The Legacy Of Tron
Originally published in Little White Lies
Few films came to embody the neon futurism of the 1980s like Tron, yet for director Steven Lisberger it’s a movie rooted in the psychedelic movement of the 1960s in which he grew up. An only child whose parents died when he was young, Lisberger admits to having spent his formative years “more committed to the fantasy world than to reality”. By the time he went to art school his experiments with LSD had turned his fascination with animation into a spiritual calling, a quest to visually represent the endless inner dimensions that he and his friends had spent so many twilight hours exploring.
Hunt down his Cosmic Cartoon from 1973 on Youtube and you’ll find a ten-minute animated hallucination in which cities alternately melt and are reborn from stars, cosmic children soar through unformed space and a naked woman pulses with light as she dances on a shimmering ocean shore. There’s no dialogue, just a psychotropic synth soundtrack, and as the final image fragments into a series of kaleidoscopically rotating cells, a single word in the lower screen serves as a lone closing credit: ‘Boston’.
“I think a huge part of what made Lisberger Studios so experimental was that it wasn’t started in LA. The fact that we were outsiders meant that we were crazy and naïve enough to follow ideas that would have been shot down in a Hollywood environment. It was great being somewhere we didn’t have to conform to industry expectations, and where we could pursue whatever was in our heads and think it was brilliant even when it wasn’t.”
Steven spent the studio’s early years experimenting with the backlighting animation techniques pioneered by Robert Abel & Associates in the psychedelic Levis and 7up commercials of the ’70s. Soon he had a 30-second clip of his own, set to a cataclysmic backdrop of pulsing synths and wailing guitars, in which geometric lasers give birth to an electronic giant – nicknamed ‘Tron’ – who fires two glowing discs into the surrounding stars. The clip eventually ran as Lisberger Studios’ ident in their first major commission: a pair of animated features centring on a summer and winter animal Olympics to coincide with the 1980 Moscow games.
Only the winter instalment of the Animalympics ended up being aired – a result of the US boycott of the games following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan – but it was a result that had little bearing on Steven’s state of mind. Animalypics had been money work, and he’d been channelling the profits into the project that had most captured his imagination: a feature-length film set in Tron’s digital world, and utilising the backlighting animation practices he’d spent every spare hour getting to grips with.
By now a new element had come to bear on the project. The late ’70s saw video gaming culture exert a powerful grip across America, and Lisberger had become obsessed by the games themselves and the weightless electronic worlds in which they took place. He looked beyond circuit boards and high scores, seeing in Pong a gladiatorial contest timeless in its purity, and in formative notions of cyberspace a brave new world without borders. He knew he would need help understanding this world if he wanted to use it as a backdrop for his movie, so he went to speak to the programmers themselves.
“Meeting those guys shaped the film in ways I couldn’t have predicted. It was an exciting time for programmers, but also one of great frustration. You had people like Alan Kay pioneering designs for things like the Dynabook, which was essentially the first laptop, yet they were being denounced as crackpots and having their funding cut by companies like Xerox because the bosses were afraid of the implications. The commitment of these guys to something so completely unformed was a huge source of inspiration for me, and I saw them all as heroes.”
Through meetings with the likes of Kay, Steven began refining the script of Tron to better reflect the evolution of cyberspace and its implications for mankind – from the tyrannical company swallowing up the designs of bedroom programmers (Encom was loosely based on IBM), to fears of a mainframe powerful enough to threaten the men that made it. But the more time and money Lisberger poured into researching the techniques necessary to bring the film to life, the clearer it became that he’d need help in doing so. He could never have guessed where that help would ultimately come from.
“It’s important to remember that back then Disney wasn’t the powerhouse it is today. The only films they were putting out were the Herbie movies, and most young animators saw the company as something of a dinosaur, myself included. But we desperately needed financial support for the project, so when my business partner Donald Kushner phoned one morning to tell me that a 29-year-old had just been made head of Disney Studios, I said go ahead, give him a ring. What did we have to lose?”
Kusher couldn’t possibly have expected Tom Wilhite to personally pick up the phone, let alone to display an immediate enthusiasm for the project and encourage the pair to come in and discuss it, but that’s exactly what happened. Wilhite knew that Disney’s only hope of escaping its current dilemma lay in a calculated risk of the sort presented by Tron, so he had Lisberger run a test shoot to prove that his visual theories would work in practice. For this, Steven called in Sam Schatz, then US Frisbee champion, and filmed him blasting down a couple of actors in robot suits left over from Disney’s The Black Hole, released that same year.
The shoot was a success: by backlighting cells individually Lisberger was able to lend a shimmering strangeness in keeping with the digital world described by his script. The executives at Disney were suitably impressed to give Tron the green light, at which point the only thing louder than Lisberger Studios’ celebrations were the howls of dismay from traditional animators on the Disney lot – concerns that would prove to be founded on more than just a fear of the unknown.
Following the go-ahead from Disney, Lisberger set about assembling a cast and crew capable of realising his vision. Foremost in his mind was ensuring a suitably vivid look and feel to the digital world, a job he passed on to two notable artists: Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud, the Parisian illustrator who designed Tron’s costumes and storyboarded much of the film; and Syd Mead, whose background in futurist vehicle and architectural design had segued into the film industry that same year, when he cut his teeth designing the spinners and sprawling interiors for Blade Runner. Tron, however, posed a completely different set of problems.
“I’d never seen a computer at this point,” says Syd. “I spent a long time going over the script before I realised that everything was taking place behind a screen, and the various entities in this world were just packets of electronic information that had no weight. Once I grasped that, the whole thing came together pretty quickly, and the fact that we were working in 3D meant that I was able to make the most of that weightlessness – with Sark’s carrier, for example, which has a floating conning tower on one side that isn’t technically attached to anything.”
Syd quickly completed designs for the carrier, the menacing Master Control Program and the iconic light cycles, blown up pictures of which plastered the walls of the office in which Lisberger began the laborious process of casting Tron. And it was here that he encountered his first real problem.
“It was a complete nightmare,” says Steven. “No one wanted to be in a Disney production – it was basically considered the last stop before retirement. We’d tell people it was a Disney film about a guy that gets sucked into a computer and the next thing we’d hear was the dialling tone. Which made it all the more amazing when Jeff (Bridges) read the script, showed up at the office and said he really wanted to do it. I told him straight away that I was thrilled to have him on board.”
After Jeff, the rest of the cast slowly fell into place. The part of Tron and his real-world user Alan (named after programmer Alan Kay) was filled by Bruce Boxleitner, best known for his work in Westerns. Bruce was filming I Married Wyatt Earp at the time, and reputedly read the script for Tron between takes while seated atop a horse in sheriff’s regalia, wincing at the incomprehensibility of it all. He initially turned the role down, but was lured to Lisberger’s office for a second round of talks and won over by the sight of so many otherworldly Syd Mead creations tacked to the walls.
Other principal actors were easier to persuade: David Warner, who filled the role of Sark and maniacal Encom chairman Dillinger after Peter O’Toole dropped out (he’d been disappointed to learn that there’d be no life-size mock-ups of tanks and recognisers on set); Barnard Hughes, who signed up to play the digital statesman Dumont despite having never seen a computer; and Cindy Morgan, who pounced on the role of Uri that countless other women (Debbie Harry included) had refused to even contemplate.
Yet even the most enthusiastic cast members found themselves reeling from the unreality of the filming process, which was as complicated as it was physically and emotionally draining. There was the legendary discomfort of the costumes; from the cumbersome helmets (hair couldn’t be mapped against CGI backgrounds) to the constrictive ‘dance belts’, an uncomfortable cross between a jockstrap and a G-string that became a source of much gallows banter between Bridges and Boxleitner between takes.
A greater problem concerned the sets themselves. Soundstages were clad entirely in black fabric, with crosses of white tape to mark out points towards which actors were expected to run while Steven shouted descriptions of the enemy vehicles gaining on them from behind. On top of that, the limited depth of field of the 65mm cameras meant that any scene demanding cast members stand more than a few feet away from each other resulted in them being shot separately, and their images composed together at a later stage. It was an isolating and depressing environment in which to make a movie, but one that Lisberger insists eventually brought out the best in the actors involved.
“The whole experience ended up being almost Shakespearian. The black sets were utterly immersive, the actors were lit up by theatrical spot lights and wearing these brilliant suits with a mythical, toga-like quality, and they were speaking this bizarre dialogue that could as easily have been set in the distant past as the far future. And they were forced to rely entirely on their imagination, which I think awakened their basic thespian instincts and made them tap into their characters to an unprecedented degree.”
If there was one real problem among the cast then it was a fundamental lack of familiarity with the subject matter. Few had ever seen a computer, let alone taken time to ruminate on the philosophical implications underpinning the idea of cyberspace. The only real frame of reference was with video games, and to help bridge the gap between cast and concept Steven peppered the set with arcade machines and urged actors to play them between takes, hopeful that they might subconsciously absorb some of the pixelated principles of the digital arena. His favourite was the Atari classic Battlezone – it was easy to associate its vector-lined killing field with the planar landscapes of Tron – and it wasn’t long before Jeff was dominating the high score board, edging ever closer in the process to the character of Flynn.
“Jeff comes across as this laidback surfer dude from Malibu, but he’s actually a very competitive guy, and pretty soon he was kicking everybody’s butt on that game. He and I developed a pretty serious rivalry on the Battlezone field. After shooting was over I found myself in postproduction for another six or seven months, and eventually I ended up smashing his high score. But by that point it was a bit of a hollow victory.”
For the many slings and arrows of the filming process, it was in postproduction that Tron truly became the monster that nearly brought down its maker, and an appropriately large part of that was due to computers.
The reliance of the film on embryonic CGI processes was what had caused so many traditional animators at Disney to view the project as a cinematic equivalent of dabbling in the occult – the movie included around 20 minutes of entirely computer-rendered effects, unthinkable at the time. Yet Lisberger had enrolled the services of the best minds in the industry across a handful of pioneering graphics companies, including Richard Taylor of Triple-I, who had himself helped create the psychedelic 7up ads that served as an early inspiration for Tron.
But though the minds were willing, the mainframes remained relatively weak: designs had to be built around the limitations of the computers themselves, and that was as true of the legendary light cycle scene as any other.
“Bear in mind that computers didn’t have Bézier curves to work with in those days,” says Syd Mead. “I had to simplify my original designs for the light cycles, which had riders in lobster-style suits, the helmets of which became windshields when they leaned forward astride the machine. I remember another meeting where Steven was tearing his hair out because we couldn’t possibly animate smooth, curved turns on the game grid. And I reminded him that these bikes had no weight – they were bundles of electronic information displayed on the back of a glass screen – so why couldn’t they just make right-angled turns instantaneously? It’s a good example of Tron looking the way it did because that was literally the bleeding-edge limit of what we could do visually.”
Nor was there any means of animating CGI at the time: every frame had to be rendered in three dimensions (in which ‘x’ as an object equalled a certain combination of co-ordinates) and then the individual images run alongside each other to simulate movement. Add to this the phenomenal rendering times and the tendency of the computers to crash midway through the job, and it’s not hard to understand how the whole CGI experience began to build up like an electronic tidal wave threatening to flood the project.
“As a learning curve it was like nothing we’d ever known,” says Steven. “We never knew what things were going to look like, or how they were going to move, and we had to commit to them all in advance – there was no instantaneous feedback like there is today. And it got to the point where concessions had to be made. The Bit, for example, was supposed to go through the whole film as Jeff’s sidekick, and I suppose because he was the smallest he was the easiest to lose. We realised at a certain point that we’d bitten off a hell of a lot, and that sacrifices would have to be made if we were going to get this done in time.”
If anything, however, it was the painted animation and not the computer programming that most threatened to overwhelm Tron in postproduction. The ambitious backlighting techniques meant that every black-and-white cell of the 75 minutes of cyberspace footage had to be blown up as a 14” kodalith, then fed into rotoscope machines that projected the image onto high-contrast film with opaque areas that light couldn’t pass through – a single frame could use up to 35 such layers for complex shots, from faces and lasers to flashing lights on suits. These were then painted and backlit individually, essentially turning the live action footage of Tron into an animated movie, a process that was more complex and time-consuming than anyone could have anticipated.
The scale of the problem became obvious soon after filming completed. In October 1981, Lisberger presented two minutes of finished footage to a gathering of financial backers in Las Vegas. The clip greatly pleased the assembled suits, but Lisberger’s relief veiled a mounting sense of dread: those two minutes had only just been scraped together during the three months since principal photography had ended, and on his calculations they’d need another 60 or 70 months to complete the movie at the rate they were working.
Initial panic led to some desperate suggestions – at one point Steven was considering asking local college students to paint remaining cells for extra credit – until eventually it was decided to ship cells to a studio in Taiwan. And despite a slew of further problems (the humidity of the Taiwanese transit led to the first boxes of painted cells returning stuck together), the whole process somehow fell into place, something Lisberger attributes to those same Disney old-timers who had regarded the CGI elements of Tron with such dread. Dealing with thousands of cells under impossible deadlines was what they did best, and Steven recalls one elderly animator telling him, with a nostalgic smile, that this was exactly what it was like under Walt: in over their heads, terrified that they were up against the one deadline they couldn’t possibly meet.
“Somewhere along the line,” says Steven, “we realised that we had this down to a system. Everybody knew the problems and limitations, but now had plans for dealing with them. I think we must have made half the movie in the last two months of postproduction. Which was a shame, because just as we felt we were on top of it, the whole process was over. It was a mad dash to the finish line and then we collapsed.”
If Steven had hoped for a well-deserved rest in the aftermath of Tron’s development, he was proved optimistic; the film’s release in July 1982 may have been less physically demanding than its production, but it was no less stressful.
Initial reviews were less than favourable. Many expressed frustration on the part of viewers infuriated by a fundamental inability to understand what was going on; some denounced the special effects as a series of smoke and mirrors struggling to hide the fact that the film lacked humanity. “It’s got momentum and it’s got marvels, but it’s without heart,” screamed the Canadian Globe And Mail. “It’s a visionary technological achievement without vision.”
Nor did the film industry fall on its knees in praise of the pioneering effects; if anything, the reaction was one of jittery unease akin to that of the Disney traditionalists, and the Academy refused to even nominate Tron for a visual effects Oscar because it felt the use of computers constituted cheating. The award went instead to ET The Extra-Terrestrial, which had been made on half the budget and released a month earlier to a genuinely rapturous reception. Disney was left feeling decidedly envious: usually they were the ones with the cute family hit, yet here they were punting a complex sci-fi rollercoaster that no one seemed to understand, themselves included.
Lisberger’s real crime with Tron, like Alan Kay’s with his Dynabook, was being too far ahead of his time. It took almost another decade for CGI to be embraced by the mainstream: Terminator 2, released in 1991, snatched the same Oscar denied Tron for its digital wizardry. By then many of the kids who had been dragged beaming out of the closing credits of Tron by their baffled parents were programming computers themselves, and many went on to work in special effects largely thanks to the transformative experience of watching Lisberger’s vision brought to life on the big screen. Had they been the ones judging the movie upon its release, and not their parents, there may have been more critical acclaim than condemnation.
As it is, time has been the true judge of Tron, and its ever-growing cult credibility stands as its ultimate legacy. It appears to have aged so well for several reasons: the effects, for example, stand up today for the simple reason that they never attempted to emulate reality, but in mimicking the vector-lined pathways of cyberspace set a benchmark that remains as resonant as it is pleasingly retro. Another is the increasing relevance of the spiritual implications underpinning the relationship between the real and digital worlds: in an age when most communication takes place electronically, it’s hard not to hear a nagging warning at the heart of Tron.
“It’s taken almost thirty years,” says Lisberger, “but people are finally looking to computers to define themselves, and dividing their lives into two separate realities. And I think some of us are already feeling a sense of unease about that, a growing concern that it’s only a matter of time before we start looking for a way to bridge that gap and make ourselves whole again: to live in one world, to have one life. All of that was stuff I tried to get into Tron, and it was a lonely journey for me at the time. But it seems finally to be making sense.”