BY MARTIN JONES WESTLIN
In a March 3 review, famed film critic Roger Ebert weighed in on Alice in Wonderland, this year's 3-D blockbuster on the exploits of the girl made iconic by a murky rabbit hole and the likes of the cranky, irrepressible Queen of Hearts. Ebert called director Tim Burton a brilliant visual artist, adding that he looks forward to seeing the film in two dimensions, "where it will look brighter and more colorful. No artist who can create these images is enhancing them in any way by adding the annoying third dimension."
Audiences have spoken with their wallets. "Alice," replete with its absolutely stunning tea party scene, just became the first spring release to top the $1 billion receipts mark worldwide, trumping Ebert's annoyance where it counts. As it happens, a Del Mar firm is watching those returns with both eyes — the film's success is translating to the company's outgrown physical plant on El Camino Real, the tech savvy of some recent college graduates and, most important, the incessant ring of the phone.
Legend Films, which restores and colorizes classic movies for DVD and theatrical release, is mastering the latest stage of the cinematic experience — the conversion of 2-D film to 3-D. This isn't your mom's 3-D, which a generation ago involved a series of 2-D images lying on top of one another. Barry Sandrew, Legend's founder and chief operating officer, said virtually every major Hollywood studio is inquiring into the particulars of the process — painstaking manipulations of each frame and new developments in masking, keying and lighting create a splendid illusion of depth, cinema's answer to high-definition TV. The process takes place at Legend 3-D, the film company's conversion division.
"The images are rock-solid," Sandrew said of the process he created, "and the 3-D experience is much more exact. It's a different world than the '50s and '60s you and I remember. And we've got a full-time [research and development] staff. We've created a whole smorgasbord of tool sets for any problem we might come up against in a feature film. (Meanwhile), our phone has been ringing off the hook."
The firm is converting three feature films and compiling its agenda through 2011. It currently employs about 250 at its domestic plant, with an expansion to 400 in sight. It also maintains a facility in India.
"Everybody's learning right now," Sandrew said, "learning what genres are appropriate for conversion and so on. But right now, the conversion is very hot, because it does add something unique to a feature film. It's a much more immersive experience for everybody."
Sandrew's voice is that of a man in his element, even as his first trade — neuroscience, in which he holds a Ph.D. — heralded an unlikely path to success. Harvard University was the Boston native's second home in the early 1980s, when he created a means of digitally colorizing tumors and other growths, enabling medical personnel to see them at several angles.
Meanwhile, two entrepreneurs who'd heard about Sandrew's work were intent on colorizing every classic movie they possibly could — turns out that the copyright on a colorized public domain film belongs to the colorizer for 95 years. The rest is history, with Sandrew developing the cinema's first digital color enhancement technique in 1986 (an analogue process had been created by a Canadian firm three years before). His maiden venture was a color edition of "The Bells of St. Mary's," a Bing Crosby classic from 1945.