There aren’t many jobs where the entire world watches in anticipation to see your work explode into millions of pieces.
Aneurin Coffey is the current Producer of Sydney New Year’s Eve. He grew up in the deep south of W.A. and in Perth. It wasn’t until after studying Stage Management at WAAPA for three years that he realised it wasn’t what he actually wanted to do, but it’s what formed his path to where he is today. His first visit to Sydney came about through his studies at WAAPA with an internship at Sydney Festival in 1996. His love for Sydney shortly followed, as did his permanent move to the city. He’s never looked back. “The harbour is something that you can never quite prepare yourself for.” “Paul Keating said, ‘If you’re not living in Sydney, you’re camping out.’ I find myself every year going down and working on the harbour having to pinch myself, because you’re down there and it’s just, ‘Oh my god, I get to play in here! I get to play with this amazing icon!’”
Coffey’s first experience working for Sydney New Year’s Eve was as an Assistant Stage Manager in Martin Place. “You’re right in the centre of the city and you’re kind of like, ‘This is a cool gig.’” After coming back in 2001 and 2003 as a Production Coordinator, Coffey thought, “Oh, this is fun. I could do this a bit more.” “You kind of never think, ‘Yeah, I’ll be running that one.’” Since coming on board as Producer for Sydney New Year’s Eve, running the event is exactly what Coffey does. “Getting the opportunity to come back on as Production Manager, that’s kind of the pinnacle of production management in this city. You don’t get to play with much bigger events that Sydney New Year’s Eve and you get some really fun toys to play with. Seven tonnes of fireworks, the lighting the bridge effect. They’re the best production toys in the world, I reckon.”
Last year, Sydney New Year’s Eve accredited 1350 people to work on the event – a number that eventually adds up to around 1500 when you count the 6 full-year, full-time staff, the people who work in the lead up to the event and the contractors. It’s a huge production where a new planning cycle begins every 15 months, meaning several months of the year the team are working on two gigs. “We’ve just started working on the theme for 2016 New Year’s Eve. There’s always that tension at the end of the year doing an interview and hoping I don’t talk about the wrong theme because I actually have two in my head. I’ve never done that! (laughs).”
It’s a whole lot of work, with fireworks contractors responding to the City’s creative brief early in the year. “All of the development happens from about mid-year, then there’s the fun bits of going out to their site and actually seeing them (the fireworks) go off. Making sure that they look the way we thought they were going to look.” Installations around the city begin in October, the date of actual delivery looming ever closer.
I ask if any of his ideas have been too big for the pyrotechnic crews and he laughs. “Oh, look, I think to be an effective producer your ideas have always got to be bigger than what’s possible. It’s only by pushing everybody involved in a project a little bit beyond their comfort zone that you get the greatest result.” He notes that having been Production Manager, he knows what is possible, but that it’s still important to push beyond comfort zones. “Foti (the Australian fireworks company running since 1793) are very hard to push beyond their comfort zone. They are an incredibly creative family, they’ve been doing fireworks for hundreds of years. Quite literally. You sit down with them and you come up with a great idea and you’re like, ‘Ok can we do this?’ And they’re like, ‘You’ve got to stop looking at other events, Ny.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, but can you do it?’ ‘Yeah, yeah. Of course we can do it!’.
Photo: Hamilton Lund, Destination NSW
One of his greatest achievements as Producer of Sydney New Year’s Eve has been bringing a point of difference to each display. He’s introduced an all Australian soundtrack and has worked with iconic Australian artists such as Reg Mombassa. “We’ve got a certain amount of space and time to work with, a certain amount of resources. You can’t always get bigger but you can always get better and bringing in new creative ideas and new ways of thinking is one of those really key ways of doing that.” With all eyes on Sydney, one of the first cities to enter the New Year, Coffey says the most inspiring thing is, “Knowing that you’ve brought together Sydney and the world to that one moment in time. Very few people get to do that in the world. I’m in a very privileged position.”
Photo: Sydney Media / City of Sydney
On the night, Coffey is situated in the events communications room at the Sydney Opera House which is where the City of Sydney manages the media and communications side of the event. There’s no ‘go’ button per se, but there is a stop button. “Obviously with fireworks everything is planned down to the nth degree, down to a hundredth of a second to be exact. But if something goes wrong, we can stop it”. The event control room is about 25 floors above the harbour in a secret location which is where one of his favourite New Year’s Eve moments occurs. “When that first effect goes off the bridge you can actually hear a million and a half people around the harbour do that collective gasp when the fireworks go off. I’ve got to tell you, that’s the biggest pay-off in the world, hearing a million and a half people gasp at your work. It’s quite a special moment.”
I ask what’s going through his mind at five to midnight and a long pause follows. “I don’t think I can say what’s going through my mind at 5 to 12! (Laughs). At that point, I’ve got all the responsibility in the world and none of the control over whether it actually happens. I’m sweating spinal fluid at that time! You’re not human unless you’re sitting there going, ‘It’s going to happen. It’s going to happen. It’s going to happen’. The rational mind says, ‘It’s going to be fine, it’s going to work. We’ve put everything in place, it’s going to be absolutely perfect.’ The irrational mind is sitting there going, ‘Oh my god! Why did we decide to do this?!’ At a quarter past twelve it’s a huge weight off the shoulders. You know in your heart of hearts it’s all going to be perfect because you’ve got quite literally the best people in the world delivering all of that.’
As for what’s planned for Sydney New Year’s Eve 2015, he says, “All I can say at this point is keep a big eye on the bridge.”
Words by Jayne Cheeseman