A Short History Of Fake Snow In Holiday Movies: From 'It's A Wonderful Life' to Harry Potter
Watching classic holiday movies is a journey through the technology used to create yuletide joy in different generations. We once used asbestos as movie snow — now the technology ranges from computer graphics to a special type of paper.
In the early days of film, Hollywood “snowmen” would take anything that could be seen as white and flaky and put it to use, author and Atlas Obscura editor April White told LAist. Those sources of flaky whiteness included bleached cornflakes, gypsum, salt, concrete dust, asbestos, and even chicken feathers.
“There had been falling snow, but there were problems with the techniques that were used,” Christmas in the Movies author Jeremy Arnold told LAist. “In the silent era, filmmakers often used cotton for snow, until they realized this was a big fire danger on a soundstage.”
While the full deadly effects of some of these substances weren’t well known at the time, cast and crew could already see that some of them made breathing difficult. They’d often wear masks between takes to avoid breathing in some of this stuff.
Bleached snowflakes remained one of the most commonly used materials early on, with some movies from the 1920s and '30s featuring what appear to be giant snowflakes — and they would basically just drop straight down, Arnold said, as filmmakers lacked a good way to realistically blow snow into the frame.
There was a logic to the wide variety of materials in use. Different substances were used to fake different kinds of snow. You need snow banks, snow that can hold footprints, snow that catches in the corners of windows or sits on trees. And you also need to be able to depict fake ice on camera — it was sometimes paper, and sometimes actual ice, according to White.
While movie studios would truck in real snow at times, they didn’t often have large refrigerated studios to keep that snow as fresh as … well, the driven snow. So it would be dumped in a sweltering studio backlot, and filmmakers would shoot until it melted.
Creating A Snowmaking Machine — Let It Melt, Let It Melt, Let It Melt
One of the problems with all of the artificial materials in use early on is that you couldn’t see that snow melt.
“If someone walked in from the snow in their coat into a house, the snow would never change on their shoulders or eyelashes,” White said.
This was especially a problem when it came to closeups, making it impossible to convincingly film someone fresh in from the snow. So Warner Bros. technical director Louis Geib wanted to figure out how to manufacture “real” snow that could deliver those effects.
His solution: creating the first known snowmaking machine. It used three rotating blades, shaving a 400-pound block of ice and propelling the tiny pieces of shaved ice through the air.
“I was expecting to discover an entrepreneurial ski resort owner, and I found a guy on a backlot in Hollywood,” White said.
It was most often used to help deliver film-ready melting snow, first in 1934’s As the Earth Turns. A bonus for the movie’s child actors: it even allowed them to make snowballs, though they would all quickly melt under the hot film lights. (The snowballs, not the child actors. Though it was probably pretty warm.)
That invention was also embraced by Los Angeles in the years after, including holding a Christmas festival where they used the machine to make it snow on several blocks of the city. Movie studios started their own snow services, taking the show on the road and offering the ability to create a California winter wonderland. It was even used to hold skiing competitions at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum — though, despite the normally sunny locale, one of those early skiing competitions ended up being rained out due to a rare L.A. storm ruining the snow.
“We could have had them skiing down asbestos, I suppose,” White quipped.
It’s A Wonderful Crunch
Later in the 1930s, Hollywood studios introduced refrigerated sound stages that made it more common to work with actual snow and ice. Frank Capra made 1937’s Lost Horizon with a whole lot of fake snow. They shot it in an ice house in downtown L.A., with temperatures around 100 degrees outside while they kept it a frosty 25 inside, according to Arnold. But the temperatures were hard on the cameras, causing them to freeze — they had to cover the cameras with blankets and use lubricants to try to protect them in the harsh conditions as snow machines cranked out snow. And he resorted to plaster models painted white, rear projection shots, and stock footage from other films to complete the effect.
You would need snow machines, along with other exotic materials, to create just the right look for different films. And these innovations didn’t eliminate the use of other materials, including asbestos — it was used to provide snow for classics like 1939’s The Wizard of Oz and 1941’s Citizen Kane, according to the Motion Picture Academy, and was even sold as holiday home decor in the late 1940s and '50s, according to Snopes and Asbestos.com.
One problem that remained while creating a beautiful white landscape, especially when utilizing the popular bleached cornflakes: realism while avoiding the sound of crunching snow underfoot. Trying to avoid that led to some hazardous innovations along the way, according to White.
“The big problem with cornflakes is that they were loud,” Arnold said. “When they’re on the ground, they’re crunchy when you walk in them. You [also] can’t make footprints or tire prints in them, so there was a lack of realism there.”
Scenes that featured dialogue but had cornflakes falling all around the actors would need to be re-dubbed. That’s why, when Capra knew he needed to shoot important dialogue scenes for It’s A Wonderful Life in heavy falling snow (nine years after Lost Horizon), he directed special effects artist Russell Shearman to find him a solution. Along with other members of the RKO special effects department, they created a new concoction that included foamite (a substance used in fire extinguishers), soap flakes, water, and sugar, allowing for a quiet snowfall.
“They shot it out of canisters at a high pressure, and they had these massive fans above the set that were designed to be virtually silent,” Arnold said.
When we first think of It’s A Wonderful Life, I think most of us tend to first think of the image of George Bailey, running through the streets of Bedford Falls, shouting ‘Merry Christmas’ in the snow, as the snow is falling and there’s snow all over the ground.
They could move the fans to direct the snow where they wanted, and could even vary it from soft, gentle snow to hard, wind-driven snow.
“I think it really is important as a part of the storytelling in that film,” Arnold said. “When we first think of It’s A Wonderful Life, I think most of us tend to first think of the image of George Bailey, running through the streets of Bedford Falls, shouting ‘Merry Christmas’ in the snow, as the snow is falling and there’s snow all over the ground.”
And if you turn on the movie this holiday season, you’ll notice that the first image after the opening credits is snow, the camera moving through the town in a hard snowfall to create this world. Flashbacks put Christmas in the background for a bit, but when it comes back, the snow does too. And when George Bailey finds himself in an alternate world where he was never born, the snow stops — and starts again when he’s at the bridge as he comes back.
It’s A Wonderful Life would also use other forms of snow depending on the textures needed in different scenes, with photos from the production showing them using then more traditional snowmaking machines as well. Their full snow arsenal included materials such as snow blankets to cover lawns, alongside plaster and gypsum to cover windowsills.
But that foamite mix became the standard in Hollywood for decades, even though films would also experiment with salt, wax, even marble dust.
When you go back and watch the film, you may notice the water dripping down Jimmy Stewart’s face. But it’s likely less from the artificial snow most of the time and more because the film was shooting in Encino, with actors in winter clothes, in the summer. The town of Bedford Falls was one of the largest sets ever built for a movie, taking up four acres, and Stewart had to run down those streets on days where it would get into the 90s.
If you’re looking for more classic holiday movie snowfall, Arnold also recommends the lesser known I’ll Be Seeing You from 1944, starring Ginger Rogers and Joseph Cotten.
“That has also a really beautiful imagery of gentle, light falling snow,” Arnold said. “And it’s very appropriate, because it’s a very sensitive, delicate story. You have these two damaged souls that are basically trying to connect and open themselves up to love again. There’s a gentle cleansing, healing effect that the snow has.”
Those stories of transformation and healing are a Christmas movie trope, with Scrooge as the ultimate example.
“The idea that something about the Christmas season helps that along as a catalyst, that’s what a real, pure Christmas movie story does,” Arnold said. “You see it over and over, and you see it in comedies, dramas, tragedies, westerns — all kinds of genres.”
In the 1980s, a new type of fake snow was invented that became a new standard, according to Arnold: Snowcel. It’s made from little bits of paper and was the kind utilized in the Harry Potter films, helping to give that franchise a holiday feel.
“I mean, snow is magic. When you’re a child, it’s like a magical thing, if snow was falling — and if it’s falling on Christmas, that’s the classic, idealized Christmas. Snow falling at night on Christmas Eve,” Arnold said.
It added to the actual magic in those films, Arnold said.
Much of the snow in our modern Christmas movies — whether that be in the theaters, on streaming, or on the Hallmark Channel — relies on refrigerant to keep it fresh, but is even closer to the real snow and ice created by Mother Nature.
However, the most common technique, according to the Motion Picture Academy, has become digital effects. They can add some falling snow without having to deal with the actual stuff on set. But advancement continues even there, with Disney being among those to extensively research the most effective ways to animate snow so they could bring it to life in films such as Frozen.
So the magic of snow on screen remains. But it might just be even more imaginary than ever before.