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


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)

Softline, “Tron: Disney Takes Computer Games to the Outer Limit” by Andrew Christie, pgs. 26-29, May 1982. “…the storyboard designs for the vehicular animation that was MAGI’s specialty in the film could be transmitted to New York for the programmers to plot in three views, using combinatorial geometry, on a forty-inch by sixty-inch Taylos encoding tablet…” Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Softline collection, Oct 30 2015. Starlog, “Log Entries, Tron: A Revolution in Fantasy Filmmaking”, compiled & edited by Susan Adamo, pg. 15, Jun 1982. “He [Steven Lisberger] and producer Donald Kushner brought the project to Walt Disney in June 1980…” Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Starlog collection, Sep 14, 2015.
Electronic Games, “Tron: From Game to Film and Back Again” by Bill Kunkel, pgs. 20-22, 42-43, Nov 1982. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Electronic Games magazine collection
Den of Geek, Justin Springer and Steven Lisberger Interview – bit.ly/dKUJGC
Making Noise, by Ken Perlin – www.noisemachine.com/talk1/index.html
Starlog, “Disney’s ‘Brave Little Toast’ to a New World of Animation”, by David Hutchison, pgs. 34-35, Dec 1983
UGO – Steven Lisberger Interview – www.ugo.com/channels/filmtv/features/tron/interview.asp
Deep Structure – tron – deep-structure.blogspot.com/2007/06/tron.html
Starlog, “Mickey’s Christmas Carol”, pgs. 44-46, 67, Jan 1984
Monkey Goggles – Remembering Animalympics – monkeygoggles.com/?p=2915
Comics Above Ground: How Sequential Art Affects Mainstream Media, 2004 by Durwin S. Talon, pg. 147 – amzn.to/fkhh92
Movie Talk on Yahoo! Movies – Backstory: The Flop That Was ‘Tron’ – bit.ly/gLcRDe
UGO – 11 Things You May Not Know About Tron – www.ugo.com/movies/tron-facts
AWN – Bonner Medalist Kimball Takes the Long View – bit.ly/iafUdr
AWN – Toon Story: John Lasseter’s Animated Life – www.awn.com/mag/issue3.8/3.8pages/3.8lyonslasseter.html
Starlog, “Tron: A Revolution in Fantasy Filmmaking”, pg. 15, June 1982
TCM – Tron – www.tcm.com/thismonth/article/?cid=18609
Image of a part of III’s CGI setup from Softline, “Infomania, Heavy Hardware, Really Heavy Hardware”, pg. 46, May 1983. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Softline collection, Nov 1 2015. 
The Tribe – Tron: Ahead of Its Time – www.thetribeonline.com/film-tron.html
Blip: The Video Games Magazine, “Video Games of the Stars”, Bruce Boxleitner interview, pg. 4, #1, Feb. 1983 – www.imagebam.com/image/8f099321780117
Ohio State University, College of the Arts, Design Department – design.osu.edu/carlson/history/tron.html
Starlog, “Steven Lisberger, the Creator of the World of Tron”, by Don McGregor, pgs. 30-32, 64, Feb 1983
D23|Walt Disney Archives – Lisberger Breaks With Convention – bit.ly/ffgAh1
Boxleitner Interview, Starlog, August 1996 – www.maestravida.com/weinwalk/Starlog213.html
Tron’s Triumphant Return to Cyberspace, Wired Dec. 2010 – www.wired.com/magazine/2010/11/ff_tron/all/1
Cinematical – Set Visit Interview: ‘Tron’ Creator Steven Lisberger, by Todd Gilchrist, Mar 18, 2010 – aol.it/gO0sLr
Interview with Tom Wilhite, by Roger Ebert, July 18, 1982 – bit.ly/eEq3hT
Computer Entertainment, June 1985, Bulletin Board entry:”Adventurous ‘Andre’ Debuts”, page 16
“Newspeak, Mickey Micro.” Editorial. Softalk May 1982: 95. Softalk V2n09 May 1982. “Several computer graphics houses have laboured on the effects since July 1981, to have the film ready for its release July 9…” “Bally, the nation’s largest arcade game manufacturer, has created a Tron video game for it’s 240 Aladdin’s Castle arcades as well as theatres that will be exhibiting the film.” Internet Archive. Web. 05 Nov. 2015.
Tron Wiki – Tron (arcade game) – tron.wikia.com/wiki/Tron_(arcade_game)
Video Games, “Video Games Go to the Movies”, by Sue Adamo, pgs. 25 – 28, 76 Vol. 1 Num. 2, Oct 1982
Omni cover, Burning Chrome title page and Tron article title page from the Internet Archive
The Arcade Flyer Archive – Discs of Tron – http://bit.ly/h8XpHb
Atari Connection, “The Sound of Bugs” by Jim Inscore, pgs. 9-10, Summer 1982
Intellivision Lives – Tron Solar Sailer – www.intellivisiongames.com/bluesky/games/credits/voice2.html#solar_sailer
Image of Ron Miller from Starlog, “Starlog Interview: A Black Hole at the Crossroads”, Feb 1980, photo copyright 1979 Walt Disney Productions
www.habosarcade.com – Discs of Tron – www.habosarcade.com/DiscsofTron.htm
Game Pitches – Midway – Tron (1981) – www.gamepitches.com/2010/05/midway-tron-1981
Image of Bill Kroyer at work, and other information from Starlog, “Tron: Changing the Laws of Physics”, by David Hutchison, pgs. 50 – 55, Sept 1982
CNN, New ‘Tron’ shines glowing light on an arcade classic, by Doug Gross, Dec. 17, 2010 – bit.ly/eZ2s7G
Image of Jeff Bridges and Steven Lisberger on the set of Tron from Starlog movie review, by Ed Naha, pgs. 58-59, Nov 1982
New Scientist, pg. 162, Oct. 21, 1982 – www.newscientist.com
MobyGames, Tron Licensees – www.mobygames.com/game-group/tron-licensees
“Breaking the Sound Barrier (reprinted Article from Atari Connection).” Input/Output Dec. 1982: n. pag. Input Output – Issue 01 (1982-12)(Atari)(GB). Internet Archive. Web. 18 Mar. 2016. “I’ve [Frank Sarafine] assembled a collection of over 60 reels of sound effects tapes.”
CoverGalaxy.com Forums – Tron 2.0 [UK/English] – bit.ly/fYs5tB
Bob Geldof, Boomtown Rat. 1982. NYC. Vidiot. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 29. Print. Bob Geldof playing ‘Tron’
Tron Wiki – Steven Lisberger by Gage Skidmore – bit.ly/ii5s2c
1979 image of Harrison Ellenshaw on set of The Black Hole from Kay, Joseph. “Databank, Black Hole Takes Disney to Serious Space.” Editorial. Future Life July 1979: 18. Print. Photo by Walt Disney Productions.
Jim Hill Media – Former Disney CEO Ron Miller recalls his own “Tron” legacy – bit.ly/gHZBLV
Starlog Aug. 1982: 51. Web. Image of ‘Game Grid’ arcade at Epcot, Walt Disney World, 1982
Tron Wiki – John Lasseter – tron.wikia.com/wiki/John_Lasseter
Image of Tomy TRON LED game taken at the Videogame History Museum display, CGE 2014 in Las Vegas
The Making of Tron documentary, 20th Anniversary Collector’s Edition of Tron, Disney 2002 – amzn.to/gxpVHX
Starlog, “Tron”, by David Hutchison, pgs. 72-76, July 1982
MakingOfHollywood. Disney, 2011. DVD. YouTube. YouTube, 13 July 2014. Web. 17 July 2017. ‘Tron’ crew photo, disc arena concept art, Syd Mead Tank illustration
Compute!, “The Sounds of TRON” by Tom R. Halfhill, pgs. 18 – 22, Sep 1982
Intellivision Lives – Tron Deadly Discs – www.intellivisiongames.com/bluesky/games/credits/action2.html#discs
The Daily Intelligencer, Doylestown, Pennsylvania, July 22, 1982, pg. 34 “‘Tron’ has encouraging message: man can control computers”, wire story by David Sterritt, Christian Science Monitor – bit.ly/gRJ0lc
Wikipedia, “Frank Sarafine”, referenced Mar 29, 2015 – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Serafine
Concept art of Sark’s guard, along with other information, from Electronic Games, “The Magnificent Look of Tron” by Les Paul Robley, pgs. 53-57, Oct 1982. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, Electronic Games magazine collection
Cyberroach – Disney’s TRON – www.cyberroach.com/tron/default.htm
InfoWorld, “Video games go Hollywood: Tron lights up the screen”, by Deborah Wise, pg. 19, Jul. 5, 1982. Lisberger is still a video-game fan, and his current favorite is Zaxxon…

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

External Links (Click to view)


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