Well over a decade before Woody the Cowboy, Buzz Lightyear, and the cast of Toy Story were a glint in the pixel of a computer’s eye, a young animator named John Lasseter sat in wide-eyed wonder in a movie theater.
It was 1982, and Lasseter watched a scene from a new movie called Tron. “It blew me away!” remembered Lasseter in a 1999 interview. “A little door in my mind opened up. I looked at it and said, ‘This is it! This is the future!'”
Many in and outside of the film industry felt the same way. Approaching its 41st anniversary this summer, Tron signaled the start of a new age, the computer age, of filmmaking. Today, computer-generated imagery (CGI) is commonplace and a part of almost every film production.
Tron was the flashpoint for all we see today.
Directed by Steve Lisberger, Tron combined live-action and animation as it told the story of a computer hacker and video game arcade owner named Kevin Flynn (played by Jeff Bridges), who finds himself struck by a digital laser and transported inside a computer.
Here, he is in a digital world ruled by the Master Control Program (MCP) and his evil henchman, Sark (David Warner). With the help of a security program named Tron (Bruce Boxleitner) and Yori (Cindy Morgan), an input/output program, Flynn must destroy the MCP and free the system from its control.
In a nice, Wizard of Oz-like touch, the computer programs resemble the humans (and portrayed by the same actors) in the real world who created them.
Tron was the brainchild of Lisberger, an animator (he conceived and produced Animalympics for NBC), who was fascinated with video games. He and his producing partner, Donald Kushner, spent two years researching the technology used in the film.
Computer graphics had been used in films before Tron (such as Westworld and Star Wars), but not to the extent they were utilized here. As this was the very early days of CGI, this came with its time-consuming challenges. Lisberger told writer Susan King of Variety in 2017: “There was no movement. Computers could only generate individual frames. There was no way to digitally put them on film, so you actually set up a motion picture camera in front of the computer screen, and you filmed it frame by frame. Some of the frames took hours to generate.”For the live-action scenes, the actors in costumes were filmed in black and white, and then the “backlit animation” process was used. This is another laborious process where animation mattes have lights shining behind them to create a glow effect.
Of course, with four decades of advancements, many may feel that Tron has an aged feel to it. However, watching the now-iconic light cycle race, or scenes with the Solar Sailer, one feels the same sense of jaw-dropping wonder that Mr. Lasseter felt in 1982.
There’s a genuine appreciation for Tron. The smooth, flowing movements seen here had seemed out of reach until this film.
Unfortunately, this appreciation didn’t reach audiences or critics at the time. While some, like Roger Ebert, awarded the film the highest honor of four stars, others were not so kind. Variety felt that the film “…falls way short of the mark in story and viewer involvement.”
It was a modest box-office success (E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial was the behemoth summer movie that year and ruled at theaters). While the merchandise associated with the film did well, Tron was seen as a financial disappointment.
However, the impact and influence of the film on the industry would be felt for years after, as it served as the gateway for so many into the possibilities of computer animation. Additionally, a cult following from fans swelled through the years into mainstream popularity for the film.
By 2010, the Disney Studio embraced this delayed admiration. It produced the long-awaited sequel, Tron: Legacy, which brought back Jeff Bridges, Bruce Boxleitner, and the world of the original, now brought back to life in our anything-is-possible era of CGI.
In the 2017 Variety article, director Lisberger reflected on Tron. Forty years later, his words still stand as testament to the film’s legacy: “Tron, said Lisberger, is ‘so idealistic. It was the digital frontier, and we were seeing it and exploring it for the first time. We were very, very idealistic, and you can feel that when you watch Tron.”