How They Make Movie Snow

Theres snow enterprise like present enterprise.

By Meg Shields · Published on February 18th, 2022

Welcome to Howd They Do That? a month-to-month column that unpacks moments of film magic and celebrates the technical wizards who pulled them off. This entry explains how they make pretend snow for motion pictures.

Weather, like all elements of manufacturing design, is a crucial a part of cinematic worldbuilding. Rain could make neo-noirs really feel oppressive and morose. Bursts of cloud-piercing god rays can underline religious breakthroughs and emotional turning factors. But climates might be unwieldy. And exposing your self to the fickle ebb and stream of pure strain programs can result in heartache and catastrophe. So, to keep away from losing money and time ready on the right storm, many filmmakers flip to sensible options to bend the climate to their will.

Rain machines permit synthetic torrents of water to fall on-cue from the sky. Color correction and a spritz of watered-down glycerin can suggest the blistering warmth of a sweaty summer time day.

As P.J. Soles tells it within the 2010 documentary Halloween: The Inside Story, the artwork division had precisely one bag of faux leaves that have been created to simulate autumnal Illinois in sunny California: At the top of the capturing of a scene, the wind may decide up or no matter. Debra [Hill] would yell, Come on, everyone, get the leaves! And we might collect each final leaf and put it again within the bag.

But, so far as replicating the climate is anxious, one meteorological system appears to be particularly difficult to drag off: snow.

Fake snow for movie-making

As Frank P. Clark writes within the ebook Special Effects in Motion Pictures, It is commonly disastrous for a motion-picture unit to rely upon the caprices of nature to supply snow on cue. And whereas many productions have — and proceed — to shoot their snow-bound motion pictures on-location, it can’t be denied that pretend snow (fake snow, if you’ll) has its benefits.

Faking snow can mean you can shoot in a sometimes snowless location or on a sound stage. It additionally provides filmmakers a fascinating diploma of management, side-stepping all of the logistical and continuity points that include working with the slick, patchy, and melting actual deal. Fake snow additionally isnt chilly, an awesome boon for forged, crew, and movie gear alike. All instructed: whereas actual airborne ice crystals are nice for environment, theyre categorically unhealthy for morale and deadlines.

Blade Runner

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

As with most sensible options to not possible issues (e.g. controlling the climate), there isnt one sure-fire method to creating pretend snow. What form of snow you need is dependent upon what your wants are as a filmmaker. What general look are you going for? How lengthy is the snow going to be on set? What is the temperature of the shoot? Will the actors be interacting with the stuff? Whats the pretend snow price range?

As if all these issues werent sufficient of a headache, the truth is {that a} actually plausible snow phantasm may be very exhausting to drag off. In the extremely insightful ebook Cinema as Weather: Stylistic Screens and Atmospheric Change, Kristi McKim acutely identifies the dual-pronged nature of what makes pretend snow so difficult.

As she places it, there are two, typically opposed, benchmarks of cinematic accomplishment with regards to producing snowy climate on-screen: Making the impact simply lifelike sufficient to be plausible and simply synthetic sufficient to elicit reward for a near-perfect approximation.

In different phrases, finished accurately, pretend cinematic snow is without delay the epitome of artifice and the measure of realism. Thats some tall order.

The Talented Mr Ripley movie snow

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

So, with all that out of the way in which, lets dive into this fake snowbank and check out among the ways in which filmmakers throughout historical past have created imitation ice crystals:

Howd they do this?

Long story quick:

There are loads of other ways to make pretend snow, starting from sensible concoctions like salt and paper to extra fashionable options like CGI. Ultimately, what a manufacturing makes use of for its “snow” is dictated by when the film was made, its price range, and what sortof snow they’re going for.

Long story lengthy:

Mechanically Produced Snow

Sometimes, studios pretend snow in motion pictures by creating or transporting actual snow to the set. One of the good issues about utilizing precise snow is that it does soften; while you see a personality go inside and flecks of white proceed to cling to their face, it may well break the spell. For this cause, utilizing actual snow for close-ups is usually a good possibility.

The first recognized snowmaking machine wasnt created by a ski resort or an environmental engineer however by Warner Bros. technical director Louis Geib, whose invention has remained comparatively unchanged in any case these years. Geibs system makes use of rotating blades to shave down a giant block of ice and propel tiny shards by way of the air into film-ready melting snow. As seen in As the Earth Turns.

In the Nineteen Thirties, refrigerated sound phases made working with actual snow and ice extra manageable, although the below-freezing temperatures werent particularly sort to digicam gear.


One of the recurring traits in particular results historical past is that foodstuffs and natural supplies are all over the place in film magic. Fake snow isn’t any completely different. Some of us (like Frank P. Clark) cite chopped rooster feathers, balsa chips, immediate potatoes, and cleaning soap flakes as attainable dupes for billowing snow.

Dr Zhivago Frozen movie snow

Dr. Zhivago (1965)

One in style snow stand-in was bleached cornflakes. This methodology seems to have had quite a few drawbacks: they didnt go away tracks and so they have been loud. The noise of them crunching underfoot required dubbing in submit. Sometimes the cornflakes have been blended with shaved gypsum, a delicate sulfate mineral that’s used as chalk, fertilizer, and drywall.

Fun truth: using ground-up gypsum created a precedent for the manufacturing designers of Dr. Zhivagowho remodeled summertime Spain into Siberia by coating the set in wax and chilly water and sprinkling it with marble dust.

But again to cornflakes: their noise was an actual dealbreaker for Frank Capras Its A Wonderful Life. Tasked with making a quieter different that will flip a sweltering summer time soundstage right into a winter wonderland, Russell Shearman, together with different RKO employees, invented a silent, sprayable fake snow by mixing cleaning soap flakes, water, sugar, and foamite (a fabric utilized in hearth extinguishers).

It's A Wonderful Life movie snow

Let it foam, let it foam, let it foam… It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

In 1948, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded Sherman and the RKO particular results division a technical Oscar for his or her efforts. As Ben Cosgrove writes for Time: The synthetic snow even clung convincingly to clothes and created picture-perfect footprints.

Nearly 6,000 gallons of the stuff have been dumped on set through a wind machine. Indeed, soap-based merchandise are a standard dupe for falling snow, which appears to be like comparatively lifelike, is non-slippery, and might be evaporative or further clingy relying on the specified impact.

Another fake snow materials you most likely have in your personal house is straight-up salt. Heaps of the stuff was used to recreate the Arctic wasteland in Pinewood Studios throughout the shoot of 1978’s Superman, with styrofoam ice flows for good measure. As the crew quickly discovered, salt is harsh on the setting, waterways, and delicate filmmaking gear. So the seasonings use as a snow dupe wasnt lengthy for this world.

One straightforward approach to create a convincing floor cowl is with square-cut paper. Supposedly machine-cut paper with jagged edges is ready to clump extra like the actual factor. Like many snow options, paper snowflakes have an apparent draw back, specifically that it’s tremendous flammable and solely secure for exterior shoots.

Wizard Of Oz Snow Asbestos movie snow

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

While flammable snow is actually not ultimate, within the Nineteen Thirties and Forties, technicians disastrously swung the opposite approach with chrysotile, a non-flammable (yay!) substance also referred to as white asbestos (oh no!). Marketed beneath the names Pure White and Snow Drift, cancer-causing chrysotile makes appearances within the likes of Holiday Inn, Citizen Kane, and The Wizard of Oz.

Per Popular Mechanics, it wasnt till the outbreak of World War II, which noticed a necessity for asbestos in army purposes, that the movie use of chrysotile diminished.

What are of us doing as we speak?

The first fashionable method to creating pretend snow for the films was the appearance of SnowCel, a paper-based cellulose product first utilized in The Company of Wolves. The product is available in various particle grades, has non-flammable and biodegradable properties, and is reusable. One draw back is that — like many snow options — SnowCel is tough to wash up, and filmmakers typically make use of snow blankets along with different supplies to make the impact extra manageable and plausible.

One fashionable firm main the way in which in pretend snow-tech is Snow Business, a UK-based enterprise that’s most likely behind the final film snow impact you noticed — Paddington, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Blade Runner 2049 you identify it. Committed to decreasing their environmental footprint, the corporate supplies movie crews with each mechanically produced and artificial choices.

Increasingly, CGI has taken over as one among Hollywoods go-to fake snow strategies. While computer-generated snow has sensible advantages, it isnt at all times inside everybody’s price range, and actors can’t work together with it on set.

Indeed, the devils in a number of particulars with regards to promoting a pretend snow impact. The sound design crew is arguably as necessary because the SFX technicians — James Bonds tires squealing on snow in On Her Majestys Secret Service by no means fails to make me giggle. Its equally necessary for actors to promote the snow as greatest they will. Though its as much as the results crew so as to add chilled breath in submit.

What’s the precedent for pretend snow in motion pictures?

As far as I can inform, pricey reader,cotton wool was one of many earliest makes an attempt at creating the phantasm of a snow-swept panorama on-screen. Truly, it’s a nigh-adorably simple answer, the sort you’d count on in a division retailer window or a youngsters’s nativity play. As relayed inThe Economist‘s Prospero culture column, early Hollywood set-dressers would tease balls of cotton wool into fluffy snowbanks, unaware of the truth that placing mountains of cotton beneath sizzling studio lights was a flammable one-way-ticket to fire city.

It is considerably ironic that filmmakers swung within the different course with aninflammablesubstance that proved no-less dangerous as a consequence of its then-unknown cancer-causing skills. But that’s simply the way in which the historic cookie crumbles generally.

La Roue The Wheel film movie snow

La Roue (1923)

Trail Of The North Wind movie snow

The Trail of the North Wind (1924)

While burning down our studio in pursuit of the right frigid body appears like a nasty thought, the choice on the time wasn’t any much less harmful. Before filmmakers received fed up with freezing their big-billowy silent period director’s pants off, they have been roughly compelled to shoot huge snow set-pieces on-location. A placing instance is Abel Grace’s 1923 movie La Roue, the place filmmakers and stars alike confronted actual snowstorms and avalanches on Mont Blanc, the very best mountain within the Alps.

The 1924 movieThe Trail of the North Wind, directed by Canadian actress Nell Shipman, is one other instance of early on-location snow pictures. Shipman was particularly eager on movies that befell in chilly climates. This had apparent drawbacks, essentially the most tragic being the dying of her co-star Ronald Byron, who died of publicity early into the shoot, in response to Nicole Starosielski’s Media Hot and Cold.

The Gold Rush

The Gold Rush (1925)

For the sake of spinning a historic narrative, it’s useful to take Charlie Chaplin’s 1924 movieThe Gold Rushas a crucial turning level within the historical past of cinematic pretend snow. While not the primary image to start out experimenting with chemical options to pretend snow — the 1922 movie Beyond the Rocksstarring Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino springs to thoughts — it’s the greatest instance.

When filming on-location within the Sierra Nevada mountains, which doubled for Alaska’s notorious Chilkoot Pass, the situations grew to become, understandably, an excessive amount of to bear. Replica units have been reproduced on the Chaplin Studios in Hollywood. In protecting with the quickly to be a tried-and-true custom of turning to foodstuffs to pretend the white stuff, Chaplin’s crew used a combination of salt and flour — in addition to inedible plaster — to simulate snow.

All instructed, a lot as no two snowflakes are the identical, there are a baffling variety of inventive methods to method pretend snow for motion pictures. Weve solely scratched the floor right here. Hybrid approaches are inspired, and keep in mind, when doubtful: snows not presupposed to be flammable!

Related Topics: How’d They Do That?

Meg Shields is the standard farm boy of your goals and a senior contributor at Film School Rejects. She presently runs three columns at FSR: The Queue, How’d They Do That?, and Horrorscope. She can be a curator for One Perfect Shot and a contract author for rent. Meg might be discovered screaming about John Boorman’s ‘Excalibur’ on Twitter right here: @TheWorstNun. (She/Her).


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