Baby you’re a firework

By Anna Jackson-Scott

Featured in Capital #16
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We delved into the Capital archives to find some Bonfire Night inspiration.

In 2014, Anna Jackson-Scott sat down with Rob McDermott and talked about his illustrious career in the world of public pyrotechnics. There’s no treason or plot here, just lots of gunpowder.

Rob McDermott has been involved in some important moments in history. “To be able to say that I designed the show for the Hong Kong Handover is a very rare moment indeed, and can never be achieved again.” He designed and ran the 2000 Millennium celebrations in Sydney and London, and was the first person in history to fire from the top of Sydney Harbour Bridge.

He’s fired from barges, helicopters, boats, tugs, Wellington’s Hikitia crane barge, and specially designed pontoons. Fireworks have been a constant feature of his life. “My mother went to school with someone who owned a fireworks company so I was introduced to it when I was born.”

He studied for a Master of Pyrotechnics and founded his company Pyrostar International in 2003. He remembers his first show at 18. “It was nerve-wracking. I was hand-firing with very little instruction! I couldn’t hear for a couple of days afterwards.” He lives in Sydney, and returned to Wellington’s 20th anniversary Guy Fawkes Sky Show in 2014. “I’m proud to say I began, ran, and designed every display since inception.”

To mark the anniversary, he choreographed the show to 20 years’ worth of New Zealand number ones. “Many people don’t realise the fireworks display is synchronised to music, but that’s how the Sky Show started – to get people to tune in to radio stations.” Music is his main inspiration for designing the displays. “I hear a piece of music and the effect comes to me. Like when you’re a painter and inspiration strikes. Music really does that for me, from the latest top ten to classical.”

After twenty years, Wellington has become a second home to Rob and wife Chrissy, who is also his producer. “Wellington has a cool vibe. We love the cafes and bars here. We go to Joe’s Garage for breakfast, Floriditas for their fish pie, and to bars hidden up corridors and stairwells such as Hawthorn Lounge, The Library, and Matterhorn. They’re a good hangout after a full-on production day.” They also favour St John’s for a few beers and their hot chips, “and you can always find a comfy hangout on Cuba Street”.

When they’re not in Australasia, Rob and Chrissy travel and put on shows around the world. They’re certainly not homebodies. “The travelling lifestyle is exciting; we get bored at home. When Chrissy first moved in she opened the oven and found the instructions inside, still in their plastic wrap!” Rob also spent seven years in the Middle East where firework displays are increasingly popular. “Cities try to outdo each other with fireworks show. It’s all about publicity and tourism. No other form of entertainment brings together so many people from all walks of life.”

Rob was also appointed fireworks consultant for the Vietnamese military. Is he still in one piece? “You’d be surprised how many people ask me, ‘Have you still got all your fingers?’ The answer is a definite ‘Yes’.”


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