40 Years Ago: The Groundbreaking ‘Tron’ Terrifies Hollywood
Tron marked a pivotal shift in the ever-changing landscape of filmmaking – even if pundits didn’t recognize it at the time.
"Everybody was doing backlit animation in the '70s, you know. It was that disco look," filmmaker and writer/director Steven Lisberger told Den of Geek, "and we thought, 'What if we had this character that was a neon line?' That was our Tron warrior – Tron for electronic. And what happened was, I saw [the video game] Pong, and I said, well, that's the arena for him."
Lisberger was wrapping the 1980 animated TV film Animalympics, and he concurrently began devising a plot for Tron. The basic premise would follow a computer programmer who was sucked into a video-game world.
"A lot of studios turned us down," producer Donald Kushner, Lisberger's business partner, told Variety. The one studio which showed interest was Disney. "People aren't aware today what Disney Studios was like at that time," Lisberger added. "It was a sleepy, forgotten studio."
Disney had been struggling with an identity crisis in the late '70s and early '80s, a far cry from the powerhouse studio it would become. Animated family films such as The Rescuers (1978) and The Fox and the Hound (1981) continued to turn a profit, but Disney had mixed results with live-action movies. The Cat From Outer Space (1978), Unidentified Flying Oddball (1979) and Midnight Madness (1980) had been box office duds. The few live-action hits the studio had – such as the Herbie the Love Bug series of films – were catered toward youth audiences. An adult-focused hit eluded them.
"People have this misconception that in the heyday of Disney, they were so sure-footed about where they were going, but they weren't," Lisberger told Den of Geek. Tron "was highly experimental, and I think there was enough of that ethos at the studio – but Tom Wilhite, who greenlit the movie, he was 29 years old, had just become the head of the studio, and I was 29 years old. And Tom told me, years later, that 'It's a good thing I didn't know more, because if I had I wouldn't have made this.'"
Watch the Trailer for 'Tron'
The focus, animator Bill Kroyer told Variety, was on "not doing anything Walt hadn't done. They used to say, 'We do what we do best,' which was a cover-up for saying: "We don’t want to do anything we haven't already done.'"
Tron was emphatically different from anything Disney – or anyone else – had done. Live-action and animation techniques were blended together for the project. Perhaps most notably, the film incorporated CGI in a manner never seen on film up until this point.
"It’s inconceivable now for people to think how we actually did the CG," Lisberger told Variety. "There was no movement; computers could only generate individual frames. There was no way to digitally put them on film so you actually set up a motion-picture camera in front of a computer screen, and you filmed it frame by frame. Some of the frames took hours to generate.”
Revolutionary effects were utilized to bring Tron to life. Some, such as light sources on the actor’s costumes or reverse-negative black and white filming, were extensions of already-established techniques. Still, many others were invented specifically for Tron.
"We didn’t come up with the movie to exploit existing technology," said Kroyer, who served as the computer image choreographer on Tron. "We came up with the movie and then we said, 'We believe we can make the technology as we make the movie.' It’s that metaphor literally of successful people who jump off the cliff and build their wings on the way down."
For many of the people working on Tron, voyaging into new technological grounds was exhilarating. Jeff Bridges, who starred in the film as programmer Kevin Flynn, even admitted he took the role because of Tron’s bold ambition. “It had never been done before,” he told Variety. “I was intrigued just because of that.”
Watch the 'Tron' Light Cycle Scene
Not everyone was onboard. Specifically, members of Disney’s old-school animation guard were unnerved by the use of technology.
“What they never felt comfortable with was using computer animation,” Lisberger told Den of Geek. “At the time, that was the devil. I can't tell you how scared of computers people were back in the day.”
Released July 9, 1982, Tron received generally positive reviews. The Seattle Times praised its “eye-popping originality,” dubbing it “a computer-age Alice in Wonderland.” Meanwhile, the San Francisco Chronicle described the film as “an eye-opener in every sense of the word.”
Others claimed Tron valued style over substance. "Where was it written that to accommodate an outburst of new effects, no matter how revolutionary, we agreed to give up character, subtlety, a well-told story, clearly understood action and even — heaven help us — humor?" asked Los Angeles Times critic Sheila Benson.
"Walt Disney Studios, the same factory that for years specialized in realizing the most whimsical and human expressions of man’s imagination, has joined the automaton parade with a film that glamorizes and endorses the video game craze that has overwhelmed America," added Scott Sublett of the Washington Times.
Despite its revolutionary brand of filmmaking, Tron was overshadowed at the box office. The summer of ‘82 included several massive commercial hits, including Rocky III, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Poltergeist. The year’s biggest film, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, took in $360 million at the domestic box office. By comparison, Tron earned only $33 million.
"The thing that was in the air was that it wasn't enough that the film did business or that they even paid for themselves," Lisberger told Variety. "What happened was E.T. came out and it raised the bar."
Watch the Climactic Final Battle From 'Tron'
Tron earned a pair of Academy Award nominations for Best Costume Design and Best Sound, but was shockingly left out of the Best Visual Effects category. "The Academy thought we cheated by using computers," Lisberger told SFGate.
Decades later, Tron seems to have finally gotten its due. The film enjoyed cult status for many years before returning to the mainstream via the 2010 sequel Tron: Legacy. Thanks largely to its groundbreaking visual techniques, the original film is now regarded as a landmark release.
"It's difficult to emphasize enough how terrified of computers and technology people were, and Hollywood in particular,” Lisberger told Variety. "The threat that Tron represented was that somehow computers were going to get involved with movie making and that they were going to get involved with our lives."
In hindsight, of course, the trailblazing film opened the door for generations of CGI-layered movies. John Lasseter, formerly the chief creative officer at Pixar, put it in simpler terms: "Without Tron, there would be no Toy Story."