My friend Erik Andersen of FilmsInFocus hosts a retro making-of video gem on TRON’s production circa 1982 entitled Computer Realities: a six-minute featurette recognizing TRON’s ground-breaking digital visual effects as a landmark in modern cinema .
Touring Digital Productions in Los Angeles with computer effects wizard John Whitney Jr., the video gets 1980s viewers up to speed on the real world of CRAY supercomputers and their computational ability to generate first-generation computer graphics in commercials and films. Mixing effects scenes from Disney’s TRON with stock animations produced at the time, this is a great video time capsule of CG history.
More impressive is the forward-looking statements made in the film, accurately predicting how CG visual effects would revolutionize filmmaking in ways these then-pioneers could only dream about with 1980s technology. If only we could time-hop back to their era and show them the newly previewed TRON LEGACY teaser trailer in IMAX 3D, these proto-CGers would be astonished at the photoreal results less than 30 years later!
Of course such progress also brings change to filmmaking technology, and the effects wizards interviewed in this video clearly saw the writing of revolution on the wall. Makeup artist Rob Bottin correctly predicted that CG effects would largely replace much of the creature creation only prosthetic masks could accomplish in the 80s. Check. STAR WARS’ ILM leader John Dykstra (I think?), seen holding a model jet from Clint Eastwood’s action flick FIREFOX, chimes in about the need for a huge advance in technology before computer simulation could replace miniatures in films. Check. Fellow STAR WARS alum and stop-motion animator Phil Tippett also foresaw that computers could eliminate much of the laborious, time-consuming manual work of character animation. Check.
Historically, computer graphic visual effects and compositing fairly well took over all three disciplines of physical effects within ten years as films like Steven Spielberg’s JURASSIC PARK inaugurated the truly digital era of filmmaking. Or as Phil Tippett told Spielberg at the time, “I think I’m extinct.” Of course these artists all adapted to the technology of this new era — same creative opportunities, just a different set of tools used to realize them.
Film history aside, often TRON doesn’t get the credit it deserves for establishing a cutting edge of computer simulated visual effects integrated into the telling a cinematic story as never before. Steven Lisberger‘s quirky sci-fi vision was ahead of its time for audiences who simply weren’t psychologically and socially up to speed yet in the Computer Age. This disparity is also one of the reasons TRON has lasted three decades to see its 21st century sequel realized by Disney and director Joseph Kosinski. The original film’s far-reaching vision remains relevant today, it preceded THE MATRIX by 17 years — a huge gulf in social and technical terms — discussing virtual reality before we even used those words to describe the concept. In the truest sense, digital filmmaking and 21st century storytelling have finally caught up with the world of TRON, and now its sequel may well map out a future for the next generation.
Predicting the future of visual effects aside, this video piece has plenty of retro appeal as well — watch for the spinning red hat clip used by Devo in their Peek-A-Boo music video. While the rest of the world awaits the online debut of the TRON LEGACY teaser trailer and December’s theatrical release of the film, enjoy this look back at how it all began to realize how far we’ve come since . . . and where we may be headed soon.
Be sure to check out the FilmsInFocus channel on YouTube for more videos by Erik, and tell him FilmEdge sent you.