In Like Flynn: TRON Legacy Producer on Preserving the Original TRON dna and More

TRON Legacy

It’s the long-awaited sequel to the iconic 80s cyber-funk film phenomenon that ‘cheated’ (because it used computers); yes, it’s darker and more badass; yes, it’s got Jeff ‘The Dude’ Bridges (at two different ages, no less — a neat trick, if you can do it); and no, it doesn’t give a neon-blue damn about your Internet.

For a broadening experience, just try being the one guy from a pub like h+ attending the D23 Expo — the first-ever official, Mouse-sanctioned gathering of enthusiasts for all things Disney (in the Anaheim Convention Center, in fact, right smack across the street from the You-Know-Whatest Place on Earth). If your fellow attendees are at all hip to your gig, they almost seem a little uncomfortable at first — as if you might be there to somehow mock the proceedings or sully them with some tech-elitist ‘tude, or perhaps to sneak in some ‘transhumanist’ substances, or Walt only knows what.

But soon it becomes clear that a distinct sub-group of people kind of like you have gravitated to the frontmost rows of the large theater dedicated to TRON: Legacy… and suddenly certain things start making perfect sense.

There are fans here that know everything there is to know about Steamboat Willie; folks who have devoted their lives to the history of the Disney theme parks around the world. There are people who have come purely for the Hannah Montana merchandise opportunities… and then there’s this crowd… alarmingly thin laptops under their arms; sleek and not-so-discreet Bluetooth headsets like Borg implants, and a barely-discernible something about the eyes, age-set, hair-style and/or fashion sense that says they need to see what twenty-seven years of technology and fractal pop-cultural fireworks — with perhaps a dash of perfectly-healthy world-wariness — has done to the funky-neon trip of the TRON universe.

“We came out of Boston. We were an animation studio and TRON was supposed to be our Mickey Mouse. I figured out that if you had an animation studio, you needed a character that was yours. We were into the neon look of the ’70s and the ’80s, with a little bit of the ’60s, and we drew a neon warrior.” That’s Steven Lisberger—director of the original TRON and co-producer (along with Sean Bailey) of TRON: Legacy. He’s a rather direct, hairy dude whose eyes, bearded face and general demeanor seem to be saying, “Look, I’m delighted by your enthusiasm, but I’ve really got a lot of balls in the air right now, and I haven’t slept in about eight weeks, so if we could keep things moving, I’d be much obliged.” He’s sort of the gruff, grizzled Bad Cop to Sean Bailey’s boyish, ever-smiling Good Cop. Together, they are the paired avatars heralding TRON’s evolution from one-hit 1980s special-effects wonder to long-awaited, 21st-century geek-culture killer app.

Mike Bonifer. Photo credit: gamechangers.comNear the end of D23’s first day, Lisberger and Bailey are doing an extensive onstage chat, moderated by GameChangers  (See "Resources") founder and CEO Mike Bonifer, — who was also publicist for the first movie — about the history and new directions of TRON. Not just any new directions, but new directions that enlist the talents of nerdsphere heavyweights like Syd Mead, Daft Punk and Moebius to give the TRON technos an altogether darker, grittier, cyberpunk branding.

“The tone of the first film reflects a certain naïve idealism," explains Lisbeger, "This [new] film reflects the temperament of Joe Kosinski, our director, our young writers, and Sean Bailey, my fellow producer — those who have a more realistic point of view of the upsides and downsides of technology and cyberspace.”

So first off, the gist of TRON Legacy: 27-year-old Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund), the son of Kevin Flynn (role reprised by Jeff Bridges), investigates his father’s disappearance — only to be pulled into the virtual world of lethal games and deadly programs that his father has called home for the previous quarter-century.

Picking up from the events of the 1982 movie and moving forward into a world/story line that isn’t quite ours, Legacy gives the audience glimpses of the march of time as it occurs (has occurred? Will occur?) in the TRON universe. Clues that something has definitely changed in this world include a much more gladiatorial, bloodthirsty Discs tournament (a sort of Circuits Maximus, if you will) that sets a significantly more ominous tone for what The System has become (also, apparently, something Big — and presumably Bad — happened in the virtual universe in the year 1989).

Steven Lisberger and Sean Bailey, onstage at D23 Expo with Mike Bonifer:
On Making TRON a reality at Disney.

MIKE BONIFER: What I remember was this giant three-ring binder, and it must have had 500 pages. It was script, it was concept art… and all of a sudden, there was this buzz. What exactly happened to make it real at Disney?

TRON Original Movie Poster. Photo credit: io9.comSTEVEN LISBERGER: We tried to make it independently, but we didn’t have the money. We ended up going broke trying to make it. We had it storyboarded and scripted. We had sample computer animation from a couple of guys at MIT. We were ready to go. We just needed the money. TRON represented a new world. It represented a new frontier — a chance to get to this place… cyberspace, first. It was great.

On how Tron became a divide between the analog and digital worlds:

SL: You were never supposed to see these early black-and-white pre-production images [being displayed, for the first time, on the large theater screen behind them], but now they’re out. Everything in the film got hand-tinted. We shot it in black and white, completely analog, 70mm, and we blew up every single frame to a photograph the size of a place mat and we re-photographed the entire movie. There was 600,000 frames, when you added all the different effects. So you got all the benefits of doing animation… but in a live-action film. And we did it all in nine months. It had never been done before. So there were so many ‘firsts,’ it was really exciting.

MB: So at the time, there were literally like three computers in the world that could crunch the numbers to do this, right?

SL: …and one of them was a Defense Department computer called a Foonly box, which was in Culver City. It was the highest-resolution one we had. We didn’t really know what we were doing. If felt right, and we had such talented people that we knew it was gonna work out somehow… but, we really were breaking ground all the time.

I saw the first finished test frame of TRON when I was halfway through shooting it. Up to that point, I never knew what it was really going to look like. There were parts of it that were done at the last minute. Some of the old-timers at Disney came up to me and said, “this is actually what it felt like in the old days, when Walt was around.” The misconception is that Disney Studios always knew exactly what it was doing when it made those animated films and special effects films. It wasn’t like that at all. There was always the risk, all the time, where they never quite knew if they were gonna pull it off.

Anything that had to do with computers back then was potentially the enemy — the enemy of animation, the enemy of film and TRON. The year it came out, 1982, it was not nominated by the Academy Awards for special effects because they said we cheated when we used computers. [low moan from the audience]

On some of the key talent for TRON Legacy:

SL: We got a chance to bring in the two people that we idolized: Syd Mead, the industrial designer [applause]. I’ve known him for decades now and he is just one of the most talented people that God has ever made… or that we have evolved. And Moebius came over from France and he helped with the storyboard design. He was just amazing, too. The two of them were complete opposites. They barely talked to each other. And they ended up, in some instances, stealing the other one’s gig. We brought in Moebius specifically for the costumes. And one day Syd said: “I have some ideas for the costumes.” And we basically went with his costumes. And one day Moebius came in and said: “I don’t like the Solar Sailer you’ve got.” And he did the Solar Sailer… which was supposed to be Syd’s gig.

On picking up on the TRON ‘DNA’ for TRON Legacy:

Sean BaileySEAN BAILEY: We were really fortunate. When I got involved with the movie five years ago, we found a filmmaker named Joe Kosinski. Joe made a couple of very smart decisions. He basically asked, “who are those folks out there today who are the most exciting designers, irrespective of whether they’re in the movie business?” So we brought in a guy named Daniel Simon, one of the most bleeding-edge auto designers in Germany. We brought in a guy named David Levy — he’s primarily an architecture guy. And Joe basically told them that there is already incredible design in TRON (the ’82 movie). Look at the Light Cycle, look at the Recognizer. If you look at a Porsche 911 from 1968, and you look at one now, you can tell they’re the same vehicle. There’s no reason to mess with the fundamental DNA of the design. But how do we take it and evolve it? Our understanding was that the original design of the Light Cycle had an exposed rider… but we didn’t have the computer rendering-power to do it at the time. And so we all sat down and said “that’s what we’re doing.”

SL: There’s almost a feeling that, when we made the first film, it was a wide-open frontier, and we could do anything. We didn’t have to worry about making it ‘real,’ or what this tech really meant specifically in our lives. Now it’s 25 years later, and it’s a different time for a different generation that actually lives with this sort of technology every day and has to incorporate it. So it’s a little like cyberspace is the same, but it’s moved on from being a frontier to a place where civilization really exists.

Jeff Bridges - TRON 2. Photo credit: globalhipstr.blogspot.comOn casting/hiring Jeff Bridges:

SL: Well, Jeff actually was The Dude, even back then. Some other people were saying “What…what is this? A video game… movie? Out of Disney Studios? I can not do that.” But Jeff read the script, came out to the office and said: “This is far out!” He said, “I want to do this.” And I thought… that’s good. I thought he was going to leave and we’d talk about it some more later. But he said, “So, do I have the gig or not?” And I said, “You’ve got the gig!” I walked out and told the executives and the other producers: “I just hired him.” They said, “you didn’t even talk to us!”

On the world and ‘The System’ portrayed in the new movie:

SB: Story wise, we all sat down and said, “let’s make this a stand-alone sequel," meaning that you don’t have to have seen the ’82 film. We’re going to accept that the events of the 1982 film happened — that Flynn went in, battled the MCP, and came out and that ENCOM exists. So we’ve built all the intervening mythology between ’82 and 2010. This movie takes place in 2010 and deals with Kevin Flynn’s son, Sam Flynn, and events have really changed, both inside the System and in the world outside.

Another choice that we made collectively — and that I really like — is that this isn’t a movie about the internet. We’re going to say that this system of TRON — this universe that Steven created — existed in a world on its own, sort of like the Galapagos Islands. This is a universe unto itself. We’re going into another world. This isn’t about the World Wide Web at all.

SL: It’s almost like Flynn got to create the future of the internet… but only his version. It’s his own little fiefdom. His virtual world.

SD: I don’t know how you read a script of TRON and say “Okay, let’s go hire a director.” We have to do visual R&D as well. Joe said something that I love: “Steven and his team, because of the times, were forced to use practical tools to try and create a world that looked digital; what I want to do is to use digital tools to create a world that looks like a photograph.”

On the most commonly asked question (the involvement of Daft Punk):

We scan Jeff Bridges today, and in real time his scan pops up on the screen and he’s in the game grid as this digital entity: We made that up in the first film!

SB: My job on this movie was made a heck of a lot easier by what these guys did. We announced the movie was coming and that we’d hired Joe. One day a phone call came in: “Hey, Daft Punk wants to meet you to talk about TRON.” So we met them out at the 101 Cafe. I honestly didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know what was gonna happen — these guys have never been seen without their helmets. Sure enough, we walked in and there are some French guys in the corner. They were so diligent: We must have met a dozen times before we all looked at each other and shook hands and said “Okay, let’s go do this.” They wanted to know everything. They’re holed up in Hollywood for the next year… we’ve heard a lot of the initial cues. These guys are amazing artists and we feel very fortunate. There’s definitely going to be a soundtrack.

On TRON’s success… and ‘calling it’:

SL: The numbers for TRON didn’t live up to ET (ET: The Extraterrestrial), the main competition at the time, leading to rumors it didn’t make any money. But compared to E.T., nothing made any money. The CGI business was built on the back on TRON.

It’s amazing how true it all became. We scan Jeff Bridges today, and in real time his scan pops up on the screen and he’s in the game grid as this digital entity: We made that up in the first film! There was no such thing.

On the game-grid with producer Steven Lisberger: The h+ Interview

CHRIS HUDAK/h+: TRON blew people away with a look they had never seen. But audiences of the day weren’t necessarily ‘sophisticated,’ at least in terms of the technology. How would you characterize the challenges now—not only in terms of producing a wallop of a look, but in confronting audiences that are much more jaded or ‘sophisticated’?

Steven Lisberger. Photo credit: sydmead.comSTEVEN LISBERGER: A couple of things I could say about that: One is something that I said to Thomas [of Daft Punk], that he enjoyed — that the challenge in the day of the first film was to make anything look slick and perfect. It was almost impossible — everything started to revert to Funky Analog all over the place. Today, we sort of face an opposite problem. If you’re not careful, things look too slick and too perfect and it’s difficult sometimes to get certain funkiness — a certain analog feel — into it. I think that the challenge of dealing with a more sophisticate audience — a more jaded audience — is one of the reasons why it took this young team to make TRON Legacy.

I come from an era where there was a great deal of idealism. When we approached cyberspace, it was potentially a paradise. We felt that if we could overthrow the MCP, the mainframe computer if we could get everybody online. If we could get everybody in cyberspace, getting their programs and their identities out there, getting whatever they needed… the world would be Heaven. We didn’t anticipate spam. We didn’t anticipate internet porn and we didn’t anticipate piracy.

This generation has a much more realistic point of view. They’ve had to take a more realistic point of view. And I think that the team that made this film is just as sophisticated at their audience, so I think this works out really well.

h+: In the original TRON, it didn’t seem like anybody was overly concerned about how things “really” worked, in terms of the relationship between the presented technology and what the characters were doing. Is there any more attention to that in this movie? Or is it more: “We’re not going to worry about that so much, but just pay attention to the story”?

SL: I think the focus is more on story and metaphor than it is on trying to be too literal about what the relationship is between the characters and what they represent technologically. I think that it’s evolved past that. I think that it is, in some ways, more subtle and more sophisticated. It involves less of the basic iconics that we dealt with in the first film, where everything was The First of everything. It’s now multiple generations later, and characters and the technology are both way past where they were.

TRON Legacy

h+: The tone of this new movie, at least from what we’ve seen so far in the trailers and so on is much darker and grittier. What are some of the key influences — say, cyberpunk in general, or the fiction of William Gibson in particular.

SL [already nodding at where I’m going]: I would say that, again, the tone of first film reflects a certain naïve idealism. This film reflects the temperament of Joe Kosinski, our director, our young writers and Sean Bailey, my fellow produce — those who have a more realistic view of the upsides and downsides of technology and cyberspace. I think the story deals with the question — where are Flynn’s Allegiances? Are they with technology or are they with flesh and bone?

h+: Daft Punk sort of came to you guys and said, “Hey, we want in on this!” I’m wondering what that kind of Close Encounter was like, and how their input may have influenced elements of the film or vice-versa.

SL: Well, Daft Punk is Daft Punk. They’re obviously French — and you’re dealing with a mystery inside of an enigma wrapped inside of an artist wrapped inside of a genius, so I’m not going to try to unravel that onion. But whatever the forces are that brought them to us, and whatever the forces are that we had that enabled… I know that Joe worked very hard at creating this relationship with Daft Punk. It’s a beautiful marriage. Daft Punk has offered to get involved with all the sound in the movie, not just the music. They seem to have gotten off on a really good direction, and it just keeps building.

Daft Punk - TRON 2. Photo credit: globalhipstr.blogspot.com

h+: As soon as people saw the first movie, they wanted to run out and ride the Light Cycles and throw the Discs. And in a sense, they were able to do that with the TRON arcade game. With the new movie, is there a deliberate aspect of the design where you thought: “We know that new games are going to come out of this, so let’s introduce a new game-centric element”?

SL: All media are converging in a systemic way. I don’t even think there’s a line there, anymore. It’s almost like you have to work to divide them otherwise they’re just going to flow into each other like droplets of mercury. I think it’s all so overlapping at this point that it happens on its own momentum. You can’t stop it… you’d have to try and stop it. We’re all on the game-grid now. Movies have been affected by games; games have been affected by movies. Certainly they are still different media, but the underlying mythology and the underlying tools that they both draw from and take advantage come from the same source.

TRON Legacy is scheduled to be released to theaters in December, 2010.

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