Tron: The Beginner's Guide

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It’s seen more often as a pop culture touchstone or a geeky reference than a shining example of filmmaking these days, but without Steven Lisberger’s Tron, the filmmaking landscape would look quite different – and of course sequel Tron Legacy, out this week, would not exist. But many people remember the original only from Bank Holiday telly or having watched the VHS version years ago. With Legacy arriving this week, we thought we’d turn back the CPU clock to take a closer look at it as a catch-up for anyone who doesn’t know an identity disk from a recogniser, and whose first experience with the Grid might have been via the trailers for Legacy…

"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,” says Steven Lisberger, the godfather of Tron. Lisberger’s fascination with the swiftly developing video game sphere crashed headlong into the defensive light ribbons of gaming enthusiasts. Frustrated by its closed-off nature, Lisberger swore to open the computer gaming world up to everyone. “I think that what I was attracted to various components that were the foundation for Tron. Having to do with filmmaking. Having to do with animation. Having to do with technology. And having to do with the fact that cyberspace at the time to me was going to be the next - it’s almost a corny word - but the next frontier. And so there was a great sense of adventure. And it was a very idealistic time to think about what this technology might lead to.”

Lisberger’s idea was originally for an animated film that was simply book-ended by live-action sequences. Given the hefty amount of computer visuals, the natural partner for the film seemed to be a technology company. Almost everyone he approached turned him down. But LA-based Information International Inc actively engaged with what the director was trying to do, and as he grew more confident and threw himself deeper into exploring just what digital technology could do, the concept evolved into what Tron finally became – a blend of live-action with the embryonic CG of the time. By now, he’d spent $300,000 developing the film and had around $4 million in independent financing, which was never quite enough to start getting the film made. Lisberger and business partner Donald Kushner eventually shoved all their (micro)chips in and got a meeting with Disney. The Mouse House was intrigued, but concerned about giving $10 million or more to an untested director and a shooting technique that was completely new. Still, the executives opened the studio’s wallet to create a test reel featuring a basic light disk sequence, which ultimately convinced them that it could work.

Despite winning Disney’s backing, there were still some hurdles to jump: “There was quite a bit of politics because we were the new kids on the block with all of our computers and techniques, while they were strictly old school. I think some of the bosses said to them, "Don't you dare cross the line and join the enemy camp," recalls Lisberger. But suspicion turned to excitement once the team got underway, with several animators (including a young John Lasseter) eager to see how it would be accomplished. Lisberger secured comic book legend Jean Giraud (AKA Moebius) to handle costumes and sets, Blade Runner’s Syd Mead to design the vehicles and commercial artist Peter Lloyd to work on the environments, with the three swapping jobs from time to time as needed.

Lisberger secured Jeff Bridges, David Warner, Bruce Boxleitner and Cindy Morgan to star, using real video games of the time to help the actors understand the concept. “Back then there was nothing,” recalls the director. “There was just a Pong game sitting in the corner of the stage. Bup-bup-bup-bup. And one would say, ‘We’re in there.’ Everything else had to be extrapolated from that game.” He also recalls that David Warner had an easier time working with the featureless space than any of the others. “I think there was a certain appeal to the actual environment we were shooting in. We didn't use blue screen or green screen, but we did use black, so everything was black and white. There was an expressionistic art deco feel when one was on the set. With David Warner being from the stage, he related to that.” Tron took six months of pre-production, four months of shooting and then nine months to complete the effects. The crew treated the movie more like an animated production than a regular live-action piece, but still often struggled with techniques that were being invented as they were needed.

Tron’s story introduced us to Kevin Flynn (Bridges), a computer programmer who once worked for massive software company ENCOM. But he’s reduced to running an arcade after having several of his games stolen by corrupt and ambitious fellow employee Ed Dillinger (Warner), who used them to rise quickly up the corporate chain. The company’s mainframe operating system, the Master Control Program, is slowly taking control of everything, blackmailing Dillinger into giving it more power and access so it can breach the Pentagon. When Flynn tries his latest attempt to hack the system, the MCP fires a digitizing laser at him, sending him into the mainframe. There he finds a world of programs that resemble their creators, and who are forced to compete in games as the MCP rules with a fist of digital iron. Flynn teams up with Tron (Boxleitner), a security program designed by his best friend Alan Bradley (also played by Boxleitner), to try to take down the increasingly powerful and maniacal MCP.

Tron got some seriously mixed reviews on its release in July 1982. Variety sniffed, “Tron is loaded with visual delights but falls way short of the mark in story and viewer involvement. Screenwriter-director Steven Lisberger has adequately marshalled a huge force of technicians to deliver the dazzle, but even kids (and specifically computer game geeks) will have a difficult time getting hooked on the situations". Hmmm… where have we heard that sort of talk recently? The film is legendary for being a massive belly flop, but while it didn’t exactly go on to become a beloved blockbuster like another film released the same year called ET, it managed to drag in $33 million in business from US audiences. So not a hit by any means, but not quite the disaster it has sometimes been branded. And no, it didn’t kick off a franchise either. At least not until Disney decided that it was time to dust off the name and continue the story…