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.
Sandrew has said that Legend does not colorize black-and-white films unless the creators of the original works participate in the process. The firm has restored and colorized more than 120 films.
The 3-D conversion, Sandrew said, involves the same technical elements as colorization, with the two-dimensional frames masked and scored to reproduce the brain's best interpretation. "You've got a left and a right eye," Sandrew explained, "but your brain is assimilating that input into a three-dimensional image, which has qualities of color and depth that each eye doesn't have."
The process was funded with a $5 million stock option Legend called in in September of 2008. In April of this year, Southpaw Technologies rolled out its TACTIC package, which enhances the speed of Legend's conversion process.
Last year's "Night of the Living Dead" was Legend's first colorized 3-D release. On its heels came "Avatar," the sci-fi blockbuster that's taken in nearly $750 million since its December release. It won three Oscars earlier this year, including that for visual effects.
By virtue of its training, a small group of Legend employees is key to the process. Some 15 graduates of Platt College, the private San Diego media arts school, are part of the Legend staff — and Otto Lai, a Legend technician and Platt instructor since 2006, said their education is vital to the company's success.
"The students," Lai explained, "are enrolled four hours a day five days a week in their technical classes. I think that focus and that amount of time spent with the teacher builds up their great attention to detail. That's what's necessary in this industry, and that's what's necessary at Legend."
The most notable changes at Platt, Lai said, involve its growth of the computer graphics and video departments. "In four years," he explained "we went from a small video department to a state-of-the-art facility. We have high-definition and audio tools and equipment. It's now standard to teach Boujou motion-tracking software, but we were teaching it in 2006. Platt is the only school in Southern California where you can study MotionBuilder (3-D animation software) in an academic environment.
"Platt is a very special place in San Diego. Legend is lucky."
Lai said the ex-students are fully aware that "the best video entertainment is a combination of spectacle, technology and art." And while Sandrew cautions again that this melding is new to the film community, he anticipates that the 3-D process that helps create it is the cinema's next big step.
"There'll always be 2-D," he said, "but in five years, I think this process will be the industry standard. Audiences will become more discerning. They won't accept poor-quality 3-D."
Someday, maybe a certain film critic, as great as he is, will be forced to follow suit.