Hollywood’s eye experts

February 23, 2017
When it comes to safely creating some of Hollywood’s most memorable special effects, doctors of optometry play a leading role.

Excerpted from page 16 of the January/February 2017 edition of AOA Focus.

Morton Greenspoon, O.D.


When Morton Greenspoon, O.D., was a boy, his father, Reuben Greenspoon, O.D., sold his share of his New York optometry practice to his brother and moved his family to sunny California. The elder Dr. Greenspoon would go into private practice, opening an office in a high-rise building at 9439 Wilshire Boulevard in the relatively new community of Beverly Hills.

It was 1935 and Hollywood was basking in its golden age. Motion picture studios—Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox, to name a few—reigned. At his nearby practice, Dr. Reuben Greenspoon was becoming acquainted with just about everybody who was anybody in the movie business. He met top theatrical agents, movie executives and other entertainment bigwigs such as Ben Nye, head of makeup for 20th Century Fox; actor-director Orson Welles (whom Dr. Reuben Greenspoon worked with in "Citizen Kane"); and MGM studios cofounder Louis B. Mayer.  

His father would be in the right place at the right time, observed Dr. Morton Greenspoon, who was 6 years old when the family moved. "He had a lot of friends in the movie business. Everybody was in the movie business," says Dr. Morton Greenspoon, who would eventually open his own optometric practice in the San Fernando Valley. 

It was the very ­first time anybody had ever used contact lenses in a movie.

In 1939, Nye introduced Dr. Reuben Greenspoon to William Tuttle, who headed the makeup department at MGM at the time. Tuttle asked for a way to use contact lenses to alter an actor's eyes from their natural brown to blue for a movie, Dr. Morton Greenspoon says. Tuttle's mentor was Jack Dawn, who was the makeup creator for the ­ film "Miracles for Sale." (Dawn also was the makeup creator for ­films such as "The Wizard of Oz" [1939] and "Meet Me in St. Louis" [1944]).

Dr. Reuben Greenspoon, who made a color movie short subject called "The Eyes Have It" on contact lenses, ­ figured it out. "He fused a blue ring of ceramic material, glazed it and then put it on the lens and ran it through a kiln to see if it would fuse to the glass," Dr. Greenspoon says. "And it did."  

He adds, "It was the very ­first time anybody had ever used contact lenses in a movie."   Today, Dr. Morton Greenspoon's practice, Professional VisionCare Associates in Sherman Oaks, California, thrives. Many of its patients aren't in the entertainment business; he has seen three generations of some families.  

Yet, Dr. Morton Greenspoon is known, in some circles, as the "Optometrist to the Stars."  

Alternately, he has served as contact lens consultant, technical advisor and special eye lenses provider for several projects.  

An estimated 15 to 20% of Professional VisionCare Associates is dedicated to special-effects contact lenses, says practice partner Stacey Sumner, O.D., who oversees its theatrical special effects contact lens projects. Dr. Sumner supervises their ­fitting, manufacture and technical aspects.  

His practice's projects, listed on its website and the popular online movie database, imdb.com, are as lengthy as they are wide-ranging—from "The Aviator" to the "Twilight" saga. Not surprisingly, much of it is science-­fiction adventure ("Star Trek" Enterprise, First Contact, The Wrath of Khan and Voyager versions), horror ("Friday the 13th") and fantasy ("Blade Runner"). Their credits also include the 1992 film "Bram Stoker's Dracula," which earned several Oscar nominations before earning an Academy Award for best makeup, and an Emmy nomination for a "Star Trek Voyager" episode in the mid-'90s.  

He is, perhaps, best known for another project: The contact lenses that completed Michael Jackson's transformation to a "cat monster" in the groundbreaking video, "Thriller," which merged music and ­ filmmaking.  

"That project was the one that came as a big surprise," says Dr. Morton Greenspoon, describing how he met the music legend in his office and fitted the yellow-hued, cat-eye, scleral acrylic plastic lenses that Jackson wore in the music video. "The pupils had to be vertical, and we had to make sure the lenses didn't rotate."  

Unlikely casting

Optometry and Hollywood: The collaboration might seem like odd casting.

The entertainment industry glamorizes and popularizes many things cosmetic—including, not surprisingly, eyewear. After all, movies are a feast for the eyes that suspends reality for a few hours. Think of Harry Potter's rounded spectacles, Clark Kent's black frames or alien Jaylah's mysterious eyes in 2016's "Star Trek Beyond," which may get a nod, and possibly win an Oscar, for best makeup when the 89th Academy Awards take place on February 26, 2017.

Jaylah's makeup, including her gold-colored contact lenses, were the subject of various YouTube videos for Halloween 2016 on how to recreate the character's alien eyes. On one website, a single hand-painted lens mimicking her mesmerizing eyes went for $150.

Young, impressionable fans want to copy the looks they see in the movies.

"That's why they feel they have skin in the game," says Michael Dueñas, O.D., AOA's chief public health officer, referring to the entertainment industry.

Unlikely casting led to first-of-its-kind collaborations between the industry and the AOA.

For instance, four years ago, the AOA, the West Chicago Optometric Society and a local theater chain launched a public awareness campaign on viewing 3-D movies. The award-winning campaign provided movie-goers with brochures, leaflets and posters on vision problems that may develop from watching 3-D films and encouraged them to consult their doctor of optometry.

The AOA also launched a "3D Vision & Eye Health" website.

And in 2014, the AOA, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and the Entertainment Industries Council (EIC) partnered on a public health campaign on decorative contact lenses and their illegal and unsafe lens use. The EIC, a nonprofit organization, communicates health and social issues to the entertainment industry.

The campaign was designed to raise awareness, especially among impressionable young filmgoers and their parents, that contact lenses are federally regulated medical devices that require a valid prescription to wear. Without a proper eye examination, a valid prescription and hygienic handling, vision is put at risk. The improper use of decorative contact lenses can lead to a corneal abrasion that can cause an eye infection that, if left untreated, could damage the eyes.

The campaign's video, "Don't Lose Sight of Your Vision," featured experts—makeup artists, eye doctors and a contact lens painter, plus clips from the television series "American Horror Story"—to frame its point: You have one set of eyes, and you have to take care of them.

"If we're going to promote decorative contact lenses through the movies, we want to make sure people who try to imitate these looks do so in a safe manner," Dr. Dueñas says.

Helene Clayton-Jeter, O.D., FDA health programs coordinator, calls the collaboration a success. Thousands of people have viewed the video on YouTube, but the issue and the video are evergreen.

"It's still an ongoing fight," Dr. Clayton-Jeter says.

Fun job, serious business

Dr. Sumner, who says Dr. Morton Greenspoon was very generous in showing her the ins and outs of the practice when she started at Professional VisionCare Associates more than two decades ago, enjoys her work.

"I am proud to say he has taught me just about everything I know," says Dr. Sumner, noting that the work can be fun and interesting but also time intensive.

"A dozen times a year, I'll fit a dog for contacts," she adds. "The trick with the dogs is that they always come with a trainer."

A production company may call; they might be shooting a movie, a television show or a music video. She asks about "the effect" they are looking for: bloodshot eyes, blind eyes or zombie eyes, perhaps.

She explains to the companies that when it comes to contact lenses, one size does not fit all, and, as medical devices, contact lenses require prescriptions. Actors also are scheduled for examinations and fittings. Sometimes the practice provides the lenses. Other times, they might contract with eye doctors in other states to do fittings. The practice will sometimes get the measurements for a lens and place an order with a lab to do the painting, Dr. Sumner says.

And always, she says, safety is a No. 1 priority. That applies to patients regardless of whether they work in the entertainment industry or not, she says.

"Just because this is happening for a movie, we would never do anything that would put them at risk," Dr. Sumner says.

"We explain to patients that the FDA considers contact lenses a medical device and that they can be dangerous, if they are not taught proper insertion, removal and sterilization techniques," Dr. Morton Greenspoon says. "Buyer beware."

In the heart of Tinseltown

"We've been in the heart of the entertainment industry for 30 years," says Dr. Fred Dubick, O.D., whose three practice locations are named StudioEyes Optometry-not coincidentally.

"Our name is definitely due to our location," adds Dr. Dubick, noting the short distances from the door of his practice to Disney, Warner Bros. and Universal studios.

"We are in a company town. We see people who live in Burbank, but we also see the people who work there. We see ourselves as part of the industry."

Dr. Dubick, and his wife and partner, Ellen Shuham, O.D., operate an optometric practice in Burbank, California. When they bought it, the practice had a collection of art deco glasses that had been rented out as movie props. Since then, they have expanded their services to fitting custom contacts for a wide variety of special effects, including changes in eye colors. They also work with marketing companies for product placement in movies.

"If a character is going to have a pair of glasses, it's usually a prop master's responsibility to get those glasses," says Dr. Dubick, noting the glasses might be for an actor or even a stuntman.

It isn't easy to break into the entertainment industry, the doctors say. Often, doctors of optometry who work with entertainment clients say it's whom you know and your reputation that gets you work.

Location plays a big role-and that location isn't limited to Tinseltown. Dr. Morton Greenspoon's practice has worked with Adams Eyecare in Bossier City, Louisiana.

Charles Adams, O.D., and his office manager and wife, Denise Adams, practice in Bossier City.

"I went to a small-business symposium for the film industry in 2008," Denise Adams recalls. "I was not really sure if our business would 'fit' with what they were looking for. I wanted to pursue anything to help set us apart."

The room appeared to be filled mostly with business people who provided food services or sold clothing, she says. She left her business card.

"I received a phone call approximately three weeks after attending the symposium, asking me if I would be interested in working on the project, 'Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins,'" as the contact lens technician," says Denise Adams.

Bossier City is across the Red River from Shreveport, Louisiana, where the movie was shot. Dr. Adams does the fittings; she goes to the set.

"My husband did the fitting on the actress I was working with, and it opened the door to our involvement in the film industry," she adds.

"From there, more doors started opening. We worked on the (short-lived) ABC TV series, 'The Gates.' From there, I worked on 'The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn 1 and 2.' I had the privilege of being the lens tech for all the main actors, and we also had approximately 40 background actors. We worked on 'Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters,' 'Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,' and 'This Is the End.' We've worked on the TV series 'Salem' for three seasons. We will find out before the end of the year if we will get the opportunity to film a fourth season."

It's hard work. Denise Adams can be on set for consecutive days in all sorts of conditions, making sure that lenses, glasses and eyes are properly cared for so the actors' vision is protected, whether it's from dirt, smoke or flying debris. She makes sure that not only the lenses are sterilized but also the actors' hands, in case they rub and aggravate their eyes. She keeps them hydrated, too. Being hydrated helps keep contact lenses in place and comfortable if your eyes are moist. "You're constantly having to put drops in their eyes," she adds.

She has walked nine miles in a single day, according to her steps tracker. "I'm away from the office a bit," she says. "It's necessary to have a good staff in place to manage the office when I'm away. But I like the challenge. You're there to do a job."

Big break

In high school, Dr. Morton Greenspoon says, he would stare out the window of his geometry class at Beverly Hills High School and watch the studios make movies. A school photographer, he thought he'd like to make movies himself someday.

His father reluctantly used his connections to get the young Greenspoon a job in the 20th Century Fox mailroom.

"I worked there six months," says Dr. Morton Greenspoon, adding that he didn't have the temperament for working in the industry. "I enrolled at USC and then Southern California College of Optometry. I became an optometrist."

He started out at his father's practice but eventually opened his own office. It was touch and go for a while, he says. He got a break, but only after calling every contact he knew in the business.

His first film project was "Broken Arrow" (1951), starring Jimmy Stewart and Debra Page-he made her blue eyes brown with contact lenses so she could play a Native American woman. Perhaps his most challenging project was creating the scleral lenses with a vertical pupil for Michael Jackson's metamorphosis in the "Thriller" video.

The work has given him the opportunity to meet some Hollywood icons. Dr. Morton Greenspoon worked on the film "Flaming Star" (1960) with Elvis Presley, whom he describes as friendly and cooperative. He fit Audrey Hepburn with blind contact lenses in "Wait Until Dark" (1967). She sent him a Christmas card every year after that.

Related News

Tennessee Welcomes You to Optometry’s Meeting®

Tennessee Association of Optometric Physicians President Laura Sechler, O.D., shares how the event drives growth and what to expect in Music City.

On a mission: An OD's story of success

Thuy Tran, O.D., shares insights on opening a practice in NYC, emphasizing clinical expertise, financial stability and networking for success, as well as her experiences volunteering to help those in need.

Intentional leadership

The AOA’s 2023 Young Optometrist of the Year is a leader—and she has been intentional in cultivating those skills. Uncover her philosophy on leadership.