A friend and I went to a special screening of TRON at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences building on Wilshire Boulevard Wednesday night. It was fantastic to see this truly ground setting and amazing picture on the big screen again.
There was a panel discussion before the movie that consisted of our host, Bill Kroyer (who was a computer Image Choreographer on TRON and went on to direct such animated features as “Ferngully, The Last Rain Forest”), Steven Lisberger (Film Director) and Richard Taylor ( Visual Arts Supervisor).
Also in attendance was Bruce Boxleitner who starred as TRON (and of course appeared on Babylon 5 as Captain Sheridan for four years). He was just there with his kids (who were going to see Dad on the big screen for the very first time) and friends to see the movie. I got to meet him, talk to him and shake hands with him before the movie. A genuinely nice person who is still looking very good even with the added graying hair.
What we learned in the panel about this movie was truly astounding. This movie was release 24 years ago, July 9, 1982, and you have to remember that at that time there were no PC’s, no Internet thus no E-Mail, no CGI and only the most rudimentary beginnings of computer animation. For instance:
Each frame of film, all the live action in the Computer World and the other brief bits of pure computer animation (53 minutes of live action and 15 minutes of “CGI”) had to be enlarged, photographed on Kodak special paper and then all the computer lines and colors and neon effects had to be hand drawn in using many separate layers and then, after all the hand work was done, re-filmed onto 70mm film with many, many passes through the camera for each layer for each frame.
Each 1 second of film was over 144 layers and took hours to render at the MAGI-compute CGI facility (only one of four in existence then) on two computers, with each one having one 80mb hard drive. Yep, you read that right. This entire movie was rendered on only two full sized computer systems (remember, no pc’s then) and each hard drive was only 80mb in size. That is Mega Byte, not Giga Byte like we have today). And not very fast either.
When they were done, the stack of paper sheets was stacked and stored. The pile contained over 175,000 hand done images that if stacked on end would be 65 feet high. Each was hand done in Taiwan. (If you have ever seen TRON, during the end credit roll you will see a whole section of what look like Alien Symbols. These are the Taiwanese names for every person who hand painted the computer effects onto the live action images.)
The live action section of the movie, in Computer World, was photographed with the actors wearing black and white suits in a totally black set. Nothing else. Everything you see in the movie, even the floors, wall, ceilings and neon effects was hand drawn in after the live action stuff was shot.
The camera used was the same 65mm camera that David Leane used when shooting “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Dr. Shivago” (I know I spelled that wrong, but I can’t find it in the computers spelling dictionary). It had a focal range of 2 inches. In many close up shots, the actors head had to be fastened to metal braces strapped to their bodies and a rod fastened to their heads to keep them from moving. When a close up was needed, the focal person would ask what part of the face do you want in focus and if it was the eyes, he needed to know what part of the eye, the iris or pupil.
If the actors were more than 3 to 4 feet apart in the shot, each actor had to be filmed separately and then composited together in the final edit. That scene where TRON, Flynn and Ram have to slide down the angled wall to get to the energy stream was filmed three times with each actor going down the wall and then it was compostited together.
Since all the shots had to literally taken apart, rephotographed, painted with the effects and neon color effects, then reshot in the camera again, the director never got to see any of the finished product. He got 16 seconds of raw footage back to view, but he was already half way through the filming at this time. This movie was made with a whole lot of faith. They never saw the finished film until it was projected in the theater on the 70mm film. Of course by then it was way too late to redo any mistakes.
Logically, your mind will tell you it was an impossible thing to do. And you would be right if it wasn’t for the army of very talented, forward looking and thinking people that all were in the right place and the right time to make this impossible dream come true. As Steven Lisberger said at the end of the panel discussion, this type of movie will never be made again. It had a very organic look to it that just can’t be duplicated even with today’s CGI effects. It took a long time for this movie to finally reach the screen, and after all the break through work that was done, it never won an Academy Award for Special Effects, only Costume Design and Sound! The academy members had no idea what the movie was, how the effects were done, and it reality it was later revealed that the academy thought they had cheated. They actually believed that everything they saw was the result of somebody inputting things into a computer, and then the whole computer simply made the movie. There was a lot of computer input that was needed for the Light Cycle sequence though. That was literally hundreds of thousands of calculations for movement, lighting, look, color, etc, that had to be figured out on paper, then put into X-Sheets then had typed (using nothing but 1 and 0) into the computers. Hours and hours and hours of work by one person, and they don’t even know who it was.
It was a fun evening, nice to meet and talk to Bruce Boxleitner and watch the movie again on a huge 70mm screen with a fantastic sound system.