Wednesday, August 10, 2016

It's Snowing! Making Celluloid Winter Wonderlands

What do you first think of when you see this scene? Did any of you think asbestos? How about cornflakes? If you're like me you most likely thought, "Christmas in Connecticut! I love that scene! The snow is so pretty."

Well, you're right, it IS Christmas in Connecticut and the snow is pretty! Wait, did I just say snow?

Everyone knows that Hollywood, California, is where movies are made. Everyone ALSO knows it doesn't snow there. So how did scenes like the one in Christmas in Connecticut come about? Did the entire movie set pack up and head to where the real snow was? Did they bring the snow to Hollywood? Or did they make their own?

Click here in case you now need to listen to "Snow."

Silent, and not so silent Snow

Snow scenes in films have been around since the beginning of movies themselves. In order to have them be as realistic as possible, the whole cast and crew would pack up in search of snow and ice.  And while it looked nice on film, there were numerous problems and accidents associated with it. Camera's froze, actors fell into ice waters or suffered hypothermia leading to lost toes and rheumatism, got lost in snow storms, fell down mountains... pretty much anything that could happen, did.

A popular silent film, The Gold Rush (1925) starring Charlie Chaplin, featured both real snow and fake. The film was shot in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and made to look like the famous Chilkoot Pass in Alaska. However, after Chaplin came down with pneumonia, the crew headed back to Hollywood and constructed snow-covered mountains with timber, chicken wire, and burlap covered with salt and flour. Other early snow scenes used everything from white pine sawdust, scraps of paper mixed with salt (thrown in front of a wind machine it made very convincing snowfall), cotton wool, paraffin (for ice) and crushed gypsum (from their own mine), the last of which probably contributed to the early death of actor Lon Chaney, who died of lung cancer in his mid-forties.

The most popular form of early movie snow was cornflakes painted white or bleached, mixed with shaved gypsum. Yes, cornflakes. However, once sound entered the picture, cornflakes posed a huge problem: when the actors walked on it you couldn't hear what they were saying! Dialogue had to be added later.

Hey, I've got an idea!

In the late 1920s, a firefighter had a "bright" idea. Why not use Asbestos? The chrysotile asbestos fibers were cheap, versatile, and thought to be harmless (we now know it causes mesothelioma as the loose fibers were easily inhaled). A huge plus was that it didn't make noises when actors walked on it, an important feature once synchronized sound in film was the norm. It also wouldn't catch fire, something that cotton batting was in danger of doing (though in reality not much of a threat). Films such as The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Holiday Inn (1942) feature the harmful substance, sold under the harmless sounding names of "Pure White" and "Snow Drift." It was used not only in movies, but on the stage, department store window displays, and as decoration in homes throughout the 30s and early 40s. The product was popular up until the start of WWII, when asbestos was needed instead for ships, planes, and other military equipment. However, the product was still used all the way up until the mid-50s.

Don't breath it in, Bing!

It's a Wonderful Idea

In the summer of 1946, a new "snowstorm" was brewing. The film was the now iconic classic It's a Wonderful Life starring the just-returned-from-the-war veteran James Stewart and it needed snow... lots of it. Shaved ice could be used for icy paths and plaster would be used for snowbanks and spryed on trees but for the snow they wanted something different. Russell Sherman, RKO studio's head of special effects and a much more brilliant man than that fireman, used his engineering skills and some post-WWII technology to come up with silent, unmeltable, and realistic-looking fake snow. The chemical mixture he came up with used foamite—a material used in fire extinguishers—and mixed it with sugar, water, and even soap flakes. It was sprayable and could be quickly blasted over set pieces using wind machines. The film used 6,000 gallons of the substance, which "clung convincingly to clothing and created picture-perfect footprints, while generating nothing like the sound of trod-upon breakfast cereal." Sherman, along with the rest of the RKO Special Effects Department received a Class III Scientific or Technical Oscar from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for "developing a new method of simulating falling snow on motion picture sets."

Sherman's snow, called Phomaide, revolutionized snow in film, yet as time went on, other methods were developed to meet different needs. Dr. Zhivago (1965) called for Siberian ice. Since filming in Russia was out of the question, special effects guy Eddie Fowler used hot wax and marble dust to create a glittering, frozen tableau.

Snowmaking Today

Today, the majority of snow in films comes from one company: Snow Business, located in Britain. They boast over 200 different types of eco-friendly snow made from a variety of materials, including recycled paper and plastics, that is both safe and comfortable for actors. Looking at all of the different types of "snow" on their website is amazing; one would swear it is real. There are pages for settled snow, falling snow, ice, frost, falling ash, icicles, dirty snow, clean snow, indoor snow, the combinations are endless! They also provide real snow, which can last up to three days if stored properly.

Digital Snow

The last kind of movie snow is digital snow. Technology has advanced so far since the advent of films. Where once studio workers would painstakingly make an entire field of individual poppies (The Wizard of Oz), now huge vistas, fields, mountains, building, bridges - all can be created digitally using green-screen technology. So when you see huge icy mountains in a film, they could be real or they could be digital! We've come a long way!

Popular Mechanics: Snow Job - How Hollywood Fakes Winter on Film. 2013.
GIZMODO: Hollywood Invented a New Type of Fake Snow to Film It's a Wonderful Life. 2011. - Fake Snow
Wonderful Engineering: This is how they make snow in movies. 2013.
ImagineMDD: Fake Snow Bringing Winter to Silent Movies. 2014.
BLDGBLOG (Building Blog): The Snow Mine. 2014.
It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

This post is part of the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon focusing on the System (How movies are made) hosted by Movies Silently, the Films (the movies themselves) hosted by Silver Screenings, and the People (the folks who made the movies) hosted by Once Upon a Screen.
Day 1: The Studios & the Publicity Dept.
Day 2: The Production Code & the Magic of Animation
Day 3: The Groundbreakers & Before They Were Stars
Day 4: The Technical Dept. & the Wardrobe Dept.
Day 5: Movie Disasters & the Wonderful World of Color
Day 6: The Family Business & a Foreign Affair


  1. The Snow Business website is fascinating. Their products look so real! (I think their icicles are especially beautiful.)

    This is a fascinating essay on snow. I always wonder about it, when watching a film, and you've provided a valuable reference here. I cringed when you talked about asbestos, but I can see how filmmakers would prefer it over the crunch cornflakes!

    Thanks for joining the blogathon with all your snow research! :)

    1. I know!!

      Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it so much! I was very excited when I thought it up and was glad I found so much great info on the internet about it :)

      Thanks for hosting! I've been looking forward to this blogathon for months! :)

  2. Hi Phyl. That was a great history of a subject I knew little about. My favorite movie snow scene was in "The Fatal Glass of Beer" with W. C. Fields. He eats some snow and says "Tastes like cornflakes."

    1. Haha that's hilarious!! Haven't seen that one yet :)

  3. Great post! I've read bits and pieces on how they made snow, but it's really nice to read the history of it all in one place. :)

    1. Glad you enjoyed it! It was fun to learn about :)