January 08, 2010

Cast in stone. Well, clay and silicone...

I tweeted recently that I was watching "Jaws". It's a classic movie and one which I can watch on a regular basis. The movie has numerous great scenes: The midnight swim at the beginning: The shark popping out of the water as Chief Brody pours chum in to attract it: "You're gonna need a bigger boat": The 'USS Indianapolis' speech. But I think the scene that most people tend to remember more than any other is the discovery of Ben Gardner's boat floating in the night mist and the head popping out from the bottom as Hooper dives under to investigate 1.

Having seen the movie numerous times that scene always makes me jump. But last night it was a little different for me. You see last night was the first time I had watched the movie since having a 'life cast' made of my body.

Life Casting is a way of making copies of body parts for casting in silicone or rubber. It is used quite regularly in movies and television. Any scene where bodies are seen to be damaged, run over, crushed or displayed in a badly decomposed state ( a la Ben Gardner) are usually casts. Anytime an actor has to wear prosthetics for a scene these are usually made and modeled around a head cast. Having said that, the number of people who have actually had a full body life cast made is quite small. I am now one of that elite group.

Up around the back of the Shepperton Studios lot, along David Lean Road and behind the Korda Theatre, somewhere across from 'A' and 'B' stages is a small, dirty, slightly run-down set of single story, unheated buildings that are the home to Animated Extras. This is the company that does a large number of prosthetics, mannequins, articulated puppets and make-up effects for films and television. If you've seen a Paul W.S Andersen movie (Resident Evil or AVP, for example) they've probably been involved in creating some gruesome scene for it. The also created one of the tigers for the ampitheatre scene in 'Gladiator', severed heads and hands for 'Elisabeth I', the boar make-up prosthetic for Sir Ian Mackellen in 'Richard III' and numerous other films, television programmes and commercials. It was to these uncelubrious surroundings that I headed just before Christmas. As the rest of the productions that were filming at Shepperton had taken their Christmas break the place was pretty deserted. After wondering around for a few moments I ran into a stocky young man with a pleasing amount of facial stubble who introduced himself as Waldo.

Waldo explained the situation. For an upcoming feature film the director had requested a couple of prosthetic bodies be created. One of them needed to be a 'fresh' corpse that had just died and was seen to be in a reasonable condition. The other one needed to be older, thinner and decomposed. I was going to be the decomposed body. He showed me a picture of a similar body that had been made for a BBC TV series. I saw empty eye sockets, worms and decaying flesh. Cool!

Taking a full body life cast is a long and intricate endeavour. The material used to make the cast is an alginate similar to the stuff used to take dental casts for false teeth and crowns. However, despite common-sense opinions to the contrary, this product appears to defy the laws of general physics in that it works best when cold and then solidifies as it heats up (I would have thought the opposite would be true). It also needs to be set in plaster of Paris when it has solidified so that it can be used as a mold. The result of this is that it produces a heavy cast and therefore cannot be used as an 'all-in-one' mold. The day would therefore be split into multiple sections: The head: The torso: The limbs.

But first a trip to the make-up area. Nicky was a lovely young lady who specialised in make-up and prosthetic make-up and her first job was to fit me with a bald cap.

Bald cap's are extremely flattering (!) pieces of latex which completely hide the hair and are glued in there to stop them coming off. In addition to this the rest of the facial hair is then covered in some face cream to stop anything adhering to it and ripping it off when removed. Nice....

Having done this a number of times Waldo decided that the head was the best thing to start off with. There were a number of reasons for this: a) The head is, without doubt, the most daunting part for people who've never had this done before and should be done first to remove any anxiety and b) If the head is done early enough in the day there is always the possibility of being able to show a complete cast to the subject before they leave.

So Waldo talked me through the process. The whole idea was to completely cover every part of my head in alginate with the exception of a breathing hole to allow me to, well, breath. Normally head casts involve having holes cleared to one's nostrils to permit breathing and the rest of the head being covered. In this case Waldo wanted an open mouth pose and decided to block the nose with cotton wool. I laid on my back with my head on a specially prepared plastic covered board. Waldo asked me to close my eyes and mouth and take a breath. He then smeared cold alginate over them before asking me to open my mouth. This allowed a complete impression of the lips to be made. I opened the mouth and started doing my best 'mouth-breather' impression as more and more of the gelatinous gloop was added to my face. The bald cape was covered, the ears were covered, the nose, chin, neck and forehead were covered. Soon all sense of sound, smell and vision was gone.

I was dimly aware of movement around me and all I could hear was the beating of my heart and the rasping of my breath as I struggled to inhale through the partially open mouth - a mouth which was rapidly starting to fill with saliva! At this point the alginate started to set. The overall impression was actually one of peacefulness. As the alginate set, it started to get warm and the sensation was quite pleasant. The guys then started to add the pretreated bandage strips over the top which would form into a plaster of Paris cast.

As the plaster set, the weight of the cast became apparent. I was lucky in that I was being cast laying flat, however someone had gone in recently for the same treatment and had to do the cast standing up. The weight can get quite overpowering at times. Pretty soon my head was completely cast in alginate and plaster.

It's interesting to recall what was going through my mind at the time. Amongst other things I was thinking 'This is quite peaceful', whilst at the same time thinking 'I am completely encased in a rapidly hardening plaster cast with a small air passage as the only way of keeping me alive'. I can fully understand how claustrophobic people would freak out at having to do this. I could dimly hear Waldo saying things like 'Another 5 minutes and it will all be set, Gary'. I raised my thumbs to indicate my understanding.

After what seemed an eternity I was lifted up into a sitting position, the hardened alginate at the back of my head was sliced through with a blunt knife and the whole cast was eased off my head intact. Waldo and his team then put the cast back onto the wooden 'pillow' I had been laying on and nailed it in place.

The head was done.

As I sat blinking in the light, pulling bits of cotton wool out of my ears and nose, and removing the little bits of blue alginate that had solidified against my teeth and remained there, Waldo was pouring a special liquidised clay into the mold to create the internal impression. That would need to set and solidify before the mold could be taken.

Next we did the torso. The procedure is identical to the head. Waldo decided that we would go from mid-thigh to neck and out to the upper arms. This would provide enough overlap with the individual arm and leg casts we were going to do to enable a complete body to be made. Once again Nicky set to work with the Nivea cream and we coated all the hair on my body with it (bearing in mind that I was naked other than a pair of boxer shorts). Waldo decide to make extra sure that no hair would get trapped by applying a layer of clingfilm to my chest and coating that with cream. At this point I was starting to feel a little like a Christmas turkey being dressed for cooking.

Once again I lay on a plastic covered board and this time the guys started using the plaster of Paris to build up a little frame around my body to hold the alginate before they poured it. With two folks working on each side it still took around 15 minutes to build the 'cradle' before we could start pouring the gloop. Once the pouring started my whole torso ended up being encased as can be seen by the photo. This was slightly different to having the head done for a couple of reasons a) I could actually see and hear what was happening and b) the surface area being covered was substantially larger and therefore took longer. I think overall I spent about 45 minutes having the torso done. The 'bars' which appear across the torso are actually folded strips of material to create 'handles' with which to move and manipulate the heavy cast when it has been removed.

One further difference between this cast and the head cast was 'setting'. As the alginate warms up and sets it forms a hard outer case inside which the body could then start to move within it. Prior to that any movement (such as breathing) caused the alginate to flex with your skin. Now it stayed stationary. The upshot of this was that I could then start to break the vacuum caused by the substance and wriggle inside the cast. The feeling was a little weird, but I soon got used to it.

Releasing from this mold involved having someone lift the top part of the mold up and then pull it away to allow me to climb out of the 'bed' and into the (rather cold) ambient air. As Waldo started to nail the cast shut and attach it to the wooden base I prepared for my limbs being cast with a cup of tea and a biscuit.

The limbs were almost a non-event. Each arm was done separately after being attached once again to a piece of wood. Both legs were done at the same time with two people on either side dealing with the molding and casting.

By the end of the day Waldo had a head, a torso, two arms and two legs which was more than enough for a complete body to be made.

The next steps are for the molds to be used to produce a copy of my body. This will then be assembled, painted, individual hairs will be punched into it for realism and it will then be distressed with empty eye sockets, missing flesh and worms (Think of the decaying victims in the cinema sequence in 'An American Werewolf in London'). At some point in January or early February it will be wheeled onto a sound stage in Shepperton and filmed for the movie.

For those of you who are wondering how much a full body life-cast costs no-one was able to tell me the full amount, however a detailed head alone can cost upwards of £800/$1200 so use that as a starting point.

Thanks to Waldo, Nicky, and the guys at Animated Extras for looking after me for the day. You guys were great.

Oh, I never did get to see the completed head before I left. No doubt I'll see it in the film...

1 Incidentally that actual shot was filmed in the editor's swimming pool with the fake head, a piece of the boat set and some Carnation milk added to the water to make it murky. It was shot after the rest of the film had been edited  together when Spielberg decided he wanted a shock earlier in the movie than the Brody-throwing-chum-into-the-ocean scene. For more on the making of 'Jaws' I recommend 'The Jaws Log' by screenwriter Carl Gottlieb .

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