Michael Lakin puts on the best pyrotechnic displays in the world. He set up Starlight Design when still a student at Cambridge, and turned it into the pre-eminent engineer of firework extravaganzas. After 40 years making things go bang, what still lights Michael's candle?
Lucy du Cann - 5th November 2019
Michael, when you graduated from Cambridge, did you ever imagine that 30 years later you’d be organising the fireworks for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee?
No, I started the company as a specialist in lighting for large private events and Cambridge May Balls. However, I had always loved fireworks from childhood when I used to stay in the South of France with my aunt and watch the Cannes international fireworks display. Doing the lighting at parties I got to see the firework displays and comparing them to what I had seen in France I decided they were seriously lacking in spectacle, so I set out to teach myself about fireworks. It was with a huge sense of achievement that in 2001 and again in 2002 (for the champion of champions) Starlight was invited to take part in the Cannes competition and won it both years.
Were there particular challenges when you did the Diamond Jubilee event?
Yes, the site was incredibly tight and all the large shells had to be moved into position at the last minute after the garden party guests had left. They were installed in cages which were towed onto the immaculate lawns by quad bikes but the final computer connections and checks had to be carried out in a very short space of time. All the smaller effects were set up on the roof so had to be carried up there by hand across a series of walkways. Security issues added to the complications.
Do you think of yourself more as a technician or an artist?
Both! To provide a great display, computer technology is essential, with timing accuracy of 100th of a second and possibly over 500 individual cues fired in a minute. We were the first UK company to build our own computerised firing system which was effective – if a little temperamental. We then did a big show in New York and discovered the 'Fireone' system which has developed to become probably the world’s leading system.
On the other hand computer technology is only any good if the creative content is right, so artistry is vital. Not only the creation of the visual images (painting with fireworks you might say) but also the choreography with the music. Orchestrating fireworks to music is to me the thing that really makes them come alive and create a show that is full of emotion. People often ask me after a show whether I knew it would look like that and the answer is that when I am designing a show I can visualise in my head exactly how every moment and sequence will look and how it will work with the music. A big show might take 3 days or more to design till I am completely happy with it.
With fireworks, is it always a case of bigger is better, or is less sometimes more?
Many people would say bigger is always better but in my view a show can lack subtlety if it is too big. If too much is going up in the air at the same time you can miss the effect of the synchronisation and it can all become a bit of a mess, not to mention the risk of creating too much smoke! Having said that, the finale should always fill the sky with colour and noise.
With so many big events under your belt, what kind of job do you look forward to nowadays?
I still love all the shows from small to large but the ones I especially enjoy are the multimedia shows where I am creating shows incorporating not just fireworks, but other elements such as dancers, acrobats hanging from cranes, motorbikes flying through the air, fountains, lasers, flames and any other spectacular outdoor performances.
When clients say that they’re interested in using Starlight’s services, what’s the first question you ask them?
I ask them to give me an idea of their budget, and where they want to have their show. Fireworks are like a piece of string: we can tailor a display to suit their budget but we also need the space to safely fire the show.
What are you most proud of in your career?
Obviously the Queen’s Jubilee was a huge honour. Likewise designing the show for the Singapore Youth Olympic games. However the thing that really makes me proud is seeing the enjoyment and amazement on people’s faces after seeing our shows.
What’s been your biggest mistake?
If by that you mean disaster then it has to be at Blenheim about 20 years ago when we had a complete computer failure on a very big show. So embarrassing!
Who in the events business do you most admire?
Lady Elizabeth Anson because she was really at the forefront of the party business and to a large extent responsible for making the party business what it is today.
Lady Elizabeth Anson, in her office
If you hadn’t pursued a career in events, what would you have done?
I read Architecture for six and a half (out of 7!) years but then had to make a choice between continuing my fledgling lighting business or giving it up and studying hard for my final RIBA architecture exam, so I guess the answer is I might have been an architect. However I don’t regret it especially as a lot of what we do is architecture for a night with a lot less of the boring paperwork!
Thank you Michael.