Theatrical Contact Lenses

Theatrical contact lenses have transformed how characters are portrayed on stage and screen. This practical effect has an intriguing history.

History of Theatrical Contact Lenses

Early theatrical productions used rudimentary techniques to alter eye color and appearance. Actors lined their eyes with black kohl to create an exaggerated look. Stage lighting washed out irises, so bold makeup defined eyes for the audience. The development of color motion pictures drove more elaborate techniques.

In 1929, Paramount’s film The Mysterious Island featured an early version of special effects contact lenses. Actors wore large glass lenses to portray the bulging eyes of underwater creatures. These rigid shells covered the entire eye area, drastically changing the eyes without considering comfort.

Special effects master John Chambers pioneered thin plastic lenses in the 1960s. His subtle lenses altered cornea color while allowing natural movement. Chambers introduced scleral lenses to hollywood in 1968 for Planet of the Apes. The simian lenses covered the whites of actors’ eyes, a shocking look that became the film’s signature.

  • Soft lenses gained popularity in the 1970s and 1980s for their improved comfort. Vampire movies like The Hunger used lenses to create blood-red eyes. Soft contacts allowed effects that didn’t fully obscure the actor’s expression.

Today’s theatrical contact lenses balance vision, comfort, and design. Innovations like printing patterns directly onto the lenses expands possibilities. Performers use lenses to portray fantasy creatures, animals, zombies, and more. From hand-blown glass to advanced polymers, theatrical contact lenses have progressed alongside moviemaking magic.

Use of theatrical contact lens technology contributes more than you might think to our enjoyment of plays, films and television shows.

Who among us has not been frightened by a vampire on the screen with red eyes glowing in the night?

The eye color contributes to our suspension of disbelief, and it is by use of theatrical contact lens choices that wardrobe and special effects technicians have available that we see the eyes change.

Use of theatrical contact lens choices are not limited to vampires and horror films. A theatrical contact lens can give the impression of blindness to a sighted actor, but still allow the actor to see.

Sometimes a theatrical contact lens will be used to give a cat like impression to the eyes of an actress, used with great gusto in the television series Mutant X for the character of Shalimar, a feline powered mutant whose eyes would glow. And what Star Trek fan doesn?t remember the theatrical contact lens effect made by Brent Spiner?s portrayal of Commander Data, the android of the Enterprise.

Spiner even joked about his theatrical contact lens disguised character when he recorded an album of songs he sang entitled “Old Yellow Eyes Is Back”.

Using theatrical contact lens choices by actors is easy for some, but for other actors who don’t wear glasses or contact lenses in their daily lives learning the proper use of a theatrical contact lens can be a chore and shows dedication to their profession and their craft.

Many consider the theatrical contact lens to be a great addition to their wardrobe choices and use them with relish.

Tom Cruise for instance, when playing Lestat in Anne Rice’s Interview With The Vampire choice to use theatrical contact lens choices he had available to get himself into the proper mood to play the character. While many Rice fans initially opposed Cruise playing the part, as did Rice herself, she and her fans praised his performance afterwards.

One can only wonder how much of his performance was due to the use of theatrical contact lens devices, and the mind set it gave him as an actor.

Theater contact lens manufacturing techniques

Theatrical contact lenses are made from different materials based on the desired effect and duration of wear.

  • Rigid Gas Permeable Plastic (RGP): One of the earliest materials used. RGP lenses hold their shape well but are less comfortable for long periods. Better suited for short filming sessions.
  • Silicone Hydrogel: Soft and flexible with high oxygen permeability. Provides comfort for all-day wear. A common choice for vivid color effects or subtle pattern printing.
  • Glass: No longer used in contacts but provides unique visual properties. Early theatrical lenses were hand-blown into a dome shape from glass. Too risky for use directly on eyes.

Modern techniques allow more detailed and dynamic effects:

  • Printing: Using digital files, intricate designs can be printed directly onto soft silicone hydrogel lenses. Allows complex patterns like reptile scales or cybernetic circuitry.
  • Layering: Coloring agents can be built up in layers to produce shifting, deep colors within the lens. This adds depth and mixes effects.
  • Opaque Lenses: Solid opaque lenses fully cover the cornea. Makeup effects are applied on top for total control over the look. Useful for injuries or alien eyes.
  • Specialty Cuts: Jagged slit-pupils or horizontal goat-eyes are possible by cutting precise shapes into the lens material.

Advancements in materials science, digital processing, and ophthalmology consistently improve the quality and capabilities of theatrical contacts. Craftsmanship combines with technology to transform actor’s eyes.

Keeping that in mind, the next time you are watching a film and see the eyes of the character change color, or flash, or glow, consider that it is the use of the theatrical contact lens that allows this magic to be seen on the silver screen.