Revisiting Cinefex (8): Tron and Silent Running

Cinefex Issue 08The cover of Cinefex issue #8 features a striking image of Bruce Boxleitner as Tron in the 1982 Disney movie of the same name. Inside the cover is a still from Douglas Trumbull’s 1972 science fiction film Silent Running, featuring one of those funky robots (I could never tell them apart so you’ll have to guess which one it is). The two articles, covering 68 pages, are:

  • Tronic Imagery (article by Peter Sørensen)
  • Silent Running (article by Pamela Duncan)


I have mixed feelings about Tron. Is it a daring and innovative piece of film-making? Yes, indeed. Is it a feast for the eyes? Undoubtedly. Is it strangely sterile and thin on real drama? I’m afraid so. Fortunately, the story of how Tron was made, as presented by Peter Sørensen in Cinefex #8, is anything but dull.

Like any good Cinefex article, this one gives us insight not only into the nitty-gritty of the movie’s visual effects, but also the context in which they were created. In the case of Tron, that means lifting the lid on Disney.

rc08tAccording to the introduction, ‘Tron signals  the emergence of the Walt Disney corporation from the black hole of formula filmmaking which has characterized the studio since the death of its founder.’ I don’t know if Tron was responsible for making actual changes at Disney, or if the project simply came along at a time when the studio was finally ready for change, but there’s no doubt it marks a turning point in both the quality and direction of Disney’s creative output.

Sørensen’s article tells us a lot about the challenges of merging the state-of-the-art techniques championed by Tron writer/director Steven Lisberger with the old-school technologies of Disney. In a single example that serves for all, technical effects supervisor John Scheele explains how, at Disney, they don’t measure things with regular inches. Back in the 1930s, an unknown Disney employee ‘tried to draw an inch on the original field chart, and it came out .954 inches instead … Ever since, that’s been the “Disney inch”.’ In order to integrate with the Disney systems, Triple-I and MAGI were forced to incorporate this weird anomaly into their computer models!

(A quick aside here. It might seem like a brave step for Disney in the early 80s to have committed to a movie showcasing – amongst other things – the nascent art of CG. The sad thing is that Walt, had he lived, would have been using CG long before anyone else. You only have to look back at the innovations Walt inspired – the multiplane camera, the Xerox machine used to copy animators’ pencil drawings directly on to cels, not to mention that bold and historic move of making the world’s first feature-length animated film – to wonder how much earlier we might have seen a film like Tron on our screens.)

It’s clear Lisberger (described here as ‘a ball of energy’) was the driving force behind Tron. Along with his formidable design team of Richard Taylor, Syd Mead and Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud, he developed the look, feel and physics of an imaginary world inside a computer. According to Sørensen, ‘Lisberger first considered doing Tron with cartoon characters, along the line of Heavy Metal.’ Ultimately, several different techniques were used to create the computer world on screen. Surprisingly, the groundbreaking CG for which Tron is usually remembered accounts for only fifteen minutes of screen time. The lion’s share was achieved by shooting live action on high-contrast black and white film, transferring each individual frame to an animation cel, then reshooting the cel using backlighting and coloured gels.

According to effects supervisor Harrison Ellenshaw, this backlit technique is ‘really beautifully simple.’ But it’s still a monumental task, since each cel required up to forty passes under the camera to layer up the various colours and tones. Ellenshaw worked out that ‘if you took all the [cels] … and stacked them five feet high, that row would be fifty-eight feet long.’

Sørensen’s descriptions of Tron‘s hybrid live action/animation process are clear and detailed. They range from technical breakdowns about sample wedging and intensity curves through to the logistics of managing all those cels. What becomes apparent as you read is the amount of sheer drudgery involved in getting those dazzling images on screen: rotoscoping, hand-animated shadows and light flares, the endless flopping of cels on the animation stands. For all its technical wizardry, Tron got a lot of people sweating.

When it comes to describing the CG – as with Sørensen’s generalised CG article in Cinefex #4 – we get real insight into what was then a whole new frontier. I myself remember being wowed by anything computer-generated in those early days; clearly I wasn’t alone. Talking about seeing Tron’s light-cycle shots for the first time, effects animator Dave Stephan says, ‘I wanted to see more of it; I wanted it to last all day.’

CG production was split between two companies: Triple-I and MAGI. MAGI’s systems – used to create the imagery in the first half of the film – were based on 3D models assembled from basic ‘primitive’ shapes. According to Richard Taylor, the MAGI scenes were quick to turn around and ‘quite easy to choreograph’. Triple-I contributed the later scenes, when the characters go ‘off-grid’ and everything gets a bit more fluid and realistic. Triple-I’s modelling system was very different, based on the direct digitisation of blueprints. Unlike MAGI, they could also do subtle rendering effects like transparency. Nowadays, of course, all these disparate techniques can be found in single software packages like Maya. Come to that, Google Sketchup has most of them. Back in the early 80s, each one was a specialism in its own right.

Much as I enjoyed re-reading this article’s technical content, I was most taken with some of the closing comments from the film-makers. ‘I’m continually asked,’ says Taylor, ‘if computers are going to replace people in the arts.’ His response is resoundingly that ‘computers are not a threat.’ Similarly, Lisberger predicts that ‘the technology is going to … provide actors with new places to go and new ways to go there.’

Their optimism has in many ways been borne out, though the debate rages on about the relative merits of CG against traditional techniques and, more recently, about whether motion capture (a technique in its infancy in the days of Tron) can be classed as ‘real acting’. But if directors like Steven Spielberg, a die-hard fan of soundstages, moviolas and chemical processes until Peter Jackson convinced him to throw his hat into the virtual ring with The Adventures of Tintin, is coming round to the idea, perhaps the writing is at last on the wall. In fact, the word ‘digital’ is rapidly becoming obsolete. Ask any seven year-old what it means and you’ll get a blank look. ‘Digital’ is no longer something special, nor even anything to merit particular attention. It’s simply the way the world is.

What Tron does is help us remember when the world was different. When ‘digital’ meant more or less the same thing as ‘magic’. I may not be the film’s biggest fan, but I love the vision it represents. That vision’s excitement – felt by everyone who worked on the movie, it seems – positively oozes out of Sørensen’s article. That’s why, all the time I was reading it, I had a big goofy grin on my face.

Silent Running

Pamela Duncan’s article about Silent Running takes us back to 1972, ten years before Tron. That’s nearly forty years ago now. Doesn’t time fly?

Again, the article begins with a little insight into studio operations, with writer/director Douglas Trumbull explaining how his film was one of five backed by Universal ‘with absolutely no holds on the director or producer … We had total control.’ As Trumbull himself says, ‘It was a fantastic opportunity.’

rc08srI was fascinated to read the original story outline, which differs significantly to the final film in detail, if not mood. It includes the familiar craziness and robots, but also features an alien spacecraft and its mysterious extra-terrestrial occupants. Trumbull expresses regret at some of the changes he feels were forced on him. ‘I was really sort of run over by a lot of dramatists and screenwriters,’ he says.

Silent Running is well-known for having been filmed aboard the decommissioned aircraft carrier USS Valley Forge (after which the spacecraft featured in the movie was named). By all accounts, the deserted ship was a spooky place to be. Effects supervisor John Dykstra tells a wonderful story about being stranded below deck after hours with the lights out: ‘It was pitch black … all of a sudden all of my bugaboos came to me. I swear to god that was the last time I worked on that ship alone at night.’

The thing everyone remembers about Silent Running is the robots. Trumbull cites the 1932 film Freaks as giving him the idea to use bilateral amputees inside the robot suits. His aim was to create characters that were completely deanthropomorphised, yet that the audience could still warm to. He hired a number of young people born without legs to wear the suits and remarks that ‘they all made good money, and bought cars, and just had the time of their lives.’

The article contains a lot of information about the design and construction of both the shipboard sets and the robots. There’s a long section about the hero Valley Forge model. Based on the Expo Tower at Japan’s 1970 World’s Fair, it took three months to build. Innovator that he is, Trumbull developed a highly maneouvrable, portable front-projection rig that enabled him to create in-camera composites featuring the robots and actor Bruce Dern performing in the garden dome sets, in front of the previously-filmed model footage.

A good Cinefex article usually delivers some good anecdotes, and this one’s no exception. There’s the day an earthquake hit the effects facility, and the night the slit-scan machinery (used to create the passage through Saturn’s rings) caught fire. My favourite, though, is the day Richard Alexander accidentally glued himself to the spaceship model. ‘I stood there like an idiot for about an hour,’ he says, ‘trying to drag this twenty-six foot long spaceship down toward the phone.’

The pictures

The Tron article features plenty of frame blow-ups straight out of the movie, and a number of on-set shots showing the stark black-and-white scenery and costumes. I particularly like the visual breakdown of an image of David Warner as the film’s villain, Sark, which shows the original monochromatic filmed element lined up next to the various glow effects and face reveals, culminating in the final composite image.

The imagery in the Silent Running article is just as engaging, especially the colour shot of the Valley Forge model on page 51 – what a beautiful model that was. Most striking though is the spread of images on pages 56 and 57, showing the robot actors inside their suits but with the front panels removed to reveal their faces. It’s like an optical illusion, seeing people wearing suits far too small – and entirely the wrong shape – for the average human frame. The article reveals that the actors ‘could only stand to be inside the overheating, claustrophobic suits for ten or fifteen minutes at a time’. That they managed to create such convincing and memorable performances under such extreme circumstances is truly amazing.

This is another well-balanced issue of Cinefex, with its combination of cutting-edge Tron and old-school Silent Running. The two films were made ten years apart – no time at all, really, but what a gulf seems to separate them. For all that, these articles prove that, for all the changes in technology and technique that differentiate the two films, the innovative approach of the visual effects artist remains as a common thread connecting them together.

Next time I’ll be looking at Cinefex #9, the legendary Bladerunner issue. See you then.

Did you enjoy this Cinefex retrospective? If so, click here to read the others in the series.

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