Effects Company Specializes In Giving Movies A 3-D Makeover

Legend3D is a San Diego-based visual effects company that converts 2-D films to 3-D. The company can't hire fast enough to keep up with demand. They're hiring young talent fresh out of art school.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

I'm Robert Siegel.

And it's time now for All Tech Considered.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: Six of the top 10 most successful films last year were in 3-D. Movies like Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland."

(Soundbite of film, "Alice in Wonderland")

Mr. Johnny Depp (Actor): (as Mad Hatter) A land full of wonder, mystery and danger.

SIEGEL: Here's the trick. "Alice in Wonderland," as with many 3-D movies these days, wasn't actually shot in 3-D, it was converted to 3-D after everything was shot. Lucas Film recently announced that it would be doing the same thing with all six "Star Wars" films. With 3-D looking like it's here to stay, so too are the companies that specialize in this kind of after-the-fact 3-D makeover.

NPR's Shereen Marisol Meraji visited one that is so busy, it can't hire fast enough.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI: Legend3D in San Diego, California, is responsible for many of the 3-D sequences in "Alice in Wonderland." Although Legend3D didn't get started on "Alice" until 2009, founder and neuroscientist Barry Sandrew knew conversion was the future way back in '05.

Dr. BARRY SANDREW (Neuroscientist; Founder, Legend3D): What happened is I saw a prototype of the Samsung 3-D television. That coupled with an understanding of what Jim Cameron was doing with "Avatar," we knew that this was going to be a game-changer.

MERAJI: He was right. Today, Legend3D is in the process of converting six feature films, but he won't say which ones for legal reasons. In 2005, Sandrew had 25 employees. Today, there are more than 400 in San Diego, another 800 in India.

(Soundbite of office)

Dr. SANDREW: One, two, three.

Unidentified Group: Hi, NPR.

MERAJI: That's a gaggle of Legend3D folks saying hello to NPR. It's normally pretty quiet here. Young men in their early 20s, with some women in the mix, work side-by-side in large dark rooms hunched in front of their computer screens.

Employees on this floor are going through movie scenes one frame at a time identifying parts of shots that need added depth. The work looks very precise and tedious. But it's good work in a tough economy. And Sandrew is hiring about 20 people a month.

Dr. SANDREW: We're hiring people straight out of art school and we're giving people an opportunity that they would never have if they were working up in L.A. in the Hollywood studios. I mean, they're working on first-run feature films that most people would dream about doing.

(Soundbite of office)

MERAJI: When did you graduate?

Mr. CYRUS JAY GLADSTONE (3D Stereo Artist, Legend3D): 2000 and, I don't know, does it say on my diploma?

MERAJI: The very first stereo artist at Legend3D can't remember what year he graduated from college. Good thing his diploma's hanging on the wall.

(Soundbite of office)

MERAJI: Brooks Institute, Cyrus Jay Gladstone?

Mr. GLADSTONE: Yes.

MERAJI: Bachelor of arts.

Mr. GLADSTONE: June of 2008.

MERAJI: So three years later, you've got a corner office.

Mr. GLADSTONE: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MERAJI: Cyrus Jay Gladstone is 23 years old. He won't tell me exactly how much he makes, but he says he's comfortable. Gladstone isn't worried that his meteoric rise to success won't stick. He thinks 3-D has reached the tipping point, and so does his colleague, Toni Pace Carstensen, a senior visual effects producer.

Ms. TONI PACE CARSTENSEN (Senior Visual Effects Producer, Legend3D): That's how I see movies now. It seems normal to see things in 3-D stereo on the big screen.

MERAJI: Carstensen got her start in radio and has seen the media landscape change over her long career. She calls 2-D films flatties now and is already imagining the possibilities beyond 3-D.

Ms. CARSTENSEN: We're on our way to the holodeck. I feel like, you know, there will be a point in time where you go to the theater and you'll walk in, it will surround you. It won't just be on the screen. You'll be on Pandora.

MERAJI: That's the magical land in James Cameron's "Avatar." The holodeck may be a long way off, but until then, there are plenty of 2-D favorites adding a third dimension. Next year you might be able to reach out and high-five a young Leo DiCaprio as he yells...

(Soundbite of film, "Titanic")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LEONARDO DICAPRIO (Actor): (as Jack Dawson) I'm the king of the world.

(Soundbite of cheering)

MERAJI: ...on the bow of the "Titanic." And if you're fresh out of art school and tech savvy, this 3-D conversion world is yours to rule.

Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News.

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