When Darcey Crownshaw first made artificial snow for films, his annual turnover was just £980. Today his Gloucestershire firm turns over £5m and produces over 200 types of snow for projects ranging from shop window displays and the Winter Olympic Games, to the new James Bond film Spectre. Here he talks innovation, global growth and taking a step back
You may not have heard of Darcey Crownshaw before, but you’ve certainly seen his snow. The entrepreneur – whose special effects company operates from a 1730s water mill in Stroud, Gloucestershire – has created artificial wintry scenes for everything from Coronation Street to Winter Olympic Games opening ceremonies and high-street shop window displays:
“If you see snow on telly this Christmas, it’s ours. If you see a snowy scene in an advert in a magazine, it’s ours, and if you’re on a plane travelling somewhere and you watch four movies with snow in them, that’s ours too,” he chuckles.
Today, Snow Business operates in 28 countries, turning over £5m and employing 35 people in the UK. Its list of movie credits includes Batman Begins, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Gladiator, Notting Hill and Paddington.
The firm’s relationship with Eon Productions, the company behind the Bond franchise, began in 1994 – when Snow Business created snowy runway scenes for GoldenEye – and has continued with contributions to several subsequent movies, including current release Spectre.
It’s a glamorous roster and one far removed from the company’s genesis in 1983, when Crownshaw was working for a paper products business and seized on an opportunity.
A movie special effects expert got in touch, looking for someone to supply an alternative to the messy, eco-unfriendly salt and polystyrene-based materials he was using to double for snow. “He suggested there was a lot of money to be made in this and that I really ought to go into it full time,” recalls Crownshaw, whose solution was a snow made from recycled paper. “In my first full year I turned over £980.” But he remained convinced of the potential and willing to take risks to grow the business.
“I invited the manager from the Midland Bank to my house for coffee, impressed upon him I had a house, and asked if he could lend me some money. I promised I’d get money from doing a film and pay him back in six months.
“Each time I won a film, the next one seemed a little bit bigger, so I’d invite him back and he’d lend me more money and it just grew on borrowed bank money. Those were the days when bank managers had customer relations – true personal banking.”
But the biggest barrier to early growth in the industry was getting his fledging company’s name and products known and trusted. The solution, Crownshaw says, can apply to anyone in business:
“Listen to what people say they need and show them you can respond. Because then people think ‘this guy listens to what I tell him, I’ll give him a go’. For example, when we did snow for The Muppets, our snow was too big because Muppets are much smaller than real people, so we had to invent a much smaller snow, which isn’t as easy as it sounds. But when they say ‘come back with something smaller’ and you do come back with something smaller, they say ‘OK, great’ and it goes from there.”
Having to wait tables to supplement the fluctuating fortunes of the company in the early days, Crownshaw says that it was global expansion which first helped Snow Business gain a sounder footing in the “boom and bust” movie business:
“You’d build something and suddenly you’d lose it, because the US film industry goes into decline around every five years,” he says. “But I managed to expand internationally – if I went to do a job in the Czech Republic I’d leave equipment out there and set up a distributor, then I’d go to Moscow and set someone up there and Copenhagen and so on.”
Setting up an office in Hollywood in 1999 was a landmark moment for Snow Business, but operating in the US has not been as smooth as Crownshaw expected: “It’s a real eye-opener – we speak the same language so you think setting up will be a lot easier than somewhere like the Czech Republic, but it’s the most difficult place I’ve ever worked… the culture is different, the taxation system works on a totally different premise.
“The advice we read from the DTI [now BIS] was that, if you set up in America you will get sued, so you need to make sure the US division is a totally different entity to the UK division – otherwise when one goes down it’ll bring the other down.
“We’ve found that the best way to work internationally is with local partners,” he continues. “It’s obviously slightly more risky because you’ve got to take on people that you perhaps don’t know too well – but you just structure it so that, win or lose, you come out alright.
“Also, one of the useful things the government does now, through UKTI, is offer training and support to help companies move into global markets. For a membership fee, we were able to approach China at a lower cost as they offered grants. You can also host meetings at a British embassy with your prospects, and receive guidance on business protocols in the country you’re going into. The expertise is out there and you can access it very cost effectively.”
Today, Snow Business offers more than 200 types of artificial snow and ice to its international customers – from light frosts, to fluffy, settled snow, to falling snow, to icicles, and seemingly every variation in between. Materials used include papers, foams, waxes and ash, and their method of application ranges from easy layering by hand, to dispersal by dazzlingly sophisticated machines.
The company now even produces “real” cold snow using liquid nitrogen and, while Crownshaw is fiercely protective of the recipes and techniques behind all of the company’s products (“if I told you, I’d have to kill you,” he jokes), the emphasis is on eco-friendly biodegradable materials:
“All the plastic bags we use for packaging are made out of vegetable and return to vegetable – no petro-chem in them at all,” he says. “That has opened doors for us with people like Greenpeace, The Body Shop and John Lewis.”
With film work now making up only 20 per cent of the company’s business and a diverse range of other revenue streams – including shop window displays (one telecoms giant paid $1m, or £650,000, for such a project), events and global product retail – underpinning the growth of Snow Business, Crownshaw has much else to focus on. But he admits that the big- and small-screen projects have still provided the biggest thrills so far:
“There were two jobs that stood out, one was GoldenEye and the other was Doctor Who. Being on Doctor Who was just mind-blowing because I’d always watched it as a kid.
“GoldenEye was great, it was shot at Leavesden Aerodrome – just being there when that tank hurtled past at full speed, literally a car length behind the vehicle it was chasing, it was incredible,” he says.
And what of the company’s work on the latest Bond movie, Spectre? “We created fake snow that matched in with real snow,” he explains. “By the time everyone’s rehearsed, it doesn’t really look like you’re the first man ever to climb that mountain. So we had to go in and match the real snow perfectly. When you’re on mountains, things don’t tend to biodegrade because it’s just like putting it in the freezer – and if you’re in a location that does thaw the last thing they want is a load of paper and plastic left behind – so we used snows that biodegrade with ultraviolet light.”
From being intensively hands-on with day-to-day operations (“because I was still making every decision, I was strangling the company and this is a typical thing of small businesses that grow”), Crownshaw has taken a step back: “When I started I worked 80 hours a week, and I’ve only just stopped dreaming about snow – all my nightmares were about snow not being ready on time,” he laughs.
“I come into the office one day a week now, but I have an office at home. I’m always working, always looking at what’s coming next, analysing our pay equality, looking at what we’ve got in our portfolio that’s not quite as eco-friendly as it could be and asking ‘how can we replace that?’ Getting your head out of the day-to-day running of the business, you can get into the long-term objectives. A certain detachment does help you to see the business in a better way.
“You have to have one eye on the now and realise that’s what is bringing in the bread and butter – but also give yourself the space to understand what’s coming up in five years’ time. Where do you need to be? How do you get there? Start planting those markers – the sooner you plant them, the less of a diversion you take on the wrong road.”
Whichever road Crownshaw goes down in the years ahead, you can be certain the forecast will be for plenty of snow.
Footprints in the snow – Snow Business landmarks
1983 Darcey Crownshaw launches Snow Business. The company invents the first eco-friendly artificial snow, made from recycled paper
1991 While producing extra fine snow for the Thomas the Tank Engine TV series, the company hits upon the idea of creating frost for larger scenes
1994 The company signs its first James Bond contract, for GoldenEye. It would go on to supply snow for all but one of the subsequent films, up to the present day
1995 First international steps made, striking a deal with a distributor in Prague
1999 Snow Business Hollywood is established in LA
2001 Gladiator wins an Oscar for special visual effects, to which Snow Business contributed all snow FX
2001 Company gets special mention from the DTI [now BIS] for exporting fake snow to Siberia
2006 Breaks a Guinness World Record for the largest area ever covered with artificial falling snow, around London’s Bond Street
2008 Introduces SnowStorm, the largest dry foam falling snow machine the world has yet seen
2010 Supplies artificial snow for the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver
2013 30th anniversary. Develops ‘Real Fresh Snow’ (cold, ‘cryogenic’ snow made with liquid nitrogen) on site in Stroud
2015 Provides supplementary snow for the latest Bond movie, Spectre
To view clips of Snow Business’ special effects, click here