The Bard of Blast
Steve Wolf's pyro-try in motion
Every biker is an engineer. There's always something that needs tightening or lubing or welding, and for a lot of bikers, that's the dull stuff. But for Austin-based stuntman and pyro expert Steve Wolf, engineering is fun. "We do nothing but fun stuff," said Wolf. "We blow stuff up for a living."
When the big fireworks finale closes this weekend's rally, thank Steve Wolf. Or if you catch one of the many grease rags shot out of an air cannon, thank Steve Wolf. He's also the man that makes it snow in Central Texas for that perfect winter wedding. He's the scientist/mechanic that makes them all possible. "It's an atypical application of engineering," he admits. "We formed a niche market in Austin of providing fireworks to people who are not normally fireworks consumers." Normally, municipalities are the big buyers, but Wolf and his company, Event-FX, provide pyros, fog, confetti, and every other effect that a special event could desire.
Fireworks are but one part of his résumé: He's also a Hollywood stunt and effects coordinator. Wolf started in film as a set medic 25 years ago and quickly realized that he was busier than he should be, because filmmakers didn't always understand physics or chemistry – or human biology. "The stunt people insisted on hurting themselves by not using good science," he said. "I started using good science, and people started getting hurt less." He studied under Academy Award-winning effects guru and polymer chemist Gary Zeller, the man that invented Zel-Jel (the goo that stunt performers slather over themselves when they set themselves on fire for a movie), and has gone on to work as special-effects coordinator on dozens of movies and TV shows, including Hustle & Flow and Richard Linklater's Fast Food Nation. "We're essentially scientists in the service of entertainment," he said.
When he's not working with Tom Cruise or James Cameron or running zip lines over the star in front of the Bob Bullock museum (an experience, he said, "where balls meet applied physics"), he's also a teacher: He takes his flash-bang-boom lecture, Science in the Movies, to schools to show kids that when a car flips over or a character runs around on fire, it's science that makes it possible for the action and safe for the actor. He's even turned the lecture into a book, The Secret Science Behind Movie Stunts & Special Effects, which is being considered by some independent school districts as a textbook. That all adds up to a lucrative lifestyle for a science wonk. "We've found that people don't bounce checks to people with liquid explosives," he said.
It also means he's always got some unusual problem to solve, like finding a way to distribute 2,500 Harley-Davidson shop rags over the weekend for Cowboy Harley-Davidson of Austin. The solution? An air cannon, like the T-shirt guns used at sporting events. But he's always looking for a way to build a better rag-launcher. "If you do it by hand, you're just wasting compressed air," he said, so he and his team calculated muzzle length and the amount of compressed air needed to launch a rag safely and with good range, programmed that info into a solenoid valve, and increased the machine's efficiency.
Inside, it works the same as any air cannon. "You crank the handle and go pfffsh!!!" explained Wolf. But outside, it's a little different from the bazooka look-alike most people use. This one looks like a bike. "I was talking to Steve, and he said, 'We can make it look like a Harley,' and I said: 'What? I have options?'" said Jaclyn Alderete, director of marketing for Cowboy.
Like any good mechanic, Wolf's job is never done, even if that job is finding a better way to get a free T-shirt to the back of the crowd. "Our inclination is to engineer, so it's never done," he said. "Maybe we'll do a smart bomb, where a rocket explodes and launches T-shirts."
But the big moment for him will be the fireworks display, a 10-minute extravaganza, which will build in its final moments to more than 3,000 rounds – about 10 shells per second. For Wolf, that's when the engineering stops and the creativity begins. "I think of fireworks, and I think of the alphabet: There's only a limited number of devices available but an infinite number of ways to put them together. Shakespeare only had the same 26 letters that we have."
Steve Wolf's work-rag air cannon will be launching swag into the crowd during the ROT Rally Parade along Congress on Friday, June 13. He'll also be launching the fireworks display at the ROT Rally site on Saturday, June 14.