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Thursday, Aug 18, 2022
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Oscar

At first glance, Professional Visioncare Associates seems like any optometrist’s practice. Magazines are piled on the coffee table in the waiting room. A team of assistants works quietly behind glass windows. The three doctors in white coats patiently switch lenses on a machine that tests vision. “Better or worse?” they ask. It’s downright dull. Except that about twice a month an actor, often a major star, is likely to walk into the Sherman Oaks practice to be fitted for contact lenses. Dr. Morton Greenspoon, the founder of the practice, and his two associates, Dr. Rick Silver and Dr. Stacey Sumner, make special effects contact lenses for the movies. They turned Michael Jackson into a werewolf for the music video “Thriller;” made Brad Pitt look crazy in “Twelve Monkeys;” transformed Billy Crystal into an old man for “Mr. Saturday Night;” and gave Arnold Schwarzenegger his sinister stare in “Batman and Robin.” “Without contacts, it would have looked like a human being in makeup,” makeup artist Greg Cannom said of the doctors’ handiwork. Cannom believes the optometrists’ contribution to his work is so important that when he won the Academy Award for makeup for “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” he thanked Greenspoon and Silver during his acceptance speech. Special effects contact lenses account for 10 percent to 15 percent of the practice, up from 5 percent to 10 percent five years ago, when the business was about half its current size. The company works on several movies a month, in addition to the many “Star Trek” television episodes for which it has won two Emmys. Three years ago, Professional Visioncare spun off another business, Eyes on Film-Image Optics, providing period eyeglasses for movies. And it is now looking for a company to produce a line of its designs for consumers who might want a pair of eyes with dollar signs, happy faces, stars or hearts. This year, another two films that display the doctors’ work are up for Oscar nominations in the makeup category. For “Titanic,” they created the icy eyes of the dead floating in the ocean; and for “Men in Black,” they had to create the illusion that the alien-possessed farmer was becoming increasingly blind. A third Oscar-nominated movie, “As Good as it Gets,” for which they created Greg Kinnear’s bloody eye, is not nominated in the makeup category. The doctors hardly seem to notice their Hollywood stature. “What really turns me on is seeing on film the technology we know applied to art,” said Silver. He joined the practice 12 years ago, when his partner was already well established in the special effects business. Greenspoon’s father, Dr. Reuben Greenspoon, made the first pair of contact lenses for special effects when a friend, Ben Nye, the legendary makeup artist for Twentieth Century Fox, asked him if he could turn Robert Young’s eyes blue for a movie called “Miracle for Sale.” Greenspoon, who ultimately broke away from his father’s Beverly Hills practice and opened an office in Sherman Oaks, mostly accommodated requests to change the color of a star’s eyes. (He turned Elvis’ eyes brown in “Flaming Star” and made the Audrey Hepburn character appear blind in “Wait Until Dark.”) Then came Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video, for which Greenspoon created contacts to help turn the star into a werewolf. “They did a video on the making of ‘Thriller,’ and that spread the company’s name,” Greenspoon said. By then, contact lens technology had advanced with the introduction of plastics. Effects that before could not be achieved without blinding the actor, such as mirrored eyeballs, were made possible with plastics. Greenspoon was the first to develop a mirroring process (the early results were seen when Yul Brynner played a robot in “Westworld”). He developed a process for coloring eyes so they appear to have the ring that appears naturally during the aging process. And he learned to weight lenses, so that vertical pupils, used for werewolves and other animals, remained in place. (Without weighting, the lens will rotate in the eye and a vertical pupil will move into a horizontal position.) Each pair of contact lenses costs $600 to $1,200, depending on what is required. Simpler lenses may be less expensive. Makeup artists come to the practice with a computer-drawn rendering of the eye they want. “Once we have the effect we’re looking for, we shop around to find someone with the technical expertise to do it,” Greenspoon said. “Sometimes we have to shop around all over the world.” It is not uncommon for the doctors to have lenses made in England or Italy. Though Greenspoon had the special effects market all to himself when he began in the business, competitors have cropped up. Rick Baker, the makeup artist for “Thriller” and a nominee for “Titanic,” said he was approached by another company at a trade show for makeup artists. “One of his competitors came up to me and said, ‘I’ll give you a better deal,” Baker recalled. But there was no sale. “(Greenspoon) always come through for me.” Makeup artists are leery of switching suppliers. “Messing with people’s eyes is scary,” said Baker. Each pair of lenses must be fitted in the office and the doctors provide a technician on the set to insert and remove the lenses and to monitor the length of time they are worn. About seven or eight technicians work for the firm on a freelance basis. If a director suggests that lenses that actually render an actor blind will add to the fabric of the performance, the doctors refuse. “People really are not happy about not seeing,” Greenspoon deadpanned. He can recall an instance or two when an actor insisted on being made blind only to become claustrophobic and “freak out.” Each actor gets a full eye exam prior to the fitting to be certain the eye is healthy and to ward off any problems. Actors who have never worn contacts typically approach the process with trepidation. Sumner, the newest member of the team, was once summoned to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s house to insert and remove his lenses. Schwarzenegger’s mirror eyes as Mr. Freeze in “Batman and Robin” were made from hard lenses, and those take some getting used to, Sumner said. So the actor had to get in some rehearsal time, adjusting to the lenses by wearing clear versions for about two weeks prior to shooting. Schwarzenegger adapted well, but a few actors have simply refused to wear them. “Nearly every actor who walks in here who has never worn contacts hates being here,” said Sumner. “They look at you like, ‘Oh my God, you’re going to kill me’.”

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