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The Magnificent Look of ... TRON
Les Paul Robley

Most of today's achievements in the realm of special effects, like most things in the world of filmmaking, are usually a copy of something previously done. It's hard to find completely new and untrod territory. After all, there are only a certain number of ways to produce any given special effect in a movie (i.e., blue screen, front screen, miniatures and so forth).

Disney's Tron is a notable exception. It is totally unique in idea as well as actual design. The special effects which the studio magicians used to create the movie's universe owe nothing to the standard techniques mentioned previously. The appearance of Tron will eventually cause all existing books on the subject of cinematic special effects to be updated, because the Disney flick doesn't fall easily into any of the traditional categories of special effects.

Special effects R&D depts. are virtually non-existent in film studios today. Not so at Disney. Of the $6 million devoted to Tron's visuals (one-third of the entire budget), as much as 30% was spent on research and development.

"Nearly everything had to be created from scratch," says Harrison Ellenshaw, associate producer and co-supervisor of effects. "We had to be sure that the processors needed to process the large codaliths would be consistent, existing cameras and enlargers had to be modified, even special boxes had to be made to hold the extra wide cells needed to handle the anamorphic format. If Tron was to be remade now using this existing equipment, its budget would probably be a third less."

Writer-director Steven Lisberger is largely responsible for the film's incredible look. According to Ellenshaw, Lisberger not only brought the story to Disney, but showed the way to do it. Long a devotee of vidoegames, he originally conceived the project back when Space Invaders first hit the market. This was well before anyone thought of electronic gaming as a national pastime. After several disappointments from other studios, he and Tron producer Donald Kushner got an enthusiastic reception from the newly appointed vice-president for motion pictures at Disney Studios, Tom Wilhite. A company once known for taking risks when it was still under the creative genius Walt Elias Disney, the studio has, since his death, turned out many formula pictures that were bitter disappointments. Wilhite had the foresight to recognize the potential of this project and coddle it along. The birth of Tron can almost be thought of as a rebirth for the studio.

"They first gave us money to do a demonstration, to prove that we could create the effects we claimed were possible," recalls Lisberger. "It's to Disney's credit that they didn't say, 'Call us when the computer can do a dog.' " From the $50,000 test came a five minute effects reel, and what followed was special effects' history.

Lisberger's first move was to hire a creative trio of artists to dictate the visual style for Tron. Futuristic industrial designer Syd Mead was called in to create the physical settings and vehicles that would later be computer-generated, such as the light cycle, electronic tanks, and solar sailor. French comics artist Moebius, known for his unique contributions to Heavy Metal magazine, provided the look for characters which populate the videogame dimension. High-tech commercial artist Peter Lloyd handled the color styling, background design, and drew many of the matte painted backgrounds actually seen in the film.

Tron's biggest innovation is the "painting with light" technique used to create the electrified outfits worn by all the characters for two-thirds of the movie. To achieve this 53 minutes of non-stop visual excitement, an assembly line of 80 artists and craftsmen worked for eight months on finely detailed post-production hand matting. Even though the end product looks extremely complicated, the basic method is rather simple to understand.

Refer to the picture of the five separate images of the villain Sark. The first is a black and white picture of David Warner shot during production on a sound stage that was completely covered with black flock paper, cloth, or velvet, depending on the closeness of the taking camera. All of the video warriors in the electronic world were usually shot against black on 65mm black and white film (the 65mm image is preferred over 35mm due to the better resolution and greater copy ratio afforded when the various elements are put together in the later stage of compositing). A few times the actors were photographed in a set that was actually painted in black and white, such as the sequences inside the electronic tanks. For the vehicles in the light cycle chase, Bruce Boxleitner (Tron) was mounted atop a black velvet box with handlebars to get him into the position needed for the later addition of the cycle.

Once the 65mm image of Sark was processed, each frame of film was placed in an enlarger for blow-ups onto large codalith eels (clear cellulose that's about 10 in. by 24 in. containing a contrasty negative image of Sark). At the bottom, standard three-hole animation punches were used to mount the large eels so that each one would be in perfect registration with the next corresponding frame.

Since there are approximately 53 minutes of electronic world footage in the movie, and film runs 24 frames a second, over 75,000 frames of these codaliths had to be printed. This negative-image codalith of Sark was placed in contact with another codalith of the same size, and a direct reverse, or positive, image was created. That's another 75,000 of large codaliths, for a grand total of 150,000!

After placing clear eel overlays over these codaliths, eel painters meticulously blacked (or matted) out the individual portions of the figure that they did not want to expose for the later camera passes. In the case of the Sark figure, four hold-out mattes were created: one each for the eyes, face, circuits, and body. These were placed over a light box, and a VistaVision camera mounted above made four separate passes, each with the appropriate color filter.

The range of possibilities with this method was limitless. By making separate face and eye reveals, the face could be given a slightly different color from the body, and the eyes could be made to appear more intense. By varying the camera's exposure on the circuit reveal, his lights could be made to correspond with the character's general mood. If he became angry, exposure could be increased and his circuits would appear to flare out.

As is probably evident, at least two hand-painted hold-out mattes must be inked for each frame of film: one for the circuit reveal and one for the body reveal. Since there were 150,000 negative and positive codalith images, this required a minimum of 300,000 hand-painted eels for the electronic world.

More hold-out mattes were often needed — ones for teeth, noses, eyeballs, and any background set elements that needed to be exposed separately. Ellenshaw told EC that a typical shot required 12 passes in the VistaVision camera. Some more complex sequences, as in the interior of the electronic tank, needed as many as 50 passes. The eighty effects crew members must have had their hands full painting mattes for each of these separate passes!

The final composite of Sark as he appears against the blue triangular background is seen in the bottom picture. The circuit reveal matte and the reverse body reveal matte described above also allowed the crew to place the figure of Sark into any desired environment. He could be composited into a computer-generated background, or into a matte-painted background as he's pictured here.

Ellenshaw reveals that some 300 matte paintings, versus 150 computer-generated backgrounds, were created for Tron. A typical one was drawn in an extremely dull manner, all in gradations of black or white. The painting was photographed onto a large piece of Ektachrome film and then color was added by gelatin filters in much the same way as the figure codaliths. By painting the background in such low contrast tones, subtle color variations were possible as is typical of computer imaging. With this method, Ellenshaw believes that the viewer won't be able to tell when the computer-generated backgrounds end and the hand painted ones begin.

The main thing that can be said for this backlit color compositing technique is the first-generation look it bestows on the visuals. Whenever color film is duplicated, it suffers resolution loss, becomes grainy, and loses richness of colors. Disney's technicians have achieved a finer grain image by shooting on 65mm black and white stock, and haven't suffered any color losses since the color was added in the artwork duplication stage. Any fades and dissolves were also accomplished at this time to avoid having to go to another generation.

The only film which made any new headway using a similar method was a 1968 short called Omega by Donald Fox. Fox photographed many of his figures in black and white and added separate color passes later to create a strikingly surreal end-of-the-world vision. Disney's Tron was able to take this imaginative, yet academic, attempt and create an entire electronic civilization in which energy appears to actually live and breathe.

A videogamer's fantasy made real — on the screen.

Tron looks to be the most successful movie the Disney Studios have produced since Sleeping Beauty. The primary source of its popularity, it appears, is the uncanny way in which the special effects wizards have taken every dyed-in-the-wool videogamer's arcade fantasies and made them burst into life on the screen.



Source type Magazine
Volume 1.8
Language en
Document type Feature
Media type text
Page count 3
Pages pp. 53,56-57


Id 2994
Availability Free
Inserted 2016-12-24