News & InfoEP StoreAcademySupportCommunityProducts by Country
Blog Home

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.”

Topic: Spotlight

Related Content

Streaming platform on tablet device

The Evolution of Residuals: How Streaming Changed the Model

Understanding how residuals payments are calculated for new content on streaming platforms.
Topic: Residuals
EP Blog_SQUARE_Wes Hagen

Meet the Location Manager

A conversation with award-winning location manager Wes Hagen ('Ozark,' 'Hidden Figures.')
Sian Richards and Queen Latifah-square

A Face Kit for Every Skin Tone

Hollywood makeup artist Siân Richards is transforming the makeup industry for actors of every shade.
Oklahoma route 66 sign

A New Frontier in Filmmaking

Oklahoma is becoming a production destination, thanks to new incentives and infrastructure programs.
cell phone with sticky note stating sign here

Six e-Consent Myths (and Why They’re Not True)

Sheridans Associate, Sarmad Saleh, debunks some common e-consent myths.
Topic: Legal

Producing with Purpose

Creative Producer, Kimberly Goodman ('Selling Sunset', 'Project Runway') shares insights on creating...
EP Blog_The Race to Net Zero is On for Big Studios

The Race to Net Zero is On for Big Studios

Film and television studios are embracing the green movement in a big way. Here’s what you can expect to...
EP Blog_SQUARE_meet the cinematographer-dan-laustsen

Meet the Cinematographer

A conversation with Dan Laustsen ('John Wick', 'Nightmare Alley').
Master Series Women in Animation-thumbnail

Women in Animation: A 3D View

Marge Dean, Mandy Tankenson, and other women leaders from across animation come together to celebrate...
Bradley Cooper-nightmare alley

Meet the Assistant Director

A conversation with Myron Hoffert ('Nightmare Alley')
EP Blog_SQUARE-Sound Mixer-Lora Hirschberg

Meet the Sound Mixer

A conversation with Oscar-winning re-recording mixer, Lora Hirschberg ('Inception', Skywalker Sound)

Film Industry Booms in Buffalo

Western New York draws top filmmakers with expanded tax incentives, new soundstages, and architectural...
Changes to UK right to work checks

Important Changes to UK Right to Work Checks

On September 30, 2022 the UK rules around right to work checks will change. Here’s what productions need...
Topic: UK
Master Series Square Thumbnail-Film Financing-Crowdfunding

Film Financing Explained: Crowdfunding

Emily Best (Seed&Spark), Stacy Bradford (Indiegogo), and producer Zach Fineblum join us to discuss the ins...
EP Blog_SQUARE_1st AC Matt Sanderson

Meet the First Assistant Camera

A conversation with 1st AC Matt Sanderson ('Everything Everywhere All At Once')
Los Angeles Times logo-sq

Hollywood production in U.K. soars to record levels as crews complain of burnout

Spending on film and high-end television shoots reach record-breaking amounts as production activity...
EP Webinar Panelists - US Production Incentives Update

US Production Incentives Update: New and Expanded Programs in 2022

Film commissioners Colleen Bell and Sandy Lighterman, and production executives Jay Roewe and Ashley Rice,...
EP Blog_SQUARE_Penka Kouneva-2

Meet the Composer

A conversation with award-winning orchestrator and composer Penka Kouneva (‘Revenge,’ ‘Pirates of the...
dollar signs representing digital crowdfunding

The Beginner’s Guide to Crowdfunding

How filmmakers can leverage the power of social networks and online platforms to build buzz and secure...
Mount Hood, Oregon

Building on Oregon’s Cinema Legacy

How improved tax Incentives, job training, and production infrastructure is expanding the filmmaking...
EP Blog_SQUARE_filmmaking in new mexico

Forging the Future of Filmmaking in New Mexico

As the film industry expands in the Southwest, New Mexico leads the region as top destination thanks to...
EP Blog_SQUARE-Pitching Reality Tv-2

Pitching and Financing Unscripted Television

Ready to sell your big idea for a reality TV program? This guide will help prepare you for the road ahead.
EP Blog_SQUARE-Historical content and new media

Residuals and the Streaming Model

How residuals apply to historical content on new media platforms.
EP Blog_SQUARE_Fighting Hollywood Stereotypes-TTEI

Fighting Stereotypes and Rethinking Representation

How TTIE is advancing authentic storytelling in Hollywood by empowering historically excluded writers and...

Contracting in a COVID-19 World  

The pandemic has affected how UK production companies contract crew. Here’s how to reduce the impact of...

Terms to Include in UK Crew Contracts

Common terms which studios and production companies include in their UK crew contracts.
Topic: UK

The UK GDPR and how Productions can Reduce their Exposure - Q&A with Sheridans

Sheridans’ Associate Krishan Neelendra answers key UK GDPR questions from production companies and...
Topic: UK
KJ Lamb and Simon Donovan

Empowering the Next Wave of Production Accountants

The EP Production Portal team was delighted to participate in the biannual Netflix Assistant Production...
Master Series Panelists-World Revenues, Foreign Sales, Senior Debt

Film Financing Explained: World Revenues, Foreign Sales, and Senior Debt

Learn how working with agents, international distributors, and gap financiers can all factor into...
recycling conversation

Sustainability in Production: Q&A with Nikki Saunders

Nikki Saunders on sustainable filming practices, COVID-19, and why carbon offsetting isn’t a...
EP blog-square-tax day

Tips for Tax Day 2022

Your ultimate tax filing checklist - the deadline this year is Monday, April 18th!
EP Blog_Marge Dean

Opening Career Doors

How WIA President, Marge Dean, is shaping the future of animation and empowering underrepresented genders
EP Blog-proud to support-square

Proud to Support: Celebrating Client Nominations at the 94th Academy Awards

A look at the evolution of the Oscars and the notable films powered by Entertainment Partners technology.
International Film Financing panel-featured

Film Financing Explained: International Financing

International production experts discuss how producers can utilize financing systems outside of the US,...
International Financing-John Hadity-ft

The Beginner’s Guide to International Film Financing

What to know before you begin an international financing plan

Meet the Executive Producer

A conversation with Mike Drake ('Just Mercy') on the path to becoming and EP, and the role of social...
EP Blog_SQUARE_Island Incentives

A Ticket to Paradise

Island Incentives Bring Productions Ashore
Western Canada

Production Tax Incentives in Western Canada Every Producer Should Know About

Alberta and Manitoba offer film and TV productions competitive tax incentive programs and versatile...
EP Blog_SQUARE_New York

NY Convenience Rule Impacts Remote Production Workers and Film Incentives

How remote employee payroll taxes apply to New York-based productions and if an employee’s physical...
EP Blog_SQUARE_US Expanded Incentives 2022-2

A Record Number of US States Expand Filmmaking Incentives in 2022

Your guide to the latest news in production incentives and film programs to come from the 2022 legislative...
EP Blog_SQUARE_New US Incentives 2022

New US Film Incentives Introduced in Arizona, Indiana, Florida, and West Virginia

As production continues to boom, new tax credits and other programs welcome industry to new locations...
EP Blog_SQUARE-Atlantic Canada Expands Incentives

Atlantic Canada Expands Film Incentives in 2022

Enhanced production incentive programs attract industry to Newfoundland & Labrador, Nova Scotia, and...
Compliant crew contracting panel-square

Compliant Crew Contracting in the UK

Learn how to ensure your crew contracts are compliant with UK regulations and why the Production Portal is...
Topic: UK
5 Master Series panelists discussing Atlantic Canada production incentives-square

Production Incentives Update: Atlantic Canada

Learn how productions can benefit from newly expanded incentives in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland & Labrador,...
Canadian flag flying over Quebec City

5 Reasons to Consider Canada for Your Next Production

Here's why Canada deserves a spot on every producer's shortlist.
Topic: Canada
EP Blog_Jesse Wente

Supporting Indigenous Storytellers of Canada

How the Indigenous Screen Office (ISO) offers advocacy and funding for First Nations, Inuit, and Métis...
Topic: Canada
Jennifer Liscio

Spotlight: Jennifer Liscio, VP of Tax Incentives and Legal Affairs

Meet EP's Canadian legal affairs and tax incentives domain expert, Jennifer Liscio, and learn how she’s...
EP Blog_SQUARE_World Revenues_global currencies

The Beginner's Guide to World Revenues, Foreign Sales, and Senior Debt

Learn how shopping your project around the world to secure funding commitments for distribution rights can...

Six Elements for Enforceable UK Crew Contracts

Although parties to a crew contract can largely enter into whatever terms they choose, certain elements...
Topic: UK
Master Series Panel-Solving the crew shortage

Solving the Crew Shortage

Learn how EP Academy, the Georgia Film Academy, Reel Works, the New Mexico Film Office, and others, are...

Georgia Proposes Capping and Prohibiting Sale of Film Tax Credits

The changes, if signed into law, would cap the amount Georgia hands out in film and TV tax credits at $900...
EP Newsroom-Thumbnail-Portland Business Journal

How Oregon’s updated film incentive law could boost the local economy

A new Oregon film and media incentive law could draw more movie productions to the state.
Anthony De La Rosa-EVP-Residuals

Spotlight: Anthony De La Rosa, Executive Vice President, Residuals

Meet EP’s resident residual domain expert, Anthony De La Rosa, and learn what inspired him to enhance and...
Digging Out of a Deficit-featured

Digging Out of a Deficit: What to Expect in the Second Quarter of 2022

Federal and State Unemployment Insurance rates are rising. Learn how these changes will affect 2022 and...
Crew contracting in the UK-panel

Quick and Compliant Crew Contracting in the UK

Neisha Glynternick and Sarmad Saleh from UK-based entertainment law firm Sheridans discuss crew...
Topic: Legal
Los Angeles Times logo-sq

Why the Cherokee Nation is Offering Rebates to Film in Oklahoma

Joseph Chianese speaks to the LA Times on new incentive
EP BLOG_Decoding-Your-Paystub-S

Decoding Your Paystub in 2022

What deductions may look different in the new year

Payroll & Finances

PayrollResidualsSmartStartNew SmartTimeProduction PortalEP On LocationSmartAccountingEP LiveSmartPOCASHétPayPaymaster Rate GuideEP Residency

Manage Multiple Productions

AssetHubSmartHubSmartHub Vault
Subscribe now

Be an industry insider with EP's
newsletters and alerts

LegalPrivacy NoticeSecurity
© 2022 Entertainment Partners. All rights reserved.