A New York Times article from 1982 shows the legacy of Tron and the interesting parallels with its sequel.
Tron: Legacy opens in cinemas tomorrow and utilises the latest filmmaking technology, but how was the first film viewed 28 years ago?
At the time Disney’s film division were scrambling for a hit and saw Tron as way of tapping in to the videogame boom of the early 1980s and the success of Star Wars.
One startling fact the New York Times revealed back in 1982 was just how profitable video games were at the time.
…games currently gross between $8 billion and $9 billion a year, compared with about $3 billion a year for all the movies shown in theaters.
Last year, in fact, the most popular video game, Pac-Man, grossed about $1.2 billion – three times as much as ”Star Wars,” history’s most popular movie, has earned in the five years since its initial release.
Think about that for a second: Pac-Man out grossed the first Star Wars film.
Obviously this trend has continued over the years, with The Observer reporting last year that combined software and hardware sales grossed over £4bn.
This was more than DVD and music sales combined, and over four times what films made at cinemas.
However, the original Tron was a relative commercial disappointment, even though it became an influential cult film that spawned the current sequel.
But the 1982 article brings up interesting parallels with the present day.
It talks of the visual effects revolution ushered in by Star Wars:
When ”Star Wars,” with its futuristic setting, androids and computerized space warfare, became the first film in history to make $100 million in 1977 (it has now grossed four times that), Hollywood decided that what the public wanted was more and better special effects. In the next five years, armed with huge budgets and increasingly sophisticated technology, filmmakers rewrote the book on creating illusions of reality.
Now in 2010, Tron: Legacy is part of a new wave of 3D movies ushered in by the enormous success of Avatar.
But let’s go back to 1982 and the films that were then pushing at the limits of technology:
Special-effects pictures now dominate the nation’s screens. The first month of summer witnessed the release not only of ”E.T.” but ”Poltergeist,” ”Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” ”Blade Runner,” ”Firefox,” and ”The Thing.”
There is no doubt that visual effects have come a long way since these films, with landmarks being Terminator 2 (1991), Jurassic Park (1993), Titanic (1997) and The Lord of The Rings trilogy (2001-03).
But with the advent of digital camera systems and 3D are we at a similar point of change?
Films such as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), Avatar (2009) and Inception (2010) have all pushed the envelope in different ways and even a film like The Social Network (shot entirely on the RED camera) seemed to show that digital cameras have truly arrived in the mainstream.
Another interesting aspect of the article is how perceptions of films can change over time.
“…critics have praised the special effects in such films as ”Blade Runner” and ”The Thing,” while damning the quality of the storytelling.”
No-one could dispute that storytelling is important in a visual effects movie, but to time has been much kinder to both Blade Runner and The Thing.
Ridley Scott’s film underwent a gradual re-appraisal and is now considered a landmark whilst John Carpenter’s horror (which repulsed critics at the time) is also more highly regarded.
Nicholas Meyer, who directed Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, is quoted on the effect of television on audiences expectations for a movie:
“…television has eroded the audience’s patience with exposition and the groundwork that narrative requires, so that now you have movies and television shows where there’s no plot at all, just stunts or star turns.
Could there be a parallel made with the rise of the Internet and its possible effect on cinema audiences today?
But what about TRON?
It is described as:
…a $20-million cinematic journey through the mind of a computer, frequently looks like the ultimate video game, played by – and with -human beings on a screen 70 feet wide and 30 feet high.
These words could describe the current sequel, even though it is reported to have cost $200 million and, if you see it on IMAX, will play on screens 85 feet wide and 65 feet high.
The article also quotes Thomas L. Wilhite, Disney’s then head of production:
‘We invested $20 million in our belief that the characters in this computer world, invented by man in his own image, would appeal to people,”
Obviously it didn’t work out that way but it is similar to how the studio now feels about the sequel, although they’ll be hoping for a better return on their money.
But what was the landscape like for digital effects back in 1982?
Tron director Steven Lisberger was prescient in predicting the future:
Mr. Lisberger is among those who believe that computer-generated imagery will eventually replace all forms of optical effects – but he concedes that ”it’s still very expensive to lay all the information describing a setting into the computer.”
Steven Spielberg, who was basking in the box office glory of E.T. that summer, is quoted as saying:
”there will be a day …when it will be possible to create an entire civilization at the cost of two days’ shooting.”
Films such as Lord of the Rings and Avatar seem to have proved his general point right, although the cost of effects has risen in line with their quality.
The existence of the new film also speaks volumes about the current studio obsession with Comic-Con, the annual geekfest in San Diego where films are announced or unveiled to expectant crowds.
When Disney were pondering whether to make Tron: Legacy, director Joseph Kosinski made a short test film featuring Jeff Bridges that demonstrated what the sequel would look like and the crowd went predictably nuts:
(You can watch a higher quality version here)
Disney will be banking that the Comic-Con demographic, who grew up watching the original on video, will help make the sequel a success.
But going back to the 1982 article, perhaps the most fascinating part is when it mentions a young animator named John Lasseter:
Disney is taking the next step in computer technology. Two young animators, John Lasseter and Glenn Keane, are planning a 30-second scene from Maurice Sendak’s modern children’s classic, ”Where the Wild Things Are,” in which the little boy called Max chases his dog out of his room and through the upstairs hall and down the stairs.
Max and his dog are being animated conventionally, like the characters in all the other cartoons made by Disney – or by Mr. Bluth. But Max is being colored by computer, eliminating the need for those who now paint each individual animation cel. Even more revolutionary, Max’s room, the hallway and the stairway are being planned to be executed by MAGI as Computer Generated Environments.
This was the test footage from that test:
Of course Lasseter’s vision for Where the Wild Things Are never made it to the big screen and it wasn’t until 2009 that a version directed by Spike Jonze came out.
But Lasseter was inspired by Tron when he was at Disney and felt that the visuals represented the future:
“It absolutely blew me away! A little door in my mind opened up. I looked at it and said, `This is it! This is the future!'”
Lasseter was soon to leave Disney and join Lucasfilm Computer Graphics, which would later be bought by Steve Jobs and renamed Pixar in 1986.
Over the next twenty years he oversaw their ground breaking and enormously successful film output, directing Toy Story (1995), A Bug’s Life (1998), Toy Story 2 (1999), and Cars (2006).
In 2006 Disney purchased Pixar and Lasseter became chief creative officer of both Pixar and Disney animation studios.
Earlier this year it was reported that Tron: Legacy was shown to a team at Pixar that included …John Lasseter.
Sean Bailey, Disney’s president of production said:
“Tron is very much Joe Kosinski’s vision, a vision which is thrilling to me and I hope is thrilling to the fans. What I give Joe and the filmmaking team immense credit for, is this was all born out of how do we give the fans the best movie we can. We were very fortunate that Pixar wanted to play a part in it.”
Let’s go back to the final paragraph of the New York Times article:
In the final analysis, however, it isn’t the special effects techniques that make an ”E.T.” or ”Bambi” endure. The creature made of rubber and steel, the deer made of pencil marks on paper, all participate in narratives that compel belief. As Walt Disney never tired of saying, ”First get the story right.”
If Tron: Legacy doesn’t live up to expectations, will Walt’s old saying come back to haunt the current studio?
> NYT article on Tron in 1982
> More on Tron and Tron Legacy at Wikipedia
> Tron: Legacy review