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

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

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