snowmaker

The Unsung Heroes Making It Snow in Sunny California

Winter is coming — but not without brilliant engineers, state-of-the-art tech and even a little magic

Shortly before 3 a.m. in an industrial park in South L.A., a motley crew of seven seasonal laborers, some brandishing axes and hatchets, quietly load 300-pound blocks of ice onto a convoy of semi-trailers. Like the 1920s Gaetano Reina crime family, which monopolized ice-box distribution in the Bronx and whacked enemies with ice picks that easily slid around bones to puncture organs, the men of MagicSnow have cornered a decidedly family-friendlier market: large-scale simulated snowfall events in warm weather climates, enabling kids who’ve never experienced traditional winter weather to sled, build snowmen and hit siblings with snowballs. 

By 7 a.m., despite wildfires still raging across Southern California, the iconic Santa Monica Pier is blanketed with four inches of fresh powder. Unlike actual snow, though, which effortlessly falls from the sky, accumulation on the pier is hard-earned. When I meet Adam Williams, MagicSnow’s 43-year-old founder, his strong chin and friendly smile direct his team as they struggle to unload a seemingly endless procession of human-size blocks of ice from a refrigerated panel truck, guiding them into what looks to be a giant black wood-chipper. (To make things more challenging, the semis are too heavy for the bridge leading to the pier, so a smaller, refrigerated truck shuttles loads to the ice crusher on the bridge.) 

The tiny teeth of the snow-maker position the blocks onto a conveyor belt before crushing it into a powder and sending it through a large PVC tube to be blasted onto the beachfront boardwalk below. An identical, second snow-maker patiently waits in the wings, should the first one break down. “We always bring a backup,” Williams says, explaining one stopped working a couple years ago on the set of The Bachelor. Now, he always rolls with a spare. 

MagicSnow has 70 dates planned this season in Southern California alone (they also have events in 30 shopping centers across North America, Brazil, Europe and Asia, and snow machines aboard the entire fleet of Princess Cruises). Los Angeles magazine calls Williams the “go-to snow man” behind America’s most “delightful flurries,” including Universal Studios, Disneyland and the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular in New York. I can’t finish one email without getting 10 more requests,” Williams says, noting his clients to be as diverse as the snowflakes they seek — from corporate holiday parties to Taylor Swift videos to snowman-making contests in underserved communities — each looking to add a dusting of spirit to their holiday cheer. 

Last year, MagicSnow provided the Texas winner of a Weather Channel contest with a “guaranteed white Christmas.” The unsuspecting family woke up on December 25th to find their front yard covered with four inches of manufactured snow and falling fake flakes. Mattel hired MagicSnow to produce more than 190 tons of cold, wet snow — good enough to sled on — to seven elementary schools for the company’s “12 Days of Play” campaign. And most memorably for Williams, in a “milestone” moment for the company, McDonald’s flew MagicSnow to subtropical Malaysia to build a sledding hill in 95-degree weather.

He and his team are constantly developing and improving different methods for creating this effect, whether it’s snow falling from the sky, constructing winter landscapes with toboggan hills or recreating Frozen’s Olaf’s Snow Fest. “The magic of snow elicits an emotional response that transcends age, race, religion and background, creating memories that last a lifetime,” he says. “It’s the perfect special event for warm-weather centers.”

It’s been a long morning here on the pier for Williams and his team, which largely comprises offseason river-rafting guides and music festival technicians, some of whom have been with MagicSnow since its inception in 2002. “It’s kind of like a touring rock show,” laughs Williams. “We’re a seasonal business, but everyone comes together in August. We’re the only entertainment company that’s dedicated to just making snow.” 

Once the snow is blown from the bridge, Williams and his crew load wheelbarrows from a large mountain that has formed and begin the “grooming” process, wheeling out small box trees and picket fences to create an idyllic scene. Varying-sized plastic spheres are packed and flipped to create snowmen, with branches, carrots and top hats completing the look. And yet, at 9 a.m. the team is behind schedule, with snow covering only a portion of the inaugural SNOW DAY! at the Pier venue, as a line of 3,000 attendees begins to form ahead of the gates opening at 11. 

Just then, disaster seemingly strikes as the hose clogs and shuts the entire operation down. Without missing a beat, the MagicSnow team disassembles the hose into seven pieces and begins banging each section with a mallet to locate the blockage. “Clogs happen on every crush,” Williams calmly explains. “We’re working with temperature and fluid dynamics, and the flow of snow causes each piece to change temperature. Once we’re able to match the temperature of the tube to the temperature of the snow we get a better flow.” Indeed, within 20 minutes, they’re back to peak output as the line of eager SoCal snow virgins continues to grow.

Of course, Williams is hardly the first in Hollywood to trade in fake snow. Early filmmakers resorted to some odd substances to build artificial winter landscapes, many of them dangerous. “During the early days of Hollywood, fake snow was commonly used in place of the real thing, and there weren’t any computerized effects that could make snow,” writes Ernie Smith for Atlas Obscura. Cotton was often used, until fire authorities noted it to be problematic to blanket film sets in a material that could ignite with one errant cigarette butt. More disconcerting are reports that asbestos was used to dress up the sets; the toxic flakes are featured in the famous scene in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy falls asleep in a field of poppies and wakes up in a snowstorm. As Smithsonian.com notes, other substances included marble dust in Doctor Zhivago, salt and flour in Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush and plain old salt in 1978’s Superman. Sets of the beloved Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life were covered in foamite (the material used in fire extinguishers); prior to that, fake movie snow was mostly made from corn flakes painted white, which was so loud when stepped on that scenes with dialogue had to be re-dubbed. 

Winter’s coming, yeah,” Del Reid joked in the behind-the-scenes Game of Thrones documentary. The Jamaican-born Reid, aka “The Snowman,” was the special effects snow crew supervisor throughout the run of the series, making sure the blustery Winterfell nights had a perma-blanket of convincing powdery white stuff. It was just paper and water, but it did the trick.

To get a closer look at movie and TV fake snow, I stop by Special Effects Unlimited in North Hollywood, where production manager Pam Elliott gives me a tour of their winter offerings. “Everything we do is fake,” she explains, opening what looks to be a giant jar of cocaine. When her team dresses a parking lot, they first lay white fabric on all the surfaces and blow the paper snow on top of it. Then, a second, cotton-like blanket is added to curbs, railings and edges of roofs for “hero shots.” “There’s also this,” she says, dumping white power into a dixie cup and adding water. As she does, the “snow” begins to expand and overflow from the cup. (It can grow 40 times its volume.)

Sometimes, if Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate, Special Effects Unlimited has to take the reins. The 2002 Tom Hanks film Road to Perdition, for example, is set in Chicago over six weeks of winter in 1931. Filming in Detroit in February, it seemed like an ample amount of natural snow would be a sure thing. But when the crew showed up, it hadn’t snowed all winter. “We had to create snow for that entire movie,” Elliott recalls with a sigh. “So we came out there with truckloads of blankets, cellulose paper and blowers. Everything you see in that movie is fake, but you’d never know it.”

Road to Perdition

Williams and MagicSnow have also dressed for film, TV and visual merchandising (snow in window displays, etc.), but it’s not their preference given the ecological toll. “I don’t want to be in the business of adding extra styrofoam into the environment,” Williams explains, adding it’s less fun, too. “If you see snow in a movie or TV show, you don’t think, Oh my God, that snow is amazing. Because we work in the live venue, our focus is really about bringing that experience directly to the audience.” 

That said, being a real life snowman wasn’t Williams’ career aspiration when he moved to L.A. from Ohio in 2001 to pursue a career as a magician. He was working at the Magic Castle in Hollywood, though not turning many heads. Raised in a small town outside of Cleveland, he began to think of ways he could expand his act by creating the illusion of something that was a novelty in L.A. — snow.

He looked to improve an old magic trick called “Snowstorm in China,” which involves making a big mess on stage with confetti and a handheld fan. That proved too messy for the small showrooms on cruise ships where he was regularly performing, so he looked for a snow-like substance that could vanish quickly without leaving behind a residue. He and a chemist friend spent weeks experimenting with various ingredients in his kitchen, shooting samples into his yard from his back porch to test the mixture. Eventually, he developed a light, water-based foam that when applied to a high-powered blower, dries out the water and creates a light foam puff that floats through the air. 

The idea for MagicSnow came to him in 2002, after the first time he walked through The Grove, then a new outdoor mall in the Fairfax District of L.A. “The Grove had just opened, and I had an idea to turn the space into a real-life snow globe,” he recalls. “I was young and bold and wrote a letter directly to [the mall’s owner] with my idea. I did a demo and drew up some storyboards to describe my magic show. But he didn’t care about the magic, he just wanted the snow.”

Williams’ storyboards in his 2002 demo for The Grove

Now in its 18th season, the twice-nightly snowfall at the Grove has become an L.A. institution. Choreographed to the Grove’s fountain show, it runs 2 minutes and 35 seconds, or just enough time to make it through “Let It Snow” and “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” the same songs Williams played at his original demonstration nearly 20 years ago. 

When I meet Williams on a recent Thursday night at the Grove, I find him hidden beneath the movie theater marquee with seasonal technician Icon Tobin, currently in her first season with MagicSnow having come from the music festival circuit. “I always get nervous before a show,” he says with a deep sigh. “I want it to look good and for people to respond.” Fiercely protective of his trade secrets, Williams won’t reveal much of anything about the back end of the production (a magician never tells, after all), but I count 48 channels on Tobin’s control board, each corresponding to locations on the roof. Williams carries a wireless version of this board on an iPad so he can walk within the show and make adjustments on the fly. After pressing him further, he concedes there are three main components: A pump, made for espresso machines, which feeds the formula into a blower, which breaks down the formula internally and sends it to an external fan, which blasts the snow into the air.

“Most importantly,” he explains, fading up a set of Tungsten lighting fixtures installed every 50 feet along the main concourse, “a snowfall effect is really a theatrical lighting effect. If you’re driving through a snowstorm and don’t have the headlights on, you don’t even know it’s snowing.”

The Grove features a large central park with an animated fountain designed by WET Design. Its music-fountain show plays every hour, the choreography reminiscent of the Fountains of Bellagio in Vegas, but on a much smaller scale. At 7 p.m., a restless crowd gathers by the fountain, as Harry Connick Jr. begins crooning about the weather outside being “frightful” and fire “so delightful.” 

We start the snow exactly two minutes after the fountain show starts,” Williams explains, adjusting a toggle on his iPad. “People start thinking it’s not going to happen.” But as Connick pleads to the heavens, for the second time, to “let it snow!,” Williams obliges. Suddenly — magically? — the sky is flooded with picturesque flurry as hundreds of mall-goers reach for their phones. 

A picture-perfect Southern California evening suddenly morphs into a picture-perfect gentle blizzard. Williams explains this to be one of the 10 categories of magic tricks —  “transformation” — in which the magician transforms something from one state into another (like a handkerchief changing its color). “It’s absolutely an illusion,” he says. “The principles of magic are at play in how we approach things. We want it to look seamless and don’t want you to see how we do it.”

Smiles abound as couples pose for holiday-card selfies. A grown woman aimlessly spins around, arms extended, a la Sound of Music, while toddlers attempt to catch the snowflakes in their mouths. “It’s totally safe,” Williams assures. Again, without revealing any secrets about his proprietary formula, he explains it’s “90 percent water and 10 percent foam,” which he insists is “totally natural, non-toxic and has been around forever.” (To be sure, every batch is lab tested.) I’m momentarily lost in an idyllic, joyous reverie, and feel connected to everyone around me.

Williams, however, is all work, meticulously noting lighting patterns that can be improved and which pockets of the Grove have problematic wind streams that might cause unwanted foam to land on people while they’re eating. Then, five minutes after the show, he’s on Instagram to study how his audience is engaging with the experience.

“It’s a lot of responsibility,” he says, shutting down the iPad. “People have a lot of expectations about this time of year and take traditions seriously. I want to meet those expectations. Ironically, snow has kept me in L.A. I don’t have kids; I don’t have any friends. But when I’m gone, the snow will still be here. If people don’t remember me, they’ll remember this.”