The original Tron, released back in 1982, was famously prophetic. Not only did it foreshadow a vision of the internet as a (badly dressed, game obsessed) community, back when the term broadband hadn't even been coined, it also ushered in a bold new era of visual effects.
Now decades later, the Tron universe has been rebooted with the spectacular Tron Legacy, a dizzying audiovisual techno-mash of a movie. To learn more Tech Radar caught up with director Joe Kosinski on the London leg of Tron Legacy's European launch tour.
Lightcycle not bandwagon
Tron Legacy is a film infused with pioneering technology. It's the first 3D movie to integrate a photorealistic digital head and body into the cast, the first to partner with a videogame company (Electronic Arts) for motion capture and the first to utilise self-illuminating suits, powered by batteries hidden in the character's backpack LED Light discs.
But for most movie-goers, the headline technology for the bigscreen blockbuster will be its use of 3D. In many respects, the film picks up where Avatar left off, both in terms of vision and technology.
Joe Kosinski says that the Tron sequel is not another movie jumping the 3D bandwagon. He says it was always conceived as a cutting-edge 3D movie: "Yes, from the very beginning, three years ago; two years before Avatar was even released, we were committed to making a fully 3D movie, shot with the Cameron Fusion system."
3D film-making was a discipline Kosinski was keen to explore, despite the technical challenges it posed. "3D cameras are big and heavy and when you're shooting in 3D there are a lot of extra variables to take into account," says Kosinski, "but it it's a really nice option to have with this kind of movie, because it allows you to immerse your audience in a very different way."
Although the audience is required to wear 3D glasses throughout, the movie only shifts into 3D when Garrett Hedlund, the son of missing computer genius Jeff Bridges, is transported to the digital world of the Grid. "We've gone for a Wizard of Oz approach, the 3D really starts when we get into the Grid," he says. Consequently, its use of 3D doesn't feel like marketing hype. It serves the story.
While viewers have become familiar with the tricks and conceits of digital movie-making over the past few years, Tron Legacy still manages to surprise.
The reappearance of CLU, in the form of a younger digital version of Jeff Bridges, is one scene-stealer. The first photorealistic 3D digital character based on a living actor, CLU is a remarkable step up from the digital renders of Tom Hanks (Polar Express) and Jim Carrey (A Christmas Carol).
The director says he hope the majority of popcorn munchers won't even realise that CLU is a digital character. "I hope they consider him real," he says. "It's hard to keep secrets with the way the internet works; everyone knows everything or they're trying to find out about all the behind the scenes stuff."
A different kind of 3D
Tron Legacy is far from another cookie-cutter 3D yarn. Kosinski, who cut his teeth on videogame TV commercials for Gears of War and Halo, has clearly endeavoured to do something rather fresh with his 3D lens.
Rather than keep everything sharp to infinity, the director has mixed parallax effects with conventional compositions using selective focus. Not only is this technique eye-catching when used in the third dimension, it'll doubtless serve the film well when it's viewed in conventional 2D. Also distinctive is a striking use of top-downward looking shots, which mix height and depth to create an unsettling POV.
"Predominantly, most of the movie occurs behind the scene (in positive parallax). The 3D is meant to be an immersive experience, to pull you into it. But isn't it weird how those vertical shots have that much more effect?" says Kosinski."For some reason, I figured out really early that if you're looking out across a
landscape in 3D it's one thing, but as soon as you get the camera up and look down - even if you have the same 3D settings - it triggers a sense of . . . vertigo. The top down shots have so much more depth to them. So once I realised this, it was fun to look for moments when it made sense to shoot like that."
Keeping it real
The director says that for all Tron Legacy's CG elements, if the 3D was going to work it had to be grounded within actual sets made of glass, concrete and steel, and shot on real cameras. This hyper-reality philosophy extended to the creation of the movie's futuristic vehicles.
"We actually built all the cockpits for the car and the jets," lead Vehicle designer Daniel Simon told Tech Radar, "so that the actors could perfectly interact with everything.
They could sit in the cockpit of the Light Runner (a Grid racer which morphs into an off-roader when needs must), turn the ignition key and have everything light up beautifully; they could turn the wheel and even click the gear shifter. All the rest is 3D graphics. It's so important for the actors to hold onto something; otherwise the onscreen world is just not believable."
2D to 3D conversions
Despite the complexity of the project, director Joe Kiniski says he never considered shooting Tron Legacy flat and dimensionalising it in post production.
'I'm not a big fan of converted movies, it's just a cheap way out" he tells us, making a clear reference to Clash Of The Titans. "Converted movies often aren't even meant to be done in 3D, they try and convert them after the fact for marketing reasons. Tron Legacy was shot and conceived in 3D, every step of the way."
Ultimately, he believes it's the audiences themselves which will put paid to faux 3D movie conversions. "I think there's a little bit of resistance to converted 2D now.
Audiences are getting savvy; they can tell the difference between a 2D-to-3D conversion and a real 3D movie. This is why I'm trying to get the word out that this film was shot in, and meant to be seen in, 3D." However, the director concedes that the format doesn't "make sense for every movie. It does take more time and money to do it right."
The IMAX cut
Perhaps the ultimate 3D Tron Legacy experience is to be had at Imax cinemas. A larger-than-life special edition of the movie has been produced for these theatres, which combine 3D projection system with the IMAX's larger-than-decent screen size.
"There are seven sequences in this film that have been digitally re-worked for IMAX," reveals Joe. "When you see the movie in an IMAX theatre you're going to get extra image area at the top and bottom of the frame, so that it really fills your vision." The director reveals that the re-rendered IMAX sequences total 43 minutes of the movie's running time.
"We're now talking with Disney about doing an IMAX version on the Blu-ray," confides Kosinski. "If you pick that version, those seven sequences will expand from 2.35:1 to fill your entire television. It should be pretty cool."