One of the greatest holiday movies, “It’s a Wonderful Life” brought more to the world than just an excellent performance by Jimmy Stewart. It introduced Hollywood to a new type of artificial snow.
Shooting a Christmas movie in the middle of 90-degree heat in the summer of 1946 can create some problems for filmmakers trying to turn Bedford Falls into a winter wonderland. Before the Frank Capra classic, fake movie snow was mostly made from crushed cornflakes that were painted white.
However, this created problems when actors would step on them, as it would create a loud crunch, forcing dialogue to be re-dubbed. There was also the problem of little vermin that would find their way to sets to eat the snow.
So, Russel Sherman—RKO studio’s head of special effects—and director Frank Capra put their minds together and developed their own type of artificial snow so that the dialogue could be recorded live. By mixing foamite, a material found in fire extinguishers, with sugar, water, and soap flakes, they created an artificial snow that was not only quiet but also sprayable. The mixture was pumped at high pressure through a wind machine to create the look of falling snow.
The ability to produce realistic onscreen snowfall for the first time won Russell Sherman a Technical Award from the Motion Picture Academy. For the four-acre set of “It’s a Wonderful Life”, the crew had to use over 6,000 gallons of this new artificial snow.
Today, artificial snow is used not only on movie sets but can be made in your own home. To make instant, non-toxic, artificial snow that is cool to the touch, only takes a couple of ingredients – common polymer (sodium polyacrylate) and water.
Sodium polyacrylate is a linear anion polymer with a high molecular weight, that is especially soluble in water. It can be found inside disposable diapers, pharmaceuticals, textiles, agricultural products, packages, and even in crystals found in a garden center that are used to keep the soil moist, or you can just buy it on Amazon.
Sodium polyacrylate powder is a super absorbent polymer that consists of chains of identical units known as monomers. So, when water is added to the white crystalline polymer, it absorbs several times its size, and a polymeric gel forms.
Create Your Own Artificial Snow!
All you need to do to create your instant snow is add water to the sodium polyacrylate. Keep adding more water to achieve the desired amount of wetness. The now-formed gel will not dissolve, but rather create a “slushy” mixture for your snow.
When the sodium polyacrylate is immersed in the water there is a higher concentration of water outside the polymer. So as water molecules come in contact with the sodium polyacrylate molecules, the water molecules are absorbed into the center of the sodium polyacrylate by osmosis. The polymer absorbs excessive amounts of water due to osmotic pressure.
Thanks to the sodium polyacrylate, the “snow” will feel cool to the touch because it is mainly made of water. To add a little more realism to your new snow, refrigerate or freeze it.
The gel substance will still not melt. And if it dries out—no worries, because you can re-hydrate it by adding more water!
This fun winter wonderland chemistry project even has the bonus of being non-toxic! Please remember that non-toxic isn’t the same as “good to eat”, so refrain from doing a taste test of your new fake snow.
Don’t Forget About Mountain Snow – Especially for Our CA Skiers!
Now that you know how the movies make Christmas come to life in July, and how to make it at home, you might be wondering about the created snow for winter sports or ski resorts where natural snow might not occur.
To cover several ski trails with manmade snow, you need a lot of water. According to SMI Snow Makers, it takes about 75,000 gallons of water to create a 6-inch blanket of snow covering a 200×200-foot area. The system in a good-sized ski slope can convert 5,000 to 10,000 gallons of water to snow every minute!
A positive to this instant snow powder method is that pumping this much water isn’t necessarily bad for the environment. Most resorts pump water from one or more reservoirs located in low-lying areas. The run-off water from the slopes is able to feed back into these reservoirs, so the resort can use the same water over and over again. However, ski slopes do need to work hard to keep water levels fairly balanced so as to not have any negative effects on plant and animal life.
The powder is essentially created once the water is collected by forcing gallons of it out through pressurized air by the use of a snow gun, also known as a “snow cannon.” Even though the artificial snow doesn’t replace the grandeur of real snow, it is nice to have a longer ski season in California and epic snowball fights.
If you enjoyed learning the science behind artificial snow, then you might enjoy our article on why you crave pumpkin spice everything this time of year.
As leaves turn colors and the wind starts to blow a little colder, it doesn’t just mean that holidays are around the corner, it also sparks the start of a pumpkin spice invasion.
Everywhere you turn during the fall and winter, it feels as if you can’t escape the pumpkin spice madness. Pumpkin spice lattes, pumpkin spice cereal, pumpkin spice Twinkies®, pumpkin spice butter, pumpkin spice yogurt, and even pumpkin spice vodka!
Why do we enjoy turning everything into a pumpkin spice flavor? What makes us crave it so much? Click the image below to learn why!
If you have any questions about the technical components of artificial snow, ask one of our Technical Specialists. They are available 24/7 around the world through Phenomenex’s free online chat service, Chat Now. Click the following link to start chatting!