John Schoonraad has spent over 30 years working in prosthetics and life casting for films. He set up his own company eight years ago, Life Cast Limited, which he runs with his two sons out of a workshop at Elstree Studios.

His recent projects include John Carter Of Mars, Kick Ass, Sherlock Holmes and Rambo.

How did you get started in the life casting business?

I left school very early at 15 and went into a fibres plastering apprenticeship. We had people come into our workshop and say “I’ve just been working on Oliver, I’ve just been working on Battle Of Britain” and although I really wanted to do that, they told me that I wouldn’t be able to because in those days you had to be a member of the unions.

After I came out of my apprenticeship I was making plasterwork,  but then my wife said to me, “Why don’t you try and get into the studios?” So I rang up Elstree, and I ended up talking to a chap who knew me through my boss, who called me to join the Transport General Workers Union, and that he’d think about it. Then a few weeks later I got a phone call saying come into Elstree, I walked into the workshop, I smelt the grease and canvas and that was it. That was 30 years ago. In the early days I was building sets, like the jungle in Greystoke, and submarines for James Bond. But for some reason I just gravitated towards prosthetics.  I then I got to the stage where I was life casting people.

Give us an example of when a life cast might be used in a film?

There are all sorts of reasons for life casting. As in something like Black Hawk Down. Orlando Bloom’s character has to fall out of the helicopter backwards. It was actually a stuntman with a mask on. So we had to life cast Orlando Bloom, make a mask, pop it onto the stuntman and he falls backwards out of the helicopter into a cloud of dust whipped up by the helicopter.

You worked on Saving Private Ryan. How did you get that gig?

We can get pulled in to a film in different ways, By the makeup department, designer, or the special effects and art departments.

With Saving Private Ryan, I was brought in because I had developed a new technique for doing life casting and creating bodies. We did a full body cast for Tom Hanks, because they didn’t know how he was going to die. In the end he just got shot, but he could have got blown up or shot with a tank, in which case they would have had to use the life cast. All the principal actors on SPR were life cast, pre-empting their demise in one way or another.

Working for Spielberg was amazing. He creates this magical feeling that we are all doing something really special when you are making the film. It is the pinnacle of your career to work with someone like that and seeing my credit, and my two sons’ credits on the film..well, I was floating.

When you are making life casts, you must have to work closely with the actors involved..

I was called in to life cast Robert Downey Jr for Sherlock Holmes, for the scene where he disguises himself with a fake nose.

He really knows make-up effects in and out. He knows all the materials and he has a list of the materials which are safe for him and which are not. He is quite particular, quite rightly, if you are a film star and you have materials put on which you react to, you don’t want to use them again. In that case, they called me in because they know I’m good with people.

I worked with Kate Winslet, when she was in Jude, and she is giving birth, so we had to do the life cast, the form of her open vagina, and we made a head inside it. The idea is that the child sees the mother giving birth.  She was very professional and lovely about it!

Have the techniques and methods involved in life casting changed over the years?

I have had to innovate, because the old methods were rather long winded and time consuming and I took the experience I had had as a mould maker, mixing up plaster, into that area, so instead of making teaspoons, I got a bucket and mixed it up.

The same with body casting, we used to make everything in plaster which was so heavy. And I got the heads up from an American guy, who was doing it with faces, but I took it into the next stage which was bodies. By filling them with foam, and we had bodies which were lightweight and we could carry around, which didn’t weigh half a tonne and much more manageable to sculpt.

Are you worried that CGI will have a negative impact on your business?

The big question is, with CGI, does that mean physical effects are out of the window. I have found it the reverse. I’ve found that since CGI has come in, there is more need for life casts. We need to scan things and develop it from the material to the CGI. Although on something like John Carter Of Mars and Avatar you will get a lot of things coming from design coming from computers straight into live action.

But I’m not worried because we work on so many different things. My son just came back from working on Where The Wild Things Are, with the big Henson-like puppets. We can do cuddly things as well!

I love the changes. I’ve had 30 years of experience, but even after all that time, every day I have to do something I haven’t done before.