History, Legacy & Showmanship

Revisiting the Inside of a Computer: Remembering “Tron” on its 35th Anniversary

July 10, 2017 - 12:01 am   |   by
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Tron should be remembered as a very daring, risky adventure on the part of a few young visionaries and artists. They believed that by using computers for animation and visual effects, they could change moviemaking.” — The Making of Tron author William Kallay

The Digital Bits and History, Legacy & Showmanship are pleased to present this retrospective commemorating the 35th anniversary of the release of Tron, the Walt Disney Company’s groundbreaking science-fiction computer adventure starring Jeff Bridges and David Warner. [Read on here...]

Tron, which also featured Bruce Boxleitner, Cindy Morgan and Barnard Hughes, opened in theaters 35 years ago this week. For the occasion The Bits features a compilation of statistics, trivia and box-office data that places the movie’s performance in context; passages from vintage film reviews; a reference/historical listing of the film’s 70mm presentations; and, finally, an interview segment with The Making of Tron author William Kallay, who discuss the virtues, shortcomings and influence of Tron.

Jeff Bridges on the set of Tron

 

TRON NUMBER$

  • 0 = Number of weeks nation’s top-grossing movie
  • 1 = Number of sequels
  • 1 = Rank among top-earning movies of Disney’s 1982 slate
  • 2 = Number of Academy Award nominations
  • 2 = Rank among top-earning movies during opening weekend
  • 3 = Rank among top-earning science-fiction films of 1982
  • 5 = Number of months between theatrical release and home-video release
  • 10 = Rank among top-earning movies of 1982 (summer)
  • 22 = Rank among top-earning movies of 1982 (gross; legacy)
  • 23 = Rank among top-earning movies of 1982 (rental; calendar year)
  • 23 = Number of weeks of longest-running engagement
  • 43 = Number of 70mm prints
  • 1,091 = Number of opening-week engagements
  • $29.98 = Suggested retail price of initial home video release (videodiscs)
  • $79.98 = Suggested retail price of initial home video release (VHS and Beta)
  • $4,364 = Opening-weekend per-screen average
  • $4.8 million = Opening-weekend box-office gross
  • $12.2 million = Opening-weekend box-office gross (adjusted for inflation)
  • $15.2 million = Box-office rental (as of 12/31/82)
  • $17.0 million = Production cost
  • $33.0 million = Box-office gross
  • $38.5 million = Box-office rental (adjusted for inflation)
  • $43.1 million = Production cost (adjusted for inflation)
  • $83.7 million = Box-office gross (adjusted for inflation)

 

A scene from Tron

 

A SAMPLING OF MOVIE REVIEWER QUOTES

Tron is 90 minutes of eye-popping originality, a computer-age Alice in Wonderland, and a thing of wonder.” — John Hartl, The Seattle Times

Tron is with it, meaning it is in step with the times. It’s as up to date as the latest video game, whereas recent Disney pictures seemed to believe that today’s youngsters were still playing marbles and lagging baseball cards.” — Gene Siskel, Chicago Tribune

“The lavish Walt Disney production[’s] technological wizardry isn’t accompanied by any of the old-fashioned virtues — plot, drama, clarity and emotion — for which other Disney movies, or other films of any kind, are best remembered. It is beautiful — spectacularly so, at times — but dumb. Computer fans may very well love it, because Tron is a nonstop parade of stunning computer graphics, accompanied by a barrage of scientific-sounding jargon. Though it’s certainly very impressive, it may not be the film for you if you haven’t played Atari today.” — Janet Maslin, The New York Times

“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? Where?” — Sheila Benson, Los Angeles Times

“When Tron concerns its little pointed head about anything, it fusses over the sacrifice of humanity to technology. Of course that is precisely what has happened to the movie. Tron does not, with a single exception, look as though it was touched by human hands. The exception is Jeff Bridges, who may be the most adventuresome and underrated actor in movies today, and who manages to imbue Tron with what small glimmer of humanity it possesses.” — Ron Base, Toronto Star

Tron has changed my life. It blew my mind right into the digital decade. Tron is not only an eye-opener in every sense of the word, but a film that does that rare thing: opens up the imagination and mind to the future.” — Judy Stone, San Francisco Chronicle

“Dazzle aside, Tron doesn’t compute…. Walt Disney’s $18 million fantasy adventure about a war between computer programmers and the despot master control program they created is worth seeing. But only for that reason.” — Jack Mathews, Detroit Free Press

“Despite what some critics across the nation are saying, Tron is not a horrible film. It does suffer, however, from the same problem that Blade Runner, The Thing and Firefox have: weak story development, and even weaker character development. This is the first live-action feature film directed by Steven Lisberger, who has done a feature-length cartoon and some television, but he hasn’t a grasp on the human side of his film. As a result, Tron’s people take a back seat to its special effects.” — Christopher Hicks, (Salt Lake City) Deseret News

“This is an almost wholly technological movie. Although it’s populated by actors who are engaging (Bridges, Cindy Morgan) or sinister (Warner), it is not really a movie about human nature. Like Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back, but much more so, this movie is a machine to dazzle and delight us. It is not a human-interest adventure in any generally accepted way. That’s all right, of course. It’s brilliant at what it does, and in a technical way maybe it’s breaking ground for a generation of movies in which computer-generated universes will be background for mind-generated stories about emotion-generated personalities. All things are possible.” — Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

Tron gets an ‘A’ for ingenuity. The summer’s most unconventional film, it is also a milestone for Walt Disney Productions. At long last, the giant has awakened to traverse the decades. Coonskin caps were yesterday’s heritage; the computer is today’s.” — Pat H. Broeske, The (Santa Ana) Register

“Dazzling disaster…. Gorgeous, pioneering special effects cannot overcome the script’s emotional vacuum and the slack acting by some of Bridges’ co-stars.” — Michael Maza, (Phoenix) Arizona Republic

“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.” — Scott Sublett, The Washington Times

Tron is loaded with visual delights but falls way short of the mark in story and viewer involvement. Screenwriter-director Steven Lisberger has adequately marshaled a huge force of technicians to deliver the dazzle, but even kids (and specifically computer game freaks) will have a difficult time getting hooked on the situations.” — Variety

Tron is as innovative as the Disney breakthroughs in animation that produced the classics that still make money for the studio. Walt Disney never forgot the importance of plot and of making the audience care about the characters. Lisberger has a great deal of talent, but Tron would have profited from remembering such basics.” — Desmond Ryan, Philadelphia Inquirer

“Now I have seen a lot of boring, expensive wastes of time and talent in my life (especially in the last few years, as movies have begun to come apart at the seam and stop making sense), but Tron is the biggest waste of everything known to man that I have ever encountered.” — Rex Reed, syndicated columnist

“[I]t is hard to see how a film so original in conception and execution (and so firmly tied to the electronic preoccupations of its adolescent target audience) can fail.” — Richard Schickel, Time

Tron succeeds in expanding the parameters of animation and in presenting something totally new on the screen. For that alone, the affable Tron can’t be faulted.” — Marylynn Uricchio, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A scene from Tron

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THE 70MM ENGAGEMENTS

Event and prestige movies (and instances to appease a filmmaker’s ego) on occasion are given a deluxe release in addition to a standard release. This section of the article includes a reference/historical listing of the first-run 70mm Six-Track Dolby Stereo premium-format presentations of Tron in the United States and Canada. These were arguably the best cinemas in which to have experienced Tron and the only way to have faithfully seen the movie’s large-format cinematography or heard the movie’s discrete multichannel audio mix.

Of the 100+ new movies released during 1982, Tron was among eighteen to have 70mm prints prepared for selected engagements and the only one to have been originated in 70mm (65mm). Only about five percent of Tron’s initial print run was in the deluxe 70mm format, which were significantly more expensive and more time- and labor-intensive to manufacture compared with conventional 35mm prints but offered superior image and audio quality.

The 70mm prints of Tron were intended to be projected in a 2.20:1 aspect ratio. The noise-reduction and signal-processing format for the prints was Dolby “A,” and the soundtrack was Dolby processor setting Format 42 (i.e. three discrete screen channels + one discrete surround channel + “baby boom” low-frequency enhancement).

An EPCOT promo and a trailer for Tex circulated with the Tron prints and which the distributor recommended be screened with the presentation.

The listing begins with the North American 70mm engagements of Tron that commenced July 9th, 1982, and then extends to include many of the film’s subsequent 70mm engagements (i.e. late openings, moveovers, re-release and revival) but does not include any pre-release screenings, international, or any of the movie’s countless standard 35mm engagements.

The duration of the engagements, measured in weeks, has been included for some entries in parenthesis following the cinema name.

Note that some of the presentations included in this listing were presented in 35mm during the latter weeks of engagement due to print damage and the distributor’s unwillingness to supply a 70mm replacement print or because the booking was moved to a smaller, 35mm-only auditorium within a multiplex. In these cases, the 35mm portion of the engagement has been included in the duration figure.

So, for historical reference and nostalgia, the first-run North American theaters that screened the 70mm version of Tron were…

70 mm

ALBERTA

  • Calgary — Famous Players’ Chinook (10)
  • Edmonton — Famous Players’ Londonderry Twin (10)

Tron newspaper adARIZONA

  • Tucson — TM’s El Con 6-plex (12)

BRITISH COLUMBIA

  • Vancouver — Famous Players’ Denman Place (10)

CALIFORNIA

  • El Cajon — UA’s Parkway Plaza Triplex (4)
  • Los Angeles — Mann’s Chinese Triplex (3)
  • Montclair — SRO’s Montclair Triplex (12)
  • Orange — Syufy’s Cinedome 6-plex (11)
  • Sacramento — Syufy’s Century 6-plex
  • San Diego — Pacific’s La Jolla Village 4-plex (6)
  • San Diego — UA’s Glasshouse 6-plex (19)
  • San Jose — Syufy’s Century 24 Twin

ILLINOIS

  • Bloomingdale — Plitt’s Stratford Square 4-plex (5)
  • Chicago — Center’s McClurg Court (5)
  • Chicago Ridge — Chicago Ridge Mall Triplex (6)
  • Hillside — M&R’s Hillside Square 4-plex (2)
  • Northbrook — Center’s Edens Twin (5)

LOUISIANA

  • Gretna — Cobb’s Westside Twin (7)

MARYLAND

  • Catonsville — Einbinder & Brehm’s Westview 6-plex (6)

MICHIGAN

  • Grosse Pointe Woods — Nicholas George’s Woods Twin (4)
  • Livonia — Suburban Detroit’s Terrace Twin (4)
  • Southfield — Suburban Detroit’s Northland Twin (3)

NEVADA

  • Las Vegas — Syufy’s Cinedome 6-plex
  • Reno — Syufy’s Century 6-plex (5)

Tron 70mm frames

NEW JERSEY

  • Cedar Grove — Cinema 23 (5)
  • Paramus — RKO Century’s Route Four 7-plex (5)

NEW YORK

  • New York — Loews’ State Twin (5)
  • White Plains — UA’s Cinema (5)
  • Woodbury — UA’s Cinema 150 (6)

OHIO

  • Springdale — Mid States’ Tri-County 5-plex (7)

ONTARIO

  • Toronto — Famous Players’ Hollywood Twin (11)

OREGON

  • Portland — Moyer’s Bagdad Triplex (9)
  • Portland — Moyer’s Rose Moyer 6-plex (23) [w/“Star Trek II” from Week #6]

PENNSYLVANIA

  • Pittsburgh — Cinemette’s Warner (3)

TEXAS

  • Dallas — Inwood Twin (6)
  • San Antonio — Santikos’ Northwest 10-plex

WISCONSIN

  • Greenfield — Marcus’ Spring Mall Triplex

Tron newspaper ad re-releaseADDITIONAL / SUBSEQUENT 70MM ENGAGEMENTS & SCREENINGS

  • 1982-07-16 … Los Angeles, CA — Mann’s Village (4)
  • 1982-07-22 … Sainte-Foy, QC — Cinemas Unis’ Canadien (8)
  • 1982-07-23 … Montreal, QC — United’s Claremont (11)
  • 1982-07-23 … Philadelphia, PA — Budco’s Regency Twin (5)
  • 1982-07-30 … Los Angeles, CA — Mann’s Vogue (2)
  • 1982-07-30 … Winnipeg, MB — Famous Players’ Metropolitan (9)
  • 1982-08-13 … Detroit, MI — Madison (1)
  • 1982-08-13 … Honolulu, HI — Royal’s Royal (4)
  • 1982-08-13 … Los Angeles, CA — Plitt’s Century Plaza Twin (9)
  • 1982-08-20 … Cleveland, OH — Colony (2)
  • 1982-09-03 … Chicago, IL — Center’s McClurg Court (1)
  • 1982-09-03 … Cleveland, OH — Variety (2)
  • 1982-09-03 … Northbrook, IL — Center’s Edens Twin (1)
  • 1982-09-17 … Burnaby, BC — Famous Players’ Lougheed Mall Triplex (2)
  • 1982-09-17 … Edmonton, AB — Famous Players’ Garneau (1)
  • 1982-10-08 … Boston, MA — Sack’s Charles Triplex (2)
  • 1982-10-08 … Henrietta, NY — Loews’ Towne Twin (4)
  • 1982-10-08 … Towson, MD — Rappaport’s Hillendale Twin (1)
  • 1982-10-15 … Cincinnati, OH — Mid States’ Carousel Twin (3)
  • 1982-10-15 … Portland, OR — Luxury Theatres’ Music Box (3)
  • 1982-10-15 … Salt Lake City, UT — Plitt’s Regency (3)
  • 1982-10-15 … San Francisco, CA — Plitt’s Northpoint (1)
  • 1982-10-15 … Washington, DC — Circle’s Uptown (2)
  • 1982-10-22 … Atlanta, GA — Plitt’s Phipps Plaza Triplex
  • 1982-10-22 … Los Angeles, CA — Mann’s Hollywood (1)
  • 1982-10-22 … Los Angeles, CA — Mann’s National (1)
  • 1982-10-22 … Renton, WA — MCR’s Roxy (3) [w/“Capricorn One”]
  • 1982-10-29 … Los Angeles, CA — Mann’s Hollywood (1) [w/“Superman II”]
  • 1982-11-05 … Brooklyn Center, MN — Plitt’s Brookdale (2)
  • 1982-11-05 … Montreal, QC — Odeon’s Place du Canada (1)
  • 1982-11-19 … Tucson, AZ — Plitt’s El Dorado Twin (2)
  • 1982-11-24 … Colorado Springs, CO — Commonwealth’s Ute 70 (2)
  • 1982-11-24 … Seattle, WA — SRO’s Music Box (2)
  • 1982-11-26 … Lynnwood, WA — SRO’s Grand Cinemas Alderwood 5-plex (3)
  • 1982-12-17 … Los Angeles, CA — Mann’s Valley West 6-plex (1)
  • 1983-01-28 … Orange, CA — Syufy’s City Center Twin (1) [w/“Star Trek II”]
  • 1983-03-02 … Toronto, ON — Cinesphere (5 days) [70mm fest]
  • 1983-04-15 … San Francisco, CA — Blumenfeld’s Regency II
  • 1983-05-13 … Dearborn, MI — UA’s The Movies at Fairlane 10-plex (2)
  • 1983-05-13 … Troy, MI — UA’s The Movies at Oakland 5-plex (2)
  • 1983-05-20 … Livonia, MI — Nicholas George’s Mai Kai (1)
  • 1983-05-20 … San Diego, CA — Pacific’s Cinerama (1)
  • 1983-05-20 … Southfield, MI — Nicholas George’s Americana 4-plex (1)
  • 1983-05-20 … Southgate, MI — Nicholas George’s Southgate Triplex (1)
  • 1983-07-15 … Montreal, QC — Odeon’s Champlain Twin (5) [Version Francaise]
  • 1983-09-23 … Montreal, QC — United’s Claremont (1)
  • 1983-12-21 … Toronto, ON — Cinesphere (4 days) [70mm fest]
  • 1984-03-04 … Cleveland, OH — Variety
  • 1984-05-11 … Toronto, ON — Odeon’s Hyland Twin (1)
  • 1984-05-11 … Vancouver, BC — Odeon’s Park (2)
  • 1985-09-06 … Cleveland, OH — Colony [fest; midnight]
  • 1999-05-14 … Los Angeles, CA — Pacific’s El Capitan (1) [THX]
  • 1999-10-23 … Long Beach, CA — CSULB’s Carpenter Center [Wide Screen fest]
  • 2004-05-06 … Los Angeles, CA — Pacific’s El Capitan (2) [THX]
  • 2004-06-06 … Los Angeles, CA — Directors Guild
  • 2006-06-07 … Beverly Hills, CA — AMPAS’ Samuel Goldwyn [Movie Magic series]
  • 2006-08-19 … San Francisco, CA — Castro [midnight]
  • 2007-06-17 … Santa Monica, CA — American Cinematheque’s Aero [w/“Star Trek II”]
  • 2007-08-24 … Austin, TX — Paramount (2 days) [70mm fest]
  • 2008-02-24 … Seattle, WA — Cinerama [70mm fest]
  • 2008-02-26 … Seattle, WA — Cinerama [70mm fest]
  • 2008-03-02 … Seattle, WA — Cinerama [70mm fest]
  • 2008-03-04 … Seattle, WA — Cinerama [70mm fest]
  • 2008-07-04 … San Francisco, CA — Castro [70mm fest]
  • 2011-03-05 … Los Angeles, CA — American Cinematheque’s Aero
  • 2011-06-04 … San Francisco, CA — Castro [70mm fest]
  • 2011-07-01 … Los Angeles, CA — American Cinematheque’s Egyptian [Blu-ray substitution]
  • 2011-07-01 … Silver Spring, MD — AFI Silver (4 days) [70mm fest]
  • 2011-10-09 … Seattle, WA — Cinerama [70mm fest]
  • 2012-03-17 … Los Angeles, CA — American Cinematheque’s Egyptian
  • 2012-08-31 … Silver Spring, MD — AFI Silver (4 days) [70mm fest]
  • 2012-12-29 … New York, NY — Film Society Lincoln Center (2 days)
  • 2014-06-08 … Los Angeles, CA — American Cinematheque’s Aero
  • 2014-07-19 … Chicago, IL — Music Box [70mm fest]
  • 2015-03-17 … Toronto, ON — TIFF Bell Lightbox
  • 2015-03-18 … Toronto, ON — TIFF Bell Lightbox [replaced damaged “The Black Hole”]
  • 2015-04-03 … Toronto, ON — TIFF Bell Lightbox (2 days)
  • 2015-08-14 … New York, NY — MOMI’s Sumner M. Redstone (3 days) [70mm fest]
  • 2015-08-28 … Columbus, OH — Wexner Center for the Arts (2 days)
  • 2016-06-11 … Tucson, AZ — The Loft (2 days)
  • 2016-09-09 … Seattle, WA — Cinerama [70mm fest]
  • 2016-09-18 … Somerville, MA — Somerville [70mm fest]
  • 2017-04-07 … Portland, OR — Hollywood [70mm series]
  • 2017-06-16 … Los Angeles, CA — American Cinematheque’s Egyptian [70mm series]
  • 2017-06-24 … Los Angeles, CA — American Cinematheque’s Egyptian [70mm series]

A scene from Tron 

 

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THE Q&A

William Kallay is the author of The Making of Tron: How Tron Changed Visual Effects and Disney Forever (2011). He is the co-founder of FromScriptToDVD.com, where he has written about film technology, interviewed filmmakers, and reviewed countless DVDs and Blu-ray Discs. Green Tea, Kallay’s 2004 short film, won the Outstanding Writing Commendation Award from the 48 Hour Film Festival in Los Angeles. He has also written for Go (the official magazine for AirTran Airways) and Widescreen Review.

William Kallay

Michael Coate (The Digital Bits): In what way should Tron be remembered on its 35th anniversary?

William Kallay: Tron should be remembered as a very daring, risky adventure on the part of a few young visionaries and artists. They believed that by using computers for animation and visual effects, they could change moviemaking. There had not been a movie like it before. The characters, or “Programs,” actually lived inside of a computerized world. This film ultimately changed how we see and experience movies, television, and even music videos. Pixar, in my humble opinion, was heavily influenced by John Lasseter seeing the famous Light Cycle sequence in Tron. It is important to note that when Tron was made, the very idea of computers, let alone computerized animation and visual effects, was still extremely new.

Coate: What did you think of Tron? Can you recall your reaction to the first time you saw it?

Kallay: My parents and I lived in Anaheim Hills, a suburb in Orange County, California. At the time, if you wanted to go see a movie, you had the choice of the really small and dingy AMC Orange Mall 6, or the very classy Cinedome in Orange. Cinedome was truly cool because it had dome theaters with giant curved screens, stadium seating and a lot of 70mm presentations, all for a very reasonable admission price.

Video games were totally my world in my late teens. I spent countless hours on my Atari 2600. The graphics were crude, and don’t even get me started on the home version of Pac-Man. Yet being a lonely teenage kid, video games were an escape for me. The arcade was the one place where I found my identity and could actually “be cool” because I was a good video game player.

When Tron opened, I was intrigued. A video game movie? I was also a Disney buff and I knew this movie was something completely revolutionary from them. Bear in mind that Disney of 1982 was much different from Disney today. Tron was a huge risk for the studio. They were not seen as a hip studio and most of the movies they made were cookie cutter Disney family films.

My parents drove with me down to Cinedome on a hot July day. My dad gave me my allowance of a princely $15.00. My parents went to another theater in the complex to see, no kidding, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and I went to see Tron in 70mm Six-Track Dolby Stereo.

Sitting in the rocking theater seat inside the big dome, the curtains parted and Buena Vista Distribution in computerized-looking letters appeared. This was something different from Disney. Suddenly, and very loudly, Tron formed on the screen and the Tron logo flew onto the screen and I was immersed into that opening Light Cycle sequence. I was hooked!

Then the plot started to unfold. There was quite a bit of computer talk and words. There was talk between the old way of computers to the new way of computers. I wanted to see more Light Cycles. Where’s Jeff Bridges? What the heck is ROM and RAM memory? Why do I not understand this computer lingo? Why am I drawn to these spectacular visuals unfolding before my eyes?

Tron ended just as my parents came out of their movie. My dad asked, “How was Tron?” I stood there and said, “I’m not sure. It was cool, but I was confused.” The film made an impact on me, but I was not sure what to make of it. There was something extra special about this film to me and I was unable to articulate its impact on me.

A side note, later that year, my buddy and I rented Tron on VHS. I remember telling him about a hilarious joke with Sark (played by David Warner) on a giant map. Wait for it. Wait for it.... “Where’s Pac-Man!?” I yelled. That was probably my first lesson in aspect ratios and how the ingenious gag of Pac-Mac was cut out of the frame for home video.

Coate: In what way is Tron significant?

Kallay: Tron opened the doors for filmmakers to create films in a digital landscape. Animation and visual effects were largely done by human hands and very expensive tools like the Multiplane Camera (Disney), VistaVision cameras (used by ILM for years), plastic models, stop-motion characters (think of the original King Kong), and cel animation. The makers of Tron felt that using computers would offer more freedom from manually building models, painting fantastic landscapes or animating by hand. Working in the digital world could eventually create animation and visual effects that were never possible before.

It is also one of the most visually stunning films I have ever seen. The artistic brainpower behind Tron was incredible: Syd Mead, Jean “Moebius” Giraud, John Norton, Harrison Ellenshaw, Richard W. Taylor II, and many others.

Coate: Why do you think Tron was unsuccessful in its original release?

Kallay: Tron made around $33 million (roughly $84 million today) in its original release, which for the time was decent. It just did not make the kind of money that some of the higher profile releases like E.T. and Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan did. The summer of 1982 was an amazingly strong period for film, both critically and economically. There were scary films like Poltergeist and The Thing. Blade Runner, though in its original release, was a considered a box office disappointment. It was eventually seen as a classic. Rocky III made a ton of money and looked like it might be the year’s biggest hit until E.T. came to Earth. Tron had a lot of competition.

One would think that Tron would have cleaned up at the box office because it was a movie about video games. The film had a big star in Jeff Bridges. Bruce Boxleitner was well known as a television actor. Cindy Morgan was Lacey Underall in Caddyshack (1980) for heaven’s sake! David Warner was hot after starring in the cult hit, Time Bandits (1981). The film had groundbreaking computer animation and visual effects. There was an arcade video game tie-in in arcades across the country. Kids and teens lined up to play the game. The film had a stellar line up of visual effects geniuses and designers.

The film fell short at the box office for a few reasons, in my opinion. Not everyone back in 1982 was versed in, or even used, computers. Disney had to fight for theaters to show the film. It was a huge summer for 70mm prints and many of the early summer movies with those prints were still playing in big auditoriums. Audiences that summer were into emotional movies like E.T., Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan and Rocky III, whereas Tron initially comes off cold. As a teenage video game guru back then, I wanted to see more video game action, though I now love the story concepts that Tron presents.

The crazy thing is that Tron eventually made money on the original arcade game, the home video release, the home video game, DVDs and Blu-rays, and nostalgia. In 1999, Disney struck a new 70mm print and it has been in circulation ever since in revival theaters (though I am not sure if Disney has re-struck a new print since then). New audiences discovered Tron on the big movie screen where it is meant to be seen. Disney approved a sequel, a cartoon series, and the Tron Light Cycle Power Run roller coaster in Shanghai has been a hugely popular attraction. I am no math wizard, but the Tron property has feasibly made nearly $1 billion for Disney by now. Not bad for a box office “flop.”

A scene from Tron

Coate: In what way was it beneficial for Tron to have been photographed and, in some theaters, presented in the 70mm format?

Kallay: Technology of merging live actors like Jeff Bridges, Bruce Boxleitner, Cindy Morgan, David Warner and Dan Shor into a computerized environment did not exist in 1981 when Tron was filmed. The great visual effects artists and animation gurus needed to “fake” the actors in the Electronic World. It has been awhile since I have gone over my book and notes, but I believe that director Steven Lisberger and cinematographer Bruce Logan, ASC ultimately decided to shoot Tron in 65mm due to the need to blow up each Electronic World frame to Kodaliths (large film cels). They could maintain high picture quality that way.

If they had shot the film in 35mm, the Kodaliths would have had tons of large film grain throughout the picture. Disney balked at the slightly extra expense of shooting in 65mm, but they finally realized going this route was the smart decision. Using Kodaliths was the only way in which to make the live action “computerized.”

When Tron was released in theaters, 70mm had been undergoing a revival. That summer of 1982, which is regarded by film fans as one of the greatest ever, had a huge number of 70mm blow-up prints struck for theatrical exhibition. Tron just so happened to be filmed in 65mm and some VistaVision.

Coate: Do you think the Academy was justified in not nominating Tron in the category of Best Visual Effects?

Kallay: Absolutely not. The Academy voters were in love with E.T. That year there was Poltergeist and Blade Runner in the mix for an Oscar nomination for Best Visual Effects. Tron should have been included in that very honorable group of films. Not that I am against E.T., but Tron was truly a groundbreaker. To this day, my good friend Richard W. Taylor II (co-visual effects supervisor of Tron) still thinks he and his amazing crew were robbed. I agree.

The mindset of visual effects artists, especially back then, was not into using computers. Computers were very rarely used for film work. Computers were the devil’s work. Effects should not be automated! The idea that a computer would do “almost all of the work” in visual effects was scary, though we now know that computers need people. It took several years, but computer animation and visual effects are used by hundreds of artists on one film today. Tron only had a few computer animators and they were divided by four different outside companies.

Coate: In what way was Steven Lisberger an ideal choice to direct Tron and where does the film rank among his body of work?

Kallay: Tron was Steven’s creation when he opened a studio in Venice Beach, California. He was the ideal choice to bring his vision to the big screen. His studio was a showcase for some of the most amazingly brilliant artists to come from the early 80s. There are some disagreements among some of the artists I interviewed on the creation of Tron, but Steven’s influence and vision is truly spread across this film. This was not an easy sell to the major studios back then. Steven is very persuasive and knows his vision.

Steven did an exceptional job on Tron. He did not have any feature film experience except for Animalympics (1980). Tron was a huge undertaking with new computer technology, a big movie star like Jeff Bridges, and an eclectic crew of super artists like Bill Kroyer, Jerry Rees and Darrell Rooney. Did I, as a fan and viewer, have some issues with the storyline? Sure. Yet in hindsight, there are some very intriguing ideas that I delve into in my book.

I have always wanted to see more films from Steven because I truly believe he is incredibly talented and a great guy. In my opinion, Tron is Steven’s best work. It has stood the test of time and he should be proud of his work. He did a couple of features soon after Tron. There was Hot Pursuit (1987) and then Slipstream (1989). I watched Hot Pursuit and felt it did not have the same vision and “guts” that Tron had, but John Cusack helped make the film enjoyable. I once found a DVD of Slipstream at a store and regrettably did not buy it. So I cannot judge Steven’s work on that film.

A scene from Tron

 

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Coate: How effective or memorable a hero was Jeff Bridges’ Kevin Flynn and where do you think that performance ranks among his body of work?

Kallay: How can you go wrong with Jeff Bridges? He can read the ingredients off of a can of bargain chili and I would listen to him. Kevin Flynn is Jeff Bridges. I had the golden opportunity to talk to Jeff and he was the most gracious person. What you see in Flynn is Jeff’s own fun and genuine personality. The character of “The Dude” in The Big Lebowski (1998) is like Flynn but off the charts. I always loved the character of Flynn because he was a cool video game guy who happened to own an arcade. To a teenager back in 1982, this was a guy who I wanted to be. And by the way, the scene in Flynn’s Arcade when Flynn loses his temper is totally based on Steven Lisberger’s occasional rants on the Tron set.

Coate: How effective or memorable a villain was David Warner’s Ed Dillinger/Sark and where do you think that performance ranks among his body of work?

Kallay: Let me put it this way. One of the earliest VHS rentals I ever got was Time Bandits (1981). The movie freaked me out because David Warner could look at you and you would imagine he would destroy you! As Dillinger/Sark, Warner owned that role as the cold corporate executive bent on taking over the world with computer technology, while he ate up the scenery in the Electronic World as Sark. I think it is his most memorable performance. My regret with the book is that I could not get in touch with Mr. Warner for an interview.

A scene from Tron

Coate: What was the objective with your Tron book?

Kallay: Years ago, I was a freelance writer who simply loved movies and the craft of making movies. I was a film school graduate, but honestly, never was able to break into the Hollywood filmmaking industry. When I was writing for a home theater magazine, it gave me a great opportunity to somewhat get into the “biz.” Because I was a member of the press, I gained access to most of the major movie studios, red carpet premieres, and award shows. Having that access allowed me to meet some of my heroes from the film business.

One of my heroes was Harrison Ellenshaw. Since I was such a Disney fanatic, his name and his father’s name were very familiar to me as a young film buff. I knew that Peter Ellenshaw had been one of Walt Disney’s go-to guys and just having 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1954) and Mary Poppins (1964) on his resume alone simply did not give Peter enough praise for his work as a matte painter and visual effects icon.

With Harrison, I knew of his name on the credits for The Black Hole (1979), Tron (1982), and for heaven’s sake, Star Wars (1977) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980). The dude had some street cred! One evening I was attending a panel discussion at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I honestly do not recall the theme, but after the discussion, I sheepishly approached Harrison and asked him if he would be willing to talk about his work in large format and 65mm cinematography. He said sure and asked me for my card or email address.

A few weeks passed and I had not heard from him. Of course, even as a young adult, I was bummed. Then suddenly he emailed me! Harrison Ellenshaw? I have to say that the fan factor, that “geek” factor, does not subside even in adulthood. He graciously answered my technical film questions.

Harrison was totally kind to me and answered tons of questions about his work in visual effects, the people he worked with, and his own experience on Tron. Going back to my first viewings of Tron, I cannot say that the film won me over. But by the time I met and befriended Harrison, I had a newfound respect for the how the film was made.

This got me thinking. Why not write a book about the making of Tron? Granted, Disney released a stunning LaserDisc which went into the making of the film. I, being completely naive, thought I would tackle this massive subject in book form.

When it came down to the objective of writing about Tron, I was more intrigued by the people who made it, their ideas, their artistry, and their feelings about making the film. Audiences, not to their fault, sometimes forget that filmmaking is an intensive process. It involves imagination, creativity, clashing egos, studio budgets, and sometimes not knowing how a film will turn out. Tron had all of this and more. Little did I know, it would take me six years to track down as many people as I could, and tons of rejection from publishers.

A scene from Tron

Coate: What are your thoughts on Tron: Legacy? How does it compare to the original?

Kallay: I had huge hopes for Tron: Legacy. The announcement came as a total surprise to me and many of the artists I interviewed for my book. I was happy to see Steven Lisberger as a producer on the film. Knowing and being friends with many people who worked on the original film, I had hoped they would somehow be involved, but they were not.

I went to a special screening at the Academy. As I sat there, I was amongst some of the original Tron artists like Syd Mead. I hoped that the new director, Joseph Kosinski, would expand on the original ideas of Tron and fill in gaps in the original storyline. I hoped that there would be more action with newer CGI effects.

As the film unfolded, there were some pretty cool action scenes, especially in the arena Light Cycle race. I thought the lifeblood of Legacy was Jeff Bridges as Flynn dealing with his son, Sam (Garrett Hedlund) and Olivia Wilde was great as Quorra. As a whole, I felt that the film could have been so much more. I was moved by the scenes of Flynn trying to reconcile with his son Sam, but that to me was not the character and motivation of Flynn. He was an independent dude! Even in his middle aged years, I thought that Flynn would be a responsible father but also fun. It would have been cool to see Flynn and Sam racing Light Cycles across the Grid, for example.

Comparing Legacy to the original is difficult for me. Tron, was a brilliant attempt to immerse audiences into a world they had never seen before. It was a uniquely brave film.

Legacy to me falls into that trap that so many movies and TV shows do today: focusing on the parent/child relationship or a missing or dead parent. I understood why this was done, but I do not go see a Tron movie to see father/son bonding. I go to a Tron film to see Flynn being a smart ass, Tron being Mr. Hero, and Programs fighting in Deadly Disc battles.

Tron: Legacy is not a bad or poorly made film. I just felt it could have filled in the missing pieces of Tron and made itself unique. Kosinski shows his ability to direct and I think he really showed his directorial chops later with Oblivion (2013).

Coate: What is the legacy of Tron?

Kallay: Tron has made a huge impact on visual effects, animated kid flicks, or short homemade films on YouTube. Without the amazing cast and crew of Tron, we would not see digital characters like Anna & Elsa, Woody & Buzz Lightyear or Shrek. We would not see CGI effects in Jurassic Park (1993) or hundreds of visual effects in every Marvel or DC film. A teenager can now do spectacular visual effects on their laptop with inexpensive software that was unheard of in 1982. Tron created, just by using computer effects and human ingenuity, a multi-billion visual effects industry. Even the concept of a video game tie-in was largely due to Tron.

Disney also changed. The studio is now a powerhouse not only as a studio, but as a gigantic corporation. If Tron was such a big flop, why did Disney make a sequel in 2010 and open a roller coaster in Shanghai Disneyland? Tron continues to make money for Disney.

Thanks to the inventive makers of Tron, they created their own legacy that remains 35 years later.

Coate: Thank you, Bill, for sharing your thoughts on Tron on the occasion of the 35th anniversary of its release.

--END--

 

IMAGES

Selected images copyright/courtesy Buena Vista Distribution, Buena Vista Home Video, Celluloid Chicago, Lisberger/Kushner Productions, Walt Disney Home Video, Walt Disney Productions.

 A scene from Tron

 

SOURCES/REFERENCES

The primary references for this project were regional newspaper coverage and trade reports published in Billboard, Boxoffice, The Hollywood Reporter and Variety; and the book The Making of Tron: How Tron Changed Visual Effects and Disney Forever (William Kallay; 2011). All figures and data included in this article pertain to the United States and Canada except where stated otherwise.

 

SPECIAL THANKS

Don Beelik, Celluloid Chicago, Diane Donham, Bobby Henderson, William Kallay, Sarah Kenyon, Steve Kraus, Bill Kretzel, Mark Lensenmayer, Stan Malone, Monty Marin, John Stewart, Sean Weitzel, Chicago’s Music Box Theatre, and to all of the librarians who helped with the research for this project.

 

IN MEMORIAM

  • Al Roelofs (Art Director), 1906-1990
  • Robert Abel (Systems Supervisor), 1937-2001
  • Elois Jensson (Costume Designer), 1922-2004
  • Robert J. Schiffer (Make-up Supervisor), 1916-2005
  • Richard ‘Dr.’ Baily (Systems Programmer), 1953-2006
  • Bill Kovacs (Systems Programmer), 1948-2006
  • Barnard Hughes (“Dr. Walter Gibbs”/“Dumont”), 1915-2006
  • Bob Minkler (Re-recording Mixer), 1937-2015
  • John B. Mansbridge (Art Director), 1917-2016

 

-Michael Coate

Michael Coate can be reached via e-mail through this link. (You can also follow Michael on social media at these links: Twitter and Facebook)

Tron (Blu-ray Disc)   Tron: Legacy (Blu-ray Disc)

 

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