Nowadays, it’s no big deal to see computer animation in films. In fact, the use of CGI in films can range from being mundane to being annoying. However, three decades ago, computer animation was in its infancy, and one of the biggest pioneers of its use in major motion pictures was Tron from Walt Disney Studios.
Tron’s legacy led to the development and release of its sequel Tron: Legacy two years ago from Joseph Kosinski, and now the release of Kosinski’s latest film Oblivion. However, without the original Tron, we might not have the use of virtual environments that moviegoers are used to now.
Dialing back the digital clock to 1982, let’s take a look at the original Tron through the eyes of its creators, whose ambitious little computer cartoon revolutionized an industry. Director Steven Lisberger, along with the producers and visual effects supervisors, recorded a commentary for the film for the 20th anniversary 2002 DVD, which is also available on the 2011 Blu-ray release.
Commentators: Steven Lisberger (director), Donald Kushner (producer), Harrison Ellenshaw (associate producer and visual effects supervisor), and Richard Taylor (visual effects supervisor)
1. Lisberger got the idea to make Tron while playing the original and simplistic video game Pong, which eventually became the inspiration for the jai-alai type of ring game played by Flynn when he is first brought to the gaming grid. The arena and program-versus-program element was a nod to Spartacus.
2. During the development of Tron, Lisberger got to know several pioneering programmers. Bruce Boxleitner’s character of Alan (and by extension, that of Tron) was based on the Dynabook creator Alan Kay.
3. Elements of Dillinger’s (David Warner) world were based on computer imagery and circuitry. His personal helicopter was designed to look like the computer world, with glowing red lines achieved with 3M colored electrical tape. The window to his office overlooks the L.A. skyline and is meant to look like a circuitry grid. He keeps his programmers in a vast world of cubicles, meant to look like the cubicles the programs are stored in on the grid. Finally, Dillinger’s high-tech touch-screen computer desk was shot using rear projection from under the desk.
4. Warner played Dillinger as well as Sark. He also was the voice of the MCP, which was modulated in post production.
5. The name “Tron” comes from “electron,” which is the basis of electricity. Some programmers have speculated that the term comes from the phrase “trace on, trace off.” However, Lisberger had only heard that term after the film was completed. The name “Encom” was chosen because it was the only tech-sounding name they could think of that wasn’t already a registered corporate name.
6. The laser sequences were shot at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, which housed the largest laser in the world at the time. They shot the scenes in the linear accelerator using mostly practical lighting from available fluorescents, which was a tight fit with the 65mm camera equipment. At the time of the commentary recording, Tron was the only film allowed to shoot there.
7. The laser that de-rezzes Flynn was named Shiva, in honor of the Hindu goddess of creation and destruction.
8. Because so few 65mm cameras were available at the time, flaws in the equipment were worked around. The commentators joke about finding sand from Lawrence of Arabia in the equipment, and one of the viewfinders was broken, requiring the cameraman to point and shoot without being sure of what was in frame.
9. The conversation between Flynn (Jeff Bridges), Alan, and Lora (Cindy Morgan) above Flynn’s arcade had to be reshot in order to add and change some dialogue, but in order to get studio approval, Lisberger and Kushner told Disney it had to be done in order to get the lighting to match.
10. Speaking of which, depending on the lighting levels, the depth of field of the 65mm equipment was sometimes as small as half and inch, causing various work-arounds for the shots. In the scene above Flynn’s arcade, light stands were used as braces under actors’ clothes to keep them in the exact position so they didn’t go out of focus. Later in the film, when multiple actors are seen on-screen together in the computer world, they were shot as separate elements and composited together.
11. The filmmakers originally approached Peter O’Toole to play Dillinger, but O’Toole wanted to play Tron. During a meeting with Lisberger at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, O’Toole jumped on the furniture and declared, “ I can do this!” He claimed that he wanted Tron on his tombstone right next to Lawrence of Arabia.
12. The massive security door where Flynn, Alan, and Lora sneak into Encom is a real radiation door at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. Lisberger saw the door during a tour of the facility and rewrote the scene to accommodate it into the film.
13. Tron was the first film since Ryan’s Daughter to be shot entirely on 65mm. This resulted in a logistical challenge to integrate 65mm film elements and composites with CGI elements that were printed on VistaVision, all put together to make final prints on 70mm and 35mm.
14. The costumes were completely white with black lines on them, designed to have light sources put in them with visual effects. After being shot on 65mm film, a photo-rotoscope machine projected them to print high-contrast positive and negative images. The elements were manipulated separately and later composited back to a final image.
15. Rather than using the standard blue- or green-screen backgrounds common today, the actors were shot against an all-black stage. Light and color were added later in post-production.
16. Approximately 75,000 frames were used in the animation and compositing process, which was a huge number for a normal film. However, because the film was produced at Disney, this was not and overwhelming number of frames for its animation department. With all the passes and compositing needed, that number grew to about half a million. In the end, there were 1,100 special effects shots in the film, 900 involving human beings within a digital environment.
17. In December of 1981, the production developed a contingency plan to make sure they met the movie’s summer release date. If they didn’t have the effects done by then, the plan was to hire 500 college students fresh on summer break to do the busy work of animating the shots, with each student working on two scenes over two weeks.
18. The information discs on the back of all programs were actually Frisbees, which used hand-drawn animation for their effects. The production hired Frisbee coach Sam Schatz to train the actors.
19. While the formation of the light cycles were done with hand-drawn animation, the cycles themselves were computer generated. The back of the bike is not as curved and smooth as the front. This was done to reduce the computer power needed to render them.
20. Several actresses were tested for the role of Lora/Yuri, but they were often “scared away” by the costume, which was basically a helmet and spandex. One of the actresses tested was Deborah Harry, but she was not cast. Cindy Morgan was brought in only days before her first scene was shot.
21. Almost every shot in the film that uses human actors against CGI backgrounds is a locked-down shot. This was because there was no way to build the computer-generated background with the proper perspective and depth while the camera moved. In fact, grips had to nail the tripod to the floor for many scenes. Conversely, when a shot was full CGI, it had what Lisberger describes as “a cornucopia of camera movement.”
22. Well-known conceptual artists Moebius and Syd Mead designed much of the computer world, including the MCP. Lesser-known artist Roger Allers, who would later go on to direct The Lion King, also helped design the MCP.
23. During the Solar Sailer’s flight over the virtual landscape, it flies over a “lake” in the shape of Mickey Mouse. This image is bigger and in obvious profile, which was even more obvious than the common “hidden Mickey” found throughout Disney productions and theme parks.
24. Lisberger says that if he could do one shot over, he said it would be when Flynn gives his energy to Yori. He wishes he would have shot that to make Yori turn into a human with hair and skin, in order to see what the world of the users looked like. Incidentally, this is the eventual fate of Olivia Wilde’s character Quorra in Tron: Legacy.
25. When Sark is hit in the head with Tron’s information disc, clock parts were dropped out of his helmet to look like electronic brains. Lisberger claims this is the shot that gave the movie a PG rating. “Any time you have brains spilled, electronic or not,” he says.
26. Lisberger avoided using the word “cyber” in the film because he thought it would annoy people and make it sound like “a brain movie.”
27. Although Tron was Lisberger’s first theatrical film, he had directed an animated movie called Animalympics, which was meant to spoof the summer and winter Olympics of 1980. Originally commissioned by NBC and later released by Warner Bros., Animalympics never got a U.S. theatrical release and was eventually shown on cable in 1984. When studio executives questioned Lisberger as the director of Tron, asking whether this was his first film, Kushner said he did direct a movie before but would never name Animalympics if at all possible.
Best in Commentary
- Lisberger: “I like the fact that the deadliest weapon in Tron is a Frisbee.”
- Kushner: “Well, it’s interesting that several years later, it wasn’t the Master Control Program or the mainframe computer which really changed technology and the world of cyberspace. It was the home computer, the personal computer became so powerful and it became an expression for the individual rather than the mainframe”
- Lisberger: “And it’s funny, the bicycle world is nothing but helmets and spandex now. We didn’t know it but we were pioneering Rollerblade and bicycle technology.”
As a child of the 80s, I have a real soft spot for Tron. I remember seeing it in the theaters in the summer of 1982 and realizing how groundbreaking it was at the time. Hearing the filmmakers chat about the challenges of the day and how these challenges were overcome was a fascinating ride.
The commentators have a very relaxed and conversational tone throughout most of the commentary, yet it doesn’t fall too much into reminiscing, which can drag a commentary down a bit. The only real rough parts are when things get too technical. All the talk of animation, compositing, lighting, and visual effects processing can quickly start to sound like technobabble to anyone who doesn’t know exactly what each one does. In this respect, someone with a background in effects or computer animation should get more out of it than your average viewer.
Because the commentary was recorded more than ten years ago, its look back at the film’s obsolesces is a bit obsolete itself. Still, that doesn’t hold things back too much. The discussion is somewhat timeless because it tends to talk more about what needed to be done in the early 1980s rather than comparing it to how things are done now.