When Fortunato Foti dreams up his designs for Sydney’s dazzling New Year’s Eve fireworks display, he’s drawing on more than 200 years of pyrotechnics expertise. The Foti family moved from Italy to Australia in the 1950s, but have been in the same business since 1793. This year, they are marking two decades as the brains behind Sydney’s world-renowned visual extravaganza, which kicks off global celebrations.
The family’s secret recipe, says fireworks director 51-year-old Foti, has passion — lots of it. “It’s in the bloodline, we start from a young age,” adds Giovanni Foti, 29, who together with his father Vince, are two of the eight Fotis working for the family company.
He added “We are so used to fireworks. We start to love them — then we start to try and make other people love them,”.
Sydney’s New Year’s Eve celebrations — which take 15 months of planning and cost an estimated Aus$7 million (US$5 million) are billed as Australia’s largest public event and it’s hard not to see why. More than one million spectators pack Sydney Harbour to watch the spectacle and a further one billion people watch on television. Yet much of the expertise behind the 12-minute-long star attraction the fireworks wasn’t learnt through formal education, notes Fortunato Foti.
“It’s been passed down from generation to generation and that’s how I learnt it, that’s how my brother learnt it because there are no courses that do fireworks, there’s no university,” he says. “It’s stories, recipes — it’s a bit like being a cook.”
The Fotis are involved in the entire process from designing the fireworks with a factory in mainland China to sending the pyrotechnics soaring through the night sky on December 31. – “Flowers in the sky” – Twenty years ago when the Fotis first worked on the Sydney display, each button to trigger a sequence had to be pressed manually. Now the entire show is operated via 16 computers, with the sequences involving 20,000 fireworks shooting from the Sydney Harbour Bridge and floating barges timed “to a hundredth of a second”, 52-year-old Tino Foti says. “You can let your imagination do a lot more because you’ve got the flexibility and the computerisation.”
This year, the Fotis have drawn inspiration from two late musical legends — David Bowie and Prince, promising “never-seen-before” fireworks effects including purple rain. Helping to set them off from one of seven barges on Sydney Harbour is Fortunato Foti’s daughter Elena, who jumped at the chance to join the family business when she turned 18 in 2012. “I think not many girls can say they get to work with explosives. It’s a bit of a party trick conversation starter, that’s for sure,” she tells media. “You obviously have to have a passion for being in it, otherwise we wouldn’t put ourselves through hours and hours of labour and sweat there’s definitely high enjoyment working with fireworks.”
“That’s all we do, we entertain people year in, year out,” adds her father, who describes fireworks as “flowers in the sky”. “We’re happy to do it, get a buzz out of it and hopefully we’ll continue for another 50 years.”