Wednesday, July 30, 2008
Tron. Two. Point. Oh?
BACK ON THE GAME GRID.
Last week at Comic Con International, Disney unveiled test footage for the sequel to their revolutionary 1982 sci-fi computer animation film Tron ending years of speculation and rumors of an eventual follow-up marking the 26th anniversary of the original release. No, I’m not talking about the low-rent video game sequel Tron 2.0 released in 2003.
It is with great pride that I say that Tron is one of my favorite films ever. No matter how old I get, I am always in awe each time I watch it by its unique visual style and artistic design conceptualized by artists Syd Mead (who designed Blade Runner the same year) and Heavy Metal magazine’s evocative futurist illustrator Jean Giraud “Moebius”. No film before or after Tron can ever compare to it, mostly because of the laborious film techniques and limitations of the computer technology available at the time which gave the film its hyper-surreal atmosphere of a sort of Kubrickian abstract. The computer animation sequences under the supervision of Harrison Ellenshaw who worked previously on Disney’s The Black Hole, were rendered on antiquated computers the size of refrigerators by three different commercial animation companies which took months to render out seconds of shots and married to the film using a tedious process of rotoscoping them with 65mm monochrome live-action sequences and backlit animation plates which were painstakingly done frame-by-frame onto blown-up film cells called Kodaliths by hand in order to achieve advanced optical image compositing, something that can be done digitally today on any home computer with relative ease. Tron had achieved a distinct landmark visual style as visually groundbreaking as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis 60 years before it and would revolutionize the special effects and computer animation industry forever (for better AND for worse) the way that Star Wars did to traditional visual effects a mere 5 years before it. A couple years later, Universal’s The Last Starfighter about a high-scoring video game player who is recruited by the Star League and whisked away to fight an interstellar alien war, followed Tron’s precedent by showcasing live-action and computer animation sequences. It would be the end of the decade, however, until James Cameron’s The Abyss in 1989 and T2 in 1991 before the film industry would fully embrace computer animation and begin to abandon practical stop-motion and scaled model visual effects and would be retired into obsolescence a decade following Tron with the groundbreaking photo-realism of Jurassic Park. But Tron remained a major inspiration to Disney animator John Lasseter who would go on to make commercially successful computer animation films at Pixar with Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.
It is then with some excitement, ambivalence and apprehension that I reflect upon the test footage for the sequel tentatively known as TR2N, for I have seen so many of my beloved film franchises ultimately tarnished by highly commercialized sequels, re-makes and reboots that have tried in vain to re-invent the wheel and ultimately missed the point of the original source material. The test footage showed an “upgraded” and elaborately more sophisticated and rendered version of the original lightcycle sequence which (by today’s standards) may look somewhat dated in comparison to advances in state-of-the-art computer graphics, yet somehow maintains the elegant simplicity and aesthetic of its predecessor. It’s relatively easy now to make a film like Tron on a few home PC’s and there’s nothing groundbreaking about it at all. However it would be impossible to go back and make the film using similar techniques employed in 1982 which pushed the envelope of crude computer animation and industrial photography of the time and is the fundamental reason why Tron will historically remain a uniquely distinctive visual film in that regard.
In 1982, Tron narratively struggled to define its ambiguous electronic world of “cyberspace” which, ironically, would be coined afterward by William Gibson in his groundbreaking cyberpunk novel Neuromancer and to which the enormously successful films of The Matrix all owe a debt of gratitude. And while Tron may have also struggled to find an audience that grappled to comprehend its complex technological rubric it managed to indelibly create an allegorical mythology of fantastical electronic cultural lore that was as prophetic as it was nearly two decades ahead of its time. Audiences and civilization have caught up to Tron and understand the nomenclature of its syntax of terminology like Users, Programs, and Digitizing which have since entered the cultural lexicon. Tron presented many complex idiosyncratic ideas of a pseudo-religious themes where programs profess a heretical believe in their real-world creators and wish to commune with them through input/output temples to help them liberate their captivity by an oppressive system of corporate e-commerce not (by Microsoft] but rather the Encom Corporation’s MCP – Master Control Program – who takes a perverse pleasure in watching such non-conformist subprograms systematically destroyed in gladiatorial video game arenas. Tron was definitely a product of the period of video game subculture of the late 70’s and early 80’s and the conjunction of Bally/Midway’s enormously successful Tron arcade game at its peak was the perfect complimentary promotional vehicle for the film, the first of its kind, which had incorporated a soundtrack of cues from Wendy Carlos’ appropriately synthesized electronic score that have since transcended the film to become more familiarly associated with the sounds of the game.
Jeff Bridges returns to reprise his role of Kevin Flynn, super-hacker and computer genius who last vindicated himself and became Encom’s CEO following the ousting of David Warner’s nefarious Ed Dillinger who fraudulently stole his proprietary video game designs to become Encom’s senior exec. In the footage, Bridges again plays a double role as his younger electronic counterpart program named Clu as well as his now much older and bearded self. This was achieved through a process of digitally mapping photorealistic images of the actor onto fully 3-D animated models, a process impossible to achieve for the original Tron but relatively common to video game designers nowadays. Lacking to appear in the demo is the title character of Tron himself who was played by Babylon 5’s Bruce Boxleitner and, like Bridges, would appear much older now. The question remains, if Tron himself would appear in the film and if the likeness of Boxleitner would be rendered to appear as he did in the original film using the same techniques that were given to Bridges’ Clu as demonstrated in the test footage or, as we have seen in the original film, some programs appear as mirror avatars of their aging real-world counterparts such as Barnard Hughes’ priestly electronic gatekeeper Dumont. Of all of the visual possibilities demonstrated by the footage, this seemed to resonate as the most fascinating of potential concepts for the direction of the new film under Joseph Kosinski who is well versed in directing photo-realistic computer graphics in commercials for companies such as Apple and Microsoft. Could TR2N continue to evolve the style and mythology established by its now-antiquated predecessor without looking like just another trumped-up computer effects spectacle that has plagued the blockbusters of today in lieu of an interesting story, especially one that was as narratively incoherent as the original Tron? For that we will have to wait and see but for animation fans and fans of the original Tron, this could be a very exciting time to see the state of computer visual effects pushed once again into groundbreaking new territory of the electronic frontier.
END OF LINE.