Life Casting – A Staple For Prosthetics

This week at the Australian College of Specialist Make-Up, our Diploma of Screen and Media students tackled what can be the most daunting and extensive procedure that any special effects artist will face. That process is life casting.

Life casting is a core skill that any special effects or prosthetics artist should know. I’m sure you probably already have an understanding about what life casts are and why they are needed, but I’ll quickly go through why they are an essential process for any production that requires prosthetics.

A life cast is a plaster or stone replication of an actors face. This allows us to sculpt on top of these plaster copies and create extremely in-depth and complicated prosthetic sculptures that would not be possible using out of kit methods. This means that we can spend as much time as we want in our workshops adding in every single individual pore and wrinkle, which will breathe life into our designs. Working on a film set can be an extremely busy and time restrictive practice, so any process that can be completed before getting on set will assist in ensuring a smooth filming process. Getting to the level of detail that most creatures or prosthetics require would take hours and hours on set, wasting valuable filming time that the actor could be working in front of the camera.

Special effects artists must be extremely familiar with not just the exterior of the human face, but also the underlying muscle and tissue. This understanding allows them to comprehend how the face gains it’s structure and this grants them the ability to know how to sculpt prosthetics for the face that will move and respond in a believable manner.

This process can be extremely daunting, especially to anyone who hasn’t experiences a life cast. The senses are completely covered and diminished during the process which can cause a variety of different anxieties. The artist conducting the procedure should be understanding, confident and be able to answer any questions the model may have. I teach my students not just how to take an accurate life cast, but how to respond to our models anxieties and concerns as well as how to react accordingly to them in a swift and responsible manner. A comfortable life casting experience will set the tone for that model and the artist for future life castings, so it is extremely important to understand this from the outset.

Firstly, we apply a bald cap to our models. This protects their hair and gives us a larger area for us to life cast. Most creature applications will be applied on top of a bald cap, so it only makes sense to apply one during the life casting session.

Gemma and Leonie applying a bald cap to their model, Georgia, prior to life casting.

ACSM student’s Leonie and Gemma applying a bald cap to their model, Georgia, prior to life casting.

Safety is our number one concern, with detail being a close second. Many of the materials that we use to life cast can be hazardous if inhaled while in powder form. Aprons, dust masks and nitrile gloves are a must have PPE when working with these materials.

Gemma and Leonie applying bald cap to Georgia

ACSM student’s Leonie, Gemma and Georgia wearing the appropriate PPE for their life casting session.

We have to get as much of the little details from our models faces into the moulding material. At the college, we use a prosthetic grade alginate called Mould FX 3 by MouldLife. If you have ever had braces, you will have had a form of alginate used to take a mould of your teeth. Alginate is a seaweed based material that sets up as a semi-firm rubber and captures a beautiful amount of detail in a small amount of time. This specific brand of alginate sets up in roughly 3 to 5 minutes, making it optimal for quick casting on models who may be anxious about the length of the life casting sessions. The alginate is mixed up in a 1:2 ratio with ice cold water to give us the best working time (And the ice cold water actually makes the face casting process relatively refreshing!)

Gemma, Leonie and Alistair applying Alginate to Georgia

ACSM Lecturer Alistair assisting students Gemma and Leonie apply the alginate to their model, Georgia.

Once the alginate is applied and has set up, we apply multiple strips of plaster bandage on top of the alginate. Since the alginate is semi-firm, it does have quite a bit of flexibility to it. It is also extremely easy to tear, so the alginate needs a firm support placed on top of it so that when we pour our casting material into the mould, it doesn’t distort. Plaster bandages are just strips of gauze or bandage that have been coasted with Plaster of Paris and dehydrated, so that we can rehydrate them and apply them.

ACSM Students Leisa, Allanah, Donelle, Kally and Angela applying plaster bandages to their model, Mahta.

Once all the plaster bandages have been applied, we wait for the bandages to fully set up to ensure that no distortions occur when we cast them in cement!

Want to see the whole process from start to finish? ACSM Students Leonie, Georgia, Gemma and Angela were kind enough to let us set up a time lapse video to capture the entire process! The students did a fantastic job today and many of them are looking forward to completing more life casts in the future out in the industry with the skills they learned today! Life casting is a tricky and complicated procedure if you do not receive the proper training to safely perform the service. This is definitely something you shouldn’t try at home on your own without appropriate supervision from someone who knows what they’re doing!

Author / Alistair Arkwright

Senior Lecturer / Australian College of Specialist Make-Up.

Alistair has been in the film and prosthetics industry for 6 years and has worked on multiple feature films and stage productions. His speciality in special effects and prosthetics provides outstanding training and industry knowledge to our ACSM students. To find out more about Alistair, check out Alistair’s “Meet The Lecturer’s” interview. Interested in Life Casting and the world of Specialised Make-Up? Have a look at our Diploma of Screen and Media!