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Wizard of Oz

What Was the Snow in the Wizard of Oz Made Of?

Today, paper products are often used to make artificial snow for indoor movie sets. More often than not, set designers use biodegradable and eco-friendly fake snow that contains food-grade ingredients and recycled cellulose. But did you know what they used in The Wizard of Oz set back in the 1930s?

The cancer-causing chemical asbestos was used in the famous scene in The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy falls asleep in a field of poppies and wakes up in a snowstorm. It wasn’t the only film set in the 1930s to use asbestos for fake snow.

What Films Used Asbestos for Fake Snow?

Classic Hollywood snow shots aren’t always what they appear to be – the snow might be anything from cornflakes to asbestos.

The Gold Rush (1925)

The real Klondike Gold Rush inspired Charlie Chaplin’s breakthrough film comedy, which led the director to transport the actors and crew to icy, remote Truckee, Nevada, to play the magnificent Chilkoot Pass in Alaska. 

Six hundred extras from Sacramento were brought in by rail for the film’s opening segment to simulate the dangerous Yukon expedition. Near Donner Summit and the Sugar Bowl Ski Resort, the Truckee Ski Club assisted in clearing a 2300-foot single file trail. The movie was fantastic, but it came at a cost. Because of the severe conditions, many cast and crew members were ill while filming. (Source: Popular Mechanics

Wizard of Oz (1939)

Dorothy’s dream was a Technicolor masterpiece, but it hid a nightmare special effect secret. Filming the poppy field scene on stage 29 at MGM’s studio required planting 40,000 artificial flowers. 

The real magic of the set was the snow, sent by Glinda the Good Witch to break the spell placed on Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion by the Wicked Witch of the West. Industrial grade chrysotile, otherwise known as white asbestos, was used as fake snow.

Films utilized cotton batting until the late 1920s, which was a considerably safer alternative. Then, in 1928, a firefighter on set noticed the cotton as a fire hazard and had yet another less-than-stellar suggestion. Why not utilize asbestos as a material? 

The notion gained attraction in Hollywood, and asbestos was marketed as snow under the names “Pure White” and “Snow Drift” from the 1930s to 1950s, with the hazardous material even being offered for use as snow in the house. (Source: Popular Mechanics

Superman (1978)

Bringing comic hero Superman to the big screen was no easy task for director Dick Donner. 

But replicating the Arctic wasteland where the Man of Steel’s Fortress of Solitude is located was far more complex than convincing the world that a man can fly. 

The crystalline Fortress, built on Pinewood Studios’ iconic 007 stage, was a visual effects marvel, with massive ice flows sculpted from styrofoam and set adrift in an 800,000-gallon water tank. 
Filmmakers utilized tons of salt carted into the studio to produce massive snowdrifts, much to the annoyance of the film’s technicians, who had to keep the salt out of the expensive camera equipment and wear rubber boats since the salt would eat through their leather shoes. (Source: Popular Mechanics)

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