Writer-director Steven Lisberger is not one to settle for the conventional. As a college student in Boston he formed his own film production company. In 1976 he stretched a $10,000 American Film Institute grant into a multi-million dollar animated film. Today, Lisberger is the guiding creative force behind “TRON,” a motion picture that is not only unconventional, but the first of its kind.
“TRON” combines live action with computer-generated imagery to create a fantasy world where video games are arenas of life and death. Long a devotee of video games, the filmmaker first conceived the project in 1978.
“Everyone’s looking for new fantasies in the movies,” he says. “Outer space has been done to death. They’ve gone inside the body and under the sea. We’ve created this world in ‘TRON’ by taking video games and just blowing them out to the point where they are a reality. At the point where the games met computer graphics, something came alive that hadn’t been alive before. Video games were the basis for the fantasy; the computer imagery was the means to create it.”
Lisberger and his partner, producer Donald Kushner, brought their project to Disney in mid-1980 and a deal was quickly struck. “They first gave us money to do a demonstration, to prove that we could create the effects we claimed were possible,” Lisberger says. “It’s to Disney’s credit that they didn’t say, ‘Call us when the computers can do a dog.’ We were interested in creating objects and environments that couldn’t exist in the physical world. That’s something computer-generated images can do very well.”
With the boundless enthusiasm of the first boy out to recess, Lisberger began, in early 1981, to choose his creative team for “TRON.” French comics artist Moebius — one of the founders of Heavy Metal — was lured from his Pyrenees mountain home to work on character styling and storyboarding. Futurist Syd Mead was called to design vehicles that would later be computer-generated. High-tech artist Peter Lloyd was hired for color styling and background design. Richard Taylor, currently manager of the Movie Technology Division of Information International, Inc. (Triple-I) and an art director whose glowing designs gained him fame in the 1970s with his commercials for Levi and Seven-Up, joined the group to oversee the computer imaging and optical effects. Harrison Ellenshaw, matte painter for “Star Wars” and “The Empire Strikes Back,” signed on as co-director (with Taylor) of special effects and associate producer.
The Mathematical Applications Group, Inc. (MAGI), Triple-I, Digital Effects Inc. and Robert Abel and Associates were hired to execute computer images choreographed by animators Bill Kroyer and Jerry Rees. Matched with the live action, those computer scenarios bring Lisberger’s world to life.
“We’re taking risks with this film,” admits the director who spends his days buzzing through the production like a low-flying plane looking for fires to put out. “But that’s what got this place (Disney) rolling in the first place. They broke with convention. Computer imagery is never going to replace actors. Actors are what I call the ultimate special effect. And it won’t challenge the hand-crafted animation for which Disney is famous. But for this particular fantasy in “TRON” it’s the perfect artists’ tool.”
In color by Technicolor, “TRON” stars Jeff Bridges, David Warner, Bruce Boxleitner, Cindy Morgan and Barnard Hughes. The film was written and directed by Steven Lisberger for producer Donald Kushner and executive producer Ron Miller. Buena Vista releases. Filmed in Super Panavision® 70.
From the original 1982 Tron press materials.