Mr. Cooper, please meet Mr. Cooper
Madame Tussauds wax figures are one of those rare enigmas of an ancient art that has not only lasted but has flourished when, by all accounts, it has been surpassed by technology.
When we want to see what famous people look like all we have to do is sit down at a computer or TV and we can find out more than we ever really needed to know. We can find out what they look like, where they eat, who they are dating, who they are not dating, or even what they did last night.
With all this information out there why do wax figures of famous people still have the ability to draw us in?
Personally, I don’t know, although the robust line to take a photograph with Captain Jack Sparrow was probably a pretty good clue. I hadn’t thought much about it until Reuters television producer Alicia Powell called me to ask if we were interested in doing a picture package along with a television package on how these figures are made. The pictures department agreed that it was a rare chance to cover the process and we agreed that it could make a nice package.
I was curious to see how they manage to make such realistic likenesses of everyone from famous despots to the latest and greatest in Hollywood glitterati. The process is quite detail-oriented and unbelievably thorough. We met with producers from Anderson Cooper’s new daytime talk show, Anderson, and the people from Madame Tussauds in a hotel room in New York in June. At first glance it looked like pretty much every other hotel room I have been in for press availability portraits; the off-white satin covered walls, big gold curtains, windows with a fascinating view, and lots of really nice wooden furniture was all par for the course.
Then I noticed the box of eyeballs. Nothing says unusual situation like a box full of dozens of unblinking blue eyeballs staring at you. It was here that I realized just how thorough this process was and that I was going to be in for a little more than the half an hour I imagined this would take.
Anderson arrived and after introductions the process began almost immediately. The crew from Tussauds, consisting of a sculptor, a company representative who assisted in the measuring, and a photographer, along with assorted helpers, began working right away.
One of the first tasks at hand was looking through the aforementioned eyeballs to choose a pair that would stand up to what is commonly known as one of Cooper’s finer physical traits. This was followed by the matching of details like teeth and hair by comparing them to dozens of samples that the crew had brought with them. A relatively simple task and one that Anderson seemed to quite enjoy as he held up eyeballs pointed in odd directions in front of his own peepers.
Once the sample matching was over it was time to get down to brass tacks. Cooper was placed upon a revolving circular disc that was on the ground and was photographed from every angle as he rotated around multiple times. The crew then made measurements of particulars like height, length of individual leg segments, arm segments, feet, hands, wingspan, chest, waist; I don’t even remember what else.
Once the big measurements were made the Tussauds crew had Anderson sit and they marked roughly a dozen small dots on his face with which to make more detailed measurements. The distances between these were measured with massive calipers that looked fairly frightening but were actually designed to measure the distance from Anderson’s nose to his cheekbone, his eyebrow to his chin, his forehead to his ear, his… well you get the picture.
There are a LOT of measurements that go into this process. I kind of lost track of time at this point as I was working hard to get the right image with the calipers in it. It is rare to have large menacing metallic objects near my subjects face (I know, boring!) so I was probably a little over-excited about the possibilities. In fact, it was probably around an hour later when it became time for Anderson to make his hand imprint, sign a signature, then head off for work.
The manufacture of the figure took over three months from the measuring of Anderson to the point where he would see it for the first time. Reuters managed to coordinate with Tussauds in London and photographer Toby Melville was able to document the final coloring and painting of his face that would give the figure its lifelike ‘skin’ before the unveiling in New York.
Fortunately, the Reuters television crew and myself were able to come to a taping of his talk show, Anderson, and photograph the unveiling of the statue for the first time. Anderson looked quite amazed by the three dimensional mirror image that stood staring back at him after the raising of the curtain. It was a rare moment of genuine emotion that I was happy to have captured.
It was amusing watching him prod the statue while declaring over and over how odd it was to be staring at a three dimensional copy of yourself. I suppose it’s this tactile ability to compare oneself to the personalities you see all over media that maintains the allure of Tussauds wax figures. You can watch as much video of your favorite star as you want but it is only thanks to this still thriving art that you can literally stand next to them all while on a trip to a wax museum.