Seeing Tron when it first came out in the theaters was an insane experience. You knew by word of mouth it was going to be a major step forward in special effects technology -something state of the art, like when Star Wars first exploded - and many young filmgoers, like myself, were completely blown away. I had no idea the movie was a flop until many years after the fact, and I was completely flabbergasted to learn this.
Even with the film initially tanking at the box office, it's remarkable how Tron still has a stronghold of fans after all this time, and how ahead of its time it really was. It took Hollywood many years to catch up with the marvels of computer technology, and Tron first opened the door for it, eventually paving the way for Jurassic Park and the Pixar films.
From a production standpoint, Tron was a hell of an undertaking, and the origins of the film go all the way back to the late seventies. The film's director, Steven Lisberger, had his own animation studio, Lisberger Films. A graduate of the city's School of the Museum of Fine Arts, he was creating animation regularly for networks such as ABC and PBS, but he had his eyes on a much bigger prize.
"When you have an animation studio you try to create your Mickey Mouse," Lisberger says. "It's no secret that animation studios survive by creating characters who are their actors they own, and we were a team of people in Boston who wanted to create a character."
On Lisberger's team were Roger Allers, who went on to direct The Lion King, and John Norton. Norton came up with an idea of a warrior who was made of neon. They called him Tron, but they didn't have a setting for him. Then one night Lisberger went to visit his in-laws, and everyone was crouched around the TV, playing Pong.
"They kept referring to the games, 'Play the game,' and since I had been working on a project called Animalympics, the idea of games to me meant more than that, it meant Olympic or gladiatorial games. Then I thought, 'Well, our warrior should be in a gladiatorial game setting.' From there the whole thing started to snowball."
Lisberger Films were originally going to make Tron themselves. They had just finished Animalympics, a spoof on the Olympic games with animated animal athletes (Billy Crystal, Gilda Radner and Harry Shearer provided the voices). It was going to run in segments during the 1980 Olympics between athletic events, but when America boycotted the games, the project fell apart and Lisberger Films no longer had the financial means to make Tron in-house. They reportedly took Tron to Warner Brothers, MGM and Columbia, who all turned it down, before it wound up at Disney.
"We had hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in the project when we went to Disney," he says. "We had it storyboarded, we had designs, we had budgets, we had staff, we had schedules, we had sample reels, I mean we had everything but money."
Computer effects were being pitched to the major studios as far back as the seventies, but no one was interested. The CGI revolution was still far away and Disney hoped it would stay that way. "When we were making the movie at Disney, people used to hold up crosses when the Tron goes walked through the halls," Lisberger recalls. "We were the undead. We were making a film that was from the netherworld. They were just very afraid. This was the future and it was rolling down the most conservative linoleum hallways on the earth."
Lisberger had a hell of a time casting the film because Disney's rep was so bad, an agent only sent their actors there if The Love Boat was on hiatus. But for Tron cinematographer Bruce Logan, it made sense that the movie landed there.
"Disney is one of the very few studios that could have gotten behind a movie that was going to be done frame by frame," he says. "No other studio could even imagine getting involved in it."
When the actors enter the computer world of Tron, it was shot on 65mm black and white, with backlit color, a concept that came from the world of animation. "Think of it as stained glass," Lisberger says. "Backlit animation is non-reflective, so when you shine light through the gels, the colors are so much brighter."
It also gave the world of Tron a much warmer look. "So much of the traditional photographic analog shading gave it a soul," Lisberger continues. "The light sabers in Star Wars were originally done with backlit glowing animation. Now they're done digitally, and they don't look as good as they did in the first movie, they have sort of a creepy, antiseptic vibe."
"The people that are really into Tron love that analog technique," says Logan. "It's a really a snapshot in time, that movie will never be duplicated."
Originally Tron was going to be done with all white backgrounds, like THX, but Logan was against it. As he recalled in the documentary The Making of Tron, "There weren't enough lights in Hollywood to create the kind of white they needed." Where black backgrounds don't have to lit, everything needed to be lit on a white background, and it would be a cinematographer's nightmare. "We were working at such incredible f-stops, low shutter angles," Logan continued. "We were welding with light on that show."
Lisberger had a buffer protecting him for the geriarchy at Disney with visual effects artist Harrison Ellenshaw. Harrison's father is Peter Ellenshaw, who created the legendary special effects for The Absent Minded Professor, and Mary Poppins, just to name a few. Before Tron, Harrison had worked on Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back.
Combining real people and digital animation was a new, modernized version of what Ellenshaw's father accomplished when he took Mary Poppins into a cartoon world.
"Those shots were generally done on an optical printer, which was basically a projector and a camera," Ellenshaw explains. "The camera just re-photographs different images onto the same strip of film and you have what's called a composite. You have the finished thing, you have the animated penguins with Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews against a painted background. But you would get matte lines, you'd get fringing around the people, and you'd have to balance the film. The photo chemical process is pretty clunky. A piece of film is pretty small, so you're trying to build a watch with a sledge hammer!"
Tron was the first extensive use of computer graphics in a motion picture, almost fifteen minutes worth.
Tron wasn't shaping up to be a walk in the park either. "Tron was the first extensive use of computer graphics in a motion picture, almost fifteen minutes worth," Ellenshaw continues. "And up until that time, it was maybe up to a minute at most in Westworld. This was a huge undertaking, and when it was proposed by Steven Lisberger that we were doing fifteen minutes, most of us said, 'We can't get the film done in a year. It takes hours to render a frame. Then that's just one time through. What if there's a mistake or a glitch? It's gonna take hours and days…' We did some rough calculations and we just didn't think it could be done. But fortunately, we were wrong!"
All the effects for Tron were done in nine months, which was, needless to say, in the words of Lisberger, "an insane accomplishment." Ellenshaw says, "80% of the rotoscaping and ink and paint was done overseas in a four month period. And just sending probably half a million animation cells to Taiwan and back and not losing anything was a monumental task!"
At the time, there were only several computer companies in existence that could accomplish what needed to get done on Tron, and Lisberger and company were practically sneaking the film through their backdoors. One company didn't use their computers at night, and allowed the Tron crew to come in and work. Another company was using their computers for medical imagery and thought it would be cool to use their technology in a film.
Although Lisberger was the driving force behind Tron, he felt it was truly a group effort. He never liked the auteur theory, where the director does it all and takes credit for everything. "I take my hat off to Tim Burton because there are these guys like him and Jim Cameron, it's like they don't need anybody else. It's like, 'You hire me, I do it all.' To me the whole joy of the thing was to have a whole team of artists in all different fields, and artists that worked together like an ensemble. That was the fun part."
The team that put Tron together was "a pretty spectacular group of people," Lisberger says. "I mean Brad Bird was there, Roger Allers, Bill Kroyer, who did Fern Gully, Jerry Reese did The Brave Little Toaster, we had just a phenomenal amount of talent on that picture."
Tron was set for release on July 8, 1982 in over a thousand theaters. Disney didn't know what they had with Tron until very late in the game, much like Fox had no clue Star Wars would be a big movie until it exploded on opening day.
"At the last minute when Disney thought the film somehow worked, they absconded with it, ran off to New York City and told the press that it was gonna be bigger than Star Wars," says Lisberger. "So there was this perfect irony. The people at Disney that were against Tron the entire making of the movie, in the end they stood up the week before it came out and said we're gonna do more business than Star Wars."
Whether kids were playing them in arcades or at home, the classic video games of the eighties were at their peak, a great stroke of luck event the makers of Tron never could have predicted when they first started the project. "Actually we got Tron out just before the whole video game thing collapsed," Lisberger says. "You gotta remember there was that period where Atari and that whole thing collapsed like an overblown soufflé, and people thought that was the end of video games, like it was the hula hoop."
Where Ellenshaw was certain the film would be a monster hit, he was dumbfounded when he was told the movie only made $3.8 million opening weekend. (According to one report, Disney had to write off much of the film's budget of $17 million.) Tron also got the shaft at the Oscars, and it apparently got passed over for a special effects nomination because the Academy thought using computers was cheating.
"People did not want to get their minds blown by Walt Disney Studios, they want to be reassured by them."
So why did Tron flop? Looking back, Lisberger felt it was too overwhelming for many to handle. "Just graphically and visually a lot of people can't handle that much art," he says. "It should have been given on a platter to a very select audience to start with, and it should have been spoon fed to them. It was like we put LSD in the punch at the school prom and it was just way more than they can handle.
"I thought Tron was gonna blow people's minds," Lisberger continues. "But people do not want to get their minds blown by Walt Disney Studios, they want to be reassured by them. And the idea that Disney was gonna somehow mess with your head was almost incomprehensible to the vast majority of people. Young people who were 10 and 12, they weren't aware of the politics so they went to the movie and just dug it. But people who were 35 and had two kids...it's like I go to Disney films the way I buy Oscar Meyer hot dogs. I know what's in the package. They bought their tickets, sat down, and it just ricocheted off the back of their heads and they couldn't handle it at all."
"In retrospect, the effects overwhelmed the story," says Ellenshaw. "We'll never know how that could have been changed and been more effective. Once you got inside the computer, you never got back out to the outside until the very end. You never saw what the real world was doing while these guys were inside the computer trying to save the world. I think that was the thing that made the film less relatable to a lot of people. If you were young and you were hip and you played video games for hours on end, that was fine. You wanted to lose yourself. But I think for many moviegoers, there wasn't the humanity to it that needed to be."
But the young fans who loved the film weren't paying any attention to the politics behind the scenes, the reviews, or how much money the movie made. "God bless the kids, their minds are open," Lisberger says. "Tron was their story because those kids were the ones, like Jeff Bridges, who went into cyberspace."
In 2002, The L.A. Times ran a story on Tron right before its DVD release headlined, "Tron Showed the Way." Charles Solomon noted the film had its flaws, "but many of the visuals remain exciting. They're simpler than recent computer-generated effects, but the designs and effective use of the medium still pack a visual wallop." Solomon also pointed out that John Lasseter, who directed the Toy Story films, was inspired by Tron to move into computer animation.
It took Hollywood more than a decade after the release of Tron to embrace computer effects, and the major studios had to swim furiously to catch the boat they missed.
Ellenshaw says, "When Tron came out, most of Hollywood ran away and said, 'Oh my gosh, that computer stuff, the film was a box office flop. We don't want anything to do with that. That's craziness.' George Lucas saw the wisdom and kept the digital flame alive the whole time. Eventually it paid off. The turning point was 1993 when Jurassic Park came out. And what made it so incredible, so absolutely mind blowing was you now had computer generated images that now looked like real things. Nobody's seen a dinosaur, but I'm convinced that's what they looked like, and there they were electronically composited with real live action backgrounds. You can basically say the rest is history. If it wasn't for George Lucas, we'd probably still be putting together watches with sledgehammers."
"I'm more pleased with what's happened with the film now," Lisberger continues. "It's had this life, and I don't think it's ever going away now. I mean it's sort of the ultimate combination of analog and digital, it's the film that cements animation and traditional cinema technique with CG, and it became the crossroads."