People & Places

Cedar Rapids native helps the 'The Force' awaken in 3D

Aaron Parry leads L.A. team converting latest and future 'Star Wars' films

Lucasfilm

Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and BB-8 flee from a blast in “Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens.” The two-dimensional version of the blockbuster film leaps into 3D under the auspices of Cedar Rapids native Aaron Parry, executive vice president and chief creative officer at Stereo D in Burbank, Calif.
Lucasfilm Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and BB-8 flee from a blast in “Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens.” The two-dimensional version of the blockbuster film leaps into 3D under the auspices of Cedar Rapids native Aaron Parry, executive vice president and chief creative officer at Stereo D in Burbank, Calif.
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A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away from L.A., little Aaron Parry of Cedar Rapids watched his first “Star Wars” film. Never in his wildest dreams did he imagine he would someday pilot the re-imagining of Episode VII — and future “Star Wars” iterations — into 3D format.

“Just seeing those characters on-screen again, back in that world — it was pretty awe-inspiring,” Parry said by phone from his office in Burbank, Calif.

His personal journey has been pretty awe-inspiring, as well.

Now now 45, the 1988 Cedar Rapids Washington High School graduate is the executive vice president and chief creative officer for Stereo D, Hollywood’s leading producer of feature film 3D conversions, and a subsidiary of Deluxe Entertainment Services Group Inc.

Formed in 2009, Stereo D has converted more than 30 films to 3D, including “Titanic in 3D,” “Avatar,” “The Avengers,” “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Iron Man 3,” “Jurassic World” and “Star Trek Into Darkness.” And now, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” which in all its forms, is close to topping the $2 billion mark at box offices worldwide.

On Wednesday night (1/27), “The Force Awakens” received industry honors for Best 3D Live Action Feature and Best 2D to 3D Conversion at the Creative Arts Awards ceremony at Warner Bros. Studios in Hollywood.

Parry leads the team of more than 1,200 artists who were involved in that 3D conversion process. For this first “Star Wars” trek into three dimensions, he said the idea was to use the convention as a storytelling tool, rather than a gimmick with “gotcha” moments where objects would seem to jump off the screen and into the audience.

He said 3D lets viewers “get that next step closer to being immersed in the film.”

“If there’s any world we’d all like to go visit, it’s probably the world that George Lucas created, and step inside it,” he said. “ ... That’s the experience that we can give to an audience: ‘Hey, this is what it’s like to be there’ — and that’s a huge amount of responsibility.”

Hollywood Odyssey

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His immersion in the Hollywood scene began in 1994. With a degree in music and a minor in art from Coe College in his hometown, Parry headed to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles to study musical scoring for motion pictures.

Talent and tenacity landed him in the coveted program, which he was told only accepted five students from the United States and five from abroad.

He heard about it when a group from USC visited Coe during his first year there. His interest was piqued, so over spring break, he headed west in his little car that crawled up and zoomed down the Rocky Mountains. He met with program director Buddy Baker, then returned to Coe. Three years later, Parry decided to submit three- to five minutes of his best musical compositions to the USC program.

“I was fully prepared for this pipe dream not to happen,” he said. But he made the cut, and when he arrived, Baker told him that while his music was good, it was his drive out there that sealed the deal.

“You’ve got the tenacity that this business requires,” said Baker, who had worked for Disney for 26 years. That was music to Parry’s ears. His bubble burst however, when after finishing the program, the students were told: “None of you will work, and you’ll all starve.”

But the force to succeed has always been strong for Parry, so he looked inside himself for direction.

“Really, what I was passionate about was leading people to do something creative,” he said, so he tapped into the visual arts side of his upbringing and work experience in his mom’s private art studio in Marion. She taught him painting and animation — the skills that would launch his career, 1,800 miles from home.

“Out here, to find a place in the world, you have to bring everything you have to offer to the table, to be the strongest person for that role,” Parry said.

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So with a newfound focus and student loan bills looming in the horizon, he wrote to Roy Disney, senior executive for the company his father and legendary uncle founded. His assistant sent Parry’s resume to Feature Animation, which led to three interviews and three offers. Parry accepted a job working for Feature’s president.

“That was the ‘Lion King,’ ‘Pocahontas,’ ‘Tarzan’ era. That just let me know that being in that visual medium is something that I can do,” he said. “Even more, it just let me know that I really do enjoy leading people.”

He also likes working with “some of the most amazing filmmakers this town has to offer,” he said, including James Cameron, Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams. “It’s such a crazy dream I could have never predicted, but it’s been awesome.”

3D Process

Going back to his musical roots, Parry likens this job to his former conducting work as director of music ministries at Kenwood Park Presbyterian Church in Cedar Rapids, then at a big church in Los Angeles.

“I’m doing it now on just a far bigger scale,” he said, “trying to bring 12- to 13,000 artists together to make these huge films into a director’s 3D vision.”

Their work is both time intensive and labor intensive, for 16 to 20 weeks.

“We take a two-dimensional frame of film. We then have to isolate every item in that frame of film that we want to assign a specific depth to. Many times, that’s hundreds if not thousands of things in a frame of film that we have to isolate. We then have our artists animate depths, to place everything properly,” he said.

“Much like a diorama, when you’ve extrapolated everything out and given it internal volume — which is one of the things that we’re known for — you can now look around everything, but guess what? There’s no information behind those characters so that you can look around. So the last part of our process is to actually go in and fill in, by hand, all of that missing information, because you can now look around things that you haven’t been able to do before.

“It’s basically a three-step process, where we isolate, we depth, and then we recreate the frame. That’s every frame of film many times,” he said with an incredulous laugh.

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They work in a temp-flow as the films are shot, where the 3D base is done in stages, leaving enough leeway so they can make adjustments right up to the final hours with the final 2D versions.

“We can complete 60 percent of the work with the first pass of the frame we get,” Parry said. “Then we get an updated plate, and we can complete 80 percent of the work. We’re working with (the filmmakers) hand in hand, literally down to the hour when the film completes, to finish our work on top of their work.

“It is a ballet of epic proportions, of these files going back and forth to each other, to make sure that we get the latest and greatest, because the one thing you don’t want to do, is say, ‘Oh no, no, no Kathleen Kennedy, J.J. Abrams — you guys can’t change anything.’ That’s one of the fascinating parts of what we do — we produce thousands and thousands of frames of work on a weekly basis. ...

“It’s like a layer cake, where you’re slowly building up to the final 3D image that makes it to the theaters,” he said.

“The whole creative team here really knocked it out of the park.”

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