A still of a light-cycle sequence from Tron.

CGI Light Cycle Battle

Games on Film I: Tron - Behind the Screens

(Page 2 of 3)
Disney 1982

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 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 live-action SF failures like 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. 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.

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 lightcycles, flying recognizers 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.

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 Bridges 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 five arcade games. Pac-Man, Asteroids, Missile Command, Space Invaders and Centipede 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. The costumes in Tron are full body spandex suits with black lines drawn onto them 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.

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

Part of Triple-I’s CGI setup, with FR80 film recorder on 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, 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. 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.

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