This past Halloween, my girlfriend and I hosted a Witches vs. Mad Scientists party (her excellent idea) for our vaccinated friends. As we brainstormed I found my way to Mr. Chicken’s website, and was inspired by his Sybil the Clairvoyant crystal ball project. I wanted to see if I could create something similar, with three big differences: 1) use relatively easy to find materials, 2) make it a floating head in a jar, à la Futurama, and 3), make the projection real-time, so friends could put their own heads in glass.

Depending on what materials you have, this project was surprisingly effective for how inexpensive it was.

  • Projector. I used an Optoma, but even the pico projector we tried worked in a brightly-lit room.
  • Two laptops equipped with Zoom. Use your highest-quality webcam for the greenscreen room.
  • Green foam board. Cardboard or plywood painted bright green should work too.
  • Way to mount this green screen perpendicularly to a table or desk. I used clamps.
  • White plastic face, such as this one.
  • Large plastic or glass jar, such as this 128oz one.
  • Bendable, stiff wire. I used a spare coat hanger.
  • Optional decorations:
    • Wood or foam for building a top and bottom structure
    • Aluminum tape for covering these structures
    • LED/fiber optic/EL lights for additional effect. I used these Chasing EL lights from Lightkraft’s Etsy store, which are battery operated and allow you to change the speed and direction of how the lights appear to move.

Tools:

  • Box cutter or X-acto knife
  • Scissors
  • Hot glue gun
  • Drill
  • Optional: laser cutter/CNC machine
  • Optional: wood glue
The rough design of the head in a jar. Plastic head is glued to a bent wire, which is run through a drilled hole in the lid.

Mounting the head. To start, you’ll want to mount the head in the jar to create the illusion of floating. The mask I bought had a large lip that I trimmed off with scissors. I unfolded the coat hanger and bent the bottom in a big U shape that I hot glued around the inside of the mask, then bent the wire to come out from behind the nose portion of the mask for about an inch or two. Add a 90 degree bend, and now the wire should run straight up a couple inches behind the mask. Insert the mask and wire into the jar and figure out approximately where you want it to fit in the jar. Drill a hole in the lid where the wire should pass through, then pass it through. Pull the wire up and down until you determine the ideal height for the mask, then bend the wire at 90 degrees just above the lid. Add hot glue and make small adjustments to the wire to get the mask as close to centered as possible. Screw the lid on.

Testing out a projected creepy face. You can find any still image of a face, ideally with a black background, and test your projector. Adjust the distances, zoom, angle of projector, and heights of both jar and projector to get a best fit.

If you’re like me, you’re now far enough to see if the effect generally works. Get out your projector, set it a little back from the face, and find a centered image of a face. Adjust size, focus, distance from the jar, heights of jar and projector and the angles until it looks about right–a face should convincingly be projected on your head in a jar.

In another room, I cut a piece of green foamcore friends could stick their heads through, then mounted it vertically to a standing-height table. Books helped me lift my laptop to the right position to capture their faces head-on via Zoom. I set Zoom preferences to greenscreen, and used a JPG of the color black as a background.

Zoom of Doom. But of course, you can keep building from here. To really create a “Zoom of Doom,” you need to create a greenscreen with a hole cut in it that’s big enough for your friends’ heads. I used a $6 green foamcore board from Staples, then cut a hole big enough to fit my fairly large head. I mounted the board perpendicular to a table using clamps I had in my office, then set a computer on books so that the laptop camera matched face height, and experimented with distances. In Zoom, change your settings to “I have a greenscreen,” and find a big JPEG of nothing but the color black to serve as a background. If you set up a Zoom conversation between your laptops, you’ll now be able to project a friend’s head in the jar, in real time. And if your sound is on, guests and your suddenly bodyless friend can have conversations.

Tying the cables together with tape produced a nice, clean look.

Getting fancy. You can now decorate your head in a jar however you see fit. For mine, I wanted metal top and bottom covers (again inspired by Futurama), and I wanted moving lights in the back of the head to make it seem as though it was being supported through high-tech tubes. To get the light effect, I calculated how many lengths of EL wire (N) I wanted to string between the jar lid and the head, and I drilled (N/2 + 1) holes surrounding where the coat hanger wire poked through.

For the moving lights effect, I drilled additional holes in the lid to run ELwire through.

Through these I ran the strand of EL wire. When I had many loops of EL wire hanging from the lid at lengths/placements I liked, I then hot glued the bottom arc of each wire to the back of the mask in different places.

To make the top and bottom covers, I used my laser cutter to create a wooden structure that would surround the jar at top and bottom, though you could do this nearly as easily by hand cutting foam core or cardboard. After wood gluing it together, I covered both top and bottom with aluminum tape, using layers to cover all exposed wood, including the wood that was visible through the bottom of the jar.

As a final touch (which I didn’t get to), I suggest finding a box or some cleverer way to hide the projector in front of the head. Since this effect works from all angles, placing your head in a jar on a table or something else guests can walk around works well. You may also want to hide the computer screen, or keep it visible so that the friend whose head is projected can see and hear whomever is talking with them.

And that’s it! If you’re interested on building on the idea, the same general framework should work lots of different use cases. One that occurred to me would be to go way bigger; with a strong projector, you could turn your friends into Zordon. At the other extreme, imagine creating shrunken heads in jars, or projecting a friend’s face onto a creepy mannequin. On second thought, don’t; a talking mannequin is entirely too scary.

If you’re interested in the history of this effect, I went down several rabbit holes on “Madame Leota” from Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, and suggest checking out the great mini-documentary about the whole ride on Disney Plus.