"'We're in uncharted territory right now. I mean this is a little bit like Rip Van Winkle.'
Those are the words of filmmaker Steven Lisberger, who 28 years ago heralded in a new era of computer-assisted filmmaking when he made his cult classic sci-fi picture TRON. The 1982 Disney feature integrated computer generated imagery into live-action footage to create a world that, both within the story and in reality, existed entirely in a computer. Many thought the film would be a breakthrough on its initial release, but both the industry and general public proved reticent, as it took in a mere $33 million at the box office and the Academy refused to allow it to be nominated for a visual effects Oscar because it considered the use of computers 'cheating'.
Nearly three decades later, time has not only vindicated Lisberger's vision, with nearly every major motion picture now employing the same techniques he used in their infancy for TRON, but has given a second-life to the franchise itself.
We caught up with Lisberger as he was filming a cameo appearance in the sequel Tron Legacy, a major motion picture being shot in stereoscopic 3D for a December 17. The new chapter is neither a remake nor a reboot, but a genuine direct sequel, and while some series such as Indiana Jones or Star Wars had major gaps between releases, this film boasts the longest time between chapters in history. Lisberger was beaming in his crazy futuristic get-up that made him look like a pale Vegas-era Elvis dipped in neon, and very aware of the long road it had been to be on that set in June.
'The sequel has been in development at Disney now for about 10 years,' said Lisberger. "I've watched some Disney executives go from brown to grey in that time. So it's been a long time, and I think that it couldn't happen until the right group of people were in place. And that had to include people that were really ready to champion the film and get totally into it.'
Those 'right people' include Joseph Kosinski, a director with a Masters in architecture from Columbia University and a body of commercial work that includes everything from Chevrolet to Nike to video games like 'Gears of War.' Add it all up and you have the ideal director to take the world of Tron into the 21st century… and beyond.
Inside the Canadian Motion Picture Productions Studios in Burnaby, British Columbia, where such large-scale productions as Watchmen had taken place, we found the main nerve center of the production known affectionately as the 'War Room.' The walls of this war room were covered head-to-toe with production art, storyboards, digital pre-vis, and blueprints of set layouts with cryptic descriptions like 'Rectifier Interior.' Also visible were small foam core models of sets which, unlike the smooth geometrical surfaces of the original film's environment, featured many organic, rock-like surfaces to augment the cold smoothness and rigid lines of these new buildings.
Returning from the original film will be familiar sights such as the famed light cycles, gladiatorial disc battles, and imposing recognizers, all brought up to date by a team of concept artists brought in from all different engineering & design disciplines, most of them the tops in their field. There are new toys at play as well (think CARS) and the guiding principal seems to have been that over the decades the Tron program has been upgrading itself to match the increasing sophistication of the times. Think about the evolution between an old Apple II and a modern day iMac.
According to Lisberger, 'The first film was sort of the bridge from analog to digital and they've met in the middle. And now it's Gonzo digital, just Gonzo digital. And that's another reason why I think it's better that the next generation take it over. Because I have too much analog in my blood from the old days, you know? I get nervous if I don't see some paint brushes in a sink somewhere.'
While Lisberger has conceded the reigns of this production to Kosinski, helping to bridge the gap will be returning star Jeff Bridges, who originated the role of programmer Kevin Flynn. A much-loved actor known for his affable charm in films going back to The Last Picture Show through The Fabulous Baker Boys and into his legendary turn as 'The Dude' in The Big Lebowski, Bridges has managed to skirt true superstardom until recent roles in blockbuster Iron Man and an Academy Award-winning turn in Crazy Heart have catapulted him into the highest ranks of the A-list. It is only fitting that headlining Tron Legacy, his biggest film to-date, should come about at this auspicious time. He seemed pleased to be back in the saddle, and to be working alongside both his old director and his new one.
'It seems like we had a long weekend,' commented Bridges, 'basically because Lisberger who directed the first one is involved, very involved in this one which is great. You know, having the source of the material still engaged. I think it gave us all a lot of pressures because he's such a wild cat but it's also kind of grounded in that first movie that was so unique and everything.'
'Jeff's contribution to Tron means a lot to me,' added Lisberger. 'He's sort of my alter ego, and for a long time I don't think he thought this would happen. I think he's a little surprised, to tell you the truth, but it's worked out well timing-wise. It's like he was the crazy fool and now he's the Obi-Wan.'
'Joe, our director, was an architect,' says Bridges. 'That's where he's coming from. It's interesting, different filmmakers, where they come from and what they bring to the film and he's an architect and so the film has a very heightened design feel to it. By the way, this is his first film. Can you imagine? I don't know if it's the most expensive ever made but it's right up there. To have a first-time guy... Got to give Disney credit for taking that risk. They were smart because he's such a calm, can-do guy. He's gonna pull this off. He's out of commercials, and I saw some of the technology that he had available to him that he could use. It was basically the same reason that I did the first one.'
Kosinski pitched the studio on a story which involved Flynn's son, Sam (Garrett Hedlund) being informed by Alan Bradley (an also-returning Bruce Boxleitner) that a new transmission had been received from his long-missing father. When Kevin goes back to his father's old arcade to investigate, he gets inadvertently sucked into the Tron world on a quest to find Kevin.
Essentially taking over Jeff's original role as the film's protagonist, newcomer Hedlund had to maintain a certain degree of perspective while trying to create his character amid a world of bluescreen that will be filled in later by CGI wonders.
'I have an extreme amount of curiosity to see what this is all going to look like,' said Hedlund, 'because for now when you look at playbacks in the monitor it's just, you know, your mug and a blue screen. You can become critical, you're like oh I flinched there, or I blinked there. Man I shouldn't blink so much and then it's like [LAUGH] but there's going to be all this glorious stuff back there that's going to be taking a lot of focus off yourself as well.'
Hedlund took on the lead role eager to take on the various physical challenges, including motorcycle and parkour training, but relished the chance to work alongside Bridges.
'I've always been such a fan of him,' he said, 'and his kind of self-character and his charisma and everything. And I knew I'd really get along with him and, you know, we did. He's got a very big portion of him that's still just a kid.'
One relationship that proved not-so-comfortable for Hedlund on this film was between him and his skin-tight suit, which is covered with paper-thin lighting. Part of the practical ethos to do as much in-camera as possible for Tron Legacy is exemplified by these suits; even in the original TRON the suit circuit lights were achieved on a computer. These new suits are controlled by radio, with safe wiring, and in order for the lights to pop onscreen much of the shooting in the Tron world has been done with extra low-light.
Hedlund discussed the troubles with these costumes in detail:
'Once you have to put it on for the first day it seems like the longest day in the world. Your body is doing different things. They got foot straps down here to keep the pants low enough so they don't raise up. You got this on and you got the boots and the top holds this one up but this has to hold the top down. And so when I raise my right arm I'm feeling a tug on my left foot. [LAUGHTER] And it's all these different things and your shoulders go out. Had a lot of chiropractic readjustments, to the point where I had both shoulders out and three ribs out, both hips. It's all just from when you can't sit down and the lower back is going.'
Sam Flynn will be led down the rabbit hole of the Tron world, experiencing many of its most dangerous and exotic places, in his quest to find his dad. When they do meet up, we were promised by the producers that the elder Flynn's role would take on a dimension that, much like Kurtz in 'Heart of Darkness,' would exist very much in the grey area between good and evil. Lisberger said that this transition into a slightly more cynical story is in keeping with the theme how things become not as clear-cut as we age...
'Naturally I relate to Jeff's character, and I'm the same age as the character in the film and my son is the same age as the character in the film. So the father son story is particularly close to my heart. And I always like the idea of making people fight to the death on the game grid.'
Whatever becomes of both Flynn the elder and Flynn the younger at the conclusion of this new film, it is clear that a circle is completed and a torch has been passed to a new generation, while respect for TRON and its effect on the movie industry is being treated with a gentle awe by both the new and returning filmmakers.
Said Bridges, 'The first one was cutting edge technology at that time and this one certainly is for this time. And it's a whole different way of making movies I hadn't experienced. A little bit in Iron Man, but nothing like this.'"
The folks at ComingSoon.net have at least two more parts to their set visit that they will release later. How much later, I have no idea.