There’s been an urban legend in my area passed down from neighbor to neighbor throughout the years marveling at the efforts a production crew once went through for a Meryl Streep movie in order to create an authentic winter look.
The only supporting information I’ve heard is that it was a Streep movie from the 1980s with a scene shot at a nearby college. The lore goes like this: “You wouldn’t believe it, they plucked every single leaf off the trees and sprayed the entire knoll with fake snow!”
Knowing the lengths feature films go to in order to create a genuine sense of realism in their productions, yes, I actually would believe it. As long as the crew had permission from the property owner to pluck all those leaves from the trees, it’s absolutely something they’d do. And spraying a whole bunch of fake snow all over the place? May as well be child’s play.
But that whole scenario ultimately left one basic question tugging at my curiosities: what exactly is “fake” movie snow made from, anyway? Is it actual snow, just mechanically produced? Some other natural material that looks like snow but doesn’t melt? Bubbles? Cotton?
Depending on the particular era of Hollywood history we’re talking about, any of the aforementioned examples may have been used. The early days of filmmaking used cotton to simulate snow, until a fireman pointed out that it was a bad idea to cover a film set in a flammable material.
In the ’30s and ’40s, filmmakers went in the opposite direction, using the innovatively non-flammable chrysotile on movie sets. Unfortunately for them, chrysotile is better known as white asbestos. It was used in productions as notable as “The Wizard of Oz” and “Citizen Kane,” lending to untold numbers of health issues for those involved.
Afterwards, filmmakers used myriad set design tricks from white painted corn flakes to tons of old salt to create the illusion of snow. But what about the modern solution, one that is technologically advanced (though not purely CGI, of course) and environmentally-friendly?
The answer is SnowCel, a paper-based cellulose product first used in Neil Jordan’s 1984 motion picture “The Company of Wolves.” SnowCel can be made in varying particle grades (grain sizes) with indoor (non-flammable) or outdoor (biodegradable) uses. SnowCel is reusable, but can be quite an effort to clean up, therefore when used in large areas it is recommended that a snow sheet or snow blanket is put down first as a base.
Check out the video below of a team of specialists adding SnowCel to a set. Sure it’s non-toxic, though I’m still rather taken aback that the fellas aren’t even wearing masks when applying it. If it’s in the air, it’s in the lungs, so better safe than sorry folks.