Snow Business may be a small specialist company, but its the largest purveyor of the white stuff in the UK whose flakes are formed by a variety of problem-solving engineers.
This Christmas wherever you see snow, the chances are it will have been provided by Snow Business. Since it was launched in 1982 the Gloucestershire-based company has not only bagged the monopoly in the UK but has also established small offices in many different countries to become one of the biggest snow suppliers in the world – pretty impressive when you consider that its total workforce – including freelancers – only amounts to about 100.
Originally concentrating solely on the film industry, the company decided to branch into live events and visual merchandising after realising that movies alone were not enough to sustain a viable business.
“When we started people would come looking for grottos to which the reply was always a slightly snooty ‘oh, no, no we only do film’”, explains managing director Darcey Crownshaw. “Then one day a Venezuelan gentleman asked us for a grotto and when we worked out the fee it came to £300,000’s worth of snow – which was a bit of a wake up call.”
A very lucrative wake up call as it transpired. In 2010 Snow Business racked up its second biggest contract ever – a storefront window display worth $1 million.
Turning the white stuff…green
In the 80s the company’s ‘snow’ was made of largely of un-PC products like polystyrene. But when clients began demanding a more eco-friendly product it came up with something that ticked all the environmental boxes – recycled paper.
“That was really lucky,” says Crownshaw, “ because when the BBC found us it ended up banning the use of everything else and officially approving our recycled paper snow – which has stood us in very good stead.”
When researching a new contract the company’s R&D department always considers three factors – materials, equipment and work processes.
In order to create realistic snow the company now uses over 200 products including a range of synthetic and natural polymers including polyurethane, polypropylene and raw cellulose from managed wood. The latter has recently replaced the recycled paper product largely because it’s more eco-friendly from a disposal perspective.
Snow Business also makes real snow using liquid nitrogen and compressed air, which, as Crownshaw explains, can be a fairly hairy affair.
“If you’ve got Tom Cruise as a soldier in a foxhole shooting for six weeks you can’t put him in real snow because he’ll catch flu, get a red nose, and the continuity goes to pot. So when they’re filming in places like Norway – we’ll put warm snow on top of the cold snow so the actors can lie in it. ‘Warm snow’ basically comprises a cellulose base covered with a white heated blanket and then covered in conductive snow that passes the heat through to the actor.”
Unlike many traditional special effects companies that build snow machines for one time usage, much of the equipment Snow Business uses is adapted from other projects. For a company that is constantly up against bigger and more demanding requirements this ethic has both an obvious economical advantage and allows the company to have tools always at the ready.
“One of the toughest problems,” says Crownshaw, “is coming up with equipment that operates quietly. You can only have kids singing Silent Night on a West End stage – if it’s silent!”
In such instances the R&D department would have to come up with ways of using induction motors over ‘normal’ motors, and larger motors that can be run at a slower speed so they make less noise – but with the same output.
Air-conditioning systems are also a key factor. Company engineers have to ascertain the most efficient method of running a volume of air, quietly, through very long delivery systems.
“These systems also have to be adapted so they’re flexible,” adds Crownshaw, “so you can go along to a theatre, get set up within a few hours and all your noise generating equipment is outside producing quiet snow on stage.”
Guinness World Record winner
In the last 20 years not only have film sets have increased in size but the advent of CGI has allowed more flexibility and interaction with fake snow thereby pushing Snow Business’ workload through the roof. Likewise live events and public displays have also become far more ambitious. In 2006 Snow Business bagged a Guinness World Record for the largest area ever covered with artificial falling snow – over London’s New Bond Street, Bond Street and Old Bond Street areas simultaneously.
“When someone comes along with 50 hectares to coat you have to invent a machine that can cover one hectare in 20 minutes,” explains Crownshaw. “Luckily we have a chap in our R&D department who is ex-Dyson who knows all about efficiently moving air in small devices.”
Flexible skill sets
Ironically the last two years have proved to be the best ever for Snow Business. Crownshaw attributes this in part to employing people with flexible skills in a specialist company.
“Small, specialist companies like ours only take on a few people but are looking for employees who are not only qualified in a certain discipline but who can also think laterally. Mechanical, electrical or design engineers with a bit of life experience fit that bill. And don’t forget - there are an awful lot of specialist companies out there.”