34 years ago today, Disney’s Tron was released and changed the face of motion pictures forever.
The science fiction adventure, about a software engineer (played with charismatic dweebiness by Jeff Bridges) who gets zapped inside a vast computer network of his own creation, is a quietly groundbreaking work whose impact can be felt to this day, reverberating loudly like a crashed light cycle. Tron shaped the way we watch and make movies and is still hugely important to the Disney brand, changing what animation meant for audiences. Even if you’ve never seen Tron, you’ve still probably experienced it in some way.
Tron was the brainchild of animator Steven Lisberger, an animator whose independently produced animated feature Animalympics was released by Warner Bros in 1980 (a movie that is interesting for a number of reasons, including the score by British band 10cc, its pedigreed animation team that included Brad Bird and Roger Allers, and the fact that it features a walrus version of Richard Nixon). Libsberger was fascinated by the backlit animation style of the time (that gave characters a shimmery, “disco” look), rudimentary computer animation and the video games of the period (like Pong). It was originally envisioned as a mostly animated film, with live action wraparound sequences. Tron was short for electronic; a warrior for a new age. And while all the other studios passed on the ambitious, borderline experimental film, Disney seeing within the film the kind of restless futurism embraced by Walt Disney himself, took a chance.
Disney assembled a crack team of artists to tackle the unwieldy project, including noted futurist Syd Mead (who most recently worked with Bird on Tomorrowland) and French comic book artist Jean Giraud (aka Moebius) and contracted no fewer than four different animation firms. Keep in mind that production began in 1981, a time long before computer animation was commonplace. In fact, this was bleeding edge technology, made at a time when even the most powerful computers equipped for the production harness less power than the smartphone in your pocket. It was further complicated by the fact that the movie was shot on large format 65 mm, with the computer sequences shot on 35 mm and blown up to approximate the larger Super Panavision format. (This was more than three full years before the original Nintendo Entertainment System would be sold in America.) When Tron was released on July 9, 1982, nobody had seen anything like it before.
Looking back on it today, Tron is still pretty startling. Some of that had to do with the technical limitations of the technology; that’s why there’s so much indistinct blackness (it looks atmospheric and it was easier to accomplish). The sequences inside the computer have the shimmery glow of a discotheque (Moebius’ costumes, a canny combination of practical suits and traditional animation, wouldn’t be out of place at a modern day rave) and the action sequences still have a singular energy and pulse. The music too, by electronic music pioneer Wendy Carlos, has a strangely enchanting effect. It’s both traditional and totally unique, both dreamy and disquieting, like you’ve stumbled into an 8-bit fairy tale.
Tron‘s influence cannot be overstated. This was a movie that took viewers inside of a videogame, long before The Matrix or similar films that dealt with virtual reality (and before movies started turning video games into movies). And it presented a technology that was so groundbreaking, so tremendous, that it would change the way that movies were made. This was the first movie to utilize computer-generated effects on this scale; there’s barely a movie made these days without CGI. (Seriously, even Woody Allen uses Industrial Light & Magic.) Additionally, Pixar chief creative officer John Lasseter, who was working for Disney Animation Studio at the time, was particularly enamored with Tron. Disney Animation Studio had minimal involvement in the film (although young animator Tim Burton worked on it), but Lasseter saw early test footage and was blown away. Lasseter has said that, “without Tron there would be no Toy Story.”
In the years since Tron, the franchise has continued to grow. In 2003, a follow-up video game called Tron 2.0 was released, featuring original star Bruce Boxleitner. And in 2010 Disney released an equally ambitious theatrical sequel Tron Legacy. Groundbreaking in its own way (featuring Bridges interacting in a computerized version of his younger, Tron-era self), Tron Legacy followed a similar trajectory: it was intoxicatingly gorgeous and moody and has a passionate group of like-minded fans who appreciated its innovation and storytelling verve. Its glittery electronic score was an agreed-upon highlight (this time composed by French disco robots Daft Punk). Seeing the movie in IMAX 3D formats was like watching the biggest, most exciting video art installation ever.
And Tron is still inspiring us with its vision of the future, today. Earlier this year, the TRON Light Cycle Power Run, the first Tron-inspired attraction to open since a section of the Peoplemover in Disneyland’s Tomorrowland was devoted to “The World of Tron.” This new attraction is the centerpiece for that park’s Tomorrowland, and allows guests to board their own lightcycles. It looks incredible.
Tron is the very definition of being ahead of its time. It’s a movie whose enduring legacy remains. This was a film that challenged the conventions of how motion pictures were produced and helped inspire a generation of movie fans and storytellers, who were encouraged to utilize barely-there technology to tell new and exciting narratives. Tron brought us into a world we had never experienced before, where anything was possible, no matter the size of the hard drive.