This article appeared in Issue 23 of Frontier, the Australian science fiction media magazine
Though the use of computer graphics in film is commonplace today, even to the point of entire films being crafted within graphic workstations (such as "Shrek" and "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within"), such digital filmmaking was almost unheard of twenty years ago. Even the revolutionary "Star Wars" films, which helped revitalize contemporary sci-fi filmmaking, still relied on physical and optical effects. True, there had been some rudimentary forays into the use of computer animation back then, but because of the technical limitations and the cost involved, these attempts were restricted to animated shorts or title sequences.
But in 1982, that all changed as Walt Disney, the leader in traditional animation, released the feature film "Tron". In addition to being the first film to acknowledge the growing prominence of video games in popular culture, "Tron" also became the first feature-length production that utilized computer animation to an unprecedented degree-- a watershed moment in the evolution of special effects technology.
The plot of "Tron" revolved around ace programmer and video game hotshot Flynn (Jeff Bridges of "Arlington Road"), who has been unjustly terminated from computer conglomerate ENCOM. ENCOM's current batch of popular arcade video games is Flynn's handiwork, but they were stolen by his nefarious boss Dillinger (David Warner, seen recently in the "Planet of the Apes" remake), who used his Master Control Program (MCP) to steal the code and hide the evidence. With the help of a former co-worker named Lori (Cindy Morgan of "Caddyshack"), Flynn breaks into ENCOM late at night and attempts to hack into the MCP to find evidence of Dillinger's misdeeds. Unfortunately, the intrusion is detected by the MCP, which digitizes Flynn into a data-stream and transports him directly into the mainframe.
It is here that Flynn discovers an entire universe composed entirely of electricity, where programs are sentient beings that have more than a passing resemblance to their programmers, and there is an entire quasi-religion built around the myth of 'the Users'. However, under the tyrannical rule of the MCP and his loyal lieutenant Sark (Warner), this electronic domain has been virtually enslaved, with innocent programs being forced to compete in gladiatorial games involving deadly discs of light or high-speed light cycles. Fortunately, Flynn finds an ally named Tron (Bruce Boxleitner, better known as Captain Sheridan in "Babylon 5"), a security program that has been specifically developed to bring down the MCP and to establish a free system once again. Together, they must navigate the treacherous terrain of the mainframe and reach the core for the ultimate showdown against the MCP, while avoiding hazards such as tanks, flying Enforcers, spider-like Grid Bugs, and Sark's legions of hulking henchmen.
The seeds for "Tron" were first planted in 1976. Back in those days, outside of the giant mainframes that ran the back-offices of corporations, the calculations of scientists, or the classified activities of the military, the computer industry was almost non-existent in the consumer sector. Early personal computers (such as the original Apple computer and the Commodore PET) possessed limited computing power and a measly 4K of memory, Microsoft was still in start-up mode (having been founded the year before), and the Internet was still referred to as ARPANET. Video games had only sprung into existence a couple of years before and were limited to blips of light that mimicked simplified games of tennis and skeet shooting. Outside of a few limited communities of professionals and hobbyists, computing was still a mysterious 'black box' art.
It was in this year that accomplished animator Steven Lisberger and producer Don Kushner first came up with the idea that would eventually evolve into "Tron". Inspired by a glimpse at an early Pong-type video game, the duo began work on creating an animated fantasy that would take place inside a computer. Over the next four years, Lisberger and Kushner worked on the script for their film and made sizable personal investments to finance the necessary research in computer and optical technologies to develop their idea further.
In 1980, they were finally ready to shop their idea at the studios. Buoyed by the growing interest in both personal computing (IBM would release the first PC the following year) and video games (with the Atari VCS and Mattel's Intellivision battling for market domination), Lisberger and Kushner found several studios eager to develop their concept into a feature film. However, they finally settled on Walt Disney, which had a proven track record for dabbling in innovative film and animation techniques, such as with the special effects-laden "The Black Hole" or the seamless blending of live action and animation in "Mary Poppins". With a budget of $18 million, Lisberger at the helm, and a crew that included hundreds of animators, "Tron" began shooting later that year, a production that would ultimately break new ground in the realm of visual effects.
Shooting "Tron" involved completing over 1000 special effects shots, which was an unheard of number back then. However, instead of using miniatures and matte paintings, techniques used by Hollywood for over half a century, the vehicles, action sequences, and set pieces of "Tron" would be created via three-dimensional, computer-generated images, a first in any film. To even further complicate matters, the bulk of these special effects shots would involve compositing multiple layers on each frame of film in order to integrate the film's actors into the computer-generated landscapes. As a result, the average special effects scene in "Tron" was built with an average of 12 to 15 layers (and in some cases, as many as 45), as computer-generated images were combined with live action, traditional animation (such as how the light cycles 'rezzed' around their drivers), and back-lit animation (which provided glowing effects to characters and scenes). Despite such challenges, Lisberger and his crew successfully navigated through the intensive production and even more demanding post-production process, and "Tron" finally saw its theatrical debut in the summer of 1982.
For a generation of moviegoers, who were only beginning to explore the opportunities of consumer-focused computing technology, "Tron" became one of the more memorable genre films of 1982, alongside "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan", "The Thing", and the other 'cyberpunk' film of the year, "Blade Runner". As noted movie critic Roger Ebert wrote in his review, "Tron" was hailed as a 'dazzling' and 'a technological sound-and-light show that is sensational and brainy, stylish, and fun'. Like many of the film's fans, Ebert still holds a special affection for "Tron", and even included it in his First Annual Roger Ebert Overlooked Film Festival in 1999, which also invited Lisberger and actor David Warner for a post-screening Q&A session.
Naturally, in addition to the big screen, the "Tron" franchise also won a number of fans in the video games arena. First out of the gate was Bally Midway's "Tron" arcade machine, which offered four separate games that players had to complete before advancing to higher levels (all named after programming languages, such as FORTRAN and COBOL)-- light cycles, grid bugs, tanks, and a final assault on MCP. Home system owners also had their own "Tron" games that year, with Mattel Intellivision owners having three cartridges to choose from: "Tron Deadly Discs", "Tron Solar Sailor", and "Tron Maze-a-Tron". Mattel also released an "Adventures of Tron" cartridge for Atari VCS owners, though it never found the success of its Intellivision brethren. Also on the home front was Tomy's portable Tabletop "Tron" game, which featured another variation of the gladiatorial disc game, which also became the inspiration for Bally Midway's second arcade game released in 1983, "Discs of Tron".
Courtesy of two recent announcements earlier this year, "Tron" has been brought back into the limelight. The first announcement, the release of a special edition DVD in January of 2002, was of little surprise, given the imminent 20th anniversary of the film's original release. Scheduled to be included on the DVD re-release (the prior "Tron" DVD was released in 1998) are four hours of commentary by Lisberger, an extensive documentary on the making of the film, and a love scene that was cut out from the theatrical release.
But an even more exciting announcement was the greenlighting of a sequel, "Tron 2.0", with Lisberger at the helm once again. In a recent interview with The Hollywood Repoter, Lisberger stated his plans to once again blend live-action with computer animation and retain the 'look' of the original film, including a return of the fan-favorite light cycles. However, the new film would involve a new cast of characters, and being cognisant to the changes that have occurred since 1982, new technology would be integrated into both the production and the story. Because of the advances in computer graphics, the original production of "Tron" could easily be replicated today for under $1 million, and so more cutting-edge effects, such as those seen in "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" or "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace", will be used. In addition, since 1982, computers have evolved into new formats and configurations, such as the PC, palm devices, and cellular telephones (all seamlessly connected by the Internet and wireless networks), and sprouted new words into the lexicon of popular culture, such as virtual reality, virus, and World Wide Web-- elements that will most certainly make their way into "Tron 2.0".
And similar to the cross-merchandising strategy employed during the release of the first film, Disney Interactive is readying a new PC game to to coincide with the release of "Tron 2.0" in 2003. Set once again in the "Tron" universe, this new game is being planned as a first-person perspective actioner (similar to "Half-Life") with the capability of supporting on-line gameplay.
In today's Hollywood, the application of digital technology is largely taken for granted, allowing filmmakers to seamlessly insert computer-generated vehicles, creatures, landscapes, and even people that are indistinguishable from live-action elements, bringing about unprecedented levels of artistic freedom to the film production process. However, there was once a time when such reality-blurring technologies had yet to be conceived, requiring pioneering filmmakers to take that first step. Twenty years ago, writer/director Steven Lisberger, with support of Walt Disney, became such a pioneer by wedding the worlds of computer graphics and feature filmmaking. This endeavor resulted in a landmark film named "Tron" and ultimately laid the foundation for Hollywood's digital future, which we see today.