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Face Casting - by Christian Hanson

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PostPosted: Wed Dec 01, 2010 4:52 pm    Post subject: Face Casting - by Christian Hanson Reply with quote

Christian Hansons Face Casting Tutorial as seen at The FX Lab


LIfe casting is an essential element to prosthetic makeups. Though high-quality latex and foam appliances exist on the market, any serious makeup enthusiast will get to the point where he or she will need to create his or her own custom prosthetic appliance. Before any sculpting, casting or application can begin, one must create a life-cast of the makeup subject. Though it may seem daunting at first, with some patience and practice, most people can learn to create a basic face-cast. The following is a short description of a basic face-cast that I made for a film student's project. This should provide you with the basic steps to get you started in your own attempt at life-casting. Before you begin, learn what you can about the process and take all recommended safety precautions. Children should not try this unless supervised, and adults must take responsibility for their subjects comfort and safety during the life-casting process.

Materials. To create a face-cast like the one described here, you will need the following materials: alginate, plaster bandage, Hydrocal casting plaster, petroleum jelly, a spatula and burlap. Alginate is the goopy material that the initial mold of the face is made out of. It is flexible when set, and non-toxic. If you have ever had your teeth cast by a dentist, you will recognize this material. The type used for face-casting is similar, but has a much slower setting time. For this face-cast, I used Accu-cast brand alginate. All of the materials used here can be purchased from Burman Industries ( For a cast of a face, the 2.5 lb. package should be enough, but if you plan on doing more life-casts in the future, you may want to invest in one of the larger packages. Extra-Fast Setting Plaster Bandage is used to build a rigid mother mold so that the flexible alginate maintains its shape once removed from the subject. I prefer the 6" wide bandages from Burman. You will only need a roll or two for a face, but it’s always good to have more available. Hydrocal Plaster, Burlap and a small, disposable brush are used to create the final cast.

Step 1: Set up. Have of your materials set up before you begin the life-casting process. [picture 1] You'll be too busy during the casting process to search around for your materials. Pre-measure the alginate and water. In a recent issue of Makeup Artist Magazine (issue #34), makeup legend Dick Smith recommends using 114g of Accu-cast 8-80 blue alginate to approximately 414 ml warm water for a life-cast. I found this to be just enough for a small face-cast, and a bit too thick, but overall a good starting point. The manufacturer of the alginate should provide mixing guidelines as well. If you are using another brand, follow the mixing proportions provided. In addition to your main mix, have some extra alginate and a pitcher of water ready in case you need to add either to make it thinner or thicker.
On such a small cast as the one here, one does not necessarily need to measure out the plaster bandage for specific areas of the face, as one does for a larger cast. Just rip off several strips folder over twice, thus making the strips four layers, of approximately 5" each. You may need a few smaller strips for smaller areas, and a small strip for between the nostrils. Make more than you'll need, since you can always use them for your next casting, and having extra is better than running out in the middle of a casting. Also, prepare a bucket of very warm water for dipping the plaster bandages. The warm water will speed up the setting time.

Step 2: Prepare the subject. It's a good idea to give the person you are casting a general idea of what he is about to sit through. Walk him through the process so that he knows what to expect. Also, though it is rare, some people have an allergic reaction to alginate. Mix up a small amount and place it on their wrist and allow it to set up to check for this possibility. It will also let him know what the material feels like his face is covered in it.

For this face-cast, a bald cap was not used. So I needed to put a small amount of petroleum jelly around his hairline. This prevents the alginate from adhering to the hair, which would make removal of the mold difficult. The eyebrows and eyelashes also get a small amount of petroleum jelly. Let the subject put it in his own eyelashes. Just a little should do. [picture 2]

The alginate tends to slope and drip off the face, so have the subject wear a disposable shirt. You should also cover his waist and legs with a large plastic garbage bag. The floor should also be covered with a tarp.

Step 3: Alginate Application. Add the pre-measured water to the alginate, and mix thoroughly. Be quick about mixing, as you will need all the time before the alginate sets to get it on your subject. If it is too thick, carefully add a small amount of water. If too thin, more alginate. Note: fresh alginate will not adhere to alginate that has set up. So if you need to mix up another batch, make sure that you add it before the other batch sets up.

Quickly, but carefully, start covering the subject's face with the mixed alginate. [picture 3] You will have from 8 to 10 minutes working time, so don't waste time. Cover the entire area being cast with an even amount, being sure to get the alginate into all of the areas and recesses of the face. [picture 4] Air bubbles tend to occur right below the eyebrow, between the eye and the nose. During this entire time, keep checking to make sure that the nostrils are not blocked by the slumping alginate. [picture4-5]
This may sound harder than it is to do, but if you're nervous, have an assistant focus on this. In the worst case, you can always wipe it off and start over with a new batch. Reassure your subject by telling them where you are in the process, but do not joke with them. Smiling or laughing can wreck the alginate mold, so keep things serious. Save the goofing for after-word. Once the alginate begins to thicken and stops slumping, leave it to set up, and prepare to add the plaster bandage.

Step 4: Plaster Bandage Application. Once the alginate has set up, plaster bandages need to be applied. Take each four-layered strip and dunk it into the bucket of warm water. [picture 5] Squeegee the excess water with your fingers, and apply it to the alginate. [picture6] Overlap the bandages until all of the alginate is covered. Leave a small amount of alginate around the edges of the mold exposed. In this instance, I went so close to the edge with the bandage, which made removal difficult. Take the small strip of bandage and place that between the nostrils, and make sure to keep the nostril wholes open, so that your subject can breath well. The bandages set up in just a few minutes. [picture 7] You can tell when the bandage shell is set up once your fingernail will no longer leave an impression.

Step 5: Mold Removal. To remove the alginate and plaster bandage mold, have your subject lean forward holding the mold with his hands. Have him move his face around to loosen the alginate from it. Be careful that the plaster bandage shell does not separate from the alginate. Carefully assist the removal by putting your fingers between the alginate and his face and loosening up the edges. [picture 8] Be patient, you do not want the alginate to rip. Once the mold is removed, your subject can go off and clean up. You, on the other hand, still have more work to do.

The nostril holes that were so carefully kept open will now need to be covered. Mix a small amount of alginate and slowly push it into the mold from the outside, being careful not to get it on the inside of the mold. When it sets, cover the area with a fresh strip of plaster bandage.
The alginate will start to shrink as it is exposed to the air. If you cannot start the plaster cast immediately, place a damp paper towel inside the mold to prevent this until you can start the casting.

Step 6: Plaster Casting. This face-cast is going to be used as the base for a sculpture which will become a custom, slip latex prosthetic. If I was fabricating a foam rubber appliance, Ultracal 30 cement would be used for the cast, but in this case Hydrocal plaster will work. Hydrocal can be mixed fairly easily. First, fill your mixing bowl with approximately three cups of water. I just went by eye here, as I have years of experience mixing plaster. You will need just enough to give the mold about a half-inch layer of plaster. Sift in the Hydrocal until the top of the mix looks like a dry lakebed. [picture 9] Mix this up thoroughly with your hand, making sure to prevent too many air bubbles from building up. If you have sensitive hands, you may want to use latex or vinyl gloves. Once the clumps are out, use the disposable brush to paint in the plaster. [picture 10]

The aim here is to get the plaster into all of the details of the mold. Build up about a half-inch of plaster and allow it to set up. This should take only 20 minutes or so. It is a standard in mold making and casting to create a layer of plaster-soaked burlap in case the cast cracks. The burlap will keep it from falling to pieces. Cut the burlap into squares approximately 4" X 4". [picture 11] Mix up another batch of plaster as before and dip the individual burlap squares into it. Cover the inside of the cast with overlapping plaster soaked burlap. Use the remaining plaster to achieve a total even thickness of about 1/2-inch. As the Hydrocal sets up, smooth out the back of the cast. Once this final layer is completely set up, you can turn it over and remove the plaster bandage from the alginate mold. Finally, carefully peal the alginate from the Hydrocal cast, and there you have it. And exact casting of your subject's face. [picture 12] There are usually minor imperfections due to air bubbles in the alginate, which can easily be removed with a woodcarving tool.

If your first attempt at life-casting does not work out, do not give up. Most everyone who has done multiple life-casts has some story of things going badly. I am certainly no exception. Once, doing a full head cast, all was going well until we poured the plaster into the mold. The bucket that it was sitting in slowly filled up with the plaster. We were babbled until I realized that I had forgotten to plug the nostril holes before pouring the plaster! Another time I wasn’t sure how many layers of plaster bandage were needed to keep the alginate in the shape of the subject. Using only two layers, the cast came out as a bizarre, distorted version of the subject. But, as they say, that’s how one learns. Read up more on life-casting, get your materials ready, convince someone to be your subject and you’ll be a master caster in no time. Next issue: fabricating a basic latex appliance.

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