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Creating a Winter Wonderland

How ‘Elf’ Production Designer, Rusty Smith, Produces the Perfect Snowy Scenes for Film and Television
December 21, 2021
EP Blog-Creating a Winter Wonderland-Elf

Have you ever watched a favorite holiday movie, and wondered how the filmmakers created that magical snowy scene?

Cue the special effects department blowing powdery snow to fall ever so gently around a couple on a bridge in a quaint Midwestern town. Or, perhaps a director calling ‘action’ on a snowball fight that erupts in the middle of Central Park. Many winter scenes are so artfully produced that audiences may never question whether the snow is real or fake, or if the filming even took place during the winter. That is movie magic at its finest, and a sign that a specialty snow team is hard at work doing a masterful job! 

Gone are the days when asbestos was used as artificial snow, like in the 1939 classic Wizard of Oz, or salt, as in Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush in 1925. Luckily for crew and actors alike, snowmaking is much safer and more sustainable today. But it does involve a complicated process with various different departments working closely together to make it happen.

The main snow-making departments include:

  • Production design, who handles the concept of how the overall snow scene is going to look
  • Special effects, who oversee the mechanical effects of how the snow is practically going to work on set
  • Visual effects, who take the practical execution of the snow on set, elevating it in post-production for that extra layer of realism

Thanks to Rusty Smith, a production designer most well-known for his work on the holiday classic Elf, along with other winter-themed movies including, Home Sweet Home Alone, Harold and Kumar Christmas, Mystery Alaska, and the most recent Jimmy Fallon commercial for the 2021 Thanksgiving Day parade, here is a peek behind the magic of creating the perfect winter wonderlands of our most favorite holiday flicks.

Artificial Snow Creation Techniques

Executing a snow scene is handled differently depending on the location, weather, and budget of a shoot.

Once a production designer sketches out how the scene should look, the special effects team takes over and begins planning out “dressing” the snow, drawing from a variety of techniques including: snow blankets, plastic, cellulose, shaved ice, and snow membranes, utilizing the services of a snow-making company.

Frito lay house-sketch-dressed set.png
Frito Lay holiday house; sketch and dressed set courtesy of Rusty Smith

Snow Business is one of the most popular snow making companies in the industry, pioneering more sustainable materials. They have created a biodegradable snow blanket made from renewable sugar cane!

Rusty explains, “A snow blanket gives the illusion of depth. It's like a canvas. You want your canvas white before you make it more white, and then you can sculpt and manipulate it around the trees or rooftops. Because it's a fibrous material, you can tear it into smaller pieces and artfully dress it by shoveling a little snow on top, allowing you to use less real snow or ice, which can be expensive.” 

Once the snow blanket is laid down, an artificial snow substance is applied over it. A few of the popular types include:

  • Finely shredded recycled paper. Produced in huge machines that shred the paper into an ultra-fine consistency, this style of fake snow is so lifelike it will even clump and drift like real snow. Once it is appropriately dressed, it is then sprayed with water to make it stick to the set and even a discerning eye would not know the difference!
  • A new biodegradable liquid on the market developed by Snow Business, called EcoFlake and ProFlake. This substance was created in partnership with the University of Bristol School of Chemistry. It’s sprayed using snow machines to create realistic falling snow and leaves zero residue.

On Elf, Rusty says, “I used plastic snow on stage when Will Ferrell was walking with the snowman, which was sculpted out of foam because we wanted it all to feel romantic and nostalgic, in a way like [the Rankin and Bass] Rudolph.”

'Elf' North Pole sketch, courtesy of Rusty Smith

While strides are being made in the artificial snow industry to make it more eco-friendly, it’s not always welcome on location. Rusty attests to this challenge while working in New York for Elf, “You can’t bring chemicals into Central Park. If we had to add snow to anything, it had to be real snow. Luckily it snowed, so we had to bring it from somewhere else in the park because we were not able to manufacture snow. For the snowball fight scene, we brought in several fake rocks for them to hide behind. The snowballs were all the special effects and props departments. They were not real snow.”

How Real Snow is Used On Set

When artificial snow isn’t used, ice machines are often brought in, but it does add additional headaches. As Rusty recalls, “On Harold and Kumar 3, we were supposed to be in New York during the winter, but we ended up shooting in Detroit during the summer. That was really hard. The last scene in the movie takes place in front of their house and when the camera pulls back, it's a beautiful, snowy landscape, but on either side of the frame, it was 80 degrees! We had a big ice truck that would come in and chop up the ice. It makes a lot of noise and the whole neighborhood came out to watch because they thought we were insane! The ice was constantly melting, so we had to keep refreshing it.”

Oftentimes, when it doesn’t snow on location, the special effects team may have to “chase snow.” While working on one of his favorite movies, Mystery Alaska, the production employed this process, despite cold temperatures on location: dump trucks drove up a mountain every day to load up snow and bring it back down the mountain to be distributed all over the town, working 24-hours a day for a total of 750 dump loads of snow!

Rusty, production designer turned weather-man, explains the reason behind the lack of snow for that particular shoot, “When the temperature drops below a certain point, it won't snow. Snow has to have a medium temperature of about 32 degrees. And if it starts to dip below 20, it won't snow. It'll be just cold, crisp, dry air. That's why the snow stayed on the mountain; it was a thousand feet up. And so, they would have to drive all the way up the hill and then bring it all the way back down. [Stealing snow] was really the best thing to do because it was so cold.”

'Mystery Alaska' courthouse set, courtesy of Rusty Smith

If your crew isn’t prepared to drive up mountains to steal snow, another method is keeping it frozen until it’s ready to use. Reefer trucks are refrigerator trucks used to transport ice or cold storage. Rusty recalls on Home Sweet Home Alone, “When I was in New York, the special effects team worked with an ice factory. They ground it up and put it in a refrigeration truck and then brought it on location, shoveled it out and spread it all around. Afterwards, the crew had to then shovel it back in the truck to take it away.”

Using technology to enhance snow effects

In addition to creating practical snow elements, visual effects play an important part in creating winter wonderland snowscapes in post-production.

Rusty explains while working on the recent Jimmy Fallon holiday commercial, “We were shooting in 90-degree weather in Los Angeles, and there’s a scene where Jimmy skates. That’s Teflon plastic we set up in downtown Los Angeles. It's a white plastic that you can actually skate on! But then it had to be digitally enhanced. There has to be a takeover point after we dress the snow around [the set]. At some point, you're going to have to do a [digital] extension. You can't always put snow on an entire hillside or an entire house, so often you have to dress the area that is closest to the actor with snow since that is the most important.”

Together, practicals and technology work hand-in-hand to transport you from your living room into the ultimate winter wonderland, keeping you coming back time and time again for that favorite holiday classic.

Next time you cozy up with a mug of hot cocoa and follow along with Buddy the Elf through the North Pole to New York City, take a moment to pause on the snow scenes and admire how it was made by creatives like Rusty. He owns his reputation as the “Christmas guy” in Hollywood, finding fulfillment in his work as a production designer with projects like Elf saying, “It’s the gift that keeps on giving, and feels like I have a theatrical release every year. It's great to be able to touch people in that way.”

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