Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Making It Snow On Stage

REDNECK SNOW - Scenic designer Christine Barnhill-Tramel
and Sam Sutter designed a snow machine for the cabin window
in  "A Good Old Fashioned Redneck Country Christmas."
(Photo by Paul Wood Photography)

Every December, community theaters across the country are likely staging some sort of holiday or winter show, from A Christmas Story, to Christmas Carol, to The Nutcracker Suite, all requiring some degree of snowfall.

As scenic designer for A Good Old Fashioned Redneck Country Christmas, Christine Barnhill Tramel was tasked to stage a snow scene to emulate constant snowfall visualized from a cabin window. Recruiting assistance from Sam Sutter, Christine was able to bring her concept to the stage.

Using simple supplies including a squirrel cage fan, PVC pipes and connectors, Plexiglas sheets, wire mesh and scrap lumber, Christine and Sam created an effective simulation of constant snowfall described in the script.

SNOW WINDOW: A diagram of the "snow machine"
(Illustration by Don Redman)

The video of the window snow machine in operation:

Eric Hart, Properties Master at Triad Stage in North Carolina, maintains a blog – Prop Agenda – where he discusses making and finding props for the theatre. He granted us permission to reprint his post on how to make it snow:

“For snowballs, previous props people have used white bar soap shaved into bits with a cheese grater. The resulting bits can be packed into a snowball which explodes on impact. Others suggest instant mashed potato flakes. In either case, water can be mixed in or spritzed on to make the snowballs stick better. If the actors are throwing the snowballs at people, obviously you want the snowball to break apart on impact as easily as possible. A lot of variables come into play: how hard the actor throws it, what it is hitting against, the temperature and humidity in your theatre, how far in advance you need to make the snowballs, etc. As a result of all these variables, there is no “exact recipe”, and research and development is essential.
“Another option is the interior of disposable diapers (new ones, not used ones). They contain a powder called sodium polyacrylate, a polymer which absorbs 800–1000 times its own weight, effectively turning a liquid into a solid gel. It is also sold in magic shops and novelty stores as “slush powder”.
“If a show calls for falling snow, it is often the props departments’ duty to procure the snow, while scenery is in charge of making it fall from the air. I know, it’s bizarre. The preferred method for at least the past hundred and thirty years is using clipped paper. Unfortunately, regular paper will not pass today’s fire retardant standards. If the thought of fire-proofing every snowflake for every performance is too overwhelming, theatrical suppliers, like Rose Brand, sell flame-proofed paper snowflakes. Expect to pay a lot though, and be aware that everyone needs snow during the winter and they are often sold out by this time of the year.
“A more modern alternative is plastic flakes. Rose Brand sells these as well, but you can make your own if you wish. You can find paper shredders (for offices) which not only cut in strips, but also crosscut those pieces to make confetti. You can run white grocery bags or garbage bags through one to make your own plastic snowflakes. Bear in mind that you need a lot of snowflakes to make even a short-duration snowfall over a small stage. You’ll need more for multiple performances. You may be tempted to sweep as much as you can from one performance to use in the next one. Be aware that when you are picking up the old snow, you are also picking up all the dirt and dust from the stage. You don’t want to rain crud down onto your performers during a show; the dust can get in their eyes, and larger particles may even injure them when dropped from the top of the stage.”

Eric Hart's blog can be found online here.

Additional photos of the window snow machine:

Christine Barnhill-Tramel demonstrates
how the snow machine works.

Illustration by Christine Barnhill-Tramel
Rear view of window base.
Funnel feeding snowflakes into wind chamber

(Introduction by Don Redman. Photos and video by Don Redman.)

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