I was ten when this movie came out and it was — without a doubt — the biggest thing in my life. Talk about brand synergy — to walk into the GameTrek arcade and see an actual Tron arcade machine with all the same sound effects! I wanted to disappear into the video game grid and escape the bullies of my childhood. I’d much rather hang out with Sark and the Master Control Program — I had an affection for evil even then.
Writer and director Steven Lisberger (Bonnie MacBird* wrote the original story with him) had been inspired by the video games hed played in the 70s and dreamed of a movie based on them. He finally landed at Disney, where computer animation would join with traditional filming techniques and backlit animation to make this groundbreaking film.
Disney executives were uncertain about giving $12 million to a first-time producer and director using techniques that had never been done before. They did finance a test of the flying discs and it won them over, as long as the studio could rewrite and restoryboard the movie. At this time, Disney rarely hired outsiders to make films for them. They were given a cold reception and none of the animators would join the film.
Now for some geeky stuff.
Disney decided in 1981 to film Tron completely in 65-mm Super Panavision**, which makes the movie look way bigger and stranger in the best of ways. And as a result of this being a non-Disney Disney movie, the outside influences make it seem even odder. French comic book artist Jean “Moebius” Giraud, who had worked on Jodorowskys canceled Dune, designed the characters and costumes, while the machines were designed by Syd Mead (Blade Runner, Aliens) and Peter Lloyd worked on the environments, yet all three would switch jobs and pitch in to create the overlook look of the film and even its logo.
However, none of the four studios hired to design the computer animation — Information International, Inc.; MAGI; Robert Abel and Associates and Digital Effects — collaborated on their art, which gives a variety of looks to the film.
Tron sees a world where we all have a computer version of ourselves inside the master grid, a place ruled by the Master Control Program and policed by David Warner’s Sark. It’s a world that Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) helped created when he made a series of video games for ENCOM before growing disillusioned with the big business that those games became. Shades of Atari and Warner Communications, huh?
Programmer Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) and his girlfriend (and Flynn’s ex-girlfriend) engineer Lora Baines (Cindy Morgan) have learned that MCP is taking over their projects and is shut down by senior executive vice president Ed Dillinger (also Warner). It turns out that the businessman got so far by stealing Flynn’s games. In retaliation, Flynn has quit and runs an arcade when he isn’t hacking into ENCOM.
Of course, that allows the Master Control to blast Flynn into his reality, a place where Alan is Tron and Lora is Lori and all the video games that the creator loves have become life and death. I kind of love everything about this movie except for Flynn becoming the CEO at the end. We all know how business works and we’ll learn even more in the sequel.
Another part of my childhood was in the soundtrack to this movie, which was composed by Wendy Carlos. I never could quite figure out why my dad’s Walter Carlos albums just ended and wondered if his sister took over for him. It wasn’t until years later that I learned the brave truth. Two other songs — “1990’s Theme” and “Only Solutions” — came from Journey.
Unfortunately, Tron was originally going to be released during the Christmas season of 1982. When the chairman of the Disney board Card Walker found out that Disney expatriate Don Bluth’s film The Secret of NIMH was coming out in early July, he rushed Tron in an attempt to crush Bluth. This also meant that Tron would be going up against a summer of films that included Blade Runner, Poltergeist, Star Trek II and E.T. While it would become Disney’s highest-grossing live action film for 5 years, it still lost the studio a ton of money, as they thought it would generate $400 million in profit.
The world has changed — the state-of-the-art computer used for the film’s key special effects had only 2MB of memory and 330MB of storage, for example — but Tron has remained a cult film that deserved a much wider audience.
*MacBird believes that she was the first screenwriter to edit a screenplay on a computer, but chose the industry-standard Courier font when she printed it, all so Disney would still think she used a typewriter.
**The computer-generated layers were shot in VistaVision — both anamorphic 35mm and Super 35 — and the real world scenes were as well, then blown up to 65 mm.