The manipulation of fire has always been a paramount endeavor of mankind. Like bees to honey or moths to...well, flames–our ancestors crowded around fire for warmth, protection, light, and food. Unbeknownst to them, mankind’s pyro-sorcery would evolve to never-before-seen heights. The ability to reduce cities to ash, sit in planes that soar the sky and tear through clouds, or eat $1,000 cuts of Filet Mignon from Omaha Steaks–they’re all fruits of mankind’s labor to master, tame, and ultimately control the unpredictability of fire.
Around 200 BC, fireworks were accidentally invented in China. Bamboo sticks thrown into the fire sparked and popped, a precursor to what we know as firecrackers today. The advent of actual fireworks didn’t come until several centuries later when, according to legend, a Chinese alchemist concocted a potent black powder. The first iteration of gunpowder was poured into hollowed bamboo sticks to form man-made fireworks. While there is still a mystifying alchemy of fire in the sky, the field of pyrotechnics uses fireworks to heighten performances, enrich stories, and enchant audiences.
That powder keg is where Nicolai Sabottka reigns supreme. Founder of ffp Spezialeffekte, who has worked with acts like The Weeknd, Rihanna, Justin Bieber, Rammstein, Arctic Monkeys, Slipknot, Taylor Swift, and Coldplay, to name a few, has left mouths agape and rooms warm for the last 27 years. Between his offices in Berlin, Los Angeles, and London, Sabottka and the team at ffp Spezialeffekte seeks to continually push the envelope–running on fumes provided by the burning desire to reinvent and innovate. The pursuit of being better, and not always bigger, drives him towards miraculous feats.
FLAUNT spoke with the eye-popping, light-giving, fire-bending pyrotechnics expert to discuss what drew him to fire, the psychological and emotional impact that flames bring to a performance, and the creative process that surrounds playing with fire.
Describe your first experience playing with fire. What initially attracted you to the field of pyrotechnics?
According to my parents, I was born with a match in my hand. I grew up in the 70s in a smaller town that had some industrial infrastructure, but also a lot of farming countryside kind of environment. So starting fires large or small came about quite naturally, and fortunately, I never got caught with my early experiments and my slight arsonist tendency. My interest developed quickly from just setting things on fire to then exploring how this could be more effective. I began experimenting with easily accessible components to make awesome smoke bombs that my teachers had to suffer from several times.
There was no Internet back then and getting info on how to manufacture pyrotechnics was pretty hard to obtain, so it was a lot of trial and error. My entire life revolved around New Year’s Eve, where you could purchase fireworks legally in Germany a few days prior to the 31st. You needed to be over 16, which I was not, so my older brother came into play and fake permits from my parents had to be manufactured in order to get as many fireworks as possible–to ensure I had a sufficient amount for the remainder of the year.
Later, when I was obtaining my legal pyrotechnics licenses, I learned that I did a lot of things that were extremely dangerous...or simply dumb. My self-made smoke and napalm devices became better and better, and I did spend a great deal of time working on a rocket mini race car...I was never bored, but also very lucky I still have all my fingers and sight.
How do you feel pyrotechnics enhance a performance, and how do you tell a story through fire?
Fire and the fascination for it is as old as mankind. If you look at a standard performance in general, only two of our senses are triggered: visual and audio...By introducing fire, or what we call special effects, we activate other senses, which naturally increase excitement. All of our effects are “organic” let-it-be flames, low smoke, power smoke, confetti or streamers, classic pyrotechnics, or large-scale fireworks.
Special effects are an incredible tool to push a performance to a higher level...It is a lot of fun looking into the faces of your audience that is drowning in confetti and has such a joy with several hundred pounds of paper. Who would have thought?! Fire, though it is special, is a double-sided sword. You can fascinate your audience with it, but it also bears the risk of causing devastation if handled incorrectly. This is what drives me every day, to see where we can push the envelope further without being consumed by the fire. You can not tell a story through fire alone, but your story will be remembered much better when supported by it.
What does your creative process look like, and how do you think about collaboration?
We listen to our clients first. We let them express what they’re after without any limitations on budget, space, physics etc. Then it’s our turn to see what we have in our “toolbox” or what needs to be changed or built in order to produce what the client has in mind. Sometimes we get presented with a picture or an idea that has been taken from a different environment and we need to fit it into an arena or stadium despite the inspiration taking place at a large lake or in the desert where you have a limited risk of being too close to your audience, which is usually the biggest challenge in pretty much every show we produce.
Whenever I say we though, it’s because I am nothing without my team. Let me shine a light on our backbone. First and foremost my wife and partner in crime who oversees three offices, keeps our finances under control, and has my back at all times. My brother-in-law was drawn into the special effects world about three years ago and has taken on the position of Technical Director. He’s responsible for our research and development department that I drop all sorts of ideas into to keep pushing the envelope further and further. Our oldest daughter has recently joined forces with our design department as well, and we’re slowly transforming into a family-run business which I never anticipated, but see with great joy.
How do you feel the field of special effects has evolved in the context of live performance?
It had not evolved for many years, and we saw a great chance to play a larger role in developing better effects through proper research and larger investments into state-of-the-art technology. The field of special effects is kind of limited and requires constant adjustments and development to not become boring or even worse...be replaced by animations. We have taken on the challenge of being different from what video or graphics could ever provide and we’re very confident with what we create.
Can you speak on the psychological impact and emotional responses that fire evokes in an audience?
It’s huge! Since we trigger all senses we can produce shock waves that the audience can actually feel, they also smell the different fuels and chemistry that go up in flames or experience the heat or the cold for certain effects. Our field of work is very multi-sensory. I keep telling our clients and crews...fire ALWAYS works.
Written by Liam Kozak.