A little snowfall can provide a lot of atmosphere for a film. But directors don't want to stand around and wait for the white stuff before they yell "action!" Since the dawn of cinema, Hollywood has been devising new ways to fake it.
found inspiration in the historical Klondike Gold Rush, and led the auteur to drag the production's cast and crew to snowy, rustic Trukee, Nevada to serve as the scenic Chilkoot Pass in Alaska. For the film's opening sequence, 600 extras from Sacramento were brought in by train to reenact the dangerous Yukon trek. The Trukee Ski Club helped clear a 2300-foot single file path near Donner Summit, and what is now the Sugar Bowl Ski Resort. The film was spectacular, but at a price. Many of the cast and crew became sick during shooting because of the harsh conditions.
Reprising his role as The Little Tramp, Chaplin found his comic pratfalls difficult to control in the frigid conditions, and after coming down with the flu, he finally agreed to return to Hollywood. Once back in the studio, work began on the creation of a miniature mountain range, constructed from timber (reportedly a quarter-of-a-million feet), chicken wire, and burlap. Salt and flour were used in lieu of snow, and the resulting snowscape was surprisingly convincing on film. To film the Miner's hut teetering on the edge of the cliff, studio technicians created a miniature model and filmed the scene so smoothly that the cut from the full-size set to the model is hard to detect.
Victor Fleming's masterpiece was a Technicolor triumph, but Dorothy's dream hid a nightmare special effect secret. Filming the poppy field scene on stage 29 at MGM's studio required planting 40,000 artificial flowers carefully placed into the floor of the set. However, the real magic of the scene was the snow, sent by Glinda the Good Witch to break the spell placed on Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion by the Wicked Witch of the West. But Glinda may have reconsidered if she knew exactly what she was sending—industrial grade chrysotile, otherwise known as white asbestos, which the crew used as .
Until the late 1920's, films used cotton batting, a much safer alternative. Then, in 1928, a firefighter recognized the cotton as a fire hazard on set and had another not-so-bright idea. Why not use asbestos? The idea gained momentum in Hollywood, and from the 1930's through the 1950's, asbestos was marketed as snow under the names "Pure White" and "Snow Drift." The dangerous material was even sold for use as snow in the home. It wasn't until World War II, and the need for asbestos in military applications, that asbestos found its use in film diminished.
Shot in Encino, Calif., during a blistering summer, director Frank Capra's classic became one of Hollywood's most beloved films, and also pioneered a new method for creating fake snow. Capra, working with Russel Sherman, RKO's head of special effects, developed a form of quiet snow specially for the film. Their new "chemical snow" allowed actors to walk on it without creating the crunching sound typically associated with artificial snow of the time—and for that matter, real snow.
To make "quiet" snow, foamite—which is used in fire extinguishers—was mixed with water, sugar, and soap flakes. The sprayable foam could then be applied to large areas quickly and efficiently, and could even be blown into the air with wind machines. To complete the effect, shaved ice was used to recreate slushy paths, and tons of plaster was sprayed on trees and used to create unmeltable snowbanks. In 1948, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented Russel Sherman and the RKO Radio Studio Special Effects Department with a Technical Award for their innovative efforts.
With the book banned in the Soviet Union, filming there was also out of the question. Instead, director David Lean found himself shooting much of the saga in north-central Spain, right in the middle of summer. Nevertheless, the film brings the frozen country estate in Varykino to life in stunning detail. Eddie Fowlie, in charge of the film's special effects, used marble dust to transform the Spanish countryside into a Siberian wonderland. Inside, his crew transformed the estate via a layer of hot wax, followed by cold water, and topped off with its own sprinkling of marble dust. The overall effect was hypnotizing, transforming the manor into a glistening, frozen tableau.
Dick Donner certainly had his hands full bringing comic hero Superman to the big screen. But even more challenging than making the world believe a man can fly was recreating the Arctic wasteland where the Man of Steel's Fortress of Solitude is located. Constructed on Pinewood Studios' legendary 007 stage, the crystalline Fortress was a visual effects wonder, with huge ice flows carved from styrofoam and set adrift in an 800,000-gallon water tank. To create huge snow drifts, filmmakers used tons of salt hauled into the studio—much to the chagrin of the film's technicians, who had to ensure that the salt stayed out of the expensive camera equipment and wear rubber boats because the salt would eat through the leather of their shoes.
Thirty years after its release, Bob Clark's A Christmas Story has gone on to become a true holiday classic, culminating in an annual 24-hour Christmas Day marathon. The beloved film includes many memorable scenes—the leg lamp, Lifebuoy soap, the Red Ryder BB gun—and one in particular that required a carefully crafted special effect and a flagpole. When given the notorious triple dog dare, Flick (Scott Schwartz) must touch his tongue to a frozen pole to see if it will stick; what transpires is equal parts comedy and horror. Although the scene was shot at a real school over winter break, Schwartz's tongue was safe. The crew used a carefully hidden hole concealing a suction cup, which held Flick's tongue securely to the flagpole.
In Roland Emmerich's big-budget eco-disaster flick The Day After Tomorrow, Earth is plunged into another Ice Age. And when weather is your villain, that means that your snow effects have got to be convincing and scary. Enter , the world leaders in winter effects, and creators of an eco-friendly artificial snow made from recycled paper called SnowCel. It can be safely sprayed on trees, or the ground, and settles into a natural "just fallen" effect. The company also quickly transformed large parts of the set into a "frozen icebox" using high-speed hot wax spray technology.