Melting bronze gives off a mesmerisingly bright orange glow. As we gaze at some through the open top of the gas furnace,
it feels like we’re staring into the mouth of a volcano. Lazy bubbles slowly disrupt the enticingly smooth surface of the shining liquid but the brutal heat emanating from it, makes you think twice about getting any closer. To our untrained eye the view hasn’t changed much for the past twenty minutes since the raw bronze ingots dissolved but beside us, furnaceman Billy Smith has picked up on something. He grabs his lance thermometer and plunges it in the molten metal to check the temperature.
‘Spot on 1090°C,’ he exclaims, after checking the digital gauge on the instrument. ‘That’s the perfect temperature to cast phosphor bronze or PB3, which is the proper name for the type of alloy we use to make the BAFTA masks. At this heat bronze is as liquid as water.’ To put things into perspective, that’s more than twelve times the normal engine temperature of the Audi A4 3.0 TDI we have driven here in. So for safety reasons Billy is dressed from head to toe in a thick woollen cloak and hood, as well as a pair of fire-retardant protective boots. He and his foundry colleagues clear the space around them before beginning their manipulation. It’s a well-rehearsed dance, which isn’t surprising as their company, New Pro Foundries has been making the masks for BAFTA since 1976.
The design of the statue itself is older. It was first made in 1955 by the American sculptor Mitzi Cunliffe and is based on the concept of the theatrical tragicomic mask. The hollow reverse of the mask bears an electronic symbol around one eye and a screen symbol around the other, linking dramatic production and television technology. Cinema icon Charlie Chaplin became the first ever recipient of the bronze award, when he was honoured as an Academy Fellow at the opening of the BAFTA’s new premises in 1976.
‘To maintain consistency to the original sculpture that was made out of plasticine, we have a master model of the mask made in resin,’ explains New Pro Foundries Managing Director Patrick Helly. ‘From this we have made special casting-moulds, that we encase in special quick-drying sand to form the single-use sand moulds the molten metal is poured into. These have to be fired so they aren’t porous.’
Once the moulds are ready the team lift the metal out of the furnace in a dish called a crucible and pour it into each mould using a metal lifting device called a shank. The masks are always cast in batches of 10. After leaving the metal to cool for half an hour, the moulds are then broken and the metal masks are removed. Afterwards they are sent away to be polished and then mounted on a dark marble footing. Only then are they ready to be handed out at the film awards ceremony on 12 February and then grace the mantelpieces of winners.
‘Few people actually realise the amount of work that go into creating these awards,’ adds Helly. ‘But having made 200 a year, for the past 40 years, definitely gives you some perspective. Sand casting is becoming a rare skill in the UK and we are proud to be celebrating outstanding performance in one area of the arts with our own version in another.’
Written by John Silcox. Photographs by David Ryle