Sunday, July 8, 2012

Summer of 1982: TRON (July 9, 1982)

TRON, released by Disney on July 9, 1982, had been in various states of development by writer/director Steven Lisberger since 1976, when the animator was inspired by the game Pong to create a story that fused film and computer animation.  While CGI effects and visuals are commonplace today, the very idea was revolutionary in 1982 and no studio took Lisberger seriously until Disney decided to give him a shot.  Lisberger worked on other projects during that time period (TV shows, commercials, directing the 1980 animated film ANIMALYMPICS), but by 1982, the video game and arcade craze was in full swing, and it only seemed natural that a movie would syngergistically combine the two.  Many critics and prognosticators were wary of TRON, thinking it would change the way movies were made and that everything could just be computer-animated from that point on.  It didn't quite turn out that way, and while it grossed $33 million and made back its budget, it was far from a blockbuster and regarded more as a novelty than the wave of the future.  Critics praised the visuals but panned the storyline, but today, TRON is held in a generally positive light.  Everyone is quick to point out how 1982 it is (and there's songs by Journey!), and by today's standards, the effects in Lisberger's film are primitively retro but the imagination is there, regardless of how badly they've aged.

Jeff Bridges as Flynn

Bruce Boxleitner as Tron

David Warner as Sark

With all the hype about TRON's groundbreaking use of computer animation, that style was really only used for landscapes and vehicles for the scenes inside the mainframe where software designer Flynn (Jeff Bridges) finds himself teaming with Tron (Bruce Boxleitner) in battle against Sark (David Warner).  Most of the imagery involving the actors was achieved with a combination of backlit animation and depth cueing (shooting the actors in high-contrast black & white on a black set), with rotoscoping and other animation techniques to color the actors and fill in the backgrounds of the computer world.  According to Lisberger, this technique was more costly and time-consuming than it would've been to simply animate the whole film.  But for better or worse, TRON is an important film in the evolution of visual effects and CGI.  CGI has made obviously huge strides in the ensuing decades, but many--myself included--feel it isn't quite where it should be considering the extent to which filmmakers rely on it.  But at least with TRON, it was supposed to be in the context of a sci-fi/fantasy world and was justified in looking the way it did.  And it's hard to disregard a film whose look was designed in part by contributions from French comic book artist Moebius and BLADE RUNNER "visual futurist" Syd Mead.

TRON led to numerous product tie-ins, including video games and toys, and led to the belated 2010 sequel TRON: LEGACY, made at a time when CGI technology was finally capable of being used to the extent Lisberger intended in 1982.  Lisberger was only onboard as a producer for TRON: LEGACY (Joseph Kosinski directed it), and has only made two films since TRON:  the John Cusack romantic comedy/adventure HOT PURSUIT (1987), and SLIPSTREAM (1989), a big-budget British-made sci-fi epic with an interesting cast (Ben Kingsley, Mark Hamill, Bill Paxton, and F. Murray Abraham) that ended up bankrupting producer Gary Kurtz, a former Lucasfilm executive (hence the casting of Hamill) who went off on his own after a falling out with George Lucas during the making of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.  Kurtz used his plentiful but apparently not limitless STAR WARS profits to finance SLIPSTREAM, but got divorced in the meantime and lost everything.  SLIPSTREAM ended up going straight to video in the US and has since fallen into the public domain and can be found on numerous $9.99 "50 Sci-Fi Hits!" collections that you find at Wal-Mart.  SLIPSTREAM is no classic, but it really does deserve a little more dignity than that. 

Lisberger hasn't directed a film since SLIPSTREAM, and other than a 2010 Comic Con appearance to promote TRON: LEGACY and doing Q&A's at occasional TRON screenings, he maintains a pretty low profile.  Still, even if he isn't a household name, Steven Lisberger is held in high regard by visual effects artists and technicians for his envelope-pushing work on TRON 30 years ago.  Even the Pixar folks have name-checked him as a major influence and gone on the record in saying that Pixar wouldn't be what it is had TRON not helped pave the way.

TRON director Steven Lisberger being interviewed by Walter Cronkite in 1982.

TOP 10 FILMS FOR THE WEEKEND OF JULY 9, 1982 (from www.boxofficemojo.com):

2.   TRON
6.   ANNIE

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