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Foghorn Creative Pilots Golden Gate Bridge 75th Anniversary Celebrations

Seventy-fifth birthdays are always occasions for celebration. But when hundreds of thousands of people turn out to help an international icon like the Golden Gate Bridge mark that milestone event planning can get complicated. That’s when San Francisco’s Foghorn Creative steps in. Specializing in creating one-of-a-kind immersive environments, installations and presentations, Foghorn Creative handled event production for the Golden Gate Bridge 75th Anniversary festivities on May 27.

“We know how to put together unique teams for unique projects,” says Foghorn creative director Don Richards. “Ten years ago we organized the opening of Crissy Field for the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, so we have a lot of experience with working with the broad range of entities necessary to pull off this kind of event in San Francisco. People are confident that when we say we can do something, we can do it.”

With a mandate from the Conservancy that the 75th Anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge be “dramatic, authentic and memorable,” Foghorn began creative development last September. The company worked with the Conservancy to develop the extensive community-centered daytime celebrations, held along the waterfront on Crissy Field, Marina Green, East Beach, Fort Point and The Presidio, with performances by local bands, musicians, dancers and theater companies; a Future Fair; vintage automobile show; historic artifacts exhibit and other historical and tribute components.

The nighttime festivities culminated in a world-class sound, light and fireworks spectacular over the bridge, on the bridge and across the water that lit up San Francisco Bay like the candles on a giant birthday cake. The unprecedented event was funded by corporate and private partners, and Foghorn worked closely with all five host organizations, including the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District, the National Park Service, the Presidio Trust, and the City and County of San Francisco. Throughout the planning process the environmental impact of the event was given careful consideration since the bay is one of the world’s best-protected natural environments.

The celebrations came off flawlessly. “From the beginning we felt that the event, like the bridge, was a work of art, not just a big production,” says Richards. “Particularly the sound, lights and fireworks. The lighting effects defined the whole bay as a big theater space, every song in the soundtrack had a relationship to the city or the bridge, and the fireworks were unique.” Rick Voigt served as Foghorn’s executive producer for the festivities.

The nighttime spectacular at the bridge required extensive coordination between Foghorn Creative, Pyro Spectaculars by Souza, Lightswitch and Syncrolite. Five barges floated on the bay: Three pyro barges were stationed in front of the bridge, one pyro barge and one lighting barge began under the bridge and ultimately moved some two miles up the bay. A large amount of pyro and lighting was also mounted on the bridge itself with rigging performed while the bridge was in use by vehicles and pedestrians. Traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge was only stopped during the fireworks display itself.

Dubbed “the fireworks ambassador to the world,” Pyro Spectaculars by Souza has a rich family history in the bay area and a reputation for working on iconic projects, including the 50th Anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge, the 125th Anniversary of the Statue of Liberty last year and the upcoming Macy’s Fourth of July fireworks on the Hudson River.

The 75th Anniversary festivities featured over 20,000 fireworks effects and three tons of firepower; installation required a team of 75 working for more than two weeks on both the barges and the bridge. The event marked the first time that fireworks were ever fired from the bridge roadway and towers.

Pyro Spectaculars used over 5,000 pyrotechnic effects to create the Silver Curtain, Multicolored Waterfalls and Souza Sequencia’s Comets. The custom-crafted Silver Curtain started the show with a 60-second fuse effect running from bridge tower to bridge tower and triggering a spill of pyro from the bridge roadway to the bay below. The similar Multicolored Waterfalls appeared near the end of the spectacular, this time with a rainbow effect. The Comets were fired from the roadway, chasing across the bridge and up and down the towers.

Pyro Spectaculars also created new Wagon Wheels, Spirals and Colorful Ghost effects, and a custom color of fireworks, Golden Gate International Orange, was invented for the event. “We’re really proud of how closely it matched the orange of the bridge,” says Jim Souza who designed the show.

The grand finale featured Souza’s signature Golden Mile of 2,000 golden Kamuro shells. “They were fired from the three barges under the bridge and on the roadway and towers and cascaded to the water,” Souza reports. The sequence was choreographed to Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” and included a volley of red hearts.

“It was a great collaborative experience working with Foghorn and Lightswitch,” says Souza. “Every single person had to do their job the best they possibly could, and I credit the men and women behind the scenes who got this thing up in the air. Everything we did was unique and original to this show.”

The soundtrack for the fireworks was carefully composed – all the songs had a connection to San Francisco or the bridge. The set began with Eric Burdon and The Animals’ “San Francisco Nights” and spanned all genres from “Sing, Sing, Sing,” which Benny Goodman recorded the year the bridge opened, to “At Last,” by Etta James who spent her formative musical years in San Francisco. Other Bay Area artists represented included Tower of Power, Santana and Metallica; the set concluded with “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” the city’s official song. The audio was produced by Chuck Smith, creative director at KFOG, and Lance Tipton.

The audio was simulcast on KFOG radio and pulled off the air live for show. “The audio had to be synched within one frame of the fireworks,” explains Don Richards. “We had SMPTE timecode on the digital audio track, which was sent via ISDN to the show site where we had our own broadcast capabilities; we were even able to extract the delay in the ISDN for flawless synchronization.

“We were also able to translate the timecode to FSK code for the pyro,” says Richards. “We transmitted both codes across four miles of the bay to the barges and the bridge with receivers at each pyro and lighting location.” Seventeen audio towers at the locations required a total of 127,500 watts of power.

Norm Schwab of Sausalito-based Lightswitch, the principal lighting designer for the spectacular, had the 5,000-foot wide proscenium of the Golden Gate Bridge as his stage for the night. The total brightness of the lights used was 27 million lumens; great care was taken not to shine the lights onto any wildlife areas causing potential harm.

“Incredible coordination was required to close lanes on the bridge to crane the generators onto the bridge,” he notes. “We had to place the lights and generators so that the west sidewalk could still be open to bicycle traffic. Lights on the barge had to be craned on, as well as generators and a nine-foot mirror ball, which made the entire bay a sparkling ballroom.”

Putting lights on the barge helped connect the bridge to the rest of the bay and offered the option to move into the bay in case of fog, Schwab points out. Lighting on the barge recreated the fan-like Scintillator effect used for San Francisco’s 1915 Pan Pacific and 1939 Golden Gate International Expositions in a salute to area history.

Schwab deployed, symbolically, 75 7K Syncrolites for the show, stationing 25 on the bridge and 50 on the barge. “They’re tremendously bright with narrow beams that can be seen several miles away,” he says. Mark Gilmore was the barge lighting director, Paul Efron the bridge lighting director, and Dave Hatch the production electrician.

The lighting control system consisted of four grandMA consoles; wireless DMX sent signals from the consoles to the bridge fixtures placed over one mile apart. Erik Doctor was the programmer for the show and Tom Thompson the bridge programmer.

To entire environment was modeled in advance in a previsualization process at San Francisco’s Prelite using a WYSIWYG system. The five-mile wide staging area was rendered and the bridge, moving barge and key areas, including Marina Green and Crissy Field, were placed.

Communications services and equipment including all SMPTE and FSK were handled by Anaheim-based BCT Entertainment.

With its offices located in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge, Foghorn Creative was consciously named for the span’s signature foghorns, which the company managed to work into the show.

“We incorporated a segment where everything went dark and there were foghorns on the soundtrack and live on the bridge,” Don Richards recalls. “People went nuts – the bridge spoke!”

How fitting for the star of the anniversary celebration to have the last word.