As guillotine blades dropped in the chaotic days of the French Revolution, Anna Maria Tussaud, a young artisan known for her waxwork skills, was forced to sculpt death masks of decapitated noblemen to prove her allegiance to the Second Estate. Two hundred years later, the months-long process of immortalizing someone is a little less bloody. Here’s how they do it at the London studio of Madame Tussauds.
- 1// Capture
The subject is positioned on a rotating turntable and gets photographed from every angle. Using calipers, sculptors take about 200 measurements of the head, face, and body. (All data is kept confidential.) If the subject is up for it, techs make silicone molds of their mouth. Otherwise, they use photographs.
- 2// Sculpt
A sculptor fabricates an iron and aluminum armature that serves as the figure’s skeleton. About 360 pounds of clay is then molded onto the frame to create a fully fleshed out likeness. (The head is scaled up by 2 percent to account for wax shrinkage over time.)
- 3// Mold
A plaster mold is formed on the clay head, and that gets used to cast the noggin in Japanese beeswax. Heated brass balls are inserted into the wax head to create cavities for the mouth and eye sockets. The torso and limbs of the clay statue get sheathed in a fiberglass shell, which will become the mold for the final fiberglass body.
- 4// Refine
Seams from the mold are cleaned up, and fine details like ear structures are refined with small wooden tools. The head is measured and checked against the recorded data and photos from the sitting.
- 5// Install Eyes and Teeth
Acrylic teeth are arranged in the mouth, and acrylic eyes (veined with red silk thread) are fitted into the sockets.
- 6// Insert Hair
Strands of real human hair are inserted into the scalp and face one by one using a sharp, forklike hand tool fashioned from a sewing needle.
- 7// Paint
The fiberglass body is primed and colored to match the subject’s skin tone, and the wax head is painted. The artists continuously check their work against photographs to ensure that freckles, moles, and wrinkles are accurately placed. Eyelashes are then added, and makeup—usually just oil paint—is applied. Finally, the eyes, teeth, and lips are cleaned and glossed.
- 8// Maintain
Teams at each Tussauds location are responsible for periodically bathing the figures, shampooing their hair, and laundering their clothes. That’s a lot of pampering for a waxwork dummy, but at $250,000 a pop, you don’t want to let your figure go.