[Cinema Sunday] ‘Tron’ – Saving The World with Computers

Kevin Flynn: Who’s that guy? Warrior #1: That’s Tron. He fights for the Users.

These days, computers and video games are a major part of everyday life. We use them for such simple tasks, like checking messages, planning events, shopping. But there was a time a few decades ago when computers, and the games played on them, were a bright and shiny thing.

Computers were a symbol of the new tomorrow, being utilized to help plan the world of today. And video games, while taken for granted now due to high access on all devices, were a major recreation and means of escape in the 1980s.

Home consoles and arcade cabinets and even simple chess programs, all were a fun and active way to kick back and unwind from the stress of the real world.

The 1982 sci-fi action film Tron is a testament to how far the technology and culture of computers and video games has come. And this year marks the 36th anniversary of the film’s release (July 9th, 1982).

Steven (center) on set with (left to right), Barnard Hughes, Cindy Morgan, and Bruce Boxleitner

Like a lot of 80’s films, the ideas go back sometimes whole decades before they saw fruit. In the case of Tron, it heads back to 1976, when director Steven Lisberger was looking at a sample reel from computer firm MAGI and also saw Pong for the first time.

Enamored with video games, Steven wanted to incorporate and have them be a major part of a movie. In an interview with American Cinematographer, he stated:

I realized that there were these techniques that would be very suitable for bringing video games and computer visuals to the screen. And that was the moment that the whole concept flashed across my mind.

Steven sat down with writer Bonnie MacBird and pitched her the idea of a movie with Tron, a character originally created for a TV ad for a radio station. As co-scriptwriter and story mastermind alongside Steven, Bonnie detailed her in involvement with the project back in 2011 in an interview with MediaMikes. The following excerpt gives a real glimpse into Bonnie bringing Tron to life:

Originally, pre-Tron, Steven and I worked together on a spec script for Universal called Lightning for Jennings Lang. Steven had an animation company in Boston and had developed a cool special effect for lightning. We had a fun time working on this, and felt that our strengths were complementary. He had done a TV ad for a radio station featuring a backlit, neon character who looked a bit like the Michelin Man and whom he called Tron and approached me to write a movie in which Tron was a video game warrior. That was the extent of the idea when he moved his company to Los Angeles, and I left my story exec job at Universal to come over to the new Venice digs of Lisberger Studios and write and co-produce a film called Tron with Steven. I was tasked with creating a script that would showcase these elements. But there was no story, and no characters, except I would have to create one named Tron who looked like this radio ad character. In addition to developing a personality and character needs for this figure, my first contribution was to create Flynn, as I felt you needed a real life character to interact with Tron inside of the computer. The parallels with both Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland were immediately apparent. I had recently seen Robin Williams in a small comedy club while covering theatre for Universal and had tried to get him a deal at Uni. I wasnt successful but he hit big shortly after with Mork and Mindy. Robin was in my mind as Flynn when I created this character. But we also needed a new and wonderful world, one that had not been seen. Steven and his key animators including the super talented Bill Kroyer and Roger Allers (both of whom went on to direct) studied video games and the arcade culture, developing the look/feel of the movie, early on coming up with light cycles and the grid. They would feed these drawings and pencil tests to me, asking me to integrate the visuals into the script. It was a lot of fun at that time. I enjoyed working with the animators very much and set up a weekly improv session led by a talented actor/improviser, which both built community and fostered ideas between us. In addition to character work, which is I think my strongest asset as a writer, I knew that when you create a world in science fiction or fantasy, this world must be consistent in order to suspend disbelief, things must work in a way that is recognizable and orderly, so that story logic is preserved.

 

During pre-production, a mention in Variety caught the attention of computer scientist Alan Kay. Kay approached Steven and convinced him to be brought on board as technical adviser and to use real CGI instead of traditional hand-drawn animation.

 

As time passed and the script and storyboards were developed (along with computer animation tests), the process of shopping the movie to major studios began. Sadly, Warner Bros., MGM and Columbia Pictures all turned it down.

 

But gold was struck upon going to Walt Disney Studios. Looking to produce more daring features, Tom Wilhite, then VP for Creative Development, took the pitch to then Disney head Ron Miller. In 2010, Ron stated the following in an interview with Jill Hill Media:

 God bless Tom Wilhite because he was the one who really took notice of it and felt very strongly that (‘TRON’) was something that time-wise was perfect for us. Which it was. Certainly it was something that we were looking for … it was something unique. It was an area that hadn’t really been explored before

 

Once contracts had been signed and a budget put together (the monumental amount of $17 million), production itself could start. One of the biggest aspects was the digital animation, and for this Disney turned to four different computer firms for the specialists and equipment that would be needed for creating the world of The Grid.

To help give a clearer sense of the in’s and out’s of the history of the movie, here’s another behind-the-scenes treat. A short documentary made during the release of Tron: Legacy on its cinematic sire, with interviews from Jeff Bridges, Bruce Boxleitner, some of the original animators, and Steven Lisberger himself.

Talking of Jeff and Bruce, let’s take a dive into their contributions to the movie, along with that of Cindy Morgan. Together, these three are not only the heroes in the real world, but also within that of The Grid.

Playing both human characters and programs, this intrepid trio sets out to save the world from the machinations of ENCOM executive Ed Dillinger (David Warner) and the Master Control Program. Within the world of The Grid, they play programs designed by their characters (or Users) tasked with the purpose of helping Kevin Flynn (Jeff Brides) to take down Dillinger and the MCP.

A high point of any film is how it performs at the box office and is received by critics. Tron unfortunately only took in $33 million at the box, which caused Disney heads to see the piece as a failure.

On the other hands, critics loved it. Roger Ebert gave it a resounding four out of four stars and wrote nothing but high praise for it. One point of his review that stood out the most reads as follows…

In an age of amazing special effects, “Tron” is a state-of-the-art movie. It generates not just one imaginary computer universe, but a multitude of them. Using computers as their tools, the Disney filmmakers literally have been able to imagine any fictional landscape, and then have it, through an animated computer program. And they integrate their human actors and the wholly imaginary worlds of Tron so cleverly that I never, ever, got the sensation that I was watching some actor standing in front of, or in the middle of, special effects. The characters inhabit this world.

Even though it’s summer, and the call of outdoors is strong, computers and gaming are all fine and fun. Taking a break from reality once and a while to engage in some digital play or high adventure is a great way to decompress. One should always be careful to not let the allure of games and computers supersede that of exercise and fresh air and sunshine and togetherness.

So when it’s time to pick a film to enjoy with family or loved one’s, take a step back to the age when computers and video games were new cultural innovations. Take a step back into The Grid, with Tron.

1 Comment

  1. I’m “the computer scientist Alan Kay” mentioned in the article. There are quite a few important inaccuracies in this writeup. The top two are (a) the omission of Bonnie MacBird, who created the ideas and story with Steven Lisberger, and wrote the first several scripts, and (b) I didn’t go with Lisberger to Disney to pitch Tron — I helped with advice earlier in the process but was not connected with Tron during the Disney phase of development.

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