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This article is archived from the VFX Pro site. Hopefully they won't mind the reprint (I doubt it, as I'm pretty darn sure they used a couple of my picture scans in their article ;-)
Walt Disney Pictures' "TRON" premiered in the United States July 9, 1982. The film told the story of Kevin Flynn, a lowly computer hacker played by Jeff Bridges who is forcibly digitized and transported into a parallel universe dominated by a tyrannical Master Control Program -- or, as the poster promised, "A world inside the computer where man has never been." In taking its audience on that journey, the movie became one of the first feature productions to use computer graphics extensively as a production tool, smoothing the path for visual effects vehicles that would follow. "It was a little like we were taming or dominating the medium -- civilizing it," said Steven Lisberger, who directed and co-wrote "TRON." "In the case of 'TRON,' it was really about riding bareback and holding on for dear life."
Lisberger believes the breakthrough effects were powerful because they overwhelm the viewer's ability to resolve what they're seeing. "(The opening shot of) 'Star Wars' started all this, with the Imperial mother ship going overhead," Lisberger said, referring to the opening shot of the 1977 blockbuster. "Your sensory receptors, your optical capabilities were overwhelmed. It's something that Industrial Light & Magic has understood for a long time -- how to overwhelm."
Certainly, "TRON" offered visuals that audiences had never seen before. Most famously, of course, the movie had 15 minutes of animation done on computers. But it also featured a staggering amount of hand-drawn, backlit animation -- another 53 minutes worth of effects out of a total running time of 96 minutes.
The movie's associate producer, Harrison Ellenshaw, also supervised the film's visual effects, in collaboration with Richard Taylor, said the key to "TRON" was not the CG. "The key was the backlight and compositing," Ellenshaw said. "The key was making live-action look like it was processed in the computer."
Traditional cel animation is shot with reflected light -- the painted cels are lit from the front and then photographed. With backlit animation and compositing, transparent images are lit from behind. Using a set of painted mattes, certain areas of the frame are excluded, so that different sections of the frame can be exposed with different colors of light.
For "TRON," the actors performed on a black stage, wearing white suits with black trim. This was photographed on 65mm black-and-white film. The resulting negative then was used to make large continuous-tone transparencies -- approximately 16 by 20 inches -- on high-contrast Kodalith sheet film. To make the mattes that would hold out the different parts of the frame, the Kodaliths were contact-printed to generate additional cel copies that could then be hand-painted with black paint. Each different color on screen required a different cel level, and while the average shot took about 12 passes, some needed three or four times as many.
John Van Vliet -- founder of the VFX studio Available Light and an effects animator on "TRON" -- recalled that the production had a hard time finding artists who could do the necessary work. "There was a shortage of people who had both the traditional skills of effects animation and were also familiar with the technique of backlight," Van Vliet said. "Shortly after taking the job, I realized that I was practically living at Disney and that they were considering bricking all of us animators into the building."
One of Van Vliet's sequences was the motorcycle transition. "We came up with this very complicated process, where you see all the motorcycle parts popping in," he said. The sequence became one of the iconic images of the movie, yet Van Vliet says few people seemed to realize what he had done. "The popular media said this was all done by computer. It wasn't! It was done
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