By Richard Verrier, Los Angeles Times
6:00 AM AKST, December 29, 2012
On a recent Sunday morning in Los Angeles, Adam Williams and his crew set up their blowers outside a house in Hancock Park and blanketed the yard in 20 tons of snow.
Using 15-pound blocks of crushed ice, it took Williams and his crew about 2 1/2 hours to cover the front lawn and build half a dozen snowmen in a commercial for the cable channel FearNet. In the ad, a little girl cheerfully entombs someone who appears to be her father inside one of the snowmen.
To create the effect, producers of the commercial turned to MagicSnow Systems, a 10-year-old Los Angeles company. MagicSnow is best known for its twice daily snow show at the Grove shopping center that runs through New Year's Eve, but the rest of the time it specializes in manufacturing snow effects for commercial shoots, music videos, concerts and shows at malls, Hollywood premieres, and even cruise ships.
"When I first moved out here, I missed a lot of things about the holidays, including the snow," said Williams, founder and president of MagicSnow. "What we're doing is filling the void by providing the experience of snow in a warm-weather climate. It's not a hard concept to sell."
Williams, raised in a small town outside of Cleveland, moved to Los Angeles to pursue his career as a magician, performing at the Magic Castle in Hollywood. During a lull in work, he began to think of ways he could expand his act by creating the illusion of something that was a novelty in Los Angeles — snow.
"I never set out to start a special effects business,'' said Williams, 35. "My goal was to become a world-famous magician. I realized when I moved out here that that wasn't a realistic goal for me, but that didn't mean I had to give up my dream of creating illusions. I still feel like I'm a magician."
Williams initially used confetti to create the snow illusion, but that proved too messy to clean up. The type of simulated "snow" used in the film industry collects on the ground. Williams needed a snow-like substance that could be used in crowds, would vanish quickly and not leave 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 his proprietary formula made of water and a foam substance. MagicSnow also makes real snow, which was used in the FearNet ad.
Williams launched his company in 2002 and got his first big break when he pitched his idea of putting on a Christmas magic show with falling snow to Rick Caruso, developer of the newly opened Grove in the Fairfax district.
"Rick said he was more interested in the snow than the magic," said Williams. "He said, 'I'd love to have you come in and create this snowfall illusion,' so I jumped at the opportunity."
The fake snow, blown from rooftops and choreographed to Christmas music and the Grove's nightly fountain show, was a hit with shoppers, prompting Caruso to add MagicSnow shows to his other shopping mall, the Americana at Brand in Glendale.
"Adam and his team have the exceptional ability to transform spaces with their customized snowfall experiences, making our nightly holiday snow shows magical," said Paul Kurzawa, chief operating officer of Caruso Affiliated. With the exposure from the Grove, Williams' company expanded rapidly, installing snow-making systems in 55 shopping centers across the country operated by General Growth Properties. MagicSnow also made snow for the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall in New York and for numerous live television shows, concerts and movie premieres, including the 2003 premiere of "Elf" at the Grove.
More recently he has expanded into the television business, doing commercials for Land Rover and FearNet.
"It just snowballed," Williams said.
MagicSnow, which also sells and installs snow-making equipment, will generate about $3 million a year in revenue in 2012, up about 25% over the prior year, he said.
His company has gone global, installing snow-making systems for clients in Indonesia, Germany, Brazil and Mexico, where his equipment is used at a shopping center in the Polanco area of Mexico City — a deal that started after the son of the shopping center developer saw the snow show at the Grove and told his father about it.
MagicSnow's corporate clients include Princess Cruises and toy maker Mattel Inc., which recently recruited Williams and his team to create a winter wonderland theme for underprivileged children at the company's El Segundo headquarters.
Using more than 375 tons of snow supplied by MagicSnow, the volunteers and children built nearly 1,300 snowmen in an hour.
An adjudicator from Guinness World Records chronicled the work but disqualified about 20 snowmen. The reason: Their arms fell off, they didn't have a carrot nose or they were simply too short, Williams said.
"Unfortunately, we fell just short of a world record," he said.