Tron

This page is dedicated to one of the most visionary movies of all time...

The story of TRON starts in the fall of 1975 when a young animation artist called Steven Lisberger witnessed a demonstration of computer generated imagery during a gathering of Boston-area filmmakers. Dr. Phillip Mittelman, president and founder of the Mathematical Application Group Inc. (MAGI) of Elmsford, NY, hoped to generate interest and ultimately business in the computer aided generation of three-dimensional objects - traditionally a sore spot with animators. Rendering correct perspectives of objects such as buildings, vehicles etc. was of prohibitive complexity and cost in time and labor. Mr. Lisberger, as an artist trained in animation, recognized the possibilties of the computer as a new and powerful tool and years later the techniques of computer generated imagery (CGI) together with the unique method of 'backlight compositing' became the main principles of TRON.

           
Early concept drawings by John Norton, Peter Mueller background.

While working on an animated animal-based parody of the Olympics entitled 'Animalympics' Lisberger began planning for his next project. When Animalympics grew from a six-minute short to a feature-length animation for NBC's Olympic television package, Lisberger decided to move his studio to the West Coast since the Boston area could not provide enough skilled artists. After the move in early 1978 work was progressing at a rapid pace and Animalympics was on schedule for the 1980 Olympics. However politics intervened and the United States did not participate in Moscow, leaving NBC with a big loss and Animalympics without an outlet.
Suddenly TRON evolved from the topic of infrequent discussions at the studio to a full-fledged concept of an electronic world. At some early point it was envisioned to use real actors in combination with CGI instead of 100% animation. Trials with video compositing were encouraging and the concept was adopted. But to implement this in a motion picture was much more complicated. After trying numerous techniques the team decided on 'backlight compositing', in which black and white images of the actors and environments were re-photographed with backlight and colored filters.

     
Early trials using video compositing.

The scenes and costumes were decorated in black and white outlines and patterns designed to resemble circuits on electronic boards. Each frame was blown up to 24 by 12 inches (???) and separated out into multiple layers of high contrast images (one containing the outlines, one containing the background, etc.). These images were then individually backlit and re-photographed with colored filters, combined with CGI and composed together with the help of mattes. The results were unlike anything ever seen before in motion pictures.

testtron.jpg (99114 bytes)
Early test shot, format 11x8.5" (click image for large version)

Disney wasn't Steve Lisberger's first choice since he felt the notion of computer-generated animation frames would go against the traditional art of hand-drawn animation cels. But Disney's open-minded production chief Tom Wilhite decided to take a chance.

At that point in time Disney was in a slump and haven't had a solid hit in years. They had relied on rehashing earlier successes or themes pioneered by other studios ('The Black Hole' was riding the space wave, 'Condorman' the super hero wave, 'Dragonslayer' the fantasy wave etc. Other hit movies included 'Herbie Goes Bananas' and others.) and needed a new theme.

Tom like the concept and was fascinated by the fresh and unique idea of computer-based mythology but the older Disney-guard was reluctant at best. The visual compositing techniques were unproven, Lisberger's directing talent unknown and the willingness to take any sort of risk not present.

The TRON crew was asked to create a two-minute demonstration of how the finished product would look and equipped with a laughable budget they set out to achieve the impossible. Utilizing left-over robot costumes from 'The Black Hole' and hockey gear, a few frames of CGI and with the help of Sam Schatz, a local frisbee expert, they created remarkable test footage that generated an enthusiastic response.

Now with full executive backing the production processes were adapted to the big screen (35mm film to 70mm film) and things were ready to roll.


Stills from the two-minute test footage

tron3_posi.jpg (101362 bytes)   tron3_nega.jpg (119467 bytes)   tron3_circuit.jpg (139163 bytes)
Three production cels of the same scene: regular shot, high contrast negative, circuit reveal cel (from left to right, click images for larger versions)

During this time the story of the character TRON evolved as well and changed from a simple 'electronic being in a football videogame' to a resistance fighter in an electronic world populated by other beings representing information and programs.
Basic story boards were used for the outlining of the events and their visualization. From these boards the need for CGI backgrounds etc. was determined.

tronbrd1.jpg (39881 bytes)   tronbrd2.jpg (50738 bytes)   tronbrd3.jpg (51066 bytes)
Three production story boards (click images for larger versions)

 

Below are more assorted scans of production cels, pre-production cels, Walter Cronkite cels and story boards:

bike01.jpg (44150 bytes) bike02.jpg (35328 bytes)
bike03.jpg (62468 bytes) bike04.jpg (50265 bytes)
bike05.jpg (43374 bytes) cell01.jpg (31932 bytes)
cell02.jpg (45614 bytes) cell03.jpg (50688 bytes)
duell01.jpg (64232 bytes) duell02.jpg (30751 bytes)
duell03.jpg (23261 bytes) guards01.jpg (57600 bytes)
guards02.jpg (61646 bytes) h2o01.jpg (47994 bytes)
h2o02.jpg (57231 bytes) h2o03.jpg (53625 bytes)
h2o04.jpg (53774 bytes) iotwr01.jpg (72094 bytes)
misc01.jpg (39603 bytes) misc02.jpg (56569 bytes)
misc03.jpg (43252 bytes) misc04.jpg (32893 bytes)
misc05.jpg (59654 bytes) sark01.jpg (52141 bytes)
sark02.jpg (56842 bytes) sark03.jpg (53336 bytes)
sark04.jpg (53636 bytes) tank01.jpg (57954 bytes)
tank02.jpg (35979 bytes) tank03.jpg (54464 bytes)
tank04.jpg (46300 bytes) tank05.jpg (56724 bytes)
tank06.jpg (55116 bytes) tank07.jpg (35348 bytes)
tank08.jpg (63729 bytes) tank09.jpg (53849 bytes)
tank10.jpg (61370 bytes) tank11.jpg (45883 bytes)
tank12.jpg (53471 bytes) tank13.jpg (62635 bytes)
tank14.jpg (82911 bytes) tank15.jpg (86248 bytes)
tank16.jpg (54508 bytes) trondk01.jpg (45285 bytes)
trondk04.jpg (52988 bytes) trondk02.jpg (41431 bytes)
trondk03.jpg (43334 bytes) yori01.jpg (51293 bytes)
yori02.jpg (60410 bytes) yori03.jpg (54287 bytes)
yori04.jpg (48508 bytes) yori05.jpg (42435 bytes)
yori06.jpg (51338 bytes) yori07.jpg (35619 bytes)
walt01.jpg (44364 bytes) walt02.jpg (24855 bytes)
sboard04.jpg (37262 bytes) sboard05.jpg (54356 bytes)