TRON

Total Film - - Contents - Words Mark Smith

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.”

spe­cial ef­fect

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.

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