Welcome to How’d They Do That? — a monthly column that unpacks moments of movie magic and celebrates the technical wizards who pulled them off. This entry explains how they make fake snow for movies.
Weather, like all parts of production design, is a critical part of cinematic worldbuilding. Rain can make neo-noirs feel oppressive and morose. Bursts of cloud-piercing god rays can underline spiritual breakthroughs and emotional turning points. But climates can be unwieldy. And exposing yourself to the fickle ebb and flow of natural pressure systems can lead to heartache and disaster. So, to avoid wasting time and money waiting on the perfect storm, many filmmakers turn to practical solutions to bend the weather to their will.
Rain machines allow artificial torrents of water to fall on-cue from the sky. Color correction and a spritz of watered-down glycerin can imply the blistering heat of a sweaty summer day.
As P.J. Soles tells it in the 2010 documentary Halloween: The Inside Story, the art department had exactly one bag of fake leaves that were created to simulate autumnal Illinois in sunny California: “At the end of the shooting of a scene, the wind might pick up or whatever. Debra [Hill] would yell, ‘Come on, everybody, get the leaves! And we would gather every last leaf and put it back in the bag.”
But, as far as replicating the weather is concerned, one meteorological system seems to be especially tricky to pull off: snow.
Fake snow for movie-making
As Frank P. Clark writes in the book Special Effects in Motion Pictures, “It is often disastrous for a motion-picture unit to depend upon the caprices of nature to produce snow on cue.” And while many productions have — and continue — to shoot their snow-bound movies on-location, it cannot be denied that fake snow (faux snow, if you will) has its advantages.
Faking snow can allow you to shoot in a typically snowless location or on a sound stage. It also gives filmmakers a desirable degree of control, side-stepping all the logistical and continuity issues that come with working with the slick, patchy, and melting real deal. Fake snow also isn’t cold, a great boon for cast, crew, and film equipment alike. All told: while real airborne ice crystals are great for atmosphere, they’re categorically bad for morale and deadlines.
As with most practical solutions to impossible problems (e.g. controlling the weather), there isn’t one sure-fire approach to creating fake snow. What kind of “snow” you want depends on what your needs are as a filmmaker. What overall look are you going for? How long is the “snow” going to be on set? What is the temperature of the shoot? Will the actors be interacting with the stuff? What’s the fake snow budget?
As if all these considerations weren’t enough of a headache, the reality is that a truly believable snow illusion is very hard to pull off. In the incredibly insightful book Cinema as Weather: Stylistic Screens and Atmospheric Change, Kristi McKim acutely identifies the dual-pronged nature of what makes fake snow so tricky.
As she puts it, there are two, often opposed, benchmarks of cinematic accomplishment when it comes to producing snowy weather on-screen: “Making the effect just realistic enough to be believable and just artificial enough to elicit praise for a near-perfect approximation.”
In other words, done correctly, fake cinematic snow is “at once the epitome of artifice and the measure of realism.” That’s some tall order.
So, with all that out of the way, let’s dive into this faux snowbank and take a look at some of the ways that filmmakers across history have created imitation ice crystals:
How’d they do that?
Long story short:
There are plenty of different ways to make fake snow, ranging from practical concoctions like salt and paper to more modern solutions like CGI. Ultimately, what a production uses for its “snow” is dictated by when the movie was made, its budget, and what kind of snow they’re going for.
Long story long:
Mechanically Produced Snow
Sometimes, studios “fake” snow in movies by creating or transporting real snow to the set. One of the nice things about using actual snow is that it does melt; when you see a character go inside and flecks of white continue to cling to their face, it can break the spell. For this reason, using real snow for close-ups can be a good option.
The first known snowmaking machine wasn’t created by a ski resort or an environmental engineer but by Warner Bros. technical director Louis Geib, whose invention has remained relatively unchanged after all these years. Geib’s device uses rotating blades to shave down a big block of ice and propel tiny shards through the air into film-ready melting snow. As seen in As the Earth Turns.
In the 1930s, refrigerated sound stages made working with real snow and ice more manageable, even though the below-freezing temperatures weren’t especially kind to camera equipment.
One of the recurring trends in special effects history is that foodstuffs and organic materials are everywhere in movie magic. Fake snow is no different. Some folks (like Frank P. Clark) cite chopped chicken feathers, balsa chips, instant potatoes, and soap flakes as possible dupes for billowing snow.
One popular snow stand-in was bleached cornflakes. This method appears to have had a number of drawbacks: they didn’t leave tracks and they were loud. The noise of them crunching underfoot required dubbing in post. Sometimes the cornflakes were mixed with shaved gypsum, a soft sulfate mineral that is used as chalk, fertilizer, and drywall.
Fun fact: the use of ground-up gypsum created a precedent for the production designers of Dr. Zhivago who transformed summertime Spain into Siberia by coating the set in wax and cold water and sprinkling it with marble dust.
But back to cornflakes: their noise was a real dealbreaker for Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life. Tasked with making a quieter alternative that would turn a sweltering summer soundstage into a winter wonderland, Russell Shearman, along with other RKO staff, invented a silent, sprayable faux snow by mixing soap flakes, water, sugar, and foamite (a material used in fire extinguishers).
In 1948, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded Sherman and the RKO special effects department a technical Oscar for their efforts. As Ben Cosgrove writes for Time: ”The artificial snow even clung convincingly to clothing and created picture-perfect footprints.”
Nearly 6,000 gallons of the stuff were dumped on set via a wind machine. Indeed, soap-based products are a common dupe for falling snow, which looks relatively realistic, is non-slippery, and can be evaporative or extra clingy depending on the desired effect.
Another faux snow material you probably have in your own home is straight-up salt. Heaps of the stuff was used to recreate the Arctic wasteland in Pinewood Studios during the shoot of 1978’s Superman, with styrofoam ice flows for good measure. As the crew soon learned, salt is harsh on the environment, waterways, and sensitive filmmaking equipment. So the seasoning’s use as a snow dupe wasn’t long for this world.
One easy way to create a convincing ground cover is with square-cut paper. Supposedly machine-cut paper with jagged edges is able to clump more like the real thing. Like many snow alternatives, paper snowflakes have an obvious downside, namely that it is super flammable and only safe for exterior shoots.
While flammable snow is certainly not ideal, in the 1930s and 1940s, technicians disastrously swung the other way with chrysotile, a non-flammable (yay!) substance also known as white asbestos (oh no!). Marketed under the names “Pure White” and “Snow Drift,” cancer-causing chrysotile makes appearances in the likes of Holiday Inn, Citizen Kane, and The Wizard of Oz.
Per Popular Mechanics, it wasn’t until the outbreak of World War II, which saw a need for asbestos in military applications, that the film use of chrysotile diminished.
What are folks doing today?
The first “modern” approach to creating fake snow for the movies was the advent of SnowCel, a paper-based cellulose product first used in The Company of Wolves. The product comes in varying particle grades, has non-flammable and biodegradable properties, and is reusable. One downside is that — like many snow alternatives — SnowCel is difficult to clean up, and filmmakers often employ snow blankets in conjunction with other materials to make the effect more manageable and believable.
One modern company leading the way in fake snow-tech is Snow Business, a UK-based business that is probably behind the last movie snow effect you saw — Paddington, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Blade Runner 2049 … you name it. Committed to reducing their environmental footprint, the company provides film crews with both mechanically produced and synthetic options.
Increasingly, CGI has taken over as one of Hollywood’s go-to faux snow methods. While computer-generated snow has practical benefits, it isn’t always within everyone’s budget, and actors can’t interact with it on set.
Indeed, the devil’s in several details when it comes to selling a fake snow effect. The sound design team is arguably as important as the SFX technicians — James Bond’s tires squealing on snow in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service never fails to make me laugh. It’s equally important for actors to “sell” the snow as best they can. Though it’s up to the effects team to add chilled breath in post.
What’s the precedent for fake snow in movies?
As far as I can tell, dear reader, cotton wool was one of the earliest attempts at creating the illusion of a snow-swept landscape on-screen. Truly, it’s a nigh-adorably straightforward solution, the kind you’d expect in a department store window or a children’s nativity play. As relayed in The Economist‘s Prospero culture column, early Hollywood set-dressers would tease balls of cotton wool into fluffy snowbanks, ignorant of the fact that putting mountains of cotton under hot studio lights was a flammable one-way-ticket to fire city.
It is somewhat ironic that filmmakers swung in the other direction with a non–flammable substance that proved no-less harmful due to its then-unknown cancer-causing abilities. But that’s just the way the historical cookie crumbles sometimes.
While burning down our studio in pursuit of the perfect frigid frame sounds like a bad idea, the alternative at the time wasn’t any less dangerous. Before filmmakers got fed up with freezing their big-billowy silent era director’s pants off, they were more or less forced to shoot big snow set-pieces on-location. A striking example is Abel Grace’s 1923 film La Roue, where filmmakers and stars alike faced real snowstorms and avalanches on Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps.
The 1924 film The Trail of the North Wind, directed by Canadian actress Nell Shipman, is another example of early on-location snow photography. Shipman was especially keen on films that took place in cold climates. This had obvious drawbacks, the most tragic being the death of her co-star Ronald Byron, who died of exposure early into the shoot, according to Nicole Starosielski’s Media Hot and Cold.
For the sake of spinning a historical narrative, it’s helpful to take Charlie Chaplin’s 1924 film The Gold Rush as a critical turning point in the history of cinematic fake snow. While not the first picture to start experimenting with chemical solutions to fake snow — the 1922 film Beyond the Rocks starring Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino springs to mind — it is the biggest example.
When filming on-location in the Sierra Nevada mountains, which doubled for Alaska’s infamous Chilkoot Pass, the conditions became, understandably, too much to bear. Replica sets were reproduced at the Chaplin Studios in Hollywood. In keeping with the soon to be a tried-and-true tradition of turning to foodstuffs to fake the white stuff, Chaplin’s crew used a mixture of salt and flour — as well as inedible plaster — to simulate snow.
All told, much as no two snowflakes are the same, there are a baffling number of creative ways to approach fake snow for movies. We’ve only scratched the surface here. Hybrid approaches are encouraged, and remember, when in doubt: snow’s not supposed to be flammable!