- BC Games
SNOW BUSINESS: North Shore company granted patent for Hollywood's faux snow
Proudly holding up Canadian and American patents, John Quee has done the seemingly impossible — he owns the exclusive rights to manufacture snow that’s seen on thousands of major film sets and in shopping mall displays worldwide.
Flurries on the blockbuster movie Shutter Island? Chilly scenes on Terminator Salvation? The festive atmosphere in Danny DeVito’s Deck the Halls? That’s all Quee’s faux snow.
He even made the deadly volcanic ash on the sci-fi disaster film 2012 by dyeing the flakes a deep black.
And many big-name retailers use his snow for window displays. The long list includes Tommy Hilfiger, J Crew, Ralph Lauren, Aveda and Coca-Cola. Moods of Norway, a casual-chic American clothing company, spiced up its window displays using snow in the brand’s signature colour — hot pink.
The artificial snow is made in a three-storey warehouse at Quee’s store ThomasFX, a movie prop and special effects mainstay off Dollarton Highway in North Vancouver. It’s then bagged, boxed and shipped around the world, mostly to Toronto, New York, Albuquerque, Los Angeles, New Orleans and other movie hot-spots.
“These two patents, they cost around $80,000 but it protects us [from competitors],” says Quee, dozens of different types of snow — including scatter flakes, sparkle flakes, “extra fine” and “movie coarse” — displayed in clear tubs behind him.
He holds the rights to four kinds, each made in different grades appropriate for specific projects from village scenes to falling snowflakes.
Like many great inventors, Quee keeps the exact concoction tightly guarded.
“Secret sauce,” he laughs.
The warehouse’s jumble of machinery could easily be mistaken to produce industrial parts, but instead the contraption creates something much more delicate — the snow seen in many movies and TV shows, including Smallville, the Discovery Channel’s new miniseries Klondike and the adventure show Arctic Air.
If you spot a blizzard scene in a movie, it’s likely ThomasFX’s snow.
“In The Day After Tomorrow, that’s our falling snow. The dressing snow isn’t,” says Quee, his wife and business partner Betty standing beside him in the store’s Snow Room where customers can see and feel the snow first-hand.
Ironically, he’s even shipped snow to Nunavut to decorate a museum and airport for the 2010 Olympics.
But the benefits of innovation come at a price. It cost the Quees $1 million to develop the correct formula and process to perfect the artificial snow and set up the manufacturing plant.
Its success, says Quee, is due to the realistic feel and its biodegradeable, non-static and non-toxic ingredients.
“I wouldn’t say it’s in every movie, but it’s in a large percentage,” he says, flicking the switch on a machine that causes snowflakes to lightly cascade from above. This way customers can see the real deal in action.
Although it may seem unconventional, delving into coloured snow has been a big success.
Every colour — black for volcanic ash, purple for store displays and blue and pink for kids’ offbeat Christmas trees — has been a hit, except for bright yellow.
“No one wanted to touch it,” recalls Quee with a smile.
Struggling to find a suitable market, the resourceful couple turned to wedding planners who opt to use “snow” instead of traditional rice, which many venues now ban because it can make guests to slip and is dangerous for birds to eat. The yellow version, it turns out, fits many brides colour schemes perfectly.
Today most malls in the Lower Mainland use ThomasFX snow for displays and Santa’s villages, some preferring unique colours to cheer up shoppers.
“Look at this,” says Quee, standing beside his new invention, a tall black lamppost. “People are buying these where there isn’t snow, not so much in Canada. Texas, Florida, places in the southern U.S.”
He presses a button and instantly snow and alternating coloured lights shoot straight up 30 feet towards the ceiling. Different than the artificial snow used on most movies sets, this is ThomasFX Fluid Snow — or more simply, an innovative sort of bubbles that quickly dissolve as they hit the floor.
“People buy these and line their path so when guests come over snow is falling all around them. The patent is pending.”
Staying on top of the game has helped ThomasFX survive 45 years in the volatile film industry. Quee knew early on that relying solely on Lower Mainland sets wasn’t a good business plan, even during the industry’s heyday in the early 2000s.
With the help of his wife, he built a website that serves productions around the world.
“It doesn’t matter to us where movies are being filmed, we ship snow anywhere,” he says.
The upcoming adventure movie Pompeii, set to be released in theatres early next year, was filmed in Toronto using “truckload after truckload of volcanic ash” from ThomasFX.
So as you watch the film’s main character try to save his true love before Mount Vesuvius erupts, remember the destruction of Pompeii wouldn’t have been possible without a snow patent created right here on the North Shore.