Pyrotechnics contractor preps for Tahoe’s big show |

Pyrotechnics contractor preps for Tahoe’s big show

Dylan Silver
Dylan Silver / Tahoe Daily Tribune

When he was a boy, Matt Gilfillan watched the fireworks explode over Lake Tahoe. Now, he creates those very shows.

“I grew up admiring these guys that did this,” Gilfillan said, as he took a break from preparing the pyrotechnics for Thursday’s fireworks. “When I got the opportunity to design this show, it was a dream come true.”

Gilfillan is a pyrotechnics show producer for Pyro Spectaculars. His grandfather started the company. They now design and operate the biggest fireworks shows in the country, including South Lake Tahoe’s “Lights on the Lake.”

“They’re one of the leaders in their industry,” said Carol Chaplin, executive director of the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority, which sponsors the show. “They have some serious credentials behind them.”

Pyro Spectaculars has produced pyrotechnic displays for Superbowl halftime shows, the Olympics, Pink Floyd, Disneyland and Fourth of July celebrations for large cities like Seattle and San Francisco. The quality of South Lake Tahoe’s show ranks pretty near the other large demonstrations Gilfillan has put on, he said.

“It’s a display that’s of that caliber,” he said.

Each display Gilfillan designs is different. He puts a lot of effort into choosing the colorful explosions and synchronizing them to a custom playlist. He uses specialized software to visualize the choreography. The shows have come a long way since his great-grandfather Manuel de Souza began setting pyrotechnics to music.

“This is a custom choreographed sky concert that utilizes products from water level all the way up to 1,000 feet,” Gilfillan said.

About 20,000 piece of pyrotechnic equipment are needed for South Lake Tahoe’s show. Those watching can expect sparkling chrysanthemums, shell of shells, kamuros, strobes, salutes and more. The show will last a total of about 22 minutes, not counting the introduction and conclusion, Gilfillan said.

“Many of our looks that we use have been designed around a manufacturers style,” Gilfillan said. “What’s best about this display is I have 12 amazing manufacturers that I’m utilizing.”

A firework known as the “UFO” will highlight the South Lake Tahoe show Thursday, Gilfillan said.

“They hover and sort of float in the sky,” he said.

Down at Tahoe Keys Marina Tuesday, a crew of about 12 was helping Gilfillan load and organize the thousands of shells. “Lights on the Lake” operator, John Dicks, who is a subcontractor of Pyro Spectaculars, unloaded a box truck full of boxes of explosives.

Dicks has been a fireworks operator since the early 1980s. He offered tidbits about the company’s long history in the industry and their track record of safety. Safety is what makes a fireworks company last a long time, he said.

“It takes a lot of coordination,” he said. “We’ve got to get all of our ducks in a row, so no one gets confused.”

Because of the explosive nature of their work, the company has to take a lot of precaution, from the way they pack the fireworks in the truck to staff meetings and how they handle the pyrotechnics, he said. Nonetheless, when all is said and done, and the three launch barges are towed out on the lake, it doesn’t get much better, Dicks said.

“We’ve got a really great crew and we’re happy to do this for the folks of South Lake Tahoe,” he said.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around the Lake Tahoe Basin and beyond make the Tahoe Tribune's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.