These are not your father's wax presidents

Artist Matt Gemmell, of Studio EIS, uncrates a mixed media figue before installation at Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, PA on February 6, 2017. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

Just weeks after the former Hall of Presidents and First Ladies Museum in Gettysburg auctioned off its wax figures of presidents, a group of startlingly lifelike representations of George Washington and other heroes arrived for installation at Philadelphia’s new Museum of the American Revolution.

Figures for the museum’s “lifecasting” scenes were designed, built, and installed by three creative groups: StudioEIS in Brooklyn, which also produced the figures in the Signers’ Hall at the National Constitution Center; Pittsburgh artist Alan Gutchess, director of the Fort Pitt Museum; and Atta Studio in New York, which has created several pieces for Lady Gaga, including a spaceship piano.

The “lifecasting” process starts with an acrylic resin compound, similar to what dentists use, that's molded onto a real person’s body. Artists “literally pull masks off of faces, hands, entire bodies, and then work from there,” said R. Scott Stephenson, a vice president at the new museum.

Next, the figures are extensively resculpted in plaster, foam, and steel, said Debra Schwartz, product director for StudioEIS. Glass eyes, wigs, custom clothing, props, and weapons help make the characters even more lifelike.

"The final touch that makes these figures outstanding is the realistic painting of the skin, combined with the distressing of the clothing," she said.

One figure takes approximately 175 hours to make, according to Ivan Schwartz, vice president of StudioEIS and a sculptor and painter. The clothing takes additional time and is a very time-consuming affair, he said. All told, one figure might need 250 hours of painstaking work to come together.

But it pays off in the final product.

“They’re really extremely lifelike,” Stephenson said.