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

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, as well as placed in movie theatres running the film, the first arcade Tron 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 licence 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 concurrent 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 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. 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. 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 been 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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