And... wax statue!

For eternity: Meet Stephen Mansfield, the man behind the lifelike celebrity statues of Madame Tussauds.

And... wax statue!

Rubbing shoulders with celebrities is part and parcel of his job. His exceptional abilities to ‘read’ photographs, and size people up, literally, are for the world to see. Well, we are talking about Stephen Mansfield, principal sculpture artist, Merlin Magic Making, which develops figures for Madame Tussauds attractions worldwide.

This London-based artist, with a keen interest in portraiture, weaves magic when it comes to sculpting awe-inspiring lifelike models. Educated in London, he left college to go straight into special effects work during the 1980s. Having worked on a wide variety of projects including the visual effects for the British satirical puppet show Spitting Image, and freelanced for the BBC sculpting severed heads of statues up to the year 1999, he joined Madame Tussauds in the year 2000, and has been there ever since.

With the 23rd Madame Tussauds attraction scheduled to be launched in Delhi soon this year, Sunday Herald engages the artist in a conversation to understand the research and process involved in sculpting wax replicas of celebrities.
Excerpts:

How is the celebrity to be designed into a statue chosen?
Our choice of figures reflects those celebrities our visitors want to see, based on regular polls and feedback; together with extensive monitoring and research by our global and local teams looking at news events and other indicators of who’s ‘in’ both internationally, and in those markets where we have an attraction.

What is the kind of research that follows?
We work closely with the celebrity throughout the process. To start with, our team goes to the celebrity and acquires precise measurements of their body. At this sitting, our sculptors take over 250 measurements and 180 photographs. The subject is photographed at various angles in the pose of the final figure. Hand and dental casts are also taken at this early stage. The subject’s body is also measured and photographed in detail by the team, and to supplement this information, video footage is recorded.

Do you always meet your subjects?
We have a team that sets up sittings with the celebrities; we’ve not had an instance where the sitting is refused. We understand the busy schedule of the celebrities, therefore it is scheduled as per their availability. For the figures of the celebrities who are no longer alive, we have a research team that does all the research, gathering all the possible pictures and information. In these cases, we would also involve the celebrity’s family.

Could you take us through the entire process of making a wax figure?
Making of wax figures entails a huge process. The first step is sculpting and moulding. The measurements from the sitting are used to make a metal armature to replicate the pose, and the head and hands are then sculpted from clay, from which a plaster mould is made.

A mixture of beeswax and Japan wax is heated to 74°C, and is poured into the mould. The plaster casts are removed once the wax has cooled to leave the hollow wax head. The second step is hair and styling. The hairs are individually inserted by hand, washed, and then cut and styled to finish. The eyes are made from acrylic with silk threads to simulate the veining of the eye while the iris is hand-painted. Meanwhile, the figure is coloured using layers of oil-based paints to accurately replicate the skin tone. The third and final phase is finishing the figure. The head and hands are fitted to the body, which is then dressed in the chosen styling. It takes around four months and 20 artists to complete a figure. But this can vary depending on complexity. We have a large team of very talented creative people here at the studio, who are variously working on a number of figures at any time. Those involved are sculptors, moulders, wax-finishers, colouring artists, hair inserters, hairstylists, costumiers and photographers... and that’s without all the people working behind the scenes: production managers; researchers, talent management team etc.

What parts of these wax figures are real? Only the hair is real. The hair used on wax figures is human hair, all ethically sourced, of course.

What kind of training does a wax sculptor undergo?
All the sculptors here at the studio have come from a variety of different routes; some have a fine art background, others have come from the film and entertainment industries. We have a strict process of selection and internal training, to ensure our sculptors are of the highest quality.

What qualities are key to a job in sculpting lifelike models?
To successfully sculpt wax figures, you need to have a passion for the end product and be mindful of how your sculpture is to be used as part of the production process. Important qualities include a keen eye for detail, an ability to interpret photographs and measurements correctly, and of course, a solid grounding in high quality portrait sculpting.

In all, how many figures have you sculpted?
Certainly over a hundred. And they don’t get any easier!

What’s the life span of a wax figure?
The wax figures are immortal. Madame Tussauds does remove/replace figures occasionally when they are no longer popular or representative. However, these are NOT melted down. The ‘retired’ figures are kept in our archives.

How comfortable are you to work on the statues of personalities you are not familiar with?
We have a number of processes that ensure that technically the figures are accurate. In order to properly capture the character of the person, we will research the person thoroughly, with the assistance of our research department and our colleagues in the attractions. This can also be supplemented with advice from either the celebrity or their representatives.

Your favourites ones...
I have many favourites, but Shahrukh Khan was particularly great to work with. He was very enthusiastic and helpful. Just before the launch of his figure in London, we met him in a hotel where he approved the head and helped to style the hair himself. He also gave us a sneak preview of his then new film. A really nice man. 

Your career highs and lows...
I’ve been very fortunate in that every celebrity I’ve met, be they royalty, politicians, actors or sports people, have all been great fun and enthusiastic, which makes the process of sculpting them a real pleasure. I can’t honestly say there have been any lows I can think of.

What are the challenges your job poses?
Madame Tussauds has been around for over two centuries, and over that period, the scrutiny the figures are under has continued to increase. Nowadays digital media means that our work is seen in detail all over the world minutes after a figure has been launched, and expectations are higher than they’ve ever been. There are also many more branches of Madame Tussauds globally than there have ever been, so we are producing more figures. So the main challenge in my job is to help maintain the high standards people have come to expect of Madame Tussauds in an increasingly demanding market.

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