“The kinds of landscape I try to find in my films exist only in our dreams” – Werner Herzog
The snowscape is one of the most inhospitable environments on Earth. Some valleys on the icebound continent of Antarctica are effectively dead zones – regions so cold and dry that not even a micro-organism can survive there, let alone a human being.
This essential lifelessness is one reason why, in Western tradition, snow has come to symbolise hardship and death. Yet danger is also a seductress. The very dangers of the snowscape make it appealing, both to explorers like Scott and Shackleton … and also to movie audiences, who are always ready for a vicarious sub-zero thrill.
The First Snowfall
One of the earliest cinematic trips to a snowscape (if not the very first) was the brainchild of pioneering movie magician Georges Méliès. For his 1912 film The Conquest of the Pole he replicated an Arctic wilderness in his studio in Montreuil, Seine-Saint-Denis, France. Like most of Méliès’ creations, however, his vision of the North Pole is the product more of whimsy than rigorous research.
A more realistic representation of an Arctic wilderness hit the screens in 1935, in Merian C. Cooper’s adaptation of H. Rider Haggard’s classic novel She. The film relocates the book’s action from Africa to northern Russia, giving the RKO effects unit plenty of scope to build snowscapes using miniatures and matte paintings.
Check out Peter Cook’s blog for more of this film’s beautiful VFX shots, created by the same team used by Cooper for his groundbreaking King Kong.
Scott of the Antarctic, released in 1948, features a wealth of location photography from Grahamland, Switzerland and Norway. However, the film’s star John Mills – along with the rest of the precious talent – rarely set foot outside the Ealing stage where the majority of the dramatic scenes were shot. Studio and snowscape were married together using process photography and the ubiquitous matte paintings, provided in the this instance by Geoffrey Dickinson.
Mattes and miniatures remained the solution for a wealth of subsequent snowscapes, including those in Ice Station Zebra, which in 1968 received an Academy Award nomination for its special effects (it lost out to 2001: A Space Odyssey). Like Scott of the Antarctic, it was shot largely on a soundstage, this time at the MGM Studio in Culver City. Its expansive Arctic vistas were the work of legendary matte painter Matthew Yuricich.
A Whole World of Snow
Snowscapes don’t get much more fantastic than those which appear in The Empire Strikes Back. Scenes on the ice planet Hoth were shot both on a glacier in Finse, Norway and on soundstages at Elstree Studios.
For the spectacular snow battle scenes, the traditional matte-and-miniature approach was combined with Industrial Light & Magic’s new motion-control camera technology, to create what’s still one of the most dynamic snowfield sequences ever filmed.
For the sequence, stop-motion Imperial walkers were animated ambulating through a miniature set dusted with baking soda snow, and backed by Mike Pangrazio’s spectacular paintings.
According to Paul Mandell’s article Tauntauns, Walkers and Probots in Cinefex 3, the primary ingredient for the miniature snow was humble baking powder:
“Nilo Rodis was primarily responsible for the construction of the miniature snow sets … [Rodis] decided to use baking soda for snow. The original idea was to use micro-balloons – microscopic glass beads used in the casting process to create a light airway and to add strength to resin compounds. The idea was discarded, however, because the surface tended to ‘float.’ Baking soda looked more authentic. Surgical masks were worn to avoid unnecessary inhalation.”
In the same issue, animator Phil Tippett describes the particular challenges of animating in the volatile environment that is the miniature snowscape:
“One of the things Jon Berg felt should be was to have the walkers crunch down on the snow. That meant dealing with an unstable surface. That complicated things a lot, as you can imagine. You can’t cover up a mistake, and you can’t bump the surface with your arm.”
Micro-balloons – eschewed by the Empire miniaturists – came into their own on Firefox, when the script required extensive snowscapes to be disrupted by the low-level flight of the supersonic jet fighter. Visual effects for the film were provided by John Dykstra’s company Apogee.
In the photograph below, Dennis Dorney and Doug Smith film sonic shock waves ripping through a miniature mountain range. The model trees were covered with the snow-like micro-balloons, before being blown apart by an air cannon.
The tradition of tabletop snowscape models continued into the 1990s. For the climactic scenes of the 1998 movie incarnation of The X-Files, in which an alien spaceship bursts from beneath the Antarctic ice, live-action footage of Mulder and Scully was composited with this large miniature built and photographed by Blue Sky | VIFX:
The Day After Tomorrow saw digital techniques stepping up to the formidable task of snowscape creation. Hydraulx produced the film’s three-minute opening shot as a single, seamless CG take, scanning model icebergs and ice shelves, and using the data to create digital replicas.
At the end of the lengthy shot, the camera comes to rest overlooking a climatologists’ camp on an Antarctica snowfield. A live-action plate of the camp, shot on a minimal bluescreen set, was added to the composition and enhanced using additional CG structures, vehicles and characters.
In this extract from her article Freeze Frames in Cinefex 98, Jody Duncan explains how ILM created views of New York City encased in ice … and acknowledges the reassuring presence of the ever-reliable baking soda, still a valuable tool in the arsenal of even the most pixel-centric artist:
“ILM combined painted textures and 3D procedural rendering techniques on 150 lidar buildings. Maintaining scale in the all-white buildings – devoid of scale-enhancing textures such as rust, watermarks and stonework anomalies – was a particular challenge.
“To simulate expanses of snow-covered ground, ILM crew members laid baking soda or talcum powder on a flat surface, then tapped it to create interesting crevices and cracks. Photographs of the setup were used either as reference or as texture maps applied to the CG terrain. Subsurface scattering techniques gave the icy cityscape a translucent, photoreal look.”
The issues of convincing scale is not the only problem face by artists when trying to put snowscapes on film. Talking on this blog about the visual effects of Snowpiercer, VFX supervisor Eric Durst pointed out the challenges of maintaining the right contrast and colour balance in an environment that is essentially white:
“Mike Mielke and his team from Scanline in Munich did fabulous work in creating the environments. The amount of detail required was staggering, especially with an ice and snow environment where color is greatly reduced. In this almost monochromatic world, where it’s basically all white on white and shades therein, the level of detail needs to be extreme to keep large surfaces from blocking up and becoming flat.”
The Future of the Snowscape
What of the future of snowscapes in cinema? If climate change does indeed mean that the days of the polar ice cap are numbered, and that the great ice shelves of Antarctica are destined to slide into the ocean, exposing the naked mountains beneath, perhaps one day visual effects might be the only way in which a snowscape can be visualised for the screen.
Regardless, it’s likely the spectacle of the snowscape – with its pervading sense of danger and death – will continue to entrance movie audiences into the future. Cinema is, as it always has been, a convenient way for armchair adventurers to visit those dream landscapes they would never otherwise see.
The Empire Strikes Back photograph © by Lucasfilm Ltd. Firefox photograph © 1982 by Warner Bros. Inc. The Day After Tomorrow photographs © 2004 by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. Snowpiercer photograph copyright © The Weinstein Company 2014.