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Sturm's storms: Special effects creator specializes in snow

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Kayla Bunge
June 22, 2009
— Dieter Sturm has a unique job.

He gets to shoot baseballs out of air cannons. He gets to drop trucks from towering cranes. He gets to smash, twist, explode, burn or melt just about anything.


And it's all because he likes to tinker.


"I was one of those kid inventors," he said. "I was always designing and building and creating things from scratch."


Sturm, 54, of Lake Geneva creates live-action special effects for the motion picture and television industries. He started Sturm's Special Effects International in 1984 and since has worked on more than 50 movies and hundreds of television shows, commercials and photo shoots for catalogs and other advertisements.


His specialty is snow.


"Snow making is hard work," he said. "There's not a whole lot of glamour to it."


But after spending years on sets where others were called in to make wintry weather conditions and seeing the outdated methods and messy products they were using to create snow, Sturm made it his mission to improve the special effects industry.


"Every time someone was brought in to do snow, I saw things that could be improved or redesigned," he said.


Award-winning effects

Sturm started his career in public relations, first at a radio station in Milwaukee, then at the Playboy Resort in Lake Geneva and last at TSR in Lake Geneva, a game-publishing company noted for putting out the Dungeons & Dragons game.


He also was a freelance public relations and special events coordinator, and it was those on-the-side gigs that introduced him to special effects.


In 1982, Sturm was charged with organizing a groundbreaking ceremony for a grocery store in a Milwaukee suburb. But he didn't want a bunch of head honchos to stick ceremonial golden shovels into the dirt; he wanted the dirt to explode out of the ground.


In 1983, Sturm was asked to blow up a television for a commercial.


"That's when I was bit by the film bug," he said. "I thought, wow, this is an absolutely great place to work."


Creating live-action special effects gave him the ability to again be the kid inventor, figuring out ways to make the ordinary into the extraordinary while the camera was rolling.


"A big part of my life is creativity," he said. "I could be the kid inventor again as a full-time job. I couldn't pass that up."


Sturm and his wife created Sturm's Special Effects International in 1984.


The first movie on which they worked was "Planes, Trains & Automobiles." Other movie credits over the years include "The Horse Whisperer," "While You Were Sleeping," "True Lies," "The Mighty Ducks" and "Christmas Vacation." They also worked on the soon-to-be-released "Public Enemies."


Perhaps one of the couple's favorite movies was "Fargo."


Remember the famous wood chipper scene? That was all Dieter and Yvonne Sturm. Dieter shook the machine to make it look like it was motorized, and Yvonne created the "goop" that came spewing out of it.


As Sturm became more well known in the special effects industry, particularly for creating snow, he began to try his hand at improving the snow making process to not only be more efficient but also to look more real.


In 1988, Sturm designed a truck that creates real snow from ice blocks at a rate of 800 pounds per minute in average temperatures. A machine inside the truck chips and shaves the ice and blows it out through a hose.


And in 1991, he created Bio-Snow, a biodegradable product made of corn and cheese whey and organically colored white. It replaces the plastic and Styrofoam products used before.


Sturm won an Academy Award for Scientific and Technical Achievement in 1995 for his invention.


But Sturm's Special Effects International doesn't just do snow. The company also creates rain, wind and fog, fire and explosions, and unique electronic and hydraulic effects.


"We don't wait for the weather; we create it," he said.


Changing the course

Sturm is constantly researching the world of man-made snow as part of his work, and several years ago, he stumbled upon the "dry slopes" of Europe, ski and snowboard slopes made of artificial materials that can be used year-round.


He traveled abroad, curious why the technology was not yet in use in the United States. He quickly learned why.


"It was all junk," he said. "They were very poor quality surfaces. They were flat and boring courses—and they weren't safe."


But in the meantime, a British company was redesigning the technology to create a high-performance surface that was fast and safe. The new surface, called Snowflex, is transforming the wintersports world, extending the season into the late spring, summer and early fall, according to the company.


In 2003, Sturm became the exclusive sales representative for Snowflex in the United States and created All-Season Extreme, a new company that markets the artificial skiing and snowboarding surface.


Sturm had little success marketing the product at first.


"The challenge has been to educate people and show people this actually could work here," he said.


Sturm talked to ski resorts and private investors to see if they would be interested in building the first Snowflex slope in the United States.


"I knocked on hundreds and hundreds of doors," he said. "Everyone wanted to build, but no one wanted to be the first."


But last fall, someone finally bit.


A phone call from Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., seeking used snow-production equipment, turned into a successful sales pitch for a year-round skiing and snowboarding center.


The first phase of the project, a basic 600-foot slope, is set to open Aug. 1. Construction on the second phase, which will double the size of the slope and add more features, is expected to start in spring.


But while his new venture seems to be taking off, Sturm promises he hasn't given up his first love of special effects.


"For now," he said.



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