We’re living in a period of human history where computers have taken over every aspect of our lives. In some ways that are good and in some ways that are bad. Interestingly enough, stories about the blurry line between the good and the bad of our reliance on computers have existed since the earliest days of the digital age. One of the most famous examples being the movie Tron, a film about a computer program that goes rogue and traps other programs, and even a human, in a digital kingdom known as the Grid. But that’s not the only thing about the film that was ahead of its time. It was groundbreaking for multiple reasons.
The story of Tron focuses on a software engineer and former employee of a computer megacorporation called ENCOM named Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) who in the present day runs a video game arcade. Flynn attempts to hack into ENCOM’s mainframe system because he suspects ENCOM of plagiarizing the video games that he designed, but his access is continually denied, the culprit being the Master Control Program, a rogue power-hungry A.I. that monitors ENCOM’s mainframe. Current ENCOM employees Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) and his girlfriend Dr. Lora Baines (Cindy Morgan) decide to team up with Flynn to break into ENCOM and launch a security program created by Bradley called “Tron,” which will allow Flynn to bypass the MCP, but while Flynn is attempting to hack the system in the ENCOM building, the MCP zaps Flynn into cyberspace using an experimental digitizing laser invented by ENCOM co-founder Dr. Walter Gibbs (Barnard Hughes). As a result, Flynn ends up inside the computer in a digital kingdom where programs walk and talk like humans.
While Flynn is in cyberspace, he finds out the programs (which all resemble the human users who created them and are played by the same actors) are being dictated over by the MCP and its second-in-command Sark (David Warner) and being forced to compete in deadly games, although in this place death is called “deresolution.” While in the MCP’s captivity, Flynn teams up with the programs Tron (Bruce Boxleitner), Yori (Cindy Morgan) and Ram (Dan Shor) to escape the Grid and defeat the MCP once and for all.
The man behind this movie was Steven Lisberger, born in New York City in 1951 and later raised in Hazelton, Pennsylvania. While still attending the Massachusetts private research university Tufts University, Lisberger founded his own film studio Lisberger Studios. His first noteworthy project was the surreal 10-minute animated film Cosmic Cartoon (1973), which earned Lisberger a Student Academy Award nomination and a spot in the 1977 anthology film Fantastic Animation Festival.
Most of the work done by Lisberger Studios in the seventies was for commercials and title sequences, although the studio made an animated feature film in 1980 called Animalympics, which featured cartoon animals parodying summer and winter olympic games and voice work from comedians Billy Crystal, Gilda Radner and Harry Shearer. It aired for the first time on NBC the same year the network was covering the 1980 Summer Olympics, but it was shown theatrically outside the U.S.
The origin of Tron as a character began with a character Lisberger created for various logos and radio station promos his studio produced who, like the Tron from the movie, was neon-lit against a dark backdrop and also liked to throw a disc around. The backlit animation style was en vogue in the age when disco was popular.
The style was even similar to the aesthetic of classic video games, which brings us to the origin of Tron as a movie. Lisberger was fascinated by video games when he saw Pong (1972) for the first time, and being the storyteller that Lisberger is, he envisioned an Alice-in-Wonderland-like tale of a human entering the world of a video game. Lisberger originally intended to make Tron a traditionally animated film but he changed his mind and decided to portray the computer world with live-action actors and computer animation. This digital medium had advanced well enough that it was finally beginning to be used widely across Hollywood in the eighties.
San Francisco writer Bonnie MacBird wrote the very first drafts of the film, taking inspiration from computer science consultant and future husband Alan Kay for her story ideas and creating the movie version of the Tron character and an early version of Kevin Flynn, but the film went through a lot of changes that abandoned some of MacBird’s ideas once Disney agreed to finance the film, including making it less comedic and more serious, and making the dialogue filled with less tech science jargon and more religious undertones. Disney, which was the only big Hollywood studio interested in the project, was willing to try something new and more daring at this time to change their reputation in the seventies as a safe and boring company. Tron was not only a big commercial risk but it was also one of the few times Disney contracted established independent filmmakers.
Creative artists like French artist Jean Giraud aka Moebius, industrial designer Syd Mead and freelance illustrator Peter Lloyd established the look of the film by designing the sets, costumes, vehicles and environments of the digital world.
The computer animation was mainly provided by four companies: the California-based Information International, Inc. and Robert Abel and Associates, and the New York-based MAGI and Digital Effects. The process of combining the live actors with a CG world was elaborate, full of challenges and also totally new. The heavy use of computer animation to tell a story is why this film is often cited as a game changer for Hollywood. It was even the first film to feature a speaking computer-animated character, Bit the binary digit who ends up aiding Flynn in his quest and is only capable of saying “yes” and “no.” The character was a memorable and innovative example of vector graphic animation.
The costumes worn by the programs, adorned with neon-like circuitry, was a striking look achieved by the use of a traditional animation technique known as backlit animation, also called backlighting. Examples of which can be seen in many hand-drawn animated films, typically for scenes with lightning, fire, glowing eyes, etc.
Backlit animation required artists to paint an area on the frame black, use the black area as a placeholder before being replaced with a transparent area that’s the same shape where light can shine through. With Tron, the technique was implemented on a much larger scale, not just due to the sheer volume of light effects but due to the combination of live action and animation, which was unprecedented and rarely repeated because of the huge workload it required. It also required the actors to wear white costumes adorned with black lining. The disc weapon, meanwhile, was just a frisby.
Once the electronic score of Wendy Carlos was added to the mix, the film was released in the summer of 1982 and was a moderate financial success but ultimately disappointing for Disney. The general public was baffled by its story because most people didn’t understand a lot about computers yet. Computer geeks loved it though. These days the concept of having a digital avatar is widely understood, but not in the eighties before the web was even invented. As for film critics, they had mixed opinions. The film was clearly beautiful and a technological leap, which was enough for some critics, but others felt the characters and plot were not interesting enough.
Tron gained a strong cult following through the years and it’s more popular today than it was in the decade it was released, which eventually led to Disney greenlighting a sequel called Tron: Legacy which was released in 2010. It features the return of Jeff Bridges and Bruce Boxleitner and introduces Garrett Hedlund as Flynn’s son Sam, Olivia Wilde as digital warrior Quorra and Michael Sheen as fancy club owner Castor aka Zuse. It was a visually impressive sequel filmed in 3D, written by Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis (Lost, Once Upon a Time), directed by Joseph Kosinski (Top Gun: Maverick) and featuring a score by electronic music duo Daft Punk (who make cameo appearances in the film as DJs at Castor’s club). It was heavily promoted by Disney and ended up a box office success which, similarly to the first film, received mixed reviews but an enthusiastic cult following.
Two years later, the animated series Tron: Uprising aired on Disney XD, running for 19 episodes from 2012 to 2013. It takes place between the events of Tron and Tron: Legacy and featured the voice of Elijah Wood as a program named Beck who leads a revolution against the evil program Clu. The voice cast also includes Mandy Moore, Nate Corddry, Lance Henriksen, Reginald VelJohnson and Paul Reubens. It was a short-lived series but it got positive reviews and even won an Emmy for its art direction.
Tron has never really had much of a presence at the Disney theme parks aside from a few references in Tomorrowland, Epcot and Disney California Adventure, but in 2016, a roller coaster called the Tron Lightcycle Power Run opened at Shanghai Disneyland and is scheduled to arrive at the Magic Kingdom in Florida later this year!
And of course there were the video games, including a 1982 arcade game developed by Midway that was even more financially successful than the movie. It consisted of four games in one, each based on a sequence from the film, including I/O Tower, MCP Cone, Light Cycles and Battle Tanks. Midway developed a sequel in 1983 called Discs of Tron which is based on the disc combat from the film, but Monolith Productions (the developers behind the Middle-Earth series) created a video game that was more like a sequel to the film in 2003 called Tron 2.0 released for Microsoft Windows. The first-person shooter got decent reviews but was not popular, and Lisberger went on record saying the game, which differs greatly from the direction of the film sequels, is not official canon. More video games were made by various developers for Disney Interactive, but most were pretty lackluster. Although the characters and the worlds from Tron and Tron: Legacy have made memorable appearances in Square Enix’s Kingdom Hearts series, and elements of Tron can also be seen in the video games Epic Mickey and Disney Infinity.
Tron was bold and risky and a huge advancement for the use of computer animation in movies. Film critic Gene Siskel praised it for modernizing the Disney film at a time where “recent Disney pictures seemed to believe that today’s youngsters were still playing marbles and lagging baseball cards” while other critics accused it of placing special effects ahead of character development. I am someone who thinks the visuals in the original film are much more impressive than the writing. I appreciate the clever premise of a world of programs who view the “users” as their gods, but the story isn’t told in a compelling way. Many critics like Siskel were too dazzled by the exciting look into the future of filmmaking they were witnessing to be bothered by anything else. And I can’t really blame them. There had never been any film like it.