Every Christmas, I make a point of watching It’s a Wonderful Life. Talk about heart-warming. I never get tired of seeing George Bailey throw a lasso around the moon and Clarence get his wings. Ah, Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without it.
Plus, I’m a big fan of the special effects.
Yes, I know, Frank Capra’s best-loved film isn’t exactly famed for its camera trickery. Sure, there are a couple of nifty matte paintings, but otherwise it’s just a cosy seasonal tearjerker, right? Well …
In 1948, the RKO special effects department – led by Russell Shearman – was presented with a Technical Achievement Award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for inventing a whole new way of making snow for the movies. The film for which the new technique was developed was, you guessed it, It’s a Wonderful Life.
Before Shearman came along, one of the favourite ingredients used for cooking up fake snow was bleached corn flakes. Health issues aside (nobody wants to breathe corn dust all day and, boy, do the rodents love their breakfast cereal), those early efforts generally looked pretty good. However, as soon as the silent era gave way to that of sound, a new problem presented itelf: corn flakes are crunchy. As soon as the actors started walking around, the noise of their footsteps drowned out the dialogue.
Shearman’s innovation was to use Phomaide – the foam material employed in fire extinguishers. Sprayed in front of one of the new low-noise Ritter fans, Phomaide simulated falling snow in a way that was safe, silent and pleasing to the eye. As for the drifts of fallen snow you see in It’s a Wonderful Life, they’re made up variously of burlap-and-plaster banks, piles of gypsum and shaved ice and, yes, heaps and heaps of Phomaide.
In 2011, the Academy’s Science and Technology Council held a special It’s a Wonderful Life event hosted by Craig Barron and Ben Burtt. Here’s a great little video from the event in which special effects supervisor John Frazier demonstrates the Phomaide phenomenon.
Fast-forward to the present day and what do we find? New ground has been broken yet again in the quest for realistic movie snow. This time the innovators are Walt Disney Animation Studios, the snow is digital, and the film is Frozen.
For Frozen, the Disney team developed an innovative material point simulation called Matterhorn, using a hybrid approach that combines particle/mesh sims with the grid-based approach of fluid sims.
Matterhorn allows for the creation of highly realistic snow that is at the same time both fluid and sticky. By dialling various parameters up and down, the snow can be made more or less powdery, compelled to clump together, and spread so as to present a resistant crust to the downward thrust of a character’s footfalls.
Disney’s material point simulation was presented at Siggraph earlier this year. If you want to read more about it – and watch a stunning video showing a range of applications for the process – check out Ian Failes’s recent article over at FXGuide.
In It’s a Wonderful Life, Frank Capra uses his spanking new Phomaide snow to great dramatic effect. When trainee angel Clarence whisks the disillusioned George Bailey into a world where he was never born, the snow stops falling. When George returns to the here-and-now, the flakes start descending again. Capra’s message is simple: snow is like fairy dust. It’s magic.
Today is Christmas Eve. For me, it’s the one day of the year I always feel that maybe … just maybe … the fairy dust might be real. Whatever festival you may be celebrating this holiday season … whether you’re shovelling snow off your driveway or basking in antipodean heat … I beg you to indulge me, just for a moment.
Tilt back your head and gaze up at the sky. Imagine a host of little white flakes tumbling down towards you. Forget the 70 years separating It’s a Wonderful Life and Frozen. Forget about whether blizzards look better when they’re made of old-school frothing foam or cutting-edge prancing pixels. Remember that all the best movie moments, old and new, are sprinkled with fairy dust. Dusted with magic.
Let it snow.