Thirty-five years ago this week (on July 9, 1982), Disney's release of "Tron" was a bold gamble, an experiment in new storytelling technology and a bid to reinvent the then-adrift studio. And in every respect, that gamble was a colossal failure.
Or so it seemed in the short term. In the long term, of course, "Tron" not only led Disney to become a studio known for more than just reassuring family entertainment, but it also led to a revolution in computer-generated imagery that would redefine how movies are made. Oh, and besides being the launch point of digital filmmaking, it also told a geeky-cool story about a programmer sucked into his own video game, a tale that became a franchise that included a sequel, an animated TV series, and several video games.
Dreamed up before everyone had PCs, smartphones, or connections to the internet, "Tron's" vision of humans literally swallowed by their own technology seems eerily prescient. Still, as familiar as "Tron" and its world seem to us today, there's a lot you may not know about the movie, from how its still-astonishing effects were created to the shocking reason it was snubbed at the Oscars. Hook up your handset modem and floppy disk drive, grab your video arcade quarters, and travel back in time to learn the "Tron" truth.
1. "Tron" was the brainchild of animator Steven Lisberger, conceived in the mid-1970s when he first saw the early video game "Pong." He grasped that the computer technology that moved the primitive rackets and ball of that game could be used for animation, which led him to conceive of the story's video arcade game-inspired plot.
2. Lisberger and his partners spent $300,000 putting together a package meant to attract the interest of investors and Hollywood studios, a package that included a script, storyboarded scenes for the entire film, and an effects demo reel. No studio, however, would bite, until Team Lisberger offered the project to Disney.
3. In 1980, Disney was struggling, with a series of flops and an animation studio that seemed to have lost direction since Walt's death more than a decade earlier. It had tried to jump on the post-"Star Wars" sci-fi bandwagon with "The Black Hole," a visionary live-action movie (and the studio's first-ever PG-rated release) that nonetheless was a costly failure at the box office. It also was not a studio accustomed to working with outside filmmakers. Still, it was desperate enough to take a chance on Lisberger's vision. (True to form, Disney also saw "Tron's" toy and game merchandising potential.) Even so, all but one member (Jerry Rees) of the studio's legendary animation department refused to work on the film, as if they sensed that Lisberger's primitive CGI was the seed of a technology that would ultimately put them out of business.4. The filmmakers hired legendary French comic book artist Jean Giraud, a.k.a. Moebius, to do additional art direction for the film, including set design, costume design, and storyboards. He had recently done similar work on "Alien" and "Blade Runner."
5. "Tron" wasn't the first film to use CGI -- even "The Black Hole" had a brief, extended CGI sequence during its opening credits -- but it was the first movie to make such extensive use of CGI, with some 800 shots making use of digital sets and props. Still, that amounts to only about 15 to 20 minutes of the 96-minute film.
6. The computers available at the time couldn't actually animate footage; they could only generate one still frame at a time, making the animation process as painstaking and time-consuming as traditional hand-drawn animation. The machines used had operating memory of just 2 MB, with no more than 330 MB of storage. Still, there were few computers at the time that had enough computing power to do the work, so few that Lisberger had to hire four different computer-graphics companies to have enough machines to complete the work.
7. Much of the effects work was done through old-school analog photography, but with a twist. For the scenes involving actors inside the game, Lisberger made extensive use of a technique called backlit animation, filming the actors in black-and-white on a black set, then projecting colored light through the frame from behind. (It's akin to the technique used to create the lightsaber effects in "Star Wars.") Even so, the technique required the use of large photographic plates, which then had to be colored by hand. (Lisberger likened the process to making stained-glass windows.) Making such extensive use of backlit animation was a feat so labor-intensive and costly that no filmmaker before had ever done it. No filmmaker since, either.8. To get the actors into the right frame of mind, there were coin-operated video arcade games, like "Battlezone," on the set. Shooting might be delayed for minutes or hours if the crew or cast were on a gaming streak. Fittingly, Rees recalled 30 years later, it was Jeff Bridges, who played Kevin Flynn, the film's hacker/gamer hero, who was the "Battlezone" high scorer.
9. Many of the scenes at the fictional ENCOM corporation, including those in the laser bay, were actually shot at the famed Lawrence Livermore lab, which had never allowed itself to be used as a movie location. Cindy Morgan, who played the dual role of laser scientist Lora and heroic program Yori, said in a 2005 interview that she accidentally stepped into a spill of radioactive liquid there, and her contaminated shoes were confiscated.
10. Morgan, whose nerdy "Tron" characters marked an about-face from her then-recent role as temptress Lacey Underall in "Caddyshack," said she won her part in the film over occasional actress and Blondie frontwoman Deborah Harry.
11. "Tron" has a couple of Easter eggs for sharp-eyed viewers. One is an image of Pac-Man, in a scene where Sark (David Warner) is tracking the escaped lightcycles on a wall-sized screen. And during the journey of the solar sailor, a giant Mickey Mouse silhouette is visible below the craft.12. The movie gave early career boosts to several young animators who would become successful feature directors of animated and live-action feature films, including Roger Allers ("The Lion King"), Chris Wedge ("Ice Age"), Brad Bird ("The Incredibles"), and Tim Burton.
13. Disney spent between $17 and $20 million on "Tron," still a lot for a movie budget in 1982. It grossed $33 million in ticket sales, but since about half a movie's gross goes to the theater owners, that meant Disney lost money on the film.
14. Why were audiences reluctant to embrace "Tron"? Lisberger said in 2015 that, while kids of the video game generation appreciated it, adults found it disorienting. "It was like we put LSD in the punch at the school prom and it was just way more than they can handle," he said in 2015. He also recognized that the movie wasn't the kind of familiar, comforting family entertainment moviegoers had come to expect from the Disney brand. "People do not want to get their minds blown by Walt Disney Studios, they want to be reassured by them," he said.
15. At the 1983 Academy Awards, Oscar voters declined to nominate the film's pioneering special effects. Lisberger said it was because they felt using computers as an animation tool was cheating. Nonetheless, they did nominate "Tron" for its costumes and sound.16. Fourteen years later, however, coder Ken Perlin won a Sci-Tech Oscar for "Perlin noise," a distortion effect that makes computer-animated surfaces look less plastic and more textured and organic. By the time he received the award in 1997, Perlin's algorithm, which he'd invented for "Tron," had become a common tool for computer animators.
17. Of course, there was a "Tron" video game, licensed by Disney and manufactured by Bally, which placed the game in hundreds of arcades nationwide. Reportedly, the game earned more than the movie, as much as $45 million.
18. Today, of course, digital filmmaking and CGI effects are the norm. Disney has found success making movies for grown-ups, though it's still best known for family entertainment. Disney is also the home of Pixar, which made the first feature-length computer-animated film ("Toy Story") 13 years after "Tron" and went on to become the world's most beloved computer-animation studio. Pixar founder John Lasseter has acknowledged how much "Tron" influenced his work, saying, "Without 'Tron,' there would be no 'Toy Story.'"
19. After 28 years, during which "Tron" became a cult favorite and saw its influence acknowledged by contemporary filmmakers and animators, Disney finally made a theatrical sequel, "Tron: Legacy." The 2010 film, which brought back Bridges and Bruce Boxleitner from the original, cost a reported $172 million to make and earned back $400 million worldwide -- not enough to make a profit, but enough to make Disney consider a third installment. The studio pulled the plug on the three-quel in 2015, but this past March, the Hollywood Reporter said the project was being rebooted, with Jared Leto being approached to star.
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