‘Tron’ team reflects on ‘Legacy,’ technology and spirituality

April 22, 2011 | 5:18 p.m.
tron2 Tron team reflects on Legacy, technology and spirituality

"Tron" from 1982 (Walt Disney Studios)

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 past year for Hero Complex on all things considering the Grid. He checks in once again on a pair of L.A. events that illuminated the growing (and glowing) legacy of the 1982 film.

In the month prior to its debut on Blu-ray, the original 1982 “Tron” movie was explored at two landmark Los Angeles events. First was a sold-out 70mm showing at the Aero Theatre on March 5 where its filmmakers discussed the challenges of the film’s production and the development of its pioneering visual effects and techniques. That was followed by the Directors Guild of America on March 12 — where the same group of filmmakers regrouped and further expounded upon the film, there joined by the filmmakers of its visually stunning 2010 sequel: “Tron: Legacy” — which also just premiered on Blu-Ray — and who also discussed their unique challenges in the sequel’s production, and the cutting-edge techniques they utilized to realize the movie’s state-of-the-art visual effects.

The packed screening of “Tron” at the Aero Theatre was both a time of discovery by persons seeing the movie for the first time, as well as a welcome reentry for previous “passengers” into its highly stylized digital fantasy world.  There was a “charged atmosphere” (pun not intended but certainly appropriate!) — with hoops, hollers and applause erupting in the audience throughout the movie. After the lights came up, audience members were asked by the filmmakers’ panel moderator — Gene Kozicki of the Visual Effects Society: “How many saw this on the screen for the first time tonight?” — to which about 55% of the audience raised their hands. Another question asked: “Who here was born after 1982?” (the year of the movie’s initial release) — and here too, it was an almost 50/50 ratio, with both men and women of various ages responding.

tron aero panel group photo Tron team reflects on Legacy, technology and spirituality

From left: Harrison Ellenshaw - VFX supervisor, Richard Taylor - VFX supervisor, Steven Lisberger - writer/director, Bill Kroyer - computer image choreography & storyboards, John Scheele -- technical effects supervisor. (Jay West)

The “Tron” filmmakers took the stage and engaged the audience with stories of the context and challenging history of how the movie was brought to fruition — and often shared humorous anecdotes.

Here’s the men who brought the original “Tron” movie to life:

Steven Lisberger – writer/director. Lisberger produced and directed award-winning commercials, documentaries and animated programming before creating “Animalympics,” an animated parody of the 1980 Olympic Games that aired as a special during the Summer and Winter Games. He then went on to write and direct the ground-breaking “Tron,” and introduced the world to cyberspace and the pioneering use of computer graphics, virtual sets and back-lit effects. After “Tron,” Lisberger wrote and directed the very low-tech “Hot Pursuit” starring John Cusack, then helmed “Slipstream,” starring Mark Hamill and Bill Paxton. Most recently, he served as a writer and producer of “Tron: Legacy.”

Harrison Ellenshaw – visual effects supervisor. Ellenshaw began his film career in the 1970s as an apprentice matte artist at Disney Studios. In 1974, he created visual effects for “The Man Who Fell To Earth,” then did the matte paintings for “Star Wars” and worked on “The Black Hole,” which received an Oscar nomination for visual effects. In 1980, he supervised matte paintings for “The Empire Strikes Back.” He also worked on “Superman IV,” “Ghost” and “Dick Tracy,” as well as the 3-D theme park film “Captain EO” — which is currently experiencing a renaissance playing at Disney theme parks worldwide. From 1990 to 1996, Ellenshaw headed Buena Vista Visual Effects. He also supervised the first all-digital restoration of a feature film, the classic “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

Richard Taylor – visual effects supervisor. Taylor received four Clio awards for his work on the 7UP Bubbles, 7UP Un-Cola and Levi’s Trademark commercials. He worked on “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and in 1980 became the creative director at Information International Inc. He has been the cinematic director at Electronic Arts and directed cinematic sequences for “The Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle Earth” and its sequel. Recent work includes “Shrek 4,” Turner Classic Movies, Disney and Ubisoft Games. Presently, he is the director of XLNT FX. Taylor serves as vice-chair of the Visual Effects Society.

Bill Kroyer – computer image choreography & storyboards. Kroyer was trained in hand-drawn animation at Disney before taking on the role of  Computer Image Choreographer on “Tron.” He pioneered the technique of combining hand-drawn animation with computer animation on projects including his Academy Award-nominated short “Technological Threat” and the animated film “Ferngully: The Last Rainforest.” As senior animation director at Rhythm & Hues Studios, Kroyer directed animation on many commercials, as well as feature films like “Cats and Dogs,” “Garfield” and “Scooby Doo.” He serves as director of Digital Arts at Chapman University and co-chairs the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Science and Technology Council.

John Scheele — technical effects supervisor. Scheele has worked on a number of effects-driven movies and television shows. He served as visual effects consultant on “The Last Starfighter” and handled motion control and visual effects on “Dick Tracy” and “Darkman.” Scheele was a senior visual effects supervisor and vice president of visual effects at Warner Bros. from 1993-1998, and films he worked on at that time included “Batman Forever” and “The Devil’s Advocate.” Scheele has also been the visual effects supervisor on projects such as “World Trade Center” and the 2007 final cut version of “Blade Runner.”

Here now is your “front row seat” via exclusive Hero Complex footage of the filmmakers’ panel at the Aero Theatre event — approximately 25 minutes of highlights from the discussion — with topics including: the inspiration for the story of “Tron”; the limitations of the technology the filmmakers had to deal with — including the use of only one computer on the Disney lot; the reaction by one of Walt Disney’s “Nine Old Men” to a screening of the film; the spiritual components of the movie; and how the movie predicted much of the technology that is used today.

The DGA event “From ‘Tron’ to ‘Tron: Legacy’ – Game Changing Moments in the Art of VFX” occurred the week after the Aero screening and featured a first-time synergy of both directors and filmmakers involved with each film being present for an event. While no video or audio recording was allowed, here is an exclusive Hero Complex photo that commemorates that pivotal gathering.

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Team "Tron" (Jay West)

— Jay West


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