Darryl Fleming is director of Titanium Fireworks, the British company that has become the industry go-to for the world’s biggest pyrotechnic projects, including the Mayor of London’s New Year's Eve fireworks display, Edinburgh’s Hogmanay, and the opening and closing ceremonies of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Here, he talks exclusively to APM about his approach to project management and what it takes to deliver a world-beating project.
How did you first get into pyrotechnics?
At the school I attended, the Chaplain and Chemistry master had a small factory manufacturing fireworks and creating firework displays. The annual 5th November firework display was always something special and different to most other fireworks at the time, and I was hooked from a young age. As soon as I was old enough, I worked in the factory manufacturing fireworks, as well as going out delivering displays.
What makes for the successful delivery of a project like London’s New Year’s Eve Fireworks?
Experience is very useful, but even we had to fire the London New Year Fireworks for the first time. Having a close eye on detail and meticulous planning are essential. I also never underestimate the advice from others and ask plenty of questions, for example the first time we visited the London Eye, the technical director advised us to not underestimate the challenge of designing a robust solution to attach and rig fireworks to the Eye and that any enclosure to house our firing module would need to be tested.
I work on the basis that most challenges can be overcome. Where one could get unstuck is from the problems that are not foreseen, which is why we try and consider every eventuality and have a contingency in place. Having the ability to be flexible and adapt to challenges when you face them is absolute key, in this regard a high degree of resilience is required.
Photographer: Jeff Overs
What skills do you need to be a successful project manager?
Experience is crucial, you cannot lead a project without significant experience, both good and bad. Learning from your mistakes is more important than basking in past success. You need to be a good communicator and have patience; it is easy to forget that the more inexperienced will take longer to understand a process. You must also have the ability to delegate and have the trust and confidence in those you manage to undertake tasks on your behalf. Equally the onus is on you, the manager, to make sure the people under you are properly briefed and well-resourced to undertake their tasks.
The importance of communication and training is crucial here. I also believe you need to have considerable patience, be approachable and a good listener. The most dangerous environment you can create when working with explosives is one of fear and intimidation, so there is no such thing as a stupid question. If you get it wrong, there can be catastrophic consequences.
Finally, you must be resilient and able to deal with changes. Often with live events, you can have the rug pulled from under your feet, especially when the event is creatively led. You must be able to employ significant flexibility to deal with last minute changes, as well thinking on your feet to resolve a problem quickly.
What has been your favourite career moment to date?
My favourite moment really has to be the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games. Not many people get the opportunity to work on an amazing project like the Olympics, let alone in your home nation. We had the best seats in the house directly above the Royal Box on the gantry overlooking the field of play. Firing the 15 second sequence from the stadium roof and lighting paddles when the Queen declared the games open was both the most rewarding and terrifying moment of my life.
What has been the most unusual request for a project you have received to date?
Placing the ashes of a deceased relative into a firework and firing a display in celebration of their life. We had to be very sensitive and respectful, especially when handling the ashes. We made sure they were hand delivered and sat down with the relatives to discuss their requirements and wishes. It was an unusual request and made even more sensitive given that the deceased was a celebrity. It is certainly the way I would choose to dispose of my ashes.