Daniel Simon was in his native Germany and happily working in big-time car-design circles when an e-mail arrived in spring 2008 that would change his life. “It was an offer to work as a vehicle designer on “Tron: Legacy,” and I felt like I had a heart condition when I read it,” Simon said of the invitation from the filmmakers behind the Disney sci-fi film that opens Dec. 17. Simon isn’t exaggerating about his excitement — in relatively short order he shut down his studio, moved to Los Angeles and began working on his first feature film.
“I left everything behind in Berlin that I had built up, my own car-design studio and everything, and packed a suitcase,” Simon said. “I haven’t been back. It sounds crazy, I know. But to work on ‘Tron’ is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
That might sound odd to the uninitiated, but “Tron: Legacy” isn’t just another CG adventure in the relentless release schedule of special-effects movies. As the title suggests, it arrives with a heritage and singular spot in film history. That’s because in 1982, the original “Tron” hit theaters as a landmark release, with the first computer-generated animation seen in a major studio feature film. Although hardly a commercial success, the tale of a man named Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) who finds himself transported to the strange, luminescent kingdom that exists inside computers became a signature influence on video-game culture, animation and contemporary design.
In some ways, “Tron” and another release that same season — Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” — had a wider-rippling influence on the digital-age aesthetics than the biggest box-office smash of that same Reagan-era summer: Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.”
The “Tron: Legacy” story picks up in real time after the 1982 original. Flynn has been stranded inside the light-based computer universe, and his son Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) finds his way down the same hard-drive rabbit hole in search of his father. Flynn is now a gray-bearded hermit, a sort of Obi-Wan Kenobi figure living on the edges of the digital realm. Oscar winner Bridges also has a second role as CLU, his counterpart in the computer world who has not aged since his creation in the original movie; for 21st century moviegoers, digital magic has been used to restore Bridges to a startling facsimile of his 1982 visage.
For Simon and his team’s vehicle designers, the watchword was simplicity of line and sleekness of design. “We tried to write a new chapter of beauty and use the art of leaving things out when possible,” Simon said. “And with the vehicles, it was about doing things with movement as well.” We asked him to talk about some of the key creations.
The Light-Cycles: “There are different versions of the cycles for good guys and bad guys,” Simon said. “The cycles are hybrids of person and machine. That’s the challenge. We had to put so much effort into it. It’s a personal weapon of the people living on the grid. It has a face, the front of the bike, and the lights are shaped to show that. The good-guy and neutral bikes have vertical lights, and the evil bikes have V-shaped lights to represent eyes and expression.”
The Recognizer: “The Recognizer was one of the first vehicles designed for the new film,” Simon explained. “Our visual effects art director Ben Procter gave that a shot and finished it before I even joined the show. We didn’t do much to it. It was a very subtle rework. With the Light-Cycles there were ideas that designers had during the original ‘Tron,’ but they didn’t have the technology to achieve it. They wanted to make the rider and bike a hybrid, but they couldn’t do it. So the bikes have changed more than something like the Recognizer. What is new is that you see jet-propulsion systems, and you see the real-world simulation of how does this thing move. You see exhaust gas and jet-like reactions on the bottom.”
The Solar Sailer: “Darren Gilford, our production designer, set the tone with a philosophy. We went way more sleek than the first film. Surfaces are much more organic because computers are much more powerful now and can render all of those curved shapes. We get beautiful reflections. Most of the surfaces in ‘Tron’ are glossy and shiny, and that requires so much rendering power. That’s the statement of what is different than the first one. The Solar Sailer was a good example of teamwork on a movie, because it’s not just a vehicle. It’s a set piece. There were four or five people working on that thing. It’s almost architecture. It’s taken over from the first film and totally redesigned. It’s a huge transporter for programs [which are the people living in ‘Tron’ world], and it travels along a compressed beam of light that is pretty unique to ‘Tron’ world. That was one of the tougher assignments on that film. It had to do so much. It was a nightmare, really.”
— Geoff Boucher
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