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The Eccentric Engineer: Synthetic snow, Hollywood-style

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Through the years, Hollywood directors sought to find the perfect solution to creating snow, without having to venture into freezing temperatures.

Dreaming of a white Christmas is usually a triumph of hope over experience. Indeed, there were only seven white Christmases in England in the whole of the 20th century, according to the Met Office. If it might not be deep and crisp and even outside, it can always be inside, thanks to Christmas TV movie repeats. Doctor Zhivago, It’s a Wonderful Life and even The Wizard of Oz all revel in snowy scenes, but spare a thought for the engineers and designers who had to make those winter wonderlands - usually in summer and often in some of the sunniest places on earth.

The earliest Hollywood solution to making snowscapes was simple brute force. When Charlie Chaplin wanted to re-enact the Yukon Trail for his 1925 silent classic The Gold Rush, he simply shipped the whole production to the high Sierra Nevada Mountains. It was in some ways a great success - it looked like Alaska, it felt like Alaska, the snow was deep, real and reliable, but there were unforeseen side-effects - notably all the crew got colds. Chaplin battled on until he succumbed to flu himself, at which point the whole production was sent back to the studio. They were lucky - the original leading man in the 1919 Canadian epic Back To God’s Country, Ronald Byram, died of exposure during filming in northern Alberta.

Back in sunny Hollywood, Chaplin used salt and flour for his artificial snow. Surely there was something whiter and flakier that would make a better substitute, as the corrosive salt would ruin gear and the equally popular cotton batting would catch fire. Perhaps something could be blown into the air with fans without wrecking the camera equipment and flutter down gently?

For the 1939 The Wizard of Oz, they seemed to have found the answer. When Glinda the Good Witch sends snow to break the spell of the Wicked Witch of the West, it looks just like the real thing, as it gently falls on a sleeping Dorothy and her friends. In fact, it was white asbestos. These were more naive times and the dangers of blowing asbestos around a set were not well understood.

Asbestos was seen as the perfect snow substitute until the 1950s, as it was white, flaky and fireproof - a very important consideration in the days of high-voltage arc lighting. Indeed, the White Christmas that Bing Crosby sings so enthusiastically about in the 1942 Holiday Inn is an asbestos one, too.

The end of asbestos snow came thanks to the Second World War and a former engineer - director Frank Capra. For It’s a Wonderful Life in 1947, he wanted something that didn’t crunch and squeak underfoot as asbestos, and even the popular alternative of bleached cornflakes, did, as he intended to shoot live sound for his snow scenes. He also wanted to film the scenes in California in the middle of summer. So RKO Pictures’ head of special effects found a combination of fire extinguisher foam, sugar, water and soap flakes, all blown through a wind machine. Not something you want to get in your eye, but a reasonably realistic drifting, clinging snow. Despite the film’s poor showing at the Oscars, they did at least get one for that special effect.

However, not every director just wants drifting snow. For Doctor Zhivago, David Lean wanted an entire frozen country estate. This presented a few problems as he was going shoot the movie in Spain in summer. The exterior sparkling powder snow made of marble dust was the easiest fix, but the interiors were trickier. Here he needed furniture - apparently trapped in ice and snow - draped in icicles. To achieve this, the special effects team first poured layer upon layer of molten wax over everything, flash freezing each layer with chilled water. When the required ‘iciness’ was reached, each icicle was then hand dusted with marble dust.

This brings us onto modern artificial snow. So, what is today’s high-tech answer to the needs of summer-loving directors and their wintery stories? There are, of course, many artificial snows, from cross-linked polyacrylamide co-polymer to snow-candle subliming pyrotechnics. Even dehydrated potato flakes have their place, though they have the unfortunate habit of turning into mash. However, the favourite in the movie world is far simpler - recycled paper. So when you’ve put your Christmas E&T in the recycling, you may, after all, be helping to grant someone’s wish of a white Christmas. 

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