Balloon Master

John Piper manages the production of floats and balloons for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

SCOTT CORNELL/SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

Studio artists make multiple drawings and models to create a finished balloon.

IMAGES COURTESY OF MACY’S, INC. AND AEROSTAR INTERNATIONAL, INC.

When John Piper was a freshman in high school, he helped build a float for his school’s homecoming celebration. It was the first parade float he ever worked on—but it wouldn’t be his last. His team had no money and no experience, and their design came in last place in the competition. But Piper and his team didn’t give up. They learned from their mistakes, and the next year, they won first prize. The team took home the top prize again the following year and the year after that!

Today, Piper is a senior director at Macy’s Parade Studio. He helps produce one of the most famous parades in the world. Piper oversees the creation of floats and giant helium-filled balloons for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Science World spoke to Piper about the art and science that goes into putting on a display that makes millions of spectators go “Ooh!” and “Ah!”

How did you become a senior director at Macy’s Parade Studio?

In college, I majored in theater design and technology. Building sets gave me a lot of experience with carpentry. After I moved to New York, I applied to a job posting for a carpenter at the Studio and was hired. For two months leading up to that year’s parade, I built floats. I must have done a good job because they asked me to continue working for them.

Later, the head of the Studio looked at my theater-set design portfolio—a collection of materials that showcase a person’s past work. He then asked me to draft plans for the floats. After a few years, he asked me if I wanted to work on the balloons. Of course I did! When he retired, he handed the reins of the Studio to me.

What goes into producing one of the parade’s giant balloons?

We start by sketching the design of a balloon on paper. The drawing is then turned into a 3-D computer illustration. Based on the drawing, we build a small, physical model by creating an armature and sculpting clay around the outside of this metal skeleton. Or we use a 3-D printer, which builds up layers of a material, such as plastic, to make a solid object.

Next, we make two molds of the model. We paint one to look like the finished balloon and write technical information on the other. They’re the blueprint to create the fabric pattern that will become the balloon. These fabric pieces get sewn together and decorated with paint that has elasticity. When the balloon is inflated, the fabric will stretch. The paint needs to stretch with it.

How do you make sure that a balloon will fly?

We calculate the total weight of the fabric and paint needed to create the balloon. Then we determine the balloon’s volume. That lets us know how much helium we’ll need to fill it. If a balloon can’t hold enough helium to lift its weight, then we have to adjust the design to either reduce the weight or add more volume.

What other factors do you consider when designing balloons?

A lot of our balloons, like Snoopy and Olaf from the movie Frozen, are in a horizontal pose. This shape makes the balloons more aerodynamic. It allows air to flow smoothly around the balloon, rather than pushing against it, creating drag. This slowing force would make the balloon harder to pull along the parade route.

The horizontal pose also generates lift, or upward force. Some of our balloons are more vertical, such as SpongeBob SquarePants. But they still lean forward slightly to allow for airflow that helps create lift.

What’s the best part of your job?

I love the moment when the parade begins and all the spectators start cheering. There’s nothing so exhilarating as hearing millions of people appreciating your work.

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