Twenty eight years ago I was sucked into another world. It was a world unlike anything anybody had seen before. It was a place that existed on the other side of the computer screen when video games dominated the cultural scene and arcades like Aladdin's Castle existed as places of enchanted amusement. Tron was my second Star Wars. Just five years after being taken away to a galaxy far, far, away, I was transported to an entirely different place not so far away, an electronic Wonderland, that would change my life forever. Star Wars had already changed cinema with its groundbreaking visual effects and set the benchmark by which blockbuster films would be produced but Tron would again alter the course of visual effects in cinema, albeit on a much less successful commercial level. While George Lucas was the undisputed master of the box office Force, lesser known visionary Steven Lisberger was the wizard of an electronic Oz. Tron was a film that was both technically as well as metaphorically ahead of its time by almost two decades as it narratively struggled to define itself in a relatively uncharted technical frontier and convey complicated themes, ideas and modern colloquialisms that hadn't yet existed. I vividly remember watching the film's opening day coverage that weekend on Entertainment Tonight where they interviewed audiences leaving the theater and most were left scratching their heads. Two teenage girls in particular were perplexed by their reactions such as "I just didn't get it," which seemed to sum up the the reasons why Tron had failed to resonate with mainstream audiences at the box office. Coincidentally, science fiction author William Gibson would be the first to coin the phrase "cyberspace" in his short story "Burning Chrome" which was published that same month in the July issue of Omni magazine while Blade Runner having been released just two weeks before it and whose initial reception was seen as both a critical and commercial failure, would go on to be regarded as one of the most influential films ever made.
Tron has a very unique place in cinematic history in that it is the first and only film of its kind to employ the complex techniques that were used to create its electronic world under the stewardship of Disney special effects supervisor Harrison Ellenshaw, commercial artist Peter Lloyd, and the conceptual designs of artists Jean Giraud a.k.a Moebius and Syd Mead whom had also worked on Blade Runner that same year. To render the film's ambitious computer graphics, several industrial computer animation companies such as Information International, Inc. were approached and a tediously complicated process of marrying the graphics to the film by blowing up the 65mm film negatives into "kodaliths" and matting or "rotoscoping" the elements into each individual frame of celluloid by hand. For this reason, Tron would be the first and last film of its kind to use these cumbersome methods to deliver special effects and as a result gives the film a stylistically unique look and quality that could not quite artificially be replicated per se in the digital filmaking world of today though many such processes have become simplified and streamlined by digital technology to the point that almost anyone can render similar looking visual effects on their home PC with relative ease. Ironically, several Disney animators refused to work on Tron out of fear that computer animation would inevitably replace them and render their jobs obsolete, a prophecy that would come to pass nearly 22 years later when Disney shut down its traditional ink-and-paint animation studios but would eventually be resurrected by Pixar's John Lasseter.
Tron was released on July 9, 1982 grossing $33 million on a $17 million dollar budget. While some might argue that the film was a commercial failure, and certainly not the blockbuster Disney had hoped it would be, it was still marginally profitable. On December 17, Disney will be rolling the dice again on its long-awaited sequel, Tron Legacy, which hopes to set another benchmark for computer visual effects and animation much like its predecessor. Let's all hope this time audiences and critics have caught up to Tron and this time will be much more receptive.
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