In 2016 the music industry contributed £4.4 billion (Nearly $6 million) to the UK economy, employing just over 140,000 people in full time jobs related to the sector. As you would imagine, the majority (90,000) of these are musicians and songwriters in some capacity – which leaves 50,000 people employed in other areas . Just under 60% of that number work within the realm of live music: promoters, ticket agents, venues, and production services; and on that last note I caught up with Stu Wickens to discuss what "production services" entails.
So Stu, tell me what you do for a living. Stu Wickens: I do special effects – pyrotechnics, flame effects, confetti, and also custom and bespoke effects. Anything you can think of, we can try and do!
How did you get into that? Wickens: It was a case of right place, right time and meeting the right people. So pure fluke really. In fact, it was my mother who helped me get the job!
Who are some of the people and events you’ve worked with? Wickens: I’ve just got back from working on a seven-month tour with Tim McGraw and Faith Hill in North America. I’ve also worked with artists like Black Sabbath, The Vamps, Arcade Fire, Paloma Faith, and The Kaiser Chiefs, festivals like Glastonbury with Muse and Adele, then events and TV shows like the 2012 London Olympics and 2015 Rugby World Cup opening ceremonies, The X Factor and MTV EMAs.
What’s it like working with so many genres of music? Wickens: I find it really interesting. It introduces you to a wide range of people and has shown me some insights into their world, how they live, and their perspectives of the world. It’s also what provides a lot of the variety in the job. Every show is different, even within the same genre, and that provides us the challenge to help make each show different.
Who’s surprised you most out of the artists you’ve worked with? Wickens: Paloma definitely because she’s hilarious, and just as funny off-stage as she is onstage.
Tell me about some of your key responsibilities in the job. Wickens: Mostly it’s the safety. Always safety. Other than that, it’s timing, triggering effects in time with the music, along with programming and testing the equipment, and making sure everyone’s aware of what’s happening around them – we work with some dangerous stuff. With the big effects I can be working with sixty-foot flames where you don’t want anyone too close to that, they can get quite hot! You’d be surprised how many people see a sixty-foot flame and want to walk straight into it!
You are the one responsible for setting off those effects, and even if you have everyone screaming at you from the production manager to the artist, if you’re not comfortable – you shouldn’t be hitting the button.
Getting a “kill kill kill” shout over the radio is a scary thing, believe me. I was operating flames for Take That at the O2 whilst they’re dancing around, I’m running a sequence of flames and Gary (Barlow) walks over and reaches out to the crowd over one of the flame heads – the spotter sees that and gives the “kill kill kill” over the radio. So, my fingers come away from the buttons so as to not operate any effects until the all-clear, which was given, then Mark (Owen) walks back over and does the exact same thing himself! Again, there’s no effects set off at that time until an all clear again.
Typically, your day starts with setting up the effects for the concert or TV show: come in, set them up per the artist’s request, operate the show then take them down afterwards. With tours on top of that you have travelling from one city to another.
What’s it like living on tour? Wickens: It’s a lot of fun. A lot of fun. You meet a huge variety of people and have a new challenge with every venue. It’s a bit more routine than one-off events, you can get into a pattern. You also get a chance to see the world which is always exciting.
What makes those one-off events particularly challenging then? Wickens: A lot of the time there are more effects to sort out in a shorter space of time. For example, MTV has numerous artists who all want effects, and at times we hear about what they actually want last minute on the show day. So, you have to deal with a lot of changes in a short space of time, and half the time with not knowing what you’re going into as it can change any minute. There are generally more people around on these types of gigs as well, so we have to be extra vigilant and alert for when we are firing.
Whereas on tour you’re only dealing with the one artist. Once rehearsals are over and the shows have started, the effects are set and you can fall into a pattern and routine of when is best to set things during the day.
What do you enjoy most about the job? Wickens: The variety, the people you meet and being able to create that sense of entertainment for everyone else – making stuff look cool. Special effects are the icing on top of the cake and throwing some pyro or confetti on top of a good show can make everyone really love it.
What about some of the bad things then? Wickens: It’s very long hours. It’s a lifestyle in a sense, that’s not always a bad thing, but you’re away from home quite a lot. Even when I am back in the country I’m not necessarily at home. It can take normal life away from you!
Check out Bullet For My Valentine playing "Don't Need You" live for an example of the kind of work Stu does.
How’s the job changed since you first started? Wickens: The kit has improved a lot and become more customisable. It’s gotten more complicated with the kit becoming more advanced, but part of what I do is keeping up with the technology too, every day is a school day! There’s always something new to learn.
So what qualities would someone need to do a job in special effects? Wickens: Awareness. Common sense. Working methodically. Having good decision-making skills, and then being able to stand up for those decisions afterwards. Being tactful with people and having a positive attitude can go a long way too. Everyone on the set is trying to deliver a good show, so understanding that and working with them rather than fighting each other helps to achieve that.
In a general sense, from what I’ve noticed there are three types of techs on a gig – you have the ‘techy’ techs who know their kit back-to-front but maybe don’t have as good people skills, you’ve got those with the people skills who have very little knowledge about tech, and then you have the people in the middle. I like to think I fit into that last category – I can get on with people and make stuff happen.
What advice would you give to someone looking for a similar career? Wickens: Approach it with a positive attitude, with confidence, and be willing to listen to and learn from absolutely everyone on a gig. Even if you want to specialise in one area, lap up all the knowledge you can.
Stu was in conversation with Chris Andrews on 11th January 2018. Stu works with Quantum SFX and Pyrojunkies, among others.