Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Fake Snow Bringing winter to silent movies

Snow Scenes in Early Movies
Making snow blizzards in Hollywood California

There's nothing like the real thing, snow-stuff

When the weather outside is frightfully gorgeous in California, the location man -- usually a man in the teens and twenties -- was sent to find the snow. The producer sent scouts to look for the snow. We're not talking Snow White or Frozen.... Well, really we kind of are, but we're not.

Chaplin employed a group of men
to make their way to the top
of a mountain to film
The Gold Rush
This was often dangerous, time consuming and expensive. People were injured, some lost their lives in accidents procuring places to shoot winter scenes and in the process of shooting scenes. Cast and crew members were stranded during unexpected storms and avalanches.

When Charlie Chaplin made The Gold Rush in 1924, he worked high in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. 

An exact replica of the famous Chilkoot Pass, the gateway to the Alaska gold fields of 1898 was duplicated, built on a mountainside. To make a pass a pathway thousands of feet long was cut through the snows of the far northern boundaries. 

Charles Chaplin gets snowy in the 1920s

1916 Motion Picture magazine illo
The Goat, The Script and The Silk Slippers
One ad for Back to God's Country displayed a row of illustrations of animals,

"Never a film like this - An absolute novelty, so different. Sixteen different kinds of animal actors." 

There were special children's matinees. In towns where the film was playing, there were contests for children to draw the different animals or to write essays about them as a stunt to win tickets to see the show.

Abel Gance knew no English, Ivy Close, the British artiste in the cast is unable to speak a word of French. A new language was invented half English and half French. Communication troubles extended beyond mere words. The cast included animal actors. A goat of the highest credentials was a part of the ensemble.

"The goat commenced his screen career by eating several pages of the scenario of the picture in which he was to appear.  Suspicion became certainty when Ivy Close found him supping off one her satin slippers. But the goat, being an excellent actor had to be humored like the other players."

Antonio Moreno faces an 'ice flow'
actually filmed in a swimming pool
For the serial House of Hate with Pearl White
Real Alpine scenes are to be found in Abel Gance's picture The Wheel for the famous French producer ascended Mont Blanc. They faced real peril from snowstorms and avalanches and Ivy Close leading lady nearly lost her life through a 200-foot fall down a mountain. 

Actress Nell Shipman did many films that had snow scenes

Actress Nell Shipman did a series of films that took place in cold climates and she had a series of mishaps. While making Back to God’s Country in 1919, Ronald Byron who had been selected to play the leading male role died from exposure when the picture was barely begun.

Bert Van Tuyle served as a production manager. He fell into the icy water of Northern Idaho where they were shooting, sustained frostbite in his foot that turned gangrenous. Reports of the time said his foot had to be amputated, but more recent reports suggest that a few toes were lost.

Lillian Gish is Anna, adrift on the ice in Way Down East
We recently watched Way Down East with some friends, a movie party where we streamed it over Amazon Prime.  We included a meal while the film was on.

Way Down East 1920
"One cameraman was especially active. His name was Allen and we would see him jumping from cake to cake, always trying to get as close as possible to me, to show that no one was doubling for me. Once or twice he fell in camera and all but he was safely fished out. Then I made a suggestion which has caused me considerable suffering since. 

"I thought it would be more realistic if I dipped my hand in the icy water and let it lie there while the camera took a closeup  and a long shot of my hand. If you have ever put your your hand in ice water -- well, don't! Ice water feels just like a burning flame. When I took my hand out of the water I found it was cramped and stiff and ever since I have suffered from painful rheumatism in the palm of my hand and the fingers." 
-- Lillian Gish talking about the making of the famous ice floe scene in Way Down East

"Once I managed to get myself lost in a blizzard and wandered about for an hour til the search party found me with my toes frozen. They were so crippled by this experience that I can't move them today." -- Leatrice Joy

Charles Chaplin in The Gold Rush 1925
One of the most unusual stories, aka:
Aaaah, Mister press agent, play me a violin

Note: The fact that the group was stranded in their car was well documented. The entirety of this story is not completely positively certain, though. We should ask Mr. Chaplin who ate his shoe, laces, sole and all about this. 

Being stranded apparently occurred while the team was working on God's Country and the Woman, the 1916 film in their successful franchise.

"'And when the last bean and the last prune had been eaten they took the strings from the violin and made soup out of them!' 

"If you don't believe it they'll show you the stringless fiddle. What's it all about? Why only a thrilling press agent story about a Vitagraph company being snowbound in the San Bernardino mountains during the filming of some snow stuff. 

Snowblind, 1921. So cold that the oil in the cameras froze.
Costars Mary Alden, Russell Simpson and Pauline Starke
"The heroine of the story, Nell Shipman, the leading man, William Duncan, Rollin Sturgeon the director, Iguchi the Japanese cook all vouch for the truth of the story. How did they escape death by starvation? The press agent had to stop and gasp for breath here but our private opinion is that until they could walk down the hill the vast mile or two separating them from civilization the material of the violin itself served as board."
--Photoplay 1916 

Not only did people risk their lives but innumerable small technical problems
Nell Shipman;
The Silent Screen &
My Talking Heart
An Autobiography
arose when working in the cold and snow.  
While making Way Down East, D.W. Griffith's cameras actually froze, according to star, Lillian Gish.

While making The Covered Wagon "Lois Wilson and Warren Kerrigan found their greasepaint frozen hard in their makeup boxes while outside the electricians discovered that Jack Frost had been interfering with the works." Not a single engine would work.

Several articles and notes mentioned film companies that headed for Truckee, California to find snow. The town is in the vicinity of Lake Tahoe. Residents of San Jose and the San Francisco bay area may head to this region in wintertime to ski.

Theater lobbies went all out to promote movies.
For the 1923 film Call of the Wild, The Majestic Theatre in Portland, OR
created a 3-D snow scene to give the audience a real experience along with the show

Tricking Nature, Fake Snow

"'How cold! How cold the world!' sobs the heroine, clutching her nameless child to her bosom and the sarcastic laugh of the villain is cut short by a voice off that hisses, 'Mind your cigar, you fool! You're setting the snow on fire!'"

Since many films requiring snow were released at holiday-time they were often made in the summer. Finding snow for making the movies was that much harder. One special effects director spoke of coming to the set in the 1940s to find wildlife eating the artificial snow. 

For instance Christmas in Connecticut with Barbara Stanwyck, Dennis Morgan and Sydney Greenstreet was filmed May-July 1944. It contained many "snow" scenes. How did they make fake snow in the old days?

How did they make snow in the 1920s?

Insta-Snow Jar
If a film producer is forced to fake a snow scene he does the thing in style. For one winter exterior filmed in California under blazing summer sunshine over forty tons of salt were employed. 

White pine sawdust is often used in the summer to resemble snow and glass icicles help the illusion. 

The snow may be "manufactured out of some small scraps of paper and a few tons of salt. It looks real."

If the snow is needed in only a few scenes salt and paper thrown down from above and churned around in the air by means of a wind machine make an excellent substitute.  

One of the earliest movies about life in Hollywood and making movies, Souls for Sale, contains a scene showing exactly how this is done.

Souls for Sale stars Frank Mayo, Richard Dix, Mae Busch, Barbara LaMarr, Lew Cody and Eleanor Boardman. The film includes cameos of director Erich von Stroheim and a non-Tramp Charlie Chaplin and snippets of directors Fred Niblo and Marshall Neilan. 

For The Gold Rush, some scenes of great magnitude are also built at the Chaplin Studios in Hollywood. A reproduction of the main section of Nome in 1898 was erected there with a background of the mountains. 

The 1922 silent film, Beyond the Rocks with Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino is reputed to have used at least some fake snow for its scenes in the French Alps. Even in the early days of movies, reviewers were not always able to suspend their disbelief.

"The frozen north is a treacherous ally as perilous as it is fascinating and it is small wonder that many producers prefer the imitation to the real thing and content themselves with snow storms safely manufactured in the studio and with quickly congealing paraffin poured on the water to simulate a freeze-up. 

Gloria Swanson
Beyond the Rocks
"The dramatic Alpine scenes in Beyond the Rocks for instance are just artificial as the frankly artificial snow ballet in A Fool's Paradise and -- between ourselves -- they look it!

"It is often better and cheaper to fake a snow scene in this way for the real stuff is generally too uncertain to rely on. One company a short time ago wen to Truckee to film some Alaskan scene and waited three weeks for the required snow. 

"Eventually they went home disappointed and had to fake the scene at the studio. Afterward they heard that the evening after they left the mountains in the area came down in a regular blizzard!"

Corn Flakes:
The most common stand-in for snow in the early decades of film-making was white-coated or bleached cornflakes, sometimes mixed with shaved gypsum. It produced so much audible crunching and crackling when actors walked across it that dialog was often over-dubbed afterwards.

Cotton Wool
"Shooting snow stuff in the neighbourhood of Truckee California for a picture entitled Big Game. Snow stuff the real thing and not studio salt or cotton wool. You'll find this picture cool and refreshing now that summer is here." The star, May Allison, is an excellent cook and when on location provides many delicacies for the members of her company.  
-- Picturegoer 1921

Gypsum was probably the main mineral used in making fake snow in the early days. It's said to have contributed to the death of actor Lon Chaney. In 1929 he came down with pneumonia. He was later diagnosed with lung cancer. While Mr. Chaney was a smoker, another contributing cause may have been his inhaling the crushed gypsum used in the fake snow in some of his films including Nomads of the North (see link below). Chaney was in his mid-forties when he died.

Several re-takes for Way Down East were filmed in the summertime in 90 degree temperatures. Richard Barthelmess sweltered in his bearskin coat, they said, all the players in their wintry garb their sufferings were far more real than the screen sorrows of the heroine.  
MBT Lighting SM100DMX Flurry Snow Machine 
A few companies make snow-making machines for instant snow that are available to the public, MBT is one of them. I see that regardless of manufacturer customers sometimes think the machines are loud.They're used for weddings, birthdays, proms and other parties, photo shoots, plays, videos and other performances. They also make fog machines and bubble machines. 

For Crafts, there are recipes calling for glitter, mica even Ivory Snow
and you can buy spray on and other things.
** Mashed potato flakes can work for big and small applications, they're safe for kids and most pets.

It's a Wonderful Life James Stewart, 1946
Frank Capra creates a Wonderful New Snow with RKO

Fake snow was upgraded once again in for the 1946 classic film, It's a Wonderful Life thanks to RKO studio’s special effects wizard, Russell Shearman, director Frank Capra who also happened to be an engineer. Helpful was the availability of some post-WWII technology.

The crew used a mixture of foamite, the material used in fire extinguishers, sugar and water, some accounts claim it included soap flakes. Six thousand gallons was pumped at high pressure through a wind machine. The new pseudo-snow "clung convincingly to clothing and created picture-perfect footprints, while generating nothing like the sound of trod-upon breakfast cereal."

Marty Martin, Jack Lannon, Russell Shearman and the RKO Special Effects Department received a Class III citation aka a Class III Scientific or Technical Oscar from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for "developing a new method of simulating falling snow on motion picture sets." 

Falling snow in movies today is made from foam-paper.  What are your favorite movies with snow scenes? For some reason, a more current movie that comes to mind for me is Groundhog Day. And I remember the snow in The Godfather which is a favorite film. 

I'm curious about old vs new methods of animating snow. We have an artist in the family who was painting ice and snow, water and bubbles, melting ice cream and Popsicles... Interesting project.

Hawaiian Shaved Ice and
Snow Cone Machine Party Package

A best seller; snow ball maker?

Winter, snowy shorts, serials and feature-length films of the era:

Strongheart, the early dog actor owned by writer and producer Jane Murfin was a hero in several winter-themed films. Some are considered lost and others are difficult to find. Strongheart and Rin Tin Tin were in similar films, they were both huge stars and both have stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. 

After his death, books were written about Strongheart and his legacy, some dealing with communication with animals.
  • The Awful Truth (1925)  Agnes Ayres, Warner Baxter, Winifred Bryson
  • Blind Husbands (1919) Directed by Erich von Stroheim. Sam De Grasse, Francelia Billington, Erich von Stroheim appears as Lieutenant Eric Von Steuben 
  • Call of the Wild (1923) jack Marshall; from Jack London book of the same name
  • The Chechahcos (1924)  William Dills, Albert Van Antwerp, Eva Gordon
  • The City of masks (1920) Robert Warwick, Lois Wilson, Theodore Kosloff    
  • The Girl from God's Country (1921)  Nell Shipman, Edmund Burns, Al W. Filson (Nell Shipman is Neeka Le Mort aka Neeka of the Northlands / Marion Carslake). This film preceded Back to God's Country
  • God's Country and The Woman (1916) Directed by Rollin S. Sturgeon, William Duncan, Nell Shipman, George Holt
  • The Golden Snare (1921) Lewis Stone, Wallace Beery, Melbourne MacDowell  
  • The Great White Trail (1917)  Doris Kenyon, Paul Gordon, Thomas Holding
  • The House of Hate (1918) Serial  Pearl White, Antonio Moreno, Peggy Shanor, Helene Chadwick
  • Hazel Kirke (1916)  Pearl White, Allan Murnane, Riley Hatch
  • I pagliacci (1923) Adelqui Migliar, Lillian Hall-Davis, Campbell Gullan
  • Nomads of the North / The Shock Lon Chaney, Lewis Stone, Melbourne MacDowell
  • Out of the Silent North (1922) Barbara Bedford, Frank Mayo, Frank Leigh
  • Snowblind (1921)  Mary Alden, Russell Simpson, Pauline Starke
  • Snowdrift (1923) Irene Rich, Dorothy Manners, Buck Jones
  • The Snowshoe Trail (1922) Jane Novak, Roy Stewart
  • Tracked in the Snow Country (1925)  Rin Tin Tin, June Marlowe, David Butler
  • Tyrant Fear (1918)  Dorothy Dalton, Thurston Hall, Melbourne MacDowell
  • The Wheel / La Roue (1923) Directed by Abel Gance. Ivy Close, Severin-Mars. Ivy Close, leading lady nearly lost her life through a 200-foot fall down a mountain
  • Wolves of the North (1921) Herbert Heyes, Percy Challenger, Eva Novak The film "contains a wonderful avalanche scene, This effect which purports to be an Alaskan snow-slide was staged in the Yosemite National Park, hundreds of tons of snow and rocks being precipitated down a mountainside whilst busy cameras filmed the scene.

Links to Films and Related Pages of Interest

Nell Shipman Movie Collection DVD Sets

A Good Cry-Off Camera Musicians Help Silent Film Actors Bring Tears Your Director tells you to Cry! Lillian Gish talks more about her role in Way Down East, also video of her being interviewed by Joan Rivers on The Tonight Show 1983

10 Great Stunt Women of the early Silent Movies Real bullets flying by, hanging onto the wheels of trains, whoa Nellie :: More about the work of D.W. Griffith, Lillian Gish in Way Down East

Animals on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: Strongheart, Rin Tin Tin, Character Costumes : Muppets, Godzilla [Currently being revised]

Cocktail Recipes, Drinks named for early Film Stars, Favorites, Ideas for serving : Round ice cube molds

Cinema as Weather: Stylistic Screens and Atmospheric Change: Stylistic Screens and Atmospheric Change (Routledge Advances in Film Studies) From description: "How do cinematic portrayals of the weather reflect and affect our experience of the world? While weatherly predictability and surprise can impact our daily experience, the history of cinema attests to the stylistic and narrative significance of snow, rain, wind, sunshine, clouds, and skies. Through analysis of films ranging from The Wizard of Oz to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, from Citizen Kane to In the Mood for Love, Kristi McKim calls our attention to the ways that we read our atmospheres both within and beyond the movies." 
Kindle, e-book or paper, available to rent. 

For researchers, makers of documentaries, indie, feature films
* The Advances in Film Studies series of books is very interesting and covers a broad range of topics such as Japanese Horror Films, religion in film, fatherhood in film, The Woman's Film of the 1940s and many more. Most available in ebook form.

Pictures & Picturegoer December 1921, 1924
Photoplay October 1924
Screenland September, November 1924
Life Magazine 1946 

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