A look back at a cult classic.
Adored by sci-fi fans, snubbed by the Academy, Tron’s cutting-edge special effects made it a pixel pioneer. On its 35th anniversary, Total Film dialled up director Steven Lisberger and his team of FX sorcerers to talk about ushering in the Age of CGI.
If Tron was any more ’80s, it’d be wearing legwarmers and listening to Adam Ant on a Walkman. With its arcade-inspired plot, synth-heavy soundtrack and splashes of neon, Disney’s 1982 sci-fi fantasy is unmistakably a product of its time. Beneath its retro aesthetic, though, is a groundbreaking film that sowed the seeds of modern CGI, pioneering production techniques so radical it was allegedly banned from receiving a Special Effects Oscar nomination because the Academy viewed computer-generated effects as “cheating”.
“I cannot stress heavily enough how absolutely terrified people in Hollywood were of what a future might be like where computers were an integral part of making movies,” says director Steven Lisberger, who had the idea for Tron when he was working on Animalympics, a kids’ animated TV movie commissioned by NBC as part of its 1980 Olympics coverage.
During the production, artist John Norton drew an image of a stylised neon warrior hurling a glowing frisbee and, when Lisberger saw early computer graphics being developed, especially the videogame Pong, he knew the time was right to try to bring the warrior to life. “Because Animalympics was based on the games of the ancient Olympics,” he says, “I decided to set the neon warrior, now called Tron
[ short for ‘electronic’], in the world of videogames, but this time the game arena would be based on the Roman gladiatorial games. I always loved the film Spartacus and thought that type of story would lend itself to a sci-fi update.”
The road to production wasn’t an easy one.
Lisberger was relatively unknown in the ’80s, and the storyboards for Tron were rejected by several studios before Disney decided to take a chance. “Disney were conflicted,” Lisberger reveals.
“To a certain degree, they knew it was in the studio’s ancestry to let artists explore new techniques and arenas. It’s easy to say that, but it’s another thing to risk one’s career and a ton of money by actually doing it.”
Hunkering down to co-write the script with Bonnie MacBird, Lisberger thrashed out the story of arcade owner/ hacker Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), who’s beamed into a computerised world. There, he and computer program Tron (played by Bruce Boxleitner) are forced to compete in games to free the computerised world – known as the Grid – from domination by the sinister Master Control Program (MCP). To bring the Grid to life, the production had to throw away the special effects rulebook and invent a new one. “Tron was a highly experimental film from the first, both in terms of story and production,” says Lisberger. “We were dealing with a subject known by very few people. It seemed appropriate that the production techniques should also be virtually unknown, or never before attempted on this scale. I think most people on the outside didn’t really have any idea what we were up to. And if they did, I am sure they thought it was impossible. In those days the Hollywood community didn’t take Disney films seriously.”
To create the movie’s unique look, Lisberger and Disney brought together
a team whose diverse creative backgrounds meant they wouldn’t be constrained by established special effects procedures, including French comic-book artist Jean Giraud (also known as Moebius), Disney animators Bill Kroyer and Jerry Rees, plus matte artist Harrison Ellenshaw.
But many would-be recruits were reluctant to put their reputations and careers on the line. “The first thing we did at Disney was try to recruit other animators or story people to leave the traditional animation department and join our crew,” says Kroyer, “but noone wanted to take a chance on such a weird project, except Jerry Rees. We started by storyboarding the film in the very traditional way with paper on cork boards!”
The creative process involved combining cutting-edge technology and traditional photographic techniques. The real-world segments were shot conventionally on colour film but, for the Grid, two different visual effects techniques were used. The first was groundbreaking for the time – computer graphics were employed to render Sark’s command carrier, the futuristic Tanks and the hovering, arch-like Recognizers.
A second technique, called backlight compositing, was used to add glow and colours to the characters’ uniforms. For this, the actors were filmed in black and white on 65mm film instead of the traditional 35mm to provide higher resolution. Each frame was then enlarged onto a 16 x 20 animation cel, which allowed animators to isolate different areas on each frame to add the colours and glows using photographic and rotoscopic techniques.
The task of animating each cell (of which there were more than half a million in total) required 400 artists and animators, hand drawing each one within only a four-month schedule; an enormous task by any standard. “This technique had its origins in TV commercials,” reveals Ellenshaw. “But for Tron, the work was not going to be about a 30-second spot with limited resolution for a small-screen TV; rather it was about doing an hour’s worth of high-resolution imagery to be shown on a big screen in a movie theatre. We would need to create an intricate workflow of data-heavy images. [ It was] an overwhelming challenge, something that had never been attempted before.”
When it came to Tron’s 20 minutes of CG sequences, Disney turned to four leading computer graphics firms: Information International Inc., Mathematical Applications Group, Robert Abel & Associates and Digital Effects. The computer used had only 2MB of memory and 330MB of storage. But the involvement of multiple companies carried its own challenges. “All the CG companies we worked with had entirely different systems,” says Kroyer. “There was no off-theshelf standard. They not only had their own proprietary code, they even had their own home-built computers. We had to decide where to send shots by understanding the capabilities of each company.”
Another stumbling block was that the software of the era could only generate static computer images rather than moving CG animations, meaning the team could only view new CG scenes following a painstaking ‘back and forth’ process.
“The first thing you must realise is that there was no such thing as animation software at that time,” Kroyer says. “People had written code to model things, and texture things, and light things, and render things – but not to move things. For animators like Jerry and myself, who had devoted their careers to animated movement, this was the biggest challenge.” To get around the problem, they had to hand-draw each object and camera position individually, frame-by-frame, as though they were creating a conventional cartoon animation; but with the addition of mathematical coordinates, so the CG animators
knew where to position each object and the camera when they rendered them.
The CG animators would take the designs and create the computerised images frame by frame by typing in the coordinates. They’d then display each image on a high-resolution screen and shoot it with a film camera.
A few seconds of movement would take hours to record, until eventually the new footage was returned to Kroyer and his team to view on a screen.
“Imagine it,” says Kroyer now. “After only imagining the scene in our heads, and visualising it only with pencil storyboards, then describing it with a set of numbers, the first time we saw anything actually move was in the theatre!”
A year in, things sped up a little as Kroyer and Rees got their hands on a state-of-the-art Chromatics 9000 monitor. Essentially a computer with a monitor, it could display individual wire-frame images of the shots they had sent to the CG company.
“They were only wire frames, but at least we could approve the precise staging and composition of the key frames before they went to the laborious step of colour rendering,” he says. “And it was so hi-tech – not! The images were sent to us through a telephone – a regular dial telephone – that rested in a cradle. The phone just beeped, like Morse code, and each beep created a pixel dot on the screen. We would wait 20 minutes for enough pixels to form an image!”
The nature of the FX meant Bridges, Boxleitner and the rest of the cast were among the first in movie history to grapple with interacting with a world that wasn’t really there. “I think they dug it,” says Lisberger. “Of course, some of the techie dialogue – like the word ‘user’ – seemed alien at the time but that didn’t bother them. I think actors think a lot of what they say in movies is kind of nonsensical. As different as they were, the story and characters still aligned to a good degree with archetypes and classic situations that we all know.”
He adds: “Sure the vocabulary and the setting is different, but it’s strange when they do Shakespeare too or a space opera where people routinely fly at light speed to planets. What doesn’t change is an actor stands under a light and pretends to be experiencing feelings and situations for the first time.”
Box office blues
Upon its release on 9 July 1982, Tron performed poorly at the box office, grossing $4 million on its opening weekend and going on to make just $33 million in North America. In a year that also saw the release of Blade Runner and Star Trek: The Wrath Of Khan, it was a disappointment for Disney. And although Tron earned Oscar nominations for Best Costume Design and Best Sound, its groundbreaking FX didn’t get a look-in. Lisberger claimed the Academy thought they had “cheated” through their use of computers.
“By that point I had been so pummelled by the industry I was punch drunk,” he says. “Let’s just say any
‘without tron there would be no toy story’ John Lasseter
faith I had in the Academy Of The Motion Picture Arts And Sciences to appreciate what we had accomplished specifically in the arts and sciences faded to black. I think they should change their name. I have several suggestions.”
Ellenshaw, whose credits include Star Wars: A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, adds: “I wasn’t all that surprised. Of course, I was a bit disappointed, but mainly I was heartbroken for the nearly 600 hugely talented men and women who had dedicated so much time, effort and energy to fulfil a very unique vision. It was more about disrespecting them; a hell of a lot more than just dissing me.”
Thirty-five years on from the controversy, Tron has achieved cult status and is regarded as a pathfinder for the modern CGI industry. Pixar head John Lasseter has claimed the film helped him see the potential of computer-generated imagery, saying: “Without Tron there would be no Toy Story.”
Then there’s the case of 2010 sequel Tron: Legacy, with continued unconfirmed rumours of a third instalment. “We found out many film critics felt that Disney had no business attempting a movie that wasn’t based on nostalgia. One key critic said the film was about nothing,” says Lisberger. “In terms of the reception now there’s a couple of standard comments I get: ‘Your film changed my life,’ or: ‘You were too far ahead of your time.’ The film remains original and appreciated, the critical response to it is the biggest cliché in the whole endeavour.”
Adds Kroyer: “I’ve worked on a hundred productions, but none of them elicits more recognition or affection than Tron. I have always considered it very special to have worked on a film that was a landmark.”
Modern CGI expert Lawson Deming, a visual effects supervisor on Amazon’s Man In The High Castle, feels that although Tron pioneered many techniques, its use of computers eclipsed, rather than complemented, the story. “Tron is a strange film for me,” he says. “I appreciate it, absolutely, but I have to differentiate between the tools used to create the film, which grew into the technology we use in the VFX industry today, and the actual aesthetic of the film. Looking back at it today, it’s sort of the same feeling you get listening to music from the ’80s that is really heavy on the synthesiser.”
But Brad Powell, who runs VFX and motion graphics house BioLuminescent Pixels, and has previously worked on CBS TV series CSI: Cyber, has a very different take. “Tron was and is the single movie I can point back to and say that is the movie that made me want to be not just an FX artist, but it made me want to be an artist, period,” he says.
“It made me want to paint, it made me want to draw, it made me want to sculpt. The images that I was exposed to at six years old made me want to create. Looking back, I still love the look of the film. I don’t see primitive CGI. I see stylised frames, I see visionary imagery, I see design choices not design limitations. I see a film with no equal, in a category all its own.”
just add colour (above) Actors were originally filmed in black and white; (below) early CGI.
in control (above) Jeff Bridges as Kevin Flynn; (below) Tron himself, played by Bruce Boxleitner.
game-play (above) Tron was inspired by an image of a neon warrior throwing a frisbee; (below) David Warner as the chilling MCP.
on yer bike (top) CGI images were sent pixel by pixel over a phone line; (above) Jeff Bridges reprised his role as Flynn in Tron: Legacy.