A still of a light-cycle sequence from Tron.

CGI Light Cycle Battle

Games on Film I: Tron - Behind the Screens

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Disney 1982

Greetings, Programs


Towers and fields of it ranged in the colorless nonspace of the simulation matrix, the electronic consensus-hallucination that facilitates the handling and exchange of massive quantities of data.
- Burning Chrome, William Gibson 1982


Poster for TRON, a video game themed movie by Disney 1982

Poster for TRON

Gibson’s short story, in which he first coins the term Cyberspace while plumbing the depths of the ethereal inner-world of computers, is first published in the July 1982 issue of Omni magazine. The article directly following Gibson’s story is a preview of a new science fiction film from Disney called Tron. The next month, Tron is released to theatres, visually defining the world of cyberspace. Tron is probably the most important film among those talked about in this series of video game-themed movies, at least in regards to the ambitions it harbours in building a society inside the traces of computer circuitry. Most likely it is also the most divisive; viewers are usually split on its quality in a binary YES/NO fashion. While its visuals are certainly dazzling, and it captures the zeitgeist of computers at the time, it is not entirely successful at clearly laying a path for audiences of the day to follow the impenetrable nature of what was essentially both an esoteric mainframe culture on the business side, and a niche hobby industry on the consumer side. However, the prescience it shows and the lasting impact it has had on the art of modern computer generated special effects in filmmaking cannot be overstated. With its 15 minutes of fully rendered computer animation, it helped evolve computer generated imagery (CGI) from experimentation into the commonplace tool it is of modern filmmakers today. What Disney had done for pioneering feature-length animation with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, so they did for computer generated graphics in Tron.


The film tells the story of Kevin Flynn, played by Jeff Bridges. Holed up in an apartment over his video game arcade, Flynn is obsessed with hacking into the computer system of his ex-employer, software conglomerate Encom. It is within Encom’s system that Flynn hopes to download evidence that several hit videogames he developed while at the company were stolen by his co-worker Ed Dillinger (David Warner), who then passed them off as his own and reaped the rewards when they became hits. Dillinger gets promoted while muscling Flynn out of the company. With the help of his former co-workers Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) and Lora Baines (Cindy Morgan) Flynn physically infiltrates the Encom labs, with the hopes of finally pulling the evidence of Dillinger’s theft out of the system from within. During the attempt, Flynn is zapped into the computer world by the MCP, the Master Control Program that seeks to control all of cyberspace and beyond. Fighting alongside the computer program versions of Bradley (Tron) and Lora (Yori), Flynn attempts to battle the evil Sark (Warner again), survive the gladiatorial videogame grid and escape back to the world of “users”.

Shining Light

The history of the character Tron goes back. Way back. He first sees the light of day as a backlit animation character in a short animation done by John Norton at Lisberger Studios animation house. The studio is founded by Steven Lisberger in a loft in Boston in 1971 while taking his graduate studies at the School of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. In 1973 Lisberger, along with Eric Ladd, creates the animated short film Cosmic Cartoon, which premieres at the Orson Welles Cinema in Cambridge Massachusetts, going on to be nominated for a Student Academy Award, the first year they are given out by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for college and university filmmakers. The back light animation seen in the early Tron clip made by Norton is the process of shining lights fitted with coloured gels through the animation cels as they are photographed, creating bright neon effects. In the short, the character throws two light discs into the air, catches them as they return, and then slams them together. It is created to serve as an animated logo for Lisberger Studios, and is later adapted and sold as radio station TV ad spots. The character is dubbed Tron by its creators, short for elecTRONic, with Lisberger and company hoping that in this character they have found the studio’s Mickey Mouse.

Another piece of the puzzle that eventually becomes Tron the movie arrives in town with Phil Mittleman, founder of CGI company MAGI, or Mathematical Applications Group, out of Elmsford, NY. Lisberger is present at a demonstration that Mittleman gives of the company’s Synthavision software, which makes computer generated images out of solid geometric shapes, at MIT in 1975. Lisberger is fascinated particularly by a sequence in the demo reel where the camera sails over a computer generated environment. He sees the potential of computers to generate graphics and worlds that were formally the domain only of the pens and ink of flesh and blood animators, but Tron doesn’t fully coalesce until Lisberger sees the original mass-produced arcade game PONG by Atari in action. He begins to mull over the idea of using the Tron character to open up the world of videogames to a mainstream audience.


Caged Animals

In 1976, the Summer Olympic Games are held in Montreal. While watching the coverage on TV, Lisberger conceives of an animated “Animal Olympics” spoof of the real thing. Via the concept, he receives a $10,000 grant from the American Film Institute and produces a seven-minute film with various animals competing in multiple events. It occurs to Lisberger that the scope of the project could easily be expanded to feature length. Partnering with Boston-based theatrical producer and lawyer Donald Kushner, they sell the idea to NBC, broadcast rights holders for the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. The deal is for two specials that will coincide with the Winter and Summer Games, and to facilitate their production, Lisberger Studios and its 20 member staff move to Venice, California to set up shop.

Bubblicious Ad by Lisberger Studios, 1978

The team Lisberger assembles is impressive: Brad Bird joins as an inbetweener, the lowest of the low of animator positions, filling in cels between the lead animators’ key frames. Bird would go on to slightly greater fame as story editor on the long-running Fox animated TV show The Simpsons, as well as writing the story and directing the Warner Bros. Animation release The Iron Giant (1999), then going on to direct CGI animated movies The Incredibles (2004) and Ratatouille (2007) for Pixar, both of which nab him the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film. Also on board for the Animal Olympics project is Roger Allers, doing character and story development. Allers would also animate Kit Mambo, a marathon running lioness in Lisberger’s production, and he would later co-direct The Lion King for Disney. Bill Kroyer leaves his post as an animator at Disney to join Lisberger’s company as Animation Director, lured by the excitement of helping to form a new animation studio.

The 30-minute long Animalympics: Winter Games airs on NBC in December of 1979, accompanying their Winter Games coverage. That same month, the Soviet Union’s 40th Army invades Afghanistan. President Jimmy Carter declares a U.S. boycott against the USSR and withdraws U.S. participation in the games in Moscow, NBC cancels the majority of its coverage of the event, and the summer animated special is subsequently canned by the company. Since Lisberger had originally envisioned the Animal Olympics project to end up a feature length film, he repackages both specials into a feature-length presentation and Animalympics is screened in theatres in the summer of 1980.

An early production sketch from the video game themed movie Tron, featuring Sark's guard with shock pole

Concept art of Sark’s guard, with shock pole


Meanwhile, armed with a main character, a method of bringing him to life (the burgeoning CGI field), and a setting for him to exist in (video games), Tron development continues as Lisberger hires mid-level executive Bonnie MacBird away from Universal Studios to work on the project. MacBird, besides being a savvy movie executive, also brings a long experience with computers. She begins to craft the screenplay of Tron with Lisberger, introducing him to Alan Kay with a recommendation they hire him as a consultant to the film. Kay is a key figure in the development of the personal computer, having actually coined the term while he and his team developed all the future trappings of the PC in the early 70′s, from the graphical user interface to the mouse to the laser printer, at the fabled Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). He also plays a more direct role in video games when he becomes Chief Scientist at Atari. Kay even ends up as the inspiration for Alan Bradley in the movie, with the character taking his first name as an homage. MacBird takes Kay’s ruminations on the possibilities of computers in society and forms a deeper, more philosophical story than what is eventually realized.


Lisberger goes through various outlines and re-writes of the script and considers several approaches to its production, such as having the whole film animated by computer, with live-action sequences bookending it. It is eventually decided to use a “backlight compositing” process, where live actors and sets are filmed in black & white, re-photographed with backlight and coloured filters. When the script is finally done and concept drawings completed, Lisberger and Kushner attempt to secure the finances to produce the film independently. To cover development costs, the two men borrow against the expected proceeds for the two NBC ‘Animalympics’ specials. With the American Olympic boycott in place, however, the producers must seek other means of financing. After raising 4-5 million in private funds, it becomes apparent to Lisberger this is not enough to realize his vision, and that he needs the backing of a major studio if he has any hope of Tron becoming reality.

A Mouse Divided

After two years of development, Steve Lisberger and Donald Kushner personally put up $300,000 dollars to put together a demonstration package to shop Tron to the major studios, featuring production artwork, a complete script with storyboards, and special effects test reels demonstrating the composite process and the backlit animation they would use to illuminate the characters. Warner Bros., MGM, and Columbia all pass on the project. The team’s last choice is Disney, having assumed that since the studio is the vanguard of traditional animation, they would have no interest in the experimental CGI required in Tron.

By 1980, though, Disney is in the doldrums. Cost-cutting has decimated the lush visual quality of its traditional animation work, and the studio had failed to make itself relevant in a post-Star Wars world with the 1979 live-action SF failure The Black Hole. Lisberger and Kushner find a surprisingly receptive audience of executives when in June they present Disney with their unique idea about characters trapped inside a computer, realized by experimental backlit animation and CGI. The project’s biggest booster from within Disney is probably Tom Wilhite, who at 29 years old is the youngest production head in Hollywood. He is out to change his studio’s stagnant, old-guard beliefs and sees Tron as the perfect, avant garde project to do just that. In order to fully sell Disney execs on the idea of giving a 31-year-old writer-director with little experience in long-form film-making millions to make his movie, Lisberger has to prove he can do what he says he can do. He spends six months making tests for Disney, culminating in a short test sequence utilizing backlit animation. In it, former national Frisbee champion Sam Schatz plays a character who escapes from a jail and de-rezzes a guard with a light disc. It is shot against a white background, with the backlighting effects applied in post-production. The guards in the short film wear costumes left over from The Black Hole.

Sam Schatz in text footage for Tron, a video game themed movie by Disney 1982

Frisbee champ Sam Schatz in untreated VFX text footage

The $50,000, 30-second film, combined into a 5-minute sizzle reel featuring various effects tests, helps Wilhite to convince Ron Miller, Walt Disney’s son-in-law, and Disney CEO, to green light the project.  Lisberger will have an anvil hanging over his head during production, however: a looming director’s strike puts time pressure on the production and leaves little leeway for script changes.

Backlighting test slide

Backlighting test slide


Photo of producer and SFX producers for Tron, a video game themed movie by Disney 1982

L-R Donald Kushner, Harrison Ellenshaw and Richard Taylor


Lisberger assembles his team together to make the film, first bringing in Richard Taylor from CGI effects house Information International, Inc. (Triple-I) to co-direct the CGI portions of the film. Taylor has left his mark on the advertising world with a series of startling Levi’s and 7-Up television commercials using computer graphics. He is matched with Harrison Ellenshaw, the other co-director of special effects, who had supervised the matte painting on Star Wars. He was also on the Oscar-winning visual effects team for The Empire Strikes Back. Also involved in this aspect of the film is Bill Kroyer and Jerry Rees, each wielding the unique credit of Computer Image Choreographer. 53 minutes of the film takes place within the electronic world, and in order to produce the 15 minutes of CGI action required, the work is divided between four leading companies specializing in computer effects. The Light cycles, flying recognizer, and tanks are created by MAGI. Sark’s carrier, the solar sailer and the MCP are done by Triple-I. CLU’s companion Bit, a character whose role in the film is drastically cut due to time pressures in making a summer 1982 release, is made by Digital Effects. They also handle the Tron creation sequence that opens the film. The transition of Flynn into the computer world is done by Robert Abel and Associates.

A drawing by Syd Mead for Tron, a video game themed movie by Disney 1982

Syd Mead concept illustration of Tank interior


Tron has a production budget that would equal $17 million, a third of which is earmarked for the special effects. And a good 30% of the effects budget goes to R&D to create nearly everything from scratch. Brought on-board early to help create the vision that all this technology will bring to life are Syd Mead and Jean “Moebius” Giraud, as conceptual artists. Mead had previously worked as a “futurist” on such films as Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) and Blade Runner (1982), with the flying Spinner cars from Blade Runner being a particularly famous piece of his from that film. Moebius is a famous French illustrator, having founded the highly influential adult comics anthology magazine Métal Hurlant in 1974, along with fellow artist Philippe Druillet, and Jean-Pierre Dionnet and Bernard Farkas. An American version of the magazine began publication as Heavy Metal in 1977. Not only would Moebius contribute to the visual look of the costumes and design the solar sailer, he also ends up re-doing all the storyboards for the film. Mead designs the film’s hardware, such as the tanks, lightcycles and Sark’s carrier, as well as the future-cool Tron title font. Often, the work of the two visualists overlap, such as when Mead steps in to help Moebius with the costume design by recommending they apply a circuit board look to the suits. It is the job of another member of the art team, commercial artist Peter Lloyd, to take the designs of Moebius and Mead and airbrush them into a finished product. As a matte artist, Lloyd also creates the expansive backgrounds and environments that the actors inhabit. A young animator at Disney by the name of Tim Burton does some uncredited work on the film.

Jeff Bridges and Steven Lisberger on the set of Tron, a video game themed movie by Disney 1982

Bridges and Lisberger on the set


Game Players

When Jeff Bridges is approached to play Flynn, he jumps at the chance to do something far out and different. Boxleitner, however, is a tougher nut to crack. He receives the script for Tron while filming an NBC TV movie western out in the wilds near Tucson, Arizona. Sitting on a horse between takes, reading a script about RAM and Recognizers and computerized hackers, he isn’t sure what to make of it all. After returning to California, he gets another call about the movie, gives the script another look, and then goes in to talk to Lisberger about the role. Seeing the storyboards and talking to Taylor about how the effects would work convinces Boxleitner to sign on. Peter O’Toole is originally tapped to play the evil Sark, although he originally lobbies Lisberger for the role of Tron, holding a meeting with Lisberger at the Beverly Hills Hotel and leaping from furniture in the room to prove he has the athleticism for the part. Reluctantly accepting to play the villain, O’Toole is aghast when he arrives at Disney, looking for the sets and expecting to see the tanks and lightcycles being built, and is told that everything is going to be created by computers. He walks, and David Warner is brought in to replace him as Sark/Dillinger/MCP. Character actor Barnard Hughes as Encom founder Dr. Walter Gibbs/Dumont and Dan Shor as fellow-program-on-the-run Ram fill out the major cast.

To facilitate the various light-disc battles contained in the movie, Sam Schatz returns to coach Boxleitner and other primary actors in frisbee throwing. In order to give the actors a further sense of the world they will exist in, Lisberger takes the unusual step of littering the soundstage with arcade games. Pac-Man, Asteroids, Missile Command, Space InvadersCentipede and Scramble all vying for the cast’s attention, with Bridges showing the most proficiency at them, and is also the hardest to tear away from when it’s time to shoot a scene. Bridges had suffered the same obsession with video game industry grand-daddy PONG as Lisberger had; he and co-star Harry Dean Stanton had ended up at a local bar playing the game nearly every night while filming Rancho Deluxe in 1975, with the game ending up having a prominent role in a scene in the movie between the two men. Always a fan of computers rolling out a 3-D world for people to travel through, director Lisberger has his own personal favourite game, in the form of Sega’s graphically startling isometric flight-shooter Zaxxon.

The costumes in Tron are full body spandex suits with black lines drawn onto them with a marker to form circuit patterns, along with modified hockey helmets. While most of the cast find them revealing, Morgan goes the extra step of disappearing from the set for a day, in order to lose five pounds to more better fit into the outfit. The cast is also encouraged to wear colourful clothes to the set, to compensate for the all black studio they must act in, onto which the backgrounds would be added by both artists and computers.

Jeff Bridges, Cindy Morgan and Bruce Boxleitner, from the video game themed Disney movie Tron, 1982

L. to R.: Jeff Bridges, Cindy Morgan and Bruce Boxleitner, in unprocessed uniforms

CGI equipment at III, makers of the computer effects in Tron

Part of III’s CGI setup, with FR80 film recorder on the left

Serious Hardware

CGI work on Tron starts in July of 1981, with each of the companies doing the CGI work having a different system for generating the images, all corralled by Richard Taylor. The system MAGI uses, called Synthavision, produces objects by combining different geometric shapes, coming up with a finished product by adding or subtracting these various shapes. Creating relatively simple objects that can move quickly around the screen with fluidity, the MAGI system is used for dynamically active sequences such as the lightcycle chases. It uses a Perkin Elmer System 3240 computer for the calculations, operating with two megabytes of memory and two 80 meg disk drives for storage. Vectors for the graphics are plotted by programmers on a 46×60 inch Taylos tablet. These calculations are fed into a Celco DFR 4000 computer to generate images on a monitor.

1975 7-Up Commercial done by Robert Abel and Associates

Triple-I uses a system called ASAS (Actor/Scriptor Animation System), a vector graphics method which utilizes polygons to create complex shapes like the face of the MCP as it gives its commands to Sark. This system uses a vector plotter to trace drawn images into a Foonly F1 computer, a cheaper variant of the PDP-10. These are then generated on a FR80 film recorder manufactured by the company. Rendering time to produce imagery varies, from about 10 minutes to 6 hours to generate a frame of film. The needs of the film-makers dictate a lot of technical innovation, such as “depth glowing” where an algorithm is applied to make the computer dim and fuzz out shapes in the distance, instead of making everything crystal clear no matter how far away they are from the “camera”. While these sequences may have been pain-staking to plot and render on the computer, the real benefit is the ability to roughly render a scene, and then easily make changes and corrections relatively quickly. As for the effect of the bright circuit lines on the costumes and sets, this involves a team of 80 artists and craftsmen making multiple exposures of 70,000 frames of film, blown up to over 200,000 16×20 Kodalith cels, and then filmed on animation cameras with coloured light shone through the clear lines for the bright neon effects. The process is effectively taking a live-action film and animating it. Including the CGI creations and all the other visual treats in the film, there are 1000 special-effects shots in Tron.


From Tron to Toy Story

While work on the CGI is going on, a young animator by the name of John Lasseter is toiling away on yet another attempt by Disney at recapturing their glory days, the short animated film Mickey’s Christmas Carol. Sending iconic character Jiminy Cricket sailing over London rooftops is a dream job for a young talent just out of the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), but Lasseter can smell the stagnation all around him, the sound of Disney spinning its wheels loud in his ears. One day, friends Jerry Rees and Bill Kroyer bring him over to a Chromatics terminal tied via phone line to MAGI in Elmford, NY. Rees and Kroyer are looking over early CGI renders of a light cycle sequence for Tron, and Lasseter is blown away by what he sees. He is glimpsing the future of animation, frame by frame on a computer monitor.

Lasseter later spends a year trying to maintain the momentum of Tron by directing a 30-second test film marrying hand-drawn characters to computer created sets, assisted by Glen Keane, a veteran Disney character animator and son of Bil Keane of The Family Circus fame. The test is based on the first couple of pages of Maurice Sendak’s famous children’s book Where the Wild Things Are, and features CGI by MAGI and their Synthavision system. The project is seen as a proof-of-concept for applying Lasseter’s process to a feature-length film production of Thomas Disch’s 1980 short story The Brave Little Toaster, recently optioned by Disney. Studio brass, however, are only interested in CGI as a cost-cutting measure, and with computer graphics not offering any significant budgetary savings at that point, the planned movie version of Toaster is put into turnaround. Soon after demonstrating the results of the 30-second test, Lasseter is let go by Disney. He then moves to Lucasfilm’s computer graphics research facility, headed up by Ed Catmull and at the time mostly concerned with research and development related to computer imagery on film, but not without practical experience such as creating the spectacular “Genesis Effect” terraforming sequence from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. There Lasseter works on groundbreaking CGI shorts like The Adventures of André and Wally B. When this division of Lucasfilm is eventually spun off and purchased by Steve Jobs, Lasseter helps the Apple co-founder create a new, independent computer animation studio. While at their old company, the hardware team had developed a digital film printer, and its name becomes the moniker of the new animation venture: Pixar. Among other groundbreaking achievements and accolades, it is at Pixar that Lasseter makes cinematic history directing the first ever full-length computer animated feature, Toy Story, released in 1995. “Without Tron, there would be no Toy Story”, Lasseter would later remark.



A perfect match for an innovative film about the world of computers, is the innovative soundtrack composed by Wendy Carlos, utilizing her famed Moog synthesizer, as well as the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Michael Fremer is tasked with creating Tron’s soundtrack, and as a fan of Carlos’ work, he sees her as a natural for creating the music for the computer portion of the film. Wendy Carlos is a pioneer of the synthesizer, having been an early customer of its inventor, Robert Moog, in 1966. Switched on Bach, setting the famed German composer’s music to synthesizer, becomes the first platinum selling classical music album, released in 1968 when she was still known as Walter Carlos; she undergoes sexual re-assignment surgery in 1972, a year after her first collaboration with film-maker Stanley Kubrick on Clockwork Orange. Bach also earns Classical Album Of The Year at the 1969 Grammy awards. Fremer contacts Carlos about Tron in June of 1981, and forwards the script to her. Carlos is not impressed, considering it “sophomoric and comic-bookish”, but is intrigued by the premise. To her, it seems the best approach is to do the computer part with a combination of regular orchestra and synthesizer, and the live-action pieces with only the orchestra. This way, Carlos not only gets to dabble in something she has never done, write music for orchestra, she also appreciates how the approach matches the way the movie combines computer effects with live actors.

A demo tape sent to Lisberger features samples from Carlos, including cues from her second collaboration with Kubrick, his adaptation of Stephen King’s book The Shining (1980). Based on this, Fremer convinces Lisberger to hire Carlos to do the entire score, with a deal closing at the end of summer, 1981. However, the finished reels of film for Carlos to start scoring to don’t start arriving until early February of 1982, leaving only 5 weeks until the booked sessions with the London Philharmonic, at the Royal Albert Hall. Carlos and her team work tirelessly to plan and create the orchestration in that time, with George Calendrellis arranging, Jeffry Gussman as music editor, Annemarie Franklin as coordinator of the effort, and Carlos writing the music. During the sessions in London, 40 minutes of music, as well as 15 minutes of brief musical textures, are recorded, although Carlos is not entirely happy with the result, mostly stemming from altercations she has with the recording engineer John Moseley. Choral arrangements are recorded later, by the UCLA chorus.

Laurent Bassett and Frank Serafine, sound effects editors on TRON, a video game themed movie by Disney 1982

Laurent Basset (left) and Frank Serafine at the Atari 800-controlled sound editing system, 1982


To Great Effects

Computers are also enlisted in creating the sound effects for Tron, with Frank Serafine and his LA-based Serafine FX Music/Sound Design (SFX) Studios in charge. Sarafine had been designing and performing laser light shows for the Fiske Planetarium in Boulder, CO. in 1976, when he was discovered by Disney and hired to design and perform live presentations over the summer season for the opening of the Space Mountain Pavilion at Disneyland in 1977.  Working on TRON over the span of a year and three months, Serafine keeps the huge collection of used sounds in a list program, cataloged and cross-referenced on an Atari 800 computer running Synapse Software’s FileManager+ database program. The catalog of sounds extends into the thousands, as some of the audio heard throughout the movie, such as the drone of the light cycles and they zip rapidly around the gaming grid, are comprised of 50 different sounds, layered together in a process Sarafine dubs Electronic Sound Assembly. A variety of sources are digitized, plugged into a Fairlight CMI (Computer Musical Instrument) as samples, and then displayed on a CRT. There the waveforms can be manipulated via the system’s GUI, either by keyboard or the attached light pen. Sources used for the sounds of the unique creations in the film include the Goodyear blimp in flight for Sark’s Carrier and the Recognizers, the inside of Serafine’s frost-free fridge as the Solar Sailer, and even a group of screaming monkeys from the San Diego Zoo for the flight of the thrown data discs. Along with cataloging Sarafine’s 60-some reels of sound effects tapes and actually creating sounds for use on film, the Atari 800 also controls audio and video recorders, providing quick and precise effects editing. Sarafine gets some help on the programming side, including from Battlezone designer Ed Rotberg, along with SFX employee Laurent Basset, a 17 year-old whiz-kid on the Atari computer.

Mike Minkler does the sound mix of all these elements, becoming another bone of contention for Carlos; other duties keep her from the mixing sessions, and the sound effects are heavily favoured over the musical score in the final mix.

Does not compute

All of this talent and technology mix together to create something never seen before on film. But when Tron is released on July 9, 1982, audiences aren’t sure what to make of it all. Despite all the hype, with multiple teasers and trailers and magazine covers, the film opens with a $4,761,795 weekend gross, placing it 2nd for the week behind the 13 million pulled in by monster hit E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, still sucking all of the oxygen out of the theatre even five weeks after release. Tron would end its domestic run with $33,000,000, placing it #22 for moneymakers in 1982, behind The Toy, Rocky III and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. It gives a decent return on its 17 million dollar budget, but the final take is still a disappointment to those involved with its creation. This lukewarm response by the movie-going public puts the kibosh on the planned merchandising bonanza, lessening the value of such agreements as a licensing deal with Japanese toy maker Tomy to make Tron action figures and electronic handheld games. It also cools the jets of Tron II, the movie sequel announced perhaps a bit too hastily by Walt Disney Productions soon after Tron’s premiere. Gamers who had hoped to enter the Game Grid for real as part of Walt Disney World’s CommuniCore hub at EPCOT are also handed disappointment with Tron’s box office failure: the so-named Tron-themed video arcade space never makes it past the concept stage.

Tron’s failure also provides the old-guard at Disney, who had so shunned Lisberger and team’s promise of a brave new world of computer animation, vindication in their distrust of the technology. Forces within the company pull the plug on their now established CGI pipeline of talent, losing the chance to stay on the vanguard of CGI, a movement that would take over the production of visual effects in the decades to come. Tron producer Don Kushner would bring the glittering effects of the Tron costumes to television the next year, on the short-lived ABC mid-season series Automan. The premise of the show plays Tron in reverse: instead of a human getting zapped into a video game world, Automan is a computer construct brought into the real world.

The Game Grid, a planned Tron-themed video game arcade at Epcot, Walt Disney World, 1982

Enter the ‘Game Grid’, a planned ‘Tron’ arcade at EPCOT, Walt Disney World, 1982


Success in the Arcade Arena

What would a movie about videogames be without a videogame adaptation? The first arcade game released under the Tron name does not disappoint. After Bally Midway lands the licence from Disney, the various design teams within the company vie to produce it.  In a contest between the Midway internal Game Design Team and the two external design studios, Nutting Associates and Arcade Engineering, it is the internal group that wins out. The production team is made up of George Gomez, Bill Adams, Tom Leon, Atish Ghosh and John Pasierb. John Marcus and Sharon Barr help with graphics. Provided with only a shooting script and a special effects reel, the design team develops four individual games to make the whole. One can see a lot of Gorf’s influence, a previous game by Midway, particularly in Gomez’s arcade cabinet design for Tron. It includes a version of the impressive Gorf flight control stick with trigger, also designed by Gomez, with the added effect of a backlight on the control panel that makes it fluoresce. Next to this imposing joystick is a spin-dial for precise firing control. As for gameplay, the ‘Lightcycles’ section has the player trying to fend off up to three opponents, avoiding their deadly light trail and the walls, while trying to trap the other riders. The lightcycle sequences in the movie, and more so in Midway’s arcade game, owe a debt to an early Atari VCS game of the same nature, titled Surround.  In the ‘Tanks’ screen in Tron the arcade game, players must navigate a maze facing off against from 1-5 enemy tanks. ‘Grid Bugs’ features the very briefly shown creatures in the movie, rapidly replicating themselves as Tron and Co. make a run for an I/O tower while on the Solar Sailer. The ‘MCP Cone’ rounds things out, with Tron using his ID disc to break off pieces of a swirling barrier. in order to clear a path to enter the heart of Master Control. All four sections must be completed before Tron can continue to the next level, containing the same four games, continuing through 12 levels of increasing difficulty.

The original game design calls for animated cut scenes from the movie, as well as a total of seven game sections: “Paranoia” would have the player building a bridge out of spiders, while competing against a CPU player doing the same. While building the bridge, the spiders used might change colour and thus harm the player. “IO Tower” has the player running around trying to avoid being touched by electrified blue warriors. And “Rings” would be a disc combat level, with the player facing off against Sark. All three levels are dropped due to time constraints involving getting the game out in three months, to coincide with the movie. The Rings sequence is blown out into the second released Tron arcade game, Discs of Tron. This features disc combat against Sark while keeping balance on ring platforms, which become multiple rings at different heights later on in the game. Along with the regular upright cabinet, Discs of Tron is also released in Total Environment Cabinet form, which the player stands inside, with speakers placed right behind their ears while being bathed in black light.

Initially installed in Bally’s 240 Aladdin’s Castle video game arcades around the country, the original Tron arcade game is also the subject of a nationwide video game contest held by Bally-Midway in 1982. For the finals in NYC, contestants are accompanied by such luminaries as actress Barbara Eden (I Dream of Jeannie), along with baseball superstars “Hammerin’” Hank Aaron and Willie Mays. 29-year-old Richard Ross achieves a cumulative score of 3,958,901, and walk away with 1st prize, which includes a year supply of tokens from Alladin’s Castle, and a full-size Tron arcade game. Moviegoers are greeted by Tron machines as well, placed in movie theatres running the film. The game eventually out grosses its movie brethren, selling northwards of $50 million dollars worth of cabinets for Bally-Midway. This is ample evidence that people who love video game would rather just play them as opposed to sitting passively watching a movie about them. The game is also named Coin-Op Game of the Year in 1982 by Electronic Games magazine.


Tron Comes Home

Mattel secures the license for home video games based on Tron, with the hopes that it will help propel sales of its Intellivision console on the coattails of what is expected to be a smash movie. The first Mattel game released is Tron Deadly Discs. Under the working title Tron I, the game is developed concurrently with production of the film, based on still photos and other art material provided by the producers. The game tasks the player with moving Tron, represented by the ubiquitous Intellivision running man, around a gaming arena, avoiding the discs of his enemies while hitting them with his own. As his opponents enter the area, they leave doors open that Tron can use to navigate to the other side, if there is a door present there already. At random times after Tron dispatches all of his opponents in a level, a recognizer appears to throw some deadly shapes around the room.

Deadly Discs goes on to sell over 300,000 cartridges, a respectable number, but much much lower than expected, especially given that Mattel does a production run of 800,000 due to the hype surrounding the movie. A version for Mattel’s fledgling Aquarius home computer is also released, along with a version for the Atari 2600 through Mattel’s M Network label. Mattel also produces Tron Maze-A-Tron for the Intellivision, going under the names Tron II and Mazeatron while under development. As with Deadly Discs, the game is made parallel to the movie and uses production art and stills for inspiration for the graphics. A version of this game is planned for the Atari 2600, but it turns out to be so different from the Intellivision version that Mattel decides to release it under the name Adventures of Tron. As opposed to running around in a maze like the Inty version, here players move Tron up and down elevators in a standard platform game.

The final game rounding out the Tron licenses from Mattel is Tron Solar Sailer in 1983, a game compatible with the company’s Intellivoice add-on for the Intellivision. The game has the player sending the titular craft down light beams, avoiding tank fire and attempting to find the route to take him right into the heart of the MCP and then engage in a puzzle game to overload him. Solar Sailer has the dubious honor of having inspired the most notorious game hack in Intellivision game programmers Blue Sky Rangers history. The joke going around at the time of the game’s development is that the word “can’t” from one of the digitized taunts from the MCP, “I can’t allow this”, sounds more like the word “cunt”. It becomes such a running joke, that one of the programmers hacks the title screen of another Intellivioice game, Space Spartans, to greet the player with “Mattel Electronics Presents… Space Cunt!”. Taking the joke further, an entire Space Cunt game is created around the premise, a hacked version of Astrosmash were the player’s ship is a penis, shooting semen at falling vaginas and IUD devices.

JUMP: History of the Mattel Intellivision


20 years pass until Tron is officially revisited in video game form, with 2003′s cleverly named Tron 2.0, done by developer Monolith Productions for the PC and later for the Macintosh by MacPlay. The franchise is in good hands with Monolith, having made some stellar games for the PC. They hit it big off the start with Blood, an early FPS that separates itself from the myriad Doom clones of the era with a spectacularly fun multiplayer component. They follow this success up with other iconic offerings such as The Operative: No One Lives Forever, Condemned, and F.E.A.R. In Tron 2.0, players control Alan Bradley’s son Jethro “Jet” Bradley in an FPS setting faithful in visual style to the film, no doubt due to Syd Mead’s participation in the design of the lightcycles featured in the game. Tron also makes it to the Game Boy Advance and Microsoft’s Xbox console, under the name Tron 2.0: Killer App.


Tron’s Legacy

Advance your system clock another seven years, and Disney releases the film Tron Legacy in 2010, 28 years after the original dazzled and puzzled audiences in equal measure. It is directed by Joseph Kosinski, who lands the gig after a series of startling CGI commercials, for such high-profile videogames as Halo 3 and Gears of War. If any film would allow a “reboot”, you’d think it would be Tron, but screenwriters Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, of TV show Lost fame, keep the canon and proceed from where the last film left off. Jeff Bridges returns as Kevin Flynn, trapped for decades inside the computer world which has advanced itself many fold. It is his disaffected 27 year old son Sam’s turn to get zapped to computer land and find his way out of the grid. Sam is played by Garrett Hedlund, most well-known at that time for playing Patroclus in 2004′s Troy. Bruce Boxleitner returns as Alan Bradley, but only provides the voice for his alter-ego Tron; a stuntman plays the character inside the computer. Cindy Morgan does not join the cast this time around, with the female love interest instead being played by Olivia Wilde as Quorra, the last of the spontaneously evolving ISO (Isomorphic Algorithms) programs that miraculously appear inside the Grid. Michael Sheen, looking like a cross between Julian Assange and David Bowie circa Ziggy Stardust, rounds out things as Castor/Zuse, the flamboyant owner of the End Of Line Club inside Tron City.

While CGI advances over the intervening 28 years allow for a more completely realized cyberspace, the creators decide to forego blowing up every frame of film and backlighting actors for the neon effects, and instead opt for spandex suits with sewn-in strips of practical lighting, provided by Light Tape, powered by a 9V battery pack hidden in the ID disks all characters wear on their back. Light Tape is an invention by Electro-LuminX, located in Chester, Virginia. The thin, flexible light strips are realized by exciting phosphors located between two electrically conductive plates, looking great on-screen but allowing for only simple lines on the costumes instead of the intricate circuit patterns of the original, and allow for about 10 minutes of illumination before exhausting the suit’s battery pack. Also, the entire Grid environment is limited to dark, stormy exteriors and dimly-lit interiors, in order to have the low-wattage Light Tape show up well on-camera. About 150 different suits are produced for the shoot, and their fragile circuitry prevent the actors from sitting in them when fully dressed; boards with bicycle seats are provided so the talent can lean back into them and rest between takes.

Jeff Bridges shooting Tron: Legacy, a video game themed movie by Disney 2010

Deleting the years: Jeff Bridges in face capture gear


While one could argue that the visual effects, while pretty, are just more of the same in a film-making industry quite adept with the technology by now, Tron Legacy does have one bit of ground-breaking CGI up its sleeve. In order to allow Bridges to play his younger self in the guise of the ageless computer program Clu, an effects team de-ages him to look like himself circa Against All Odds (1984) to match the conceit in the film that Flynn had created the program a few years after the events of the original. To do this, they film Bridges delivering his lines using a helmet with several small cameras capturing his facial movements. They then digitally erase all those pesky crows feet, forehead wrinkles and other tell-tale signs of being 61 years old. With the younger faux-Bridges’ head placed on another actor’s body in scenes, the effect is remarkable, but still traverses into the uncanny valley with the doll’s eyes and mouth movements that tip the subconscious that something is a bit off.

All of this eye-candy gets the 3-D treatment that becomes seemingly obligatory when releasing a film in 2010, using an upgraded version of the camera equipment James Cameron developed for his tour-de-force 3-D CGI extravaganza Avatar. Disney precedes Tron Legacy’s release in December of 2010 by utilizing a promotional scheme not available to them in 1982: the Internet viral campaign. The website Flynn Lives first crops up, posing as a grass-roots effort of concerned hackers (a la the notorious Internet collective “Anonymous”) looking for traces of the missing Encom executive. News conferences held by Boxleitner in his Alan Bradley guise announce the effort. A stellar pixilated online videogame trivia game called Arcade Aid is also associated with the campaign, inviting users to click around a giant interactive picture guessing which games the rebus-like art represent. Flynn’s most famous videogame creation, Space Paranoids, also comes to life at Space Paranoids Online, aping the arcade game Flynn is playing with such panache at the beginning of Tron. All in all it is an admirable attempt at the brave new PR paradigm, and contributes to Legacy’s impressive, #1 opening weekend at 44 million dollars, and total world-wide box-office take after a few weeks of $246,784,358. Not bad, even considering the budget of the sequel is $170 million, 10 times the original.


Traces of Tron

Back in 1982, the original Tron befuddled audiences, and it’s not hard to see why. The film abstracts things perhaps too much, and plotholes abound, such as the film starting out by showing Sark competing with a “user” at an arcade lightcycle game. How would Sark be playing against someone at a machine simply plugged into an electrical outlet? There’s no indication of the MCP controlling the power grid, or even being able to network through it, so how does he know Sark’s actions playing the arcade game are “brutal and needlessly sadistic”? The religious overtones make an interesting aspect of the story, with the programs in awe of their all-powerful users, who Flynn at one point insists are actually as controlled as the programs consider themselves to be. This religious allegory is played for effect, and also reflects how, at the time, the technicians who had knowledge and access to the big mainframes were almost a religious order, monks who held the power to control your payroll and run your actuarial forecasts. The connection is particularly strong with Dumont, the elder program controlling access to the I/O tower in the film, complete with priestly robes and papal mitre.

The main narrative of the film is very pedestrian, however. It is a mish-mash of Lisberger’s influences, including Star Wars and particularly, The Wizard of Oz, right down to the MCP stripped away at the end, revealing the old man behind the curtain of light, pecking away on an old-fashioned typewriter. It’s common to slag a film relying on special effects to impress audiences, instead of a well-told story or transcendent acting from the players. As the years go on, however, Tron firmly entrenches itself into popular culture, its unique concept and visual flair reverberated in countless homages from The Simpsons to South Park. It also influences a South Korean animated movie called Savior of the Earth, released in 1983 and later dubbed into English. “Influenced” is not a strong enough word; the movie is a rip-off of Disney’s film, to such a ridiculous extent that it has to be seen to be believed. Also, as we have seen, Tron has begotten a super-charged, super-budgeted sequel. Filling in the story between the original Tron and its sequel is Tron: Uprising, a weekly animated series running on Disney’s XD cable channel in the U.S. from May of 2012 to January of 2013.  Developed by Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, Uprising displays a deep Japanese anime feel, a perfect fit to the zen attitude cultivated in the big-budget Tron sequel it follows. The true legacy that Tron has left behind, however, is the boost it gave to CGI as a limitless pallet on which to paint the filmmaker’s imagination.  logo_stop

A Tomy LED game based on Tron, a video game themed movie by Disney 1982

Tomy TRON LED game, 1982


Sources (Click to view; inert links are kept for historical purposes)

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Starlog, “Behind the Genesis Effect”, by David Hutchison, pgs. 17-21, Nov 1982

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