The snow must go on

Frustrated British commuters could be forgiven for having had enough of snow, but how do film productions create it when it's needed?

by Jennie Kermode

This winter has seen flights cancelled, schools closed and cars deserted en masse - all because of the snow. But you only have to listen the excited cries of children to remember the special place snow has in our hearts. Christmas is never quite as special without it, and Christmas films rely on it for seasonal atmosphere. From Miracle On 34th Street to Fred Claus, snow's the word.

So in how many of these films is the snow real? The answer is surprisingly few. If their Christmas-themed stories sometimes seem contrived, that's nothing to the set dressing - but taking the artificial and making it feel real is part of the magic of the movies. Special effects gurus understand the importance of snow and have refined the technology to a point where it's almost impossible to tell the difference.

Of course, the easiest way to make a film full of snow is simply to shoot in a place where there's a lot of it, as in the likes of O'Horten and Far North. However this isn't always practicable - it might not work with the other requirements of the setting - and what's more, real snow doesn't always behave the way directors want. It doesn't blow about on demand and it's often too compact when what's wanted is a fun, fluffy look. For these reasons, most film crews prefer to work with artificial snow. During the filming of With Honors, director Alek Keshishian had metre-deep real snow shovelled away from his location and replaced with artificial snow which, he said, looked more authentic.

Artificial snow is available in many different forms to suit different production requirements. It can cost productions tens of thousands of dollars, but there are options to suit all budgets. Some of it comes in long rolls and can be laid across the set like carpet - it may sound unlikely, but viewers usually take it for the real thing. Sticky spray-on snow is the usual solution for decorating trees and houses, but it can be very messy and it often attaches itself to incautious actors. It can be difficult to clean up in a hurry. Some filmmakers actually prefer to use grated cheese, which can be an affordable solution when it's bought in bulk. Similarly, potato flakes can stand in for snowflakes.

Professional quality snowflakes, which many set dressers prefer for scattering around the place, were traditionally made of styrofoam, but these days concern for the environment means that biodegradable flakes are usually preferred. These come in several different varieties to suit different types of effect. Some are sparkly and can give night-time shoots that magical quality, though looked at up close they don't much resemble real snow at all. The trick is to get the lighting right so that they convince when we see them falling from the sky.

Just as there are different types of snow, there are different types of snow machine. Old fashioned ones used to create real snow, but this had an unfortunate habit of melting too fast under studio lights and it required sets to be kept below freezing, uncomfortable for actors doing multiple takes. Now most machines use a special fluid that crystallises before being blown onto the set through a hose, so it can be angled from any direction. If you pay attention you'll notice that snow in films rarely falls straight downwards as this is the most difficult set-up to arrange. Fans are often used to keep the snow aloft and give the impression of swirling winter winds.

All of this may seem like a lot of trouble to go to, but filmmakers consider it essential to creating an authentic winter atmosphere, along with blue lighting gels and shivering actors. Next time you watch Bridget Jones's Diary, spare a thought for the actors bundled up and shaking in winter clothes - those scenes were actually filmed in the middle of summer.

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