Eyeballs for Special Effects, Halloween, or Animatronics Really Cheap.

Introduction: Eyeballs for Special Effects, Halloween, or Animatronics Really Cheap.

About: Thanks for all your support, but health and other problems prevent me from being active.

I've always been really into special effects.  My dream job would be a special effects engineer.  One of the items that I always wanted to make was the super realistic eyeballs you see in horror films.  One motivation for this is that I want to get into animatronics. If the eyes don't look real that's pretty much it.

     Okay, now the problem;  My budget is severely limited.  I got online and looked for a really cheap way to make my own special effect eyes.  OMG! I suppose if you make 80K+ a year then $45 to make a set of eyes may seem cheap.  Or maybe if your charging a hundred bucks for your set of molds to make acrylic eyes then yeah maybe.  Nah, I needed something really cheap.

     I got to thinking, if I'm in this situation then there are probably a lot of other people who might be too.  So, I decided to do the searching for all of us and bring special effect eyes within reach of the poor college student, the underemployed budding indy filmmaker, the person who is sick of their next door neighbor always having cooler (is that a word?) Halloween decorations.  What follows is the path which led me to what I feel was a satisfactory end result, especially considering the cash outlay.  If I did the math correctly it has currently cost about 10 dollars a pair for the eyes and I still have enough supplies to make 4 more pairs without paying any more.  If I get some more of the bases and some more acrylic paint, I could drive that cost down even further since I have enough of everything else to make another 20 pairs or so.

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Step 1: Safety Is Always Step # 1

Since there are younger and inexperienced tinkerers about... This Instructable includes the use of sharp tools, fire, hot plastic, flammable liquids etc... Please if you are not familiar with tool or material safety, get that way before attempting this Instructable.  Never work with flame around open containers of flammable liquids, heating plastic with flame is dangerous and may release fumes which may be harmful to your or others health, never cut toward yourself and always work on a stable uncluttered surface.

My uncle taught us this.

Rule # 1 Don't hurt yourself
Rule # 2 Don't hurt anyone else
Rule # 3 Don't damage property
Rule # 4 Have fun but don't break rules 1 through 3

Step 2: What You Will Need

Although I tried several different routes these are the items which I used which turned out working best for the least money.

-1 inch or 25 mm "Bolo" style hair bows (I found mine at a local beauty supply store for a dollar a pack)
-Cheap acrylic nail polish (got this at same supply store for $0.99 a bottle)
     -clear top coat
     -Semi opaque pearlescent with a slight yellow tint (the brand I got calls it melon)
     -Black (if they don't have a flat black you'll have to scrape off the shine)
     -Blood red
-One bottle of "high dollar" ($3.98) White, high solids acrylic nail polish often used for blending and filling.
-Cheap acrylic paint (This I found at one of the local Dollar Stores for, you guessed it a dollar.)
-Cheap hobby paint brushes (found at same Dollar store)
-Colored chalk (again, dollar store)
-Unwaxed dental floss (This I had, but again you could pick some up at a dollar store)
-Crystal clear craft glue (I found this at a local craft shop for $3.49)
- 18 millimeter Plastic "googly" eyes (got a pack of them from same craft shop for $1.49)
-Deep red yarn {synthetic} (I got this at a local second hand shop for $0.50)

These are the items for the eyes themselves.  If you have problems finding any of them in your local area/country you can probably get them off the net but that will add to the cost of your eyes.  If all else fails, be creative.

Step 3: Tools and Other Assorted Items Needed

Step # 3 gather the tools you will need

You will need:

-A pair of sharp scissors
-An exacto knife or something similarly as sharp
-A cutting board or a sturdy surface which can be cut on without worrying about damage
-At least 400 grit sand paper, fine sand paper is usually 250 grit and won't work, the higher the number the better finish the sand paper leaves.
-Candles or some other source of controlled heat
-A hair dryer

Items that might be helpful:

-an electric drill
-a piece of wire coat hanger
-a pencil sharpener
-a large piece of paper or a disposable plate to mix paint on
-a pair of pliers with a cutter
-some time to do a search for and study images of irises of people's eyes (or whatever critter your trying to make it look like)
-a container for water to use for thinning paint and one for washing out brushes
-paper towels or tissue for cleanup
-something to make a stand to hold your eye while you turn it into a masterpiece
-I sharpened the end of one of the paint brushes to help with a later step
-I trimmed one of the paint brushes down to about 8 or 10 bristles to use for detail work using my knife.

Step 4: Lets Make an Eyeball

Well, first of, remembering step # 1. Safety and my uncle's rules lets make an eyeball. 
-I unpackaged everything. 
-Then used the scissors to cut the bolo hair bows apart. 
-I carefully removed the string from the bolos.  The ones I got are hollow plastic balls consisting of two hemispheres.  They were not all glued really well so I checked them before going further. 
-I then used the sand paper to take the shine off of the eye and remove any flash from the seam. 

Flash is plastic that squeezes out in between the two parts of the mold.  The shine would keep the paint from adhering properly.

Step 5: Shaping the Eye

Many of the how to articles I read made use of irises printed on a laser printer.  Well this is all well and fine if you wish to go that route but I feel that it doesn't give a look of realism.  The iris is either flat or even concave, not convex and when light plays through your eye I feel it makes a difference.  I wanted my iris to be concave to cause light to play on it like a real iris.  Since I chose to work with plastic, I decided to heat the plastic just enough to be pliable.  This is a tedious step and I will admit to you right now I messed up several eyes before I got it right.  (4 to be exact)

-First I traced the dark circle you see in the picture.  I did this by tracing the 18 millimeter googly eye as a pattern.
-Next I lit my candle and carefully, applying a little heat at a time and rotating the eye so as to distribute the heat evenly within the circle.  I found that I could get sufficient heat by just holding the iris area so that the flame just barely touched the plastic for less than a second then rotating the eye.
-Once I had the plastic pliable enough I tried a number of items to give the "right" shape to the iris area.  The first image I used a convex washer with a rubber lining turned upside down to press the pliable plastic in until it cooled.  The second one I used the end of a wooden match stick and then a small coin to flatten the surrounding area.  I preferred the appearance of these and they make a later step much easier.
-I then sanded the guide ring I drew on the eye off so it wouldn't bleed through the paint.

Step 6: Painting the Iris

Painting is not as daunting as it seems.  Talent and experience help but there are some basic techniques that will get reasonable results, and those results will improve with practice.  If you have never painted before I recommend practicing on a paper plate or the back (unslick) side of a piece of poster or bristol board first until you feel comfortable with it.  The technique I use is a method of brush loading which causes the paint to blend in ways which would otherwise be very difficult to achieve. 

When you have house paint mixed, it is very important to have it well mixed, in nature there are very few continuous colors.  I usually mix a base color and then use dabs of other shades and load my brush with multiple colors at once to drag and swirl them to mimic nature.  The simplest form of this is to load one side of your brush with one color and the other side with another.  The action of applying the paint causes the colors to mix in the middle revealing a multitude of different shades which would take hours to blend otherwise.  If you wet your brush before loading it you will intensify this effect.  Using a relatively dry brush will give you a narrower band of blend.  Using these methods it is important to thoroughly clean out your brush between each application as the paint from previous strokes will cause your colors to become muddy and dull.

-To do my irises I used a semi dry brush technique, to load my brush I pressed the side of my brush into the wet paint, then pressed the other side of the brush into another shade or color.  I repeated this, building up layers of paint with similar effects.
-Since the patterns in the eye radiate outward from the center, the pupil, I made all brush strokes radiating out from the center in this manner.
-in between each layer, I used my hair dryer on a warm medium setting to speed the drying of the paint.

-using the brush I trimmed down, I pulled it through blobs of color adding detail.

-I then used my sand paper to sand down through the layers, revealing the swirls of color which are similar to those seen in a real eye.

-A tiny light dab of paint applied it interesting spots can provide a place for another addition of realism.  I dabbed a little paint here and there and then using the colored chalk and my knife I scraped off some chalk dust.  Once it had adhered to the paint I blew the excess away.

Step 7: Another Method for Doing Irises

While I was pleased with the appearance of the irises I had painted, I was still wanting a little more realism.  After some serious brain racking I figured out a way to get what I wanted.  I've not seen this method used before so as far as I know I came up with it.  I'm sharing/publishing my method here so that others who wish to make their own eyeball art can use it as well.

     After spending much time looking at extreme closeup pictures of eyes, I realized that one of the reasons fake or artificial eyes end up looking kinda flat is because real eyes aren't.  There are myriad little imperfections cords and striations that make up the iris.

What to do:

-take your unwaxed white dental floss and, using your scissors cut small pieces which are a tiny bit longer than the distance from the center of your iris indentation to the outside of your iris.  Its a good idea to cut way more than you think you'll need since you have to apply them while the paint is wet and spending the time cutting more may allow your paint to dry, causing you to have to apply another layer of paint and possibly messing up a decent looking color foundation.

-Figure out what color you want your eyes to be and mix a base color that is slightly different than what you want.  I figured out that a fairly darker shade seems to work pretty well. 

-Now mix a shade that is only slightly darker than what you want.  Mix more than you will need since you don't want to run out and end up needing to match a shade, its a pain.

-Apply this shade liberally, especially in the little pupil well.  Leave a tiny bit of the darkest color showing through.  Add some around the outside of the pupil.

-Now, I carefully placed the end of the unwaxed dental floss pieces into the edge of the pupil well and flexed the fibers outwards and using the end of the paint brush I sharpened and a wooden match stick I pressed the fibers into the wet paint at the outer rim.  I then spread the outside edge of the fibers leaving some irregularities and making pits through to the base color.

-The floss is kind of shiny so I mixed a wash of white and another of a light shade of the color of the eye.  To make a wash you start with a small amount of paint and some water in a section of your paper plate or palette, whatever you are using.  Basically its like making paint the consistency of  strong tea, hot chocolate or strong coffee.  Then I just lightly touched the end of my brush to the fibers in the iris.  Surface tension does the rest causing the fibers to loose their shine.

-Now is a good time to use the trimmed down brush, the one with 8 or 10 bristles to add a few color highlights.  It will fit between strands of floss and can really add additional realism.

-If you can find an 18 millimeter hole "drill" for foam board it will make the next portion easier, if not just use the exacto.  Carefully cut any fibers which extend past the edge of the iris avoiding fingers and avoiding making deep gouges in the plastic of the eye.  A foam board "drill" is just a piece of sharpened metal tube which will cut all of the fibers at once.

-Once your paint is dry taking the 400 grit or higher sand paper sand the small stray brush strokes off the surface of the eye which should be white.

-The last item in this step is the pupil.  You will want a paint or nail polish which dries to a matte or flat finish.  If you don't have this you will need to carefully scrape the surface of the pupil to remove the shine.  The pupil in a real eye is a hole and doesn't reflect light, therefore the pupil in our eye should come as close to this as possible.

Step 8: Until You See the Whites of Their Eyes

 Though not as critical as the iris, the whites of a set of eyes are important to providing realism.  First of all, the white of an eye isn't really completely white.  Depending on the person it may have a red tint from irritation, drugs or alcohol abuse, it might have a slightly bluish tinge from certain hormone levels or enzymes present in the body, it might be yellow from decreased liver function and excessive bilirubin as in IV drug users with liver disease, or they may have a brownish tinge with green and gray spots if they are a zombie.  In most cases the whites of eyes will also have at least some blood vessels present.

-Carefully and quickly put on a base coat of white acrylic paint.  Thinner paint will run together hiding brush strokes but will require more coats.  Thicker paint will have better coverage but may end up not giving a smooth finish.  For the base coat a consistency about equal to 2% milk is pretty good.  Be careful not to get it on the iris as it will wick up into your iris and possibly mess up a lot of work and make you say words that will get put on your permanent record.

-Using the hair dryer to speed drying will make this go quicker.  The seam in my bolo hair bows were a pain.  They kept wicking up the paint.  I finally applied undiluted paint to the seam and then sanded it smooth filling in the crack.  Once this was done I continued to apply several coats of white acrylic paint.  
[edit] Discovered a better way to get the whites looking even more realistic and it makes them even easier to achieve good results.
-Once the white acrylic base is dry, lightly sand any brush strokes.  You don't need to be too fanatical about it though.  

I bought a bottle of white nail polish, real high dollar stuff it was $3.98.  It has high solids and dries very quickly.  Having high solids it covers a multitude of sins (and brush strokes and lines and oops etc...)

-Cut short sections of red yarn, about 3 inches or around 8 centimeters, its not critical.  Then pull the sections of yarn apart.  Now start picking these apart until you have 15 or so strands separated.

-Apply the white nail polish liberally from iris to the bottom of the eye, working your way round the eye as you go.

-By the time I get all the way round the eye the polish I applied is already starting to set.  A little extra and some careful blending gives a surface that is beautifully smooth.

-Now working quickly I embed the strands into the wet nail polish, then using care and trying to make it look like webs of blood vessels I placed it against the wet polish.  I helped the strands into place using the pointed end of my sharpened paint brush.  bringing the strands together like the branching of a tree when possible.

-A little blood red nail polish applied to the lower parts of the "tree" shapes helps with realism and depth.

-Now using a disposable container I mix a few drops of white, a few drops of the semi-transparent opalescent yellowish color and a fair amount of clear.  My goal was to cause the "blood vessels" appear to be just visible in the surface of the white of the eye when they are small and the larger capillaries to be more visible.  

-I allowed this to dry, then successive coats of clear polish help to embed the fibers into the surface of the white of the eye.

*(a special not here, I tried using an enamel meant for model cars in one of the trial and error sessions which didn't work out, it didn't work well at all, the clear acrylic nail polish and following top coat caused the enamel to get a crackle finish which looked like... Ahem.)  The pictures will be updated as soon as I can get hold of the camera again, my own camera is ancient and produces terrible quality pics.

Step 9: The Cornea

 You may have been wondering why I bought googly eyes when I am intending to make fairly realistic effect eyes.  Well, here it is.  I tried several methods of making a cornea and none of them were satisfactory.  Either bubbles would get trapped in the details of the iris or it picked up color from the iris of the early experiments and ended up looking like crud.

-Taking the 18 millimeter googly eyes and my knife, I carefully cut along the seam between the clear part and the white backing.

-I placed the clear part dome up on the sand paper and moved it back and forth while rotating it to remove any irregularities from the edge and also to reduce the straight sides so that it would look more cornea like.

-I used the crystal clear craft glue to make a line of adhesive around the edge of the iris.  If the iris extends outward just a little past the bottom of the cornea its okay, it just adds depth to the eye.  Using my sharpened paint brush I shaped the craft glue and then let it dry.

-Once the glue was dry I brushed on another coat of white paint and used the hair dryer to dry it.  then more clear polish and top coat to blend it in.

-When this dried I mixed the clear and the melon nail polish and dabbed some on giving the eyeball character.  A little diluted red added towards the back would also help I think

Step 10: Afterthoughts and Ideas

 Since one of my goals is animatronics I decided to try something.  I took one of the more poorly glued eyes apart and checked to see how my pen cam web cam would fit for robotic vision.  With proper consideration of space and mounting I think its doable.

Looking back I believe I might try to do the cornea before I am done with the white paint in order to delete an extra painting step.

I got tired of holding and hand sanding the eyes so I made a couple of tools to make life easier.  The solution I came up with for sanding is potentially very dangerous especially if one were to allow drill speeds to get very fast.

I can't warn anyone enough to have good ventilation while doing this, heated plastic, paint and nail polish fumes will make you sick after a while and I don't know about you folks but I need all the brain cells I have left.

Good luck, good ibling and be safe


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    10 Discussions


    4 years ago

    Awesome brother.

    wow...absolutely neurotic and amazing...

    sorry this took a bit of your health..but thank you for sharing :D


    6 years ago on Introduction

    these look awesome buddy!! going to have go later. Hope you get well soon.

    These are great. Great instructable
    I especially like the simple use of the plastic disc for a lens (especially as its of another type of eye!) I use marker pen on deodorant balls.
    These have the advantage that they come with their own sockets if you cut the bottle carefully. They can be popped in or out too
    I have a blog with some stuff about this:Making Weird Stuff blog
    Eyeball housingCutting off eyeballs from deodorant


    9 years ago on Introduction

    Thanks for all the great comments folks. My health has been not so good and what good days I have been having I have been spending getting necessities done and spending time with family. You are all great. Keep building.


    9 years ago on Introduction

    wow just wow i love them this will be the best part of any robot they look very real look at this and put togeter link ww.wowwee.com/en/products/toys/robots/robotics/femisapien


    9 years ago on Introduction

    I made some! They turned out faaaaantastic, except I used ping pong balls (they don't melt well so I just popped them in a bit and sanded) and resin instead of a googly eye. Not painted as well as yours though - I used gouache which was a mistake - water soluble.

    Thanks so much! Great 'ible. They're gonna look awesome on my puppet. Plus, I can freak out my flat/class mates heheheeee...!


    9 years ago on Introduction

    cool I would like to try this is there any chance that post a clearer up close photograph of the finished eyeball thanks :)


    10 years ago on Introduction

    Wow.  You put tons of work into these and they look fantastic.