Quantum Special Effects: In Profile
It’s not very often that a young company can boast an achievement of Olympic proportions, but British Pyrotechnic Expert, Quantum Special Effects, certainly can. TPI’s Kelly Murray chatted to MD Shaun Barnett about how it all began and why global expansion is on the horizon.
In just four years, Quantum Special Effects has established itself as an industry leader in stage, indoor and close proximity pyrotechnics. If you haven’t heard of it, there’s a very good chance you’ve seen its work.
Founded by Shaun Barnett, Managing Director, Pyrotechnic and SFX Designer and Consultant, the story of Quantum is a heart warming one. With a vested interest in professional fireworks, Barnett gained experience at Pains Fireworks, arguably the UK’s longest established firework display company. Following that, a training day at Le Maître led to his first pyrotechnics employment opportunity - through sheer persistence over anything else. As his hunger for creativity grew, so did his business ideas and he became a partner in pyro company BPM. Following some directional changes, Barnett then set out on his own. With contacts firmly made, a personal reputation to uphold, yet no established company title. These unexpected circumstances marked the beginning of Quantum…
The team of experienced designers, engineers and crew are now able to deliver safe and spectacular effects to every client from creative directors and TV producers to promoters and production managers, but at the start, it was an uncertain venture as Barnett explained: “I was meant to start working on the Circus Live tour with Take That but I rang (production manager) Chris Vaughan and told him that I’d left BPM. He said ‘I don’t care what you call your company, I want you on the tour.’ That was April 2009, and I went straight on the road with Take That. It was hugely stressful because we started with nothing and had to heavily invest in kit.
“The main kit we built for the tour was for the song Relight My Fire. In a normal indoor environment, you’d use LMP (LPG) flames, but as this was a stadium tour outside, the gas flames can get really affected by wind conditions. And the health and safety conditions obviously wouldn’t allow for the flames to blow towards the crowd so we had to have a re-think. We were aware that some people made pressurised liquid systems so I asked a friend in Belgium to build us one, and we modified it. The high pressure is then much less affected by wind conditions. After the tour finished, we looked at how we could improve the system once we had the time. We modified it again and we now call the finished product our Spitfire Flame™ system. Since 2009 it’s been used for lots of gigs, and can be adapted for indoor use too.
“In hindsight, the mistake I made was that I went out on the tour, so once it was over, we had no work in place. We then had three months without work, so it was decided that Circus marked the end of my touring days. It was a big lesson. It was such a horrible place to be that we never want to go back - now part of my job is bringing in new business,” he noted.
“With the recession, a lot of corporate work had dried up, so it was actually the touring and rock ‘n’ roll industry that kept us going.”
Being highly experienced in television SFX, Quantum has recently developed memorable effects including the smoke filled bubble cascade on ITV’s Dancing On Ice, rain and smoke for Rihanna’s unforgettable X Factor performance, David Walliams’ jet pack on The 100th Royal Variety Performance and Graham Norton’s BBC1 Christmas special.
Utilising the company’s expertise, Quantum designed and developed special effect solutions and bespoke effects including Spitfire Flames™ and its Smoke Filled Bubble system. These effects add dramatic energy and visuals to any one off show or tour.
Quantum developed smoke filled bubbles originally for a Katie Melua tour. The pop star had got the idea from a fashion show and asked for something similar to be designed. “We developed a system for her and built a product that was going to last for a three month theatre tour and survive being in the back of a truck.
“After the tour ended, we could look at what worked and what didn’t. We knew no one else had this effect on the market so we built a mark two and then a mark three version. Now you can take the lid off, fill it with helium if you want the bubbles to rise or Co2 if you want them to fall, and you’re done. It looks great and is very easy to use; it’s a plug and play device, so it works quickly for busy technicians,” noted Barnett.
From that initial design, Quantum went from building a bespoke product for one client to building tourable products which the pyro masters subsequently got quite a lot of work out of as no one else had made a version of that system. “We learnt from it and we know that coming up with new ideas, investing in new technologies and R&D is the way forward.
“We’ve just taken on an amazing fulltime engineer, Mike Badley, he was one of the guys who built the Batmobile for a Batman film (The Dark Knight). I’m very happy he’s on board with us now.”
Another quirky gag the Quantum team created was the idea of confetti style life size money. American rockers Foo Fighters first used the idea and Muse later created the Bank Of Muse. Barnett highlighted: “I spoke to Oli Metcalfe, who is Muse’s Artistic Designer. I told him about what we did for the Foo Fighters and Muse wanted to do their own bank notes. They actually look worryingly authentic. The band’s solicitors had to sign the final design off. Luckily we’ve not had any reports of people trying to use them. It’s a really fun part of a show and it’s relatively inexpensive.”
THE RING OF FIRE
Having begun trading in the first instance with the mighty platform of one of the most talked about tours in recent years, the Quantum UK team, which includes Phil Mundy as Project Manager and Mike Badley as Engineering Manager, was able to build on a solid reputation from the very beginning and the company’s steady progression hasn’t gone unnoticed.
By 2012 Quantum had provided effects for over 300 shows across the globe, covering every major continent for shows including Katy Perry at the IPL opening concert in Chennai, India & the F1 Grand Prix in Singapore and the London 2012 Olympics. Working alongside the Opening Ceremony creative teams, QSFX developed bespoke effects that contributed to the show being hailed the ‘best opening ceremony ever’. Quantum’s in-house engineers and designers produced the now iconic pyrotechnic waterfall on the Olympic rings, managed the flames, pyro, confetti and bubble effects throughout the ceremony and were also heavily involved in the Paralympic Opening Ceremony.
Said Barnett: “When we did the Olympics last year, we had to go from a small company to a relatively large - medium size company over night. Because of the nature of the way the contracts were given, we had to be prepared and ready to take on the job if we won the contract. Quantum was initially just myself and Phil in a small barn in the middle of Wiltshire - which is how we got through those three months without work - but you have to move with the times and respond. We moved from that barn to a 10K sq ft warehouse in the middle of London. It was a huge risk, but it paid off.”
With Quantum’s main body of work at the event being to bring to life the globally recognised symbol of the five Olympic rings with the design brief set by the Ceremonies Design and Production team, Quantum used its expert knowledge of effects and industry products to bring to life an iconic image that was shared world wide and as well as featuring on the cover of over 75 newspapers internationally. Quantum also incorporated the Spitfire Flames™ on the Prodigy’s hit Firestarter.
With just three months of pre-production before the ceremonies began, Barnett explained the pressures of truly entering a global market. “It was a poisoned chalice; it was very hard work but we came out the other side and we’re very proud of it. Just getting the Olympics contract, for them to have that amount of trust in us, was amazing.”
TRADESHOWS AND TRAINING
One area of the industry that Quantum doesn’t buy into is tradeshows. “I think they’ve very over priced and we’ve always relied on word of mouth. I do go to tradeshows and have meetings with clients, but I don’t need to exhibit. I know a lot of people do go to exhibit and it works for them, but I don’t think it works for Quantum, or arguably special effects companies as a whole,” he said.
“Quantum has grown a fair amount, so we’re using the company as a platform for people who want to excel at what they do. Hopefully we’ll continue to have an amazing company. We can teach anyone the skills to do pyrotechnics, but what they must have as well is the people skills. It’s about attitude in this industry, so while networking at trade events can do a lot of good, we don’t need a stand to show people why they should want to work with us.”
THE AMERICAN DREAM
Across the pond, things are also, dare we say, hotting up for the Quantum team. With offices now on both sides of the Atlantic, the brand is highly ambitious and prides itself on offering comprehensive effects delivered professionally and efficiently to any type, budget and size of event around the world. “We’re using the Olympics to position ourselves as a global company and let people know that we’re able to do these events absolutely anywhere,” enthused the MD. Just four years down the line, a total of nine people work for Quantum, and the US office is going from strength to strength with five tours lined up in the US already for 2014.
The initial ‘big break’ in the American live and touring market came from supplying Katy Perry and Pink’s recent tours. Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream tour lasted nearly two years but when Barnett and Co were supplying the tour in America, they were relying on other companies to help out when needed, and this was a turning point. “Because we were relying on outside companies, our standards were slipping. Phil Maggs was the technician on the tour, he’s brilliant and when we came off the road, we approached Katy’s Production Manager about the possibility of setting up a US office.
He said he would help us and he did. We actually employed his wife - Rhonda Schmit, Corporation Secretary, Accounts & Coordinator.
“Depending on which State you go to, you need a locally licensed technician. When we first went over it was just to maintain our brand but when Pink’s Production Manager, Richard Young, asked us to supply her tour, we had to up our game. Richard said he wouldn’t be changing suppliers and he wanted us but that he couldn’t then justify the cost of us bringing us and our gear over to America for rehearsals and the US leg.
“It made the decision for us; we would have lost the whole tour if we didn’t set up the US office. Last October I went over to set up the company so that we were ready for the rehearsals by the end of January. The two companies are separate but the brand is the same and we’re building on that all the time. Katy Perry is going back out on tour next year and I can confirm that we’ll be supplying that again.”
“We like to support local businesses where we can,” explained Barnett. The US office is located in Dallas, Texas (chosen for its easy access to either coast) but the expansion doesn’t stop there. When business growth is this enjoyable, the plans don’t stop in the Lonestar state.
“We’re looking at opening an office at another location but I can’t say where yet. The best thing about Quantum really is the people I get to work with. We’ve got such a team of good people at Quantum now, if you want something weird or unusual or you’re not sure if it can be done, we’ve got the experience and knowledge to work it out and that’s why 95% of our work comes from returning customers.
“When we turn up to a show, we want people to be glad it’s us. Reputation is everything. We know that we’re on the right track, and that’s important to us,” concluded Barnett.
© 2013 Joshua Mellin
and Kelly Murray