Dreaming of a white winter

By Brianna Wellen

On a seemingly mild day in November, long before Chicago’s first major snowfall was forecast, blankets of white snow covered 18-year-old Kevin Manetti and 17-year-old George Obrochca’s neighborhood. On a movie set in the Chicagoland area, a light “snowfall” covers actors’ shoulders while the crew and passersby remained untouched. On indoor sets flakes are also conjured up, adding to stage play design’s magic and believability from scene to scene. With the city’s fickle weather in their own hands, snowmaking professionals are taking the city by storm.

Gaining business as one of the only artificial snowmakers in the city, Manetti and Obrochca’s company, Chicago’s Snow Makers, represents the recreational side of an industry making strides in local films and theater. Bringing the snowmaking technology to residents’ backyards on a smaller scale, it’s possible to have the physical aesthetics of a snowy lawn and snow to play in during milder months.

As avid snowboarders, Manetti and Obrochca found themselves driving more than two hours to Wisconsin every weekend in the winter. Tired of the constant journey, they researched other options on the Internet and came to the conclusion that although the Chicagoland area may get a ton of snow in the winter, there usually isn’t enough to snowboard on. Additionally, it isn’t reliable enough to fall whenever the snowboarding mood strikes them.

“We decided if we made our snow, we could snowboard in our backyard and save a lot of time and travel,” Manetti said. “We got started and made a small little snow machine. It got bigger and bigger, and now we’ve made tons and tons of snow.”

By looking up free instructions online, they spent approximately $25 at hardware stores to build their own machine. According to Obrochca, their machine uses a snow gun—essentially a pressure gun—to push water and air through a pressure washer and an air compressor. This breaks the water into tiny particles while making it really cold. As the particles hit the air, they freeze and turn into snow. At first the machine took hours to get up and running, but now they have the process perfected—it takes 20 minutes.

So far their customer base is in residential areas. Because of their smaller, homemade machines, it’s all they can handle at the moment. Every experience they’ve had with customers has been different, Obrochca said.

“It’s very custom for every person because everyone has different land, different snow quality and different quantity they want,” Obrochca said. “A lot of people like it for decoration, and a lot of people like [to] surprise their kids with a huge pile of snow. We particularly started doing it for snowboarding. Now we’ll put a huge pile of snow in the front of the house just for fun for people to see driving by.”

For larger projects in the Chicagoland area requiring artificial snow, snowmakers are typically called in from outside companies. A window display for Columbia Sportswear, 830 N. Michigan Ave., used snowmakers provided by the company’s Oregon headquarters to get people’s attention with its “human freezers” that allow shoppers to test out the company’s new brand of thermal wear in real life conditions, according to Columbia Sportswear’s website. Wisconsin-based company, Sturm’s Special Effects International, has been frequenting the Chicagoland area with its snowmaking expertise on the set of the movie “Contagion,” director Steven Soderbergh’s current film due out in 2011.

Dieter Sturm, creator of Sturm’s Special Effects International, created snow for motion pictures for more than 26 years, a viable option for small startups like Chicago’s Snow Makers, he said. The same concept is employed, but on a much larger scale—the small machine used by Manetti and Obrochca is comparable to a truck-sized machine on the movie set.

“On [the ‘Contagion’ set], we’re going through semi-trailers of block ice that gets shaved and chipped down to the consistency of real snow at about 800 pounds a minute,” Sturm said. “On camera, you’ll be looking at the real snow from the snowmaker truck in the foreground and then everything else white in the background is snow foam [and] snow blankets.”

In the effects business, snow’s visual appearance is more important than its physical makeup or recreational use. According to Sturm, there is a huge variety of processes taken into consideration in each scene of each movie utilizing up to 15 or 20 different products to create believable winter scenes.

“Each different application has different purposes and reasons, some for close-ups, some for whiting out large areas, some are more for frost, some [for] more icicle looks, falling snow, big snowflakes, small snowflakes, [the list] goes on and on,” Sturm said. “The whole point of what we’re trying to do is making it as realistic as possible, so when you’re watching it on screen and you don’t even think about the fact that it’s winter, you just know it’s winter. Then we’ve done a very good job.”

Unlike Chicago’s Snow Makers and companies that use snow for recreational purposes, such as ski and snowboard trails, Sturm’s company is not always working under ideal conditions. Chicago’s Snow Makers can keep its snow from melting until temperatures reach the upper 40s and 50s. Sturm has the challenge of creating realistic snow in temperatures reaching into the 80s and 90s. For situations such as these—when snow has to be simulated from synthetic materials like plastic—Sturm created a biodegradable option comparable to the look of real snow, which is also environmentally friendly. This concept grabbed him a technical Oscar Award in the 1990s and is now the industry norm.

The controlled temperatures of indoor stage plays cause production companies such as M and M Production Design Inc. to utilize similar techniques. It becomes a process of tricking the eye instead of creating a product comparable to snow, according to Mary Margaret Bently, creator of M and M Production Design Inc. Incorporating glitter and cotton batting along with technical lighting techniques makes the snow believable, she said.

“The human eye sees better than the camera does,” Bently said. “It’s the hardest thing to fool, so you really have to think about what distance you’ll be from it, how it’s lit and where the camera or the audience will be.”

Sturm encourages companies like Chicago’s Snow Makers to keep working independently and be aggressive with opportunities in the snow making industry as they continue. As for Manetti and Obrochca, they plan to keep their options open and work to create bigger and better snow machines as more people discover a need for their business.

Their focus is on gathering a larger customer base next season in October and November when the weather gets colder but the snow has yet to fall. Wherever it takes them in the future, Manetti and Obrochca will continue making snow, regardless of whether if it’s only for their benefit.

“You can never have a mountain too big, so we just keep adding onto our giant pile,” Manetti said. “We’ll be able to snowboard a lot longer than anyone else out there.”