“Tron” (1982): A Study On Its History

We dive into Disney's 1982 film "Tron", which was well ahead of its time, and eventually grew into a cult classic.

In the early 1980s, Disney was at a crossroads in their live-action film department. They were looking to create more daring films that used innovative forms of animation once again, as they had done so in the Walt era.

They found what they were looking for in 1980 when they decided to make "Tron", written by animator Steven Lisberger and Bonnie MacBird. Thanks to the association, Disney became an early pioneer in computer animation, even if the relationship between Disney and Lisberger wasn't the greatest.

Take a look at the fascinating history of "Tron", and how it led to becoming a cult classic that brought a 2010 sequel


How the Idea of "Tron" Began

As many reviewers note, the plot of "Tron" seemed like a blatant attempt to copy "Star Wars" at the time. However, the idea for "Tron" developed before "Star Wars" was even released.

Lisberger became fascinated with video games when he first saw Pong, and witnessed a sample reel of computer animation from a computer firm called MAGI. He thought that rather than have video games stay an arcane niche, a movie using the same concepts could make the technology mainstream. He soon wrote this idea with his co-writer MacBird.

Not long after, Lisberger created a character called "Tron" in a 30-second animation short used to promote his own animation studio.

At this time, Lisberger began working with producer Donald Kushner on another animated project called "Animalympics". They then decided to move to Los Angeles to try and persuade a studio to show interest in a Tron feature film.


Disney's Approach to "Tron"

After being turned down by all the major studios for the project, they finally interested Disney after execs saw a test scene involving the famous flying disc competition. Even though Disney was reluctant to put up money for a first-time producer, they ran with Lisberger and MacBird's idea.

Creative problems soon began. Disney wanted to exert more control over the story, so things started to shift in ways Lisberger didn't initially expect.

At stake was the animation department at Disney feeling reluctant about working with the then new field of computer animation. A lot of them refused to work on the project because they felt computers would end their careers as animators in the traditional sense.

This, of course, was prophetic since computer animation eventually did lead to the firing of Disney animators who drew by hand.

When "Tron" went into production, though, the creative team behind the film ultimately grew into the multiple hundreds.


Creating the Look of "Tron"

Disney turned to numerous outside sources to create the computer realms seen in "Tron." They outsourced four computer firms to work on the film's unique look. It was Information International Inc., MAGI, Robert Abel and Associates, and Digital Effects of NYC that created the visuals, all with their own unique style.

It’s worth noting that a lot of the actual computer animation amounts to approximately 20 minutes of footage due to era computers having limited memory capacity. The rest of the film used some key production aspects:

  • Backlit animation became used as a unique cinematography process. This involved filming the computer landscapes and actors in black and white. Afterward, they filled in colour through rotoscoping to give a more technological aesthetic.
  • Background details became aided with a technique called depth queuing. Because of computer limitations, backgrounds had to become blacked out to avoid visual errors. Ultimately, this just added to the digital landscape.
  • Disney hired many inkers and hand-painters from Taiwan to take part in some of the traditional production techniques. This included matte paintings in the real world sequences. 
The Innovative Music Score

You didn't see many movies with an electronic soundtrack before "Tron", other than a few exceptions. Composer Wendy Carlos wrote the score for "A Clockwork Orange" and "The Shining" before writing the music for "Tron."

She worked with her composing partner Annemarie Franklin to create the film's unique sounds using a Moog synthesizer and a GDS electronic synthesizer from Crumar.

Disney insisted on adding some strings from the London Philharmonic so the score wouldn't become too arcane. Unfortunately, many people didn't hear the complete score from Wendy Carlos until a re-release on CD years later.


The Critical Reception to "Tron"

There isn't any question "Tron" was far ahead of its time, and it received mixed reviews when first released.

Only Roger Ebert praised its innovations, noting the missing heart many critics scoped out was intentional since it mostly took place in a digital world.

Despite some tepid reviews, it became an instant cult favourite for those wanting more movies like it.

The 1983 Academy Awards more or less shunned it in the Special Effects category, though, because they thought using a computer for effects was cheating. This sounds extremely odd today, as CGI is so prominently utilised in many movies.


The Cult Effect of "Tron"

John Lasseter from Pixar has gone on record over the years claiming that if it wasn't for "Tron", computer animation wouldn't have advanced to where it is now at Disney.

The cult aspect to "Tron" is more than noted, and it's easy to see why - considering it broadened imaginations to any kid seeing it for the first time.

When "Tron: Legacy" came out in 2010 as the official sequel, it seemed a little late. It was the same with a brief TV series on Disney XD called "Tron: Uprising." Nevertheless, the original film's impact is still felt in a world where the computer animation from then seems more humanised than modern day CGI.

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