‘Tron’ directors talk lightcycles, Blu-ray and franchise future

May 09, 2011 | 12:48 a.m.

When it comes to “Tron” and the digital world it led to both on- and off-screen, there’s no bigger expert than Jay West, a guest writer over the last year for Hero Complex on all things concerning the Grid. He recently attended an event celebrating the release of the 1982 movie and 2010′s “Tron: Legacy” on DVD and Blu-ray at a West Hollywood Best Buy location where he spoke to “Tron” director Steven Lisberger and “Tron: Legacy” director Joseph Kosinski and visual effects supervisor Eric Barba (who took home an Oscar for his work on the David Fincher drama “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button“) about how the films play at home, the challenges of creating a youthful representation of Jeff Bridges as the evil computer construct CLU and their favorite movie moments.

JW: Many people will see “Tron” and “Tron: Legacy” for the first time on DVD or Blu-ray. What do you hope that they take away from that experience?

SL: The image quality is in a lot of ways closer to what I’ve always dreamed of and what Joe has dreamed of — the resolution, the contrast, the fact that it really feels like it’s an electronic world when you see the Blu-ray. Anytime you’ve got an emitted screen where the light’s coming at you, instead of bouncing it off a conventional screen, you’re bound to get more of a feeling of light intensity, so I’m real happy about that.

JK: I’m just excited to have new people see the movie. I’m not able to make it to every movie in theaters and I myself discover a lot of movies either by digital downloads on Apple TV or Blu-ray. I’m excited for people to see it on Blu-ray because I think it looks great on it. With the technology we have now in our homes, in some ways, it exceeds the display of a movie screen. And when it comes to contrast and brightness, this film demands it more than any other, so I’m excited for people to see this film in this way.

JW: I noticed,  for instance, in the “Sea of Simulation” sequence — with the Light Jet battle, that there’s an incredible level of texture and detail.

JK: You start to see all of that work we put into things that might’ve gotten lost on the big screen. You hopefully appreciate the level of craftsmanship and artistry that went into each one of those shots.

EB:  I think viewers are going to have a great presentation. I’m very happy with it. I think it’s the nature of technology… I used to try and explain this to directors, and this is seven or eight years ago when we started shooting digital… and many were like: “Oh, that’s digital, that’ll never overtake… I need my film…” — but you don’t realize that film, especially projected, is kind of soft and lacks contrast compared to a modern plasma or LCD monitor. I think you’ll see that really in spades with this release because, watching it in Imax viewing in 3-D even, which is our preferred viewing and presentation for this film, you’re not going to get the same contrast and vibrance that you get because the plasma can put out so much more light. In the theater, you’re losing so much light because it bounces off the screen — it’s going through glasses — whereas you’re looking directly at the light source on a plasma so it’s going to be much more vibrant. And because you have better contrast, you’re going to see more detail. Everything’s going to be crisper and sharper. We’re really happy with the way it looks. It’s more of what we saw every day back at Digital Domain (where the visual effects for the movie were created).

JW: In retrospect, what would you say the most challenging aspect of working on the visual effects for “Tron: Legacy” was?

EB: Still CLU (laughs).

JW: How did the stereoscopic imaging process impact the way you went about creating that character? It’s different than, say, your approach was on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” Can you talk about some of the differences between them?

CLU in "Tron: Legacy." (Disney)

"Tron: Legacy" (Disney)

EB: With “Benjamin” — one of the things we didn’t have to overcome was the connection of the Benjamin head to the actor’s body. We used traditional techniques to help us: we could paint fix, we could put in computer-generated collars, we could warp things around. But you can’t really use those techniques in “Tron: Legacy” because it’s stereo (two image fields), and it just makes it much harder. Getting CLU’s hair to interact with his live-action collar — little things like that hopefully the viewer will never notice, but that’s part of the illusion — if you don’t notice, that means it works. It was incredibly painstaking because all of the collars had to be tracked precisely, the computer-generated hair then has to sit precisely on that — and then when they are composited back together, both the left and right eyes have to match precisely otherwise the hair won’t look like it’s in the right space. It’ll “come off” his head… it’s just a little nutty. There’s an incredible level of detail for each one of those shots to make the head “sit” correctly.

JW: The “Tron: Legacy” Blu-ray has a unique feature that allows viewers to access behind the scenes content on an iPad — as well as on laptops and desktop computers — while you watch the movie on your TV or projection system: the “Second Screen” feature. What are your thoughts about this feature?

SL: I’m really happy about the interactive features. In my dream world, the whole “Tron” universe would be fully interactive. You’d have the ability to move through it and interact with it. To see the great job that they’ve done in making “Tron: Legacy” as interactive as it is on the Blu-ray, it’s really cool. I’m blown away! I wish I had that on the first film.

JK: Yeah, for people who are interested in how these things are made, you get a taste of the amount of work that goes into each one of these shots. All the way from storyboard to final scene, you get to see how ideas and designs evolve, so I’m really impressed with the amount of material that they’ve put in there… I mean, even concept things that I threw out, but somehow made it into the “second screen” experience — it’s cool to see that.

Olivia Wilde as Quorra in "Tron: Legacy" (Disney)

JW: What deleted concepts did you enjoy discovering on the second screen feature?

JK: We had this scene where Sam (Garrett Hedlund) caught Quorra  (Olivia Wilde) undressing in her bedroom, which didn’t make it into the film. I noticed there’s a little concept art from that scene on the “second screen,” which I thought was funny.

EB:  I think the (“second screen”) iPad app is fantastic. Being able to watch the film and look behind the scenes and see artwork, and even early development that we’ve done — and quotes from the director, actors, actresses, producers, etc. — that’s fantastic. It’s like when you went and saw “Star Wars” as a kid, and you wanted more, and you didn’t know where to get it, and it wasn’t available. Now it’s just like pull up your iPad and watch it along with the film.

Joseph Kosinski. (Getty Imags)

Joseph Kosinski. (Getty Imags)

JW:  Now that you’re revisiting the movie on Blu-ray, what is your favorite scene or sequence?

JK: I really love the escape route sequence, which is basically from the moment that Quorra picks Sam up in the Light Runner to the point they get to Flynn’s (Bridges) hideout. That whole musical track (by Daft Punk) and escape from the Lightcycle grid was one I got to go back to at Skywalker and really remix because I never got the orchestra to sound exactly like I wanted, and now I think it’s probably my favorite sequence. We just went back in January and basically remixed the whole movie and fixed about 100 things that were bugging me — whether it was missing sound elements or things were mis-timed, or the mix was a little bit off. I got the opportunity to go back and really tweak it out, which was really gratifying.

JW: What were some of the main moments that you wanted changed that people can listen  for?

JK: A lot of the “derezzes” — we upped the impact, the screams… just to make them a little more visceral. We changed the music mix on the Solar Sailer sequence. Some of the effects were off at the portal — they were kind of mis-timed. And then, just pushing the low end (bass) on a lot of stuff… this Blu-ray will really put your home theater system to the test because it’s a massive, massive mix. It’s a great reason to go out there and upgrade your system!

JW: I have a pretty hard core 7.1 setup — and the Blu-ray just sounds phenomenal.

JK: Good!

JW: You’ve said before that this is a reference Blu-ray and DVD disc now for Lucasfilm?

JK: That’s what the guys at Skywalker said. This is the new standard, which is exciting. For a long time, it was “The Fifth Element,” so it’d be nice to be thought of as the audio/visual reference for awhile.

"Tron: Legacy" producer Steven Lisberger (Disney)

SL: Favorite scene or sequence? From “Tron: Legacy” — the portal where Sam Flynn does the right thing and puts the disc over his head, which I think echoes Alan and Tron communicating at the I/O Tower in the first film. For me, the cornerstone of “Tron” is the relationship between users and programs, which is symbolic of trying to communicate and get in touch with the highest version of yourself — that heroic moment, and when that connection gets made. I love the way that works in both films… and then of course, the Lightcycles, which no one really expected were going to become as iconic as they have, and I’ve thought about it, and I guess what it really is a symbol of is sort of the coolest, sexiest version of man becoming one with his technology… and the speed and everything that comes with that technology is embodied in that Lightcycle.

EB: Wow… it’s like saying which is your favorite child… You know, I told Joe this when I saw a rough cut — for me, and it’s probably because I didn’t have to see it 190 times — my favorite sequence is still the safe house sequence — when Sam gets to meet his father that he hasn’t seen for a long, long time. It has the least amount of visual effects in it, so I didn’t have to constantly go over every pixel of it, and I felt like that’s the emotional center of the film.  I love the disc game sequence, I love the Lightcycles — and I think the light jets sequence looks fantastic — it’s like being a kid in a candy store… and I love the return to Tron City with Sam’s riding the old Lightcycle. That looks really great. I’m biased!

(Disney)

JW: “Tron” has gone through various home video transfer incarnations over the years, and now with its debut on Blu-ray, it looks remarkably vibrant, like it was shot yesterday. What was done in this transfer process?

SL: We went all the way back to the 70mm and Vista Vision negatives, and we started right from there. We went through it frame by frame, cleaned it up and rebalanced it. It’s like I died and went to movie heaven — to be able to go back and revisit this and use these new tools…. It’s something I never would have anticipated I would be able to do with the first film.

JW: There’s a new featurette on the “Tron” Blu-ray where you and your son, Carl, go to the Disney archives to look at production photographs of when you made the original “Tron.” You both share a great retrospective talk on the making of the movie. What can you tell me about that?

SL: Yeah… how good is that? We get to play Sam Flynn and Kevin Flynn and we’re pretty much the same ages as those guys.

JW: It’s an interesting parallel there isn’t it?

SL: Yeah — it’s very cool… Carl has grown up with “Tron.”  I like to say that he’s seen several Disney executives go from dark hair to gray hair in the course of the “Tron” years. I think one of his first “Tron” meetings happened when he was about 14. What happened on that bonus feature is not really different from what Carl and I have been doing — so that was just another day in the life.

JW: It seemed very much like an “act of discovery” when you both were looking at the photographs. Was it the first time you’d seen some of those photographs for a long while?

SL: Yes — Carl had gone through a lot of my stuff , but this was the first we had really gone in depth through at the Disney archives. We’re actually scheduled to go back out there and do more of that “archaeological artwork dig” to see what else we can find.

JW: There’s the animated series “Tron: Uprising” that’s in the pipeline, and a trailer for it is featured along with the “Tron: Legacy” bonus material.  Bruce Boxleitner mentioned to me recently that he’s been voice recording his character of Tron for the project. Are you involved in the series?

SL: A little bit… I play a figurehead role there and try and give everyone encouragement when I can. I think it looks phenomenal. I really like the 2-D – 3-D mix — I think that’s perfect for “Tron”… and Elijah Wood is in it, I really like his work…. I’m excited about seeing the show.

JK: The writers (Adam Horowitz and Eddy Kitsis) and co-producer (Justin Springer) on “Legacy” are kind of overseeing that — and that takes place before the events of our film. It’s really to introduce the kids of this generation, the Disney XD kids, to this world, and it’ll debut next year.

JW: In the bonus feature, “The Next Day: Flynn Lives Revealed,” on the “Tron: Legacy” Blu-ray, there’s a 10-minute, epilogue-type of film to the “Tron: Legacy” movie and some additional hidden “Easter egg” film bits. Among those is an instant messaging chat session between the Dillingers that leads one to believe that they’ll be in “Tron 3.” What can you tell me about these epilogue elements and when were they filmed?

JK: Some of it was filmed while we were shooting the movie — some of it was filmed after. The “Tron” universe is so much bigger than “Legacy” — we’ve designed a whole mythology that connects the two films, but also expands beyond it — so “The Next Day” film was an opportunity to tell some of those parallel stories and talk a little bit about the events that happened right after the end of our film and laid the groundwork for some exciting “springboard” stories that could come in future chapters, the Dillingers being an important one. That was established with the first film (with David Warner as Ed Dillinger/Sark ), and we got to keep that alive with Ed Dillinger Jr.  (Cillian Murphy) in the ENCOM boardroom in “Legacy.” I think that is going to be an important part of the next chapter.

Sark aka Ed Dillinger in "Tron." (Disney)

David Warner as Sark in "Tron" (Disney)

JW: There are many Easter eggs from “Tron” interspersed throughout “Tron: Legacy.” What’s your favorite?

JK: I do have to say I like the MCP (Master Control Program) pencil holder that was in Flynn’s lab — that was a fun one to stick in there. There’s also some classic, original “Tron” figurines that look new in young Sam Flynn’s bedroom scene — with old and aged versions of them then in (adult) Sam’s apartment, hidden behind the fridge there that I think you might get a glimpse of. The writers of “Tron: Legacy” — Adam Horowitz and Eddy Kitsis — who are also from Lost, hid the “Lost” secret numbers somewhere, so you’ll have to look for those. There’s a hidden Mickey in there… (as a parallel to having the hidden Mickey in the first “Tron” movie).

JW: Where is the hidden Mickey?

JK: It’s hidden… if I told you, it wouldn’t be hidden!

JW: But he is there?

JL: Yeah — it’s very hidden…

JW: Where does “Tron 3″ stand at this point?

Tron in 1982's "Tron." (Disney)

Bruce Boxleitner in "Tron" (Disney)

JK: We’re pulling together ideas. We’ve got some ideas we’re really excited about. Obviously, we hinted at a lot of opportunities at the end of our film in that final scene between Sam and Quorra. We’re at the script stage, and we want to develop the right story and the right script and make sure we can get the right team together for Disney to make that decision sometime in the future.

SL: We really have a lot of work to do to see what’s possible… but I have, as you know, a great deal of faith in the Users. It’s a challenge. As one of the creative people involved with it, it’s our job to put something in front of Disney that Disney can’t say “no” to, but it’s their decision. There’s so many threads that can be picked up on now. A lot of the hard work has been done to get to this point and now it’s time to capitalize on it if we get a chance.

JW: So, if you had a name in the digital world, what would it be? What would be the color of your circuitry and your choice of transportation?

JK: Wow. Let’s see… my mode of transportation would definitely be Flynn’s old Lightcycle. It’s still the fastest vehicle on the Grid, so that was my favorite. Circuitry wise, since I am aligned with the Users, I guess I’d be white…. and the name? Let’s see, that’s tough… you know we tried to kinda base all of our names on famous computer pioneers, so I’ll go with… Babbage.

"Tron: Legacy" (Disney)

SL:  Well… I’m partial of course… I love the new Lightcycles, but I’ll always be partial to the original Syd Mead design. The disc for me is the Mandala. That is the real weapon, the power of self. So I would take that bike, the disc… I like the updated discs, but I have some modifications in mind.

JW: Can you talk about that?

SL: No… and in terms of circuitry color, you know I’ll always be partial I think to the original blue. So much effort went into that color scheme work that I can’t let it go… and my name: “User One,” which is also the name of my production company.

EB: Wow — that’s a hard one. Only because I’m a control freak, I’d have to be the Master Control Program. As far as color, having “lived” in this world, it’d be nice to see a different color… but I’d probably choose the white, because of the contrast — and then vehicle… I love the old-school Lightcycle… and as a kid, I remember the scene where CLU is in the tank, and I love those tanks! So… I’d probably want to take one of the new tanks out for spin.

– Jay West

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