrotechnics directors, who direct, organize, and produce fireworks to suit the concept of the show. The Granite Tower (GT) met with Kwak Chang Seok, one of the magicians who stage fireworks on the night scene.
Tell us about your job, a pyrotechnics director.
When many people think of a pyrotechnics director, they might imagine someone who directs big fireworks festival such as the Seoul International Fireworks Festival or the Busan Fireworks Festival. However, the traditional fireworks used at these large festivals are only one genre of fireworks. Just like many other kinds of arts, there are many genres in fireworks. The Lotte World Tower Fireworks Festival was an example of how fireworks can be mixed with landmark. When fireworks come together with performance, it becomes a pyro-theater, crossing the boundaries of entertainment and art. Pyrotechnics directors lead these pyro-theaters, by designing, producing and directing the whole performance with stories. The performances that pyrotechnics directors showcase are a piece of art, and are able to be performed again in different places, unlike traditional fireworks.
Flame display is quite an unfamiliar form of art. What motivated you to become interested in fireworks display and become a pyrotechnics director?
In 2000, a lot of flames were consumed worldwide to celebrate the millennium. This was the first time I got to see so many fireworks with my own eyes, and this sparked my interest in fireworks. Soon after, I happened to start a part time job that was related to gunpowder, which naturally led me to work in a job related to fireworks.
2005 was the year when I decided to direct pyrotechnic performances. I then worked as a partner with a famous French pyrotechnics director, Pierre-Alain Hubert, to prepare for the 2005 Peace Festival. By working and learning from him, I first realized that there are many genres of pyrotechnics directing, including performances using flames indoors, using large objects and even starring actors. Since then, my desire to design different genres of fireworks by myself grew, and in 2009, I went to original flame displays, which became the start of my job as a pyrotechnics director.
What inspires you in designing flame displays?
In the early days of my career, when I was working with traditional fireworks, foreign teams that have a long history and high-skills inspired me a lot. Now, after I started creating pyro-theaters, I get inspiration from everywhere. I was once into studying history and decided to re-create fireworks that were used in the past into a modern form. I reinterpreted the kings of the past dynasties into fireworks enjoyed in the eyes of the performers; this is how I created Hwasandae and Hwa-HeeNangnak.
What is the most memorable performance you directed?
Through my first pyro-theater, Song of Gongmudoha, I wanted to express the ultimate level of grief through flames, just as the original poetry conveys extreme sadness in four phrases. After the performance of Song of Gongmudoha, someone called my office. My company expected a complaint call over the loud exploding sounds from nearby residents as usual, but that call was different. A man who watched the show called and said that he has been studying for the national examination for over four years and was thinking that he wanted to die, but the pyro-theater made him recover his will to live. It was fascinating how one person thought of hope for life when the show we designed dealt with death. Song of Gongmudoha was deep in meaning because it was my first show, but this call made it even more unforgettable.
▲ Performance of Path&Passage. Provided by Hwarang Art Pyrotechnic.
What are the difficulties in preparing for a fireworks performance?
If any, tell us about your story of experiencing difficulty during your work. The toughest part is that most people do not view pyrotechnics as art; they just think of it as eventful entertainment. Another difficulty is communicating with the government officials. For example, we need to get permission from the local police to use explosive materials in advance. However, unlike industrial environments, there are many variables in performing, so there are times when we underuse or overuse the amount of explosives as reported. Most times making the officials understand why the change has been made is a very hard process.
What is your ultimate goal as a pyrotechnics director?
I want to make Hwarang’s shows one of the performances one must see when they visit Korea, just as China’s impression performances. Another goal is to change the general public’s perception towards pyrotechnics. Many people think of flames as a mere instrument not an art. Just as music stood up as an art genre itself as seen in the Uijeongbu Music Theater Festival, one day I hope pyro-technics will grow to be an art itself.
▲ Performance of Hwasandae. Provided by Hwarang Art Pyrotechnic
Do you have something to say to students who dream of becoming a pyrotechnics director?
The most important thing is to never give up, just as in other jobs. A pyrotechnics director works backstage, does not get much spotlight, and the job is not lucrative as well. One must start with the mindset to work hard until the end and actually endure the process.
Another thing I want to emphasize is to actively look out for opportunities. There is no fixed curriculum for a pyrotechnics director, so one must be passionate and search for information for oneself. To become a pyrotechnics director, be enthusiastic!