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‘Tron: Legacy’: Jeff Bridges face to face with CG issue

WELCOME TO THE MACHINE: The new Disney film “Tron: Legacy” picks up the story of the 1982 movie “Tron,” which was neither a critical nor a commercial success but somehow still echoes in pop culture as an early signpost of the digital era’s glowing frontier. “Tron” is remembered more for its ideas and images (and its namesake video game) than for its story or characters, and that is a challenge for this new film, which stars Jeff Bridges, Garrett Hedlund and Olivia Wilde. Here, a chat with Bridges and a look at one of the shutterbug’s on-the-set photos…

Thomas Nellen and Jeff Bridges on the set of "Tron:Legacy." (Credit: Jeff Bridges)

Jeff Bridges has three roles in “Tron: Legacy,” and for two of them — a flashback-era Kevin Flynn and a computer-world fascist named CLU — his visage was digitally altered to make the 61-year-old Oscar winner look decades younger. The transformation team was led by Eric Barba, who picked up an Academy Award of his own for the CG work on “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” Bridges dislikes the overuse of CG and the loss of living, breathing performance, but he said he was assured that, in this film, his performance would come shining through. That didn’t make the process any less alien, especially at the point when Bridges left the set of “True Grit” to came back to the “Tron” world.

“It was so bizarre. We did the reshoot on ‘Tron’ just a couple of days after we finished ‘True Grit.’ It was so strange. I had the same make-up man, Thomas Nellen. A couple of days before, he was painting me up for Rooster, and then the next day he’s putting dots on my face for performance-capture stuff, which is very disorienting. The thing you hope for is the performance to come through, and you don’t want the audience distracted.”

Jeff Bridges as CLU in "Tron: Legacy." (Walt Disney Studios)

The filmmakers had some particular challenges in this project. Moviegoers don’t know what “Button” star Brad Pitt will look like as an old man, but they do have years of insight into what Bridges is supposed to look like, so there are steeper expectations right off the bat. CLU and young Flynn also presented profound problems just in amount of screen time and engagement, conversation and combat with other characters.  There was a notable setback too. Make-up master Rick Baker was brought in to manufacture an ultra-realistic likeness of young Bridges, and that head was intended to serve as the base-line model for all the CG work. But the filmmakers decided they couldn’t use it as they had hoped — they needed an even younger version of Bridges, they decided — and a greater percentage of  their sculpting work was done by computer.

The final results left many people cold, frankly. Bridges seemed to search for the right words when asked about the face-to-face issue. There have been some fairly harsh appraisals of the dead-face appearance of CLU in some sequences,  and he wasn’t prepared to argue with them, but he did look for a bright side.  “It does change the way you watch a movie. But for that thing you’re talking about, what greases that a little bit is that in this movie it is a computer world. Things are off a little bit. You’re looking into a different reality. Not everything looks human there.”

— Geoff Boucher


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