05 July 2024

LEGO Fireworks - Building Bricksplosions

Celebration comes in many forms across humanity, but when the time has truly come to party, our species has developed no bigger, bolder way to get that message out than to BLOW THINGS UP -- with style.

For roughly a millennium, fireworks have been a physical, thermal, and chemical manifestation of exuberance that cannot be contained, with booming, dazzling explosions of fire in the sky that can create a simultaneous sensory experience for a huge audience. With their near-universal appeal and key role in traditional celebrations of many cultures, it is no wonder that fireworks have appeared in LEGO form on numerous occasions.

I write about this particular niche of LEGOdom not only as a fan of LEGO, but also as a certified pyrotechnician who has worked on several professional fireworks displays. This allows me to explore this subject from a level of nerdiness that few AFOLs can. In addition to the obscure corners of LEGO history and analysis of clever parts usage, I also feel an obligation to inject a few tidbits looking at the realism of LEGO pyrotechnic depictions and providing a few minifigure safety tips.

So, let's put on our personal protective equipment, keep a safe distance, and enjoy the show as we look at the connections between tiny interlocking pieces of plastic and giant artistic explosions burning in the sky.

The very first LEGO fireworks I found in my research appeared in 1986 but they were actually not made of ABS plastic at all, but rather paper and ink. The Fabuland theme was a true multimedia campaign. In addition to dozens of LEGO sets and minifgures, there were also video and audio tapes, vinyl records, office supplies, puzzles, games, apparel, housewares, and books, included a story called "The Missing Fireworks" which was published in several languages. This lighthearted story of improper handling of hazardous material features some of your favorite anthropomorphic animal friends, but sadly there is no accompanying LEGO set featuring brick-built pyrotechnics in Fabuland.

Transportation safety is a key part of any pyrotechnician's training. While we can only imagine what legal and regulatory framework applies in Fabuland, several key principes are clearly violated with this shipment of explosives. Shipping containers should clearly identify the contents. Not only do markings help sort out different products when setting up a show, but also the aide with accountablity of explosive materials and can include handling requirements. In the event of an accident, markings can indicate specific hazards for the benefit of emergency responders. For vehicle operators, hours on duty are carefully tracked to ensure sufficient time to rest. Also, both pyrotechnic worksites and shipments in transit need either be continuously attended by qualified personnel or have access controlled by guards or physical barriers.

It depend who you ask and how you define fireworks, but the general consensus is that fireworks originated in China during the Song dynasty (960 - 1269). Thus, it is fitting that their brick-built debut was in the Orient Expedition theme. Back in 2003, the 7419 Dragon Fortress included a barrel with three yellow skyrockets aimed at the sky. The fireworks were made from 1x1 round bricks, cones, and round plates. The barrel is not only a way to ensure that these small LEGO assemblies remain somewhat contained in the build, but also represent a rudimentary but key safety feature.

When launching aerial fireworks, it is particularly important to ensure that these explosive devices travel upwards into the sky rather than sideways into the audience. In traditional depictions, this is accomplished by the rockets being attached to sticks which are held roughly vertical by the barrel. With modern fireworks, more precise aiming is possible by launching from mortar tubes. Mortars contain and direct an initial explosion and launch a shell into the air. One more more time-delayed explosions create various illuminated effects from that airborne shell. The tubes are made from materials such as certain plastic or composites which will not create dangerous shrapnel if a shell gets stuck in a tube bursts while still on the ground. The mortar tubes, which can number in the hundreds or thousands on professional shows, are usually secured in wooden or metal racks designed to continue pointing tubes upward even after a premature explosion. Varied angles can be used for decorative effects or safety, such as to aim slightly into the wind (to reduce the area subject to falling debris) or slightly away from an audience (for their safety).

The next appearance of brick-built fireworks wasn't until 2009, when LEGO stores offered a Monthly Mini Model Build. These larger-scale rockets were made from a stack of red, white, and blue 2x2 round bricks and plates, with a 1x1 SNOT brick, a flame, a bar at the bottom and a pair of 2x1 triple slope roof tiles (part 3048) to form a pyramid-shaped nosecone. While the rocket itself doesn't have the visual impact of an explosion of fireworks, the lit fuse does add a dynamics note to the build.

In 2010, the largest model of a firework comes in 7590 Woody and Buzz to the Rescue, which recreates the scene from Toy Story where buzz was tied to a skyrocket by a sadistic child. 2x2 round bricks are used again, in blue, along with red fins and nose parts more often seen on spaceships.

In 2011, Mater from Cars was equipped with a rocket in 8677 Ultimate Build Mater. Whether this is merely a celebratory firework or a weapon from his stint as a super spy is open to interpretation.

When Gandalf arrived in Hobbiton and the LEGO Lord of the Rings theme and in 2012, his cart brought a barrel full of magical fireworks. In the aptly-named 9469 Gandalf Arrives, two of his fireworks use a small assortment of colorful 1x1 round bricks, cones, and bar elements but one firework is shaped like a red snake, hinting that these pyrotechnics are enhanced with more wizardry than some Hobbits may be able to handle.

Consumer fireworks, in jurisdictions where they remain legal to purchase, sometimes come in novel shapes, sizes, and colors. These features are strictly for marketing purposes. Professional fireworks have simple, bland, practical packaging. They generally look like paper-wrapped spheres, ovoids, and cylinders, or like cardboard boxes trailing fuses and wires. But like deliveries from Lego.com, some really exciting things can be hidden by boring packaging. Hopefully the pending relocation of LEGO's North America headquarters to the only U.S. state with a complete ban on consumer fireworks doesn't tamper enthusiasm for designers creating brick-built fireworks.

Modern pyrotechnics offer a huge variety of colors and effects. Various elements burn with different colors of the visible spectrum, and are these compounds are incorporated into the balls of explosive materials (called stars) inside of the pyrotechnic shell to create rainbows of fire overhead. The internal geometry of the shell also drives the shape of the explosion. Simple shapes like hearts and smiley faces have been possible for decades. Computer control allows pyrotechnics to be synchronized to an audio soundtrack. Entire shows can be rendered in advance in CGI. Enormous images can be painted in the sky with precision control of the simultaneous detonation of hundreds of airborne fireworks, which may involve onboard microelectronics And some nations permit controlled use of pyrotechnics onboard fleets of aerial drones, providing ever-increasing possibilities for animating fire effects in the air. Current technology has definitely closed the gap to the dazzling, complex shapes and motions of Gandalf's magical fireworks created with CGI for Director Peter Jackson's Fellowship of the Ring movie.

The brick-built fireworks we've looked at so far represent aerial fireworks, but they require imaginative play to get off the ground. With their modest size, they aren't even particularly swooshable. Perhaps this is why in 2015 the 70751 Temple of Airjitzu took things further with a set that can literally launch pieces into the air. Instead of chemical reactions, they are fueled by clutch power, using stud shooters (part #18588) to release the stored energy of compressed plastic. More sets showing pyrotechnics in motion came in the following years with 71040 Disney Castle (2016), 41352 The Big Race Day launch (2018), 41153 Ariel's Royal Celebration Boat (2018), 43182 Mulan's Training Grounds (2020). The fireworks in these sets are "ignited" by pressing tiny LEGO triggers. Historically, fireworks have used fuses lit with a torch flame or torch, but this method poses some risk. Fuses require a person to be closer to the explosions and sometimes fail or burn unpredictably. If an emergency arises mid-show, there is no practical way to disable lit fuses. They are also vulnerable to premature ignition from the falling debris or other fireworks. For these reasons, modern professional shows almost always use electronic igniters to light fuses which are rarely more than a couple feet long. This means launch sites are covered in miles of electrical wire, snaking their way around mortar racks to slat boards, modules, and firing systems, which may in turn have wireless controls.

As a pyrotechnician, I probably love fireworks more than most. However, my level of enthusiasm still can't compete with 2018's Firework Costume Guy from Series 18 of Collectible Minifigures. Not only is he wearing a giant rocket that says "BOOM", he also has an explosive blast surrounding his, um, hips and upper thighs. Then, 5 years later a
star-spangled purple firework costume with a suspicious resemblance to the purple crayon suit from The LEGO Movie 2 appeared at for Lego Store Build-a-Minifigure stations in 2023.


In the United States, no holiday is associated more closely with fireworks than Independence Day, the 4th of July. American founding father John Adams specifically envisioned the nation's birth being commemorated with "bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other", and history has not disappointed. But for the fireworks industry, this is only the second-busiest time of year. Due to its worldwide scope, New Year's Eve fireworks are even bigger. Fireworks are a part of festivals and events throughout the year. From private parties and small-town festivals to recurring shows at sporting events and theme parks, fireworks are everywhere.

Fireworks also show up at numerous holidays and festivals in Asia, so it comes as no surprise that when LEGO started producing sets for Lunar New Year and other Asian and Chinese festivals, we got even more LEGO fireworks. With slight variations in the construction, more rockets show up in 2020 and 2021 with 80104 Lion Dance, 80105 Chinese New Year Temple Fair, 40464 Xtra Chinatown parts pack, 80111 Lunar New Year Parade, and 80113 Family Reunion Celebration. There are even two Minecraft sets including an appropriately-pixelated rockets as an minifigure accessories: 21172 The Sky Tower and 21264 The Ender Dragon and End Ship.

The 80106 Story of Nian from 2021 also includes LEGO's first explosion of fireworks. Ironically, the fire starts with an ice crystal. Part #53972, frequently used as giant trans light blue snowflake in Disney Frozen sets, gets recolored in trans neon orange exclusively for Story of Nian. Combinations of 1x1 cones, plates with hollow studs, and fairy wands are used to complete each aerial effect. Similar techniques were used to add differently-colored fireworks to the 43222 Disney Castle in 2023.


Toddlers can enjoy LEGO fireworks, too, with the 10998 DUPLO 3in1 Magical Disney Castle. It has a glitter transparent star brick printed with an exploding fireworks design. Exploding fireworks have been featured in print form on several LEGOLAND promotional bricks issued in connection with fireworks shows at the park. LEGOLAND has even sold souvenir classes which I presume add fireworks to your field of vision wherever you look, or multiply the visual effect of actual fireworks. https://www.bricklink.com/v2/catalog/catalogitem.page?G=3dglasses03


So far, every firework we have covered has been primarily a visual device, but the world of pyrotechnics is a lot broader than that. Some fireworks are more about being heard (and felt) than being seen. In a professional show, these are called salutes. In addition to the big boom, they'll usually put some bright flashes in the sky as well. They certainly can induce shock and awe, but also have the potential to be triggering to indiviuals with epilepsy or post-tramuatic stress disorder.

On the consumer side, the basic flash and bang often comes from firecrackers. These small ground-based chargers are mass produced and often sold in strings and rolls including hundreds of firecrackers chained together along a common fuse. Firecrackers are a relatively recent addition to LEGO sets, showing up in 80106 Story of Nian, 80111 Lunar New Year Parade, and 40605 Lunar New Year VIP Add-On Pack. Some of these sets show the fuse mid-burn, with one end bare end of the string element, suggesting that some of the firecrackers have already exploded.

Fireworks are also sometimes used near the ground to enhance live performances and events. The only LEGO sets to feature this are Bellville 5942 Pop Studio, Trolls 41250 Techno Reef Dance Party, and 41368 Andrea's Talent Show, all of which build colorful stage effects using magic "fairy" wands (opposed to Harry Potter wands). In the industry, these are called "proximity effects" and may require pyrotechnicians to hold a separate license than display fireworks used in aerial shows.

Sparklers are a consumer-grade firework designed to be ignited while held in one's hand, although they are not permitted in all jurisdictions. They appear in the 2024 promotional set 40689 Fireworks Celebrations, represented by a simple fairy wand accessory clipped into a child's hand.

As the first LEGO set devoted entirely to pyrotechnics, 40689 Fireworks Celebration has a lot pyro than just a sparkler. This set includes two red, teal, and yellow rockets stashed in a wooden crate and another mid-launch, surrounded by billowing plumes of smoke. It also has six stickers of exploding fireworks to apply to the the earth blue sky background and two brick-built explosions bursting in the sky. One is attached to a knob to make it spin, the other to a clear curved bar (part # 4042) that both suspends it above the scene and suggests a ballistic launch trajectory. Both explosions use a trans light blue snowflake at their core but use different combinations of trans-color 1x1 cones, 1x1 round plates, 2x2 dish elements, and trans-pink fairy wands.

40689 Fireworks Celebrations employs forced perspective to combine a minifigure-scale launch site with huge explosions in the sky. In reality these are separated by hundreds of feet. Safety requirements and local authorities such as Fire Marshals dictate the size of the clear zone around and beneath a fireworks show. To attain the desired clear zones and access control, sometimes fireworks shows are shot over a body of water, or from a barge. As an added benefit, spectators can get twice the visual impact from reflections on the water.

The size of the clear zone is mostly driven by the size of the largest aerial shells in the show, or vice versa. Shells just a few inches in diameter require hundreds of feet of distance. Spectators are kept out of this zone due to the risk of misfire and debris fallout from aerial explosions. Damaged mortars could result in shells being fired in unintended directions, and there is a small but non-zero risk of inadvertent ignition when testing electric wiring or due to static electricity during a show. Some fireworks do not ignite as planned and remain "live" explosives after the show is over with a risk of delayed ignition after a show driven by damaged fuses or burning debris. All of these risks can be mitigated by pyrotechnicians following industry-standard safety procedures. While no official LEGO depiction of fireworks includes the most basic safety precaution, a fire extinguisher, there is no shortage of other sets produced over the years that can provide appropriate emergency response!

So how would you build a LEGO celebration of fire? Can you think of any sets that I missed? Do you want to see LEGO with more realism, or less? Let me know in the comments!

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