Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Getting a Likeness at Madame Tussauds

Madame Tussauds created this video about how they create a wax portrait figure. They had the benefit of having the subject, Benedict Cumberbatch, available for measurements and color matches. (link to video)

One of the readers of this blog is Jethro Crabb, a painter and sculptor who has worked at Madame Tussauds. I asked him a few questions prompted by the video.

James Gurney: Who sculpted the head in the video?

Jethro Crabb: "My friend John Cormican, a lovely fellow and a veteran of Jim Henson's creature shop amongst other places, sculpted the head for the Benedict Cumberbatch figure."

JG: Where is Madame Tussauds based, and what did you do there?

Jethro Crabb: "The studios are based in Acton, West London and produce wax figures for all the worldwide attractions. Each figure normally has two sculptors working on it, one to sculpt the body and one the head. I specialised in head sculpts during my time there."

JG: Do you ever use 3D scanners?

J. Crabb: "Tussauds to me is fascinating because most of the techniques involved in the production of the figures are exactly the same as they were 200 years ago. In the last couple of years 3D scanning and printing has become a part of the process, but the 3D prints are currently only used as another reference tool for sculpting in clay by hand."

JG: Do you always have a living celebrity available to pose?

J. Crabb: "In the case that the celebrity was free and willing to meet us, we would travel to them and take hundreds of photographs and measurements of them. For the head we used an eyebrow pencil to draw a matrix of dots on their faces which became points to measure from. As we built the clay head up using the photographic reference we established these points in the clay using metal pins and carefully measured between them with calipers. We would compare these measurements with our chart of measurements taken in the sitting and adjust them until correct. Two of the photographs we took were a 'front on' and a 'profile' shot in the right facial expression from 5 meters away (to minimize the distortion)."

"These were printed out 2% larger than life size and we used this to directly take measurements in a very specific way. The clay head was built 2% larger to compensate for shrinkage in the wax cast. In the case that the celebrity didn't want to be involved or was unavailable we would work from photographs alone. Each portrait would normally take 5 weeks to sculpt. All these techniques and processes were tinkered with and added to over the years and the results produced could be quite remarkable."

JG: What elements are key to getting a likeness?

J. Crabb: "One of the things I learned as an artist working at Tussauds was that in order to create a convincing likeness of someone it was crucial that all the elements were correct and had the correct relationship with each other. Humans are so expert in recognising faces, or more accurately 'heads' since the shape and silhouette of the cranium, neck and jaw play an important role in this recognition, that any minor mistake or mismatch of forms creates a disproportionately disastrous result."

"I also learned more and more that it is the big simple shapes in a sculpture which are the most important to establish correctly. There is always a tendency to be distracted by an alluring nostril shape or mouth corner, but even if this small stuff is correct it is useless unless it is laying over a correctly sculpted larger form. Perhaps a similar thing can be said of painting."

JG: When it comes to recognizing a particular face, I have always been under the impression that the great portrait painters engage in subtle caricature (see post on "Caricature and Likeness"or at least are selective about downplaying certain features or qualities that are not particularly characteristic. Am I right in understanding that there's none of that going on with Madame Tussauds sculptures? Are you going for a metrically exact mirror image with no attempt to exaggerate characteristic details?

Jethro Crabb: "This subject of 'caricature vs exact copy' that you bring up is one that absolutely fascinates me. Your question and original blog post has hit upon an issue that I have spent a lot of time thinking about and experiencing through my sculpture. Please excuse my lengthy response. It should be an easy question to answer, but it is not."

"At Madame Tussauds, the sculptors are aiming to produce an exact copy of the person. So that you could stand the celebrity next to their sculpture and it would be impossible to spot any differences in size, proportion, form or colour between the two, (By the way this aim is rarely if ever 100% achieved no matter how meticulously the wax figure is made)."

"But in order to get to that point I think it is helpful to have a caricaturist's eye. To have the ability and inclination to notice what specific characteristics are key in making someone look the way they do. This skill is particularly important when we have been unable to meet the celebrity in question and are just working from photographs without the aid of measurements taken from the subject. In this case it is useful to observe which characteristics of their head shape and features and they way they fit together are distinctive and might be exaggerated if we were to make a caricature. By noticing these characteristics we can make sure they are stated clearly enough in the sculpture. Better that they are slightly overstated than understated."

Wax portrait of Beethoven by Jethro Crabb
JG: With movie celebrities or larger-than-life historical figures, our notions of what they look like is influenced by a certain amount of myth-making via film or painting. Sometimes the screen persona of a movie actor is kind of artificial, and different from the real flesh-and-blood human being. How do you factor that in?

J. Crabb: "A good wax figure should look like how people expect that celebrity to look. This can often be subtly different to the reality. Think about having your photo taken and having a feeling that it didn't quite capture how you really look. This could easily be the case with a wax figure as well. We could create a sculpture that measures correctly and adds up with all the photographs from the sitting, but just doesn't look like how we expect Johnny Depp, for instance, to look. So sometimes we have to choose photographic reference which tallies with our expectations. On top of this some of the best portrait sculptors at Tussauds use elements of subtle exaggeration in their modelling to define the characteristics of the forms and shapes in the face. Two of the principal sculptors used to work as caricaturists for the British television political caricature programme "Spitting Image" and I think this has helped with their realistic work."

Thanks so much, Jethro!
Jethro Crabb's sculpture work 
Celebrity Tussaud images are from FanPop


Tom Hart said...

Fascinating article! (I've yet to watch the video, but I will.) The discussion about the "caricaturist's eye" and portrait painting really resonates with me, and it's the mental tool that I find most helpful when going for a likeness. It seems counterintuitive (I think) but I often find that I need to push more toward carcicature(seemingly even beyond, sometimes)in order to get the degree of likeness I'm going for. It's almost like, unless I push, my mind wants to underplay a distinctive characheristic, and by thinking more in terms of caricature, I get closer to where I need to be...if that makes any sense.

James Gurney said...

Tom, thanks for your comment -- thoughtful as always. I think you hit the nail on the head. In my case, I am rarely able to do actual measurements or metrics when doing a portrait, often because the subject is moving so much that doing the normal sight size tricks just don't apply. So I'm eyeballing the measurements. But as you say the likeness comes from identifying how the face differs from a "normal" face, and if I don't focus on that difference, I end up with something more generic.

Unknown said...

Great post!

Lydia Burris said...

This was Great!! I watched the video and read the interview. I've always been fascinated. I would LOVE to know the story behind the opposite place (which unfortunately went out of business in 2013 after over 50 years of attention): Have you ever heard of "Louis Toussads Wax Museum"? Heralded as the worlds *worse* wax museum. I visited a few times when I lived in England, I loved it!! Unfortunately, I never went to the actual Madame Toussads. Alas!
A Link below detailing the troubles before they closed, and some great pictures of the outdated and melting/badly done wax figures.

Ham Recycling said...

Really interesting article, the sher talent some of the makeup artists have. Looking at the realism of some of the celebrities created is amazing.