Disney's Tron was a visionary movie. Although released back in 1982 and constrained by the technology of the day, it presaged a universe of artificial intelligence and photorealistic video gaming that seems astoundingly prescient. Writer/director Steven Lisberger's movie may have been a box office fail of the day, but it's become emblematic of cyber chic ever since.
Tron's belated sequel, Tron Legacy, is a movie of similar technological significance. From its creation of a photorealistic 3D digital cast member (how many moviegoers will fail to realise that the head of the younger Jeff Bridges is fully digital?) to characters dressed in fetishistic moulded costumes created by digital sculpture technology, it's a film which drips futurism. In short, this is our kinda movie.
In at the geek end
Given the cutting edge nature of the production, from creating a digital Jeff Bridges to reinventing the hardware of the grid, Tron Legacy is probably not the kind of project that you'd expect to give to a novice director. But that's exactly what the Disney Studio executives did.
But then Joe Kosinski does come to bat with some excellent tech credentials. Although new to feature-length motion pictures, Kosinski has an impressive track record of FX heavy commercial work behind him. He helmed the Xbox 360 promo for Gears of War (involving a hugely cinematic sequence involving a mo-cap soldier and gigantic monster, all set to Gary Jules' Mad World), as well as creating the Halo 3 'Starry Night' ad and Nike's futuristic Les Jumelles. Kosinski, it seems, was always destined to visit the Grid.
"I knew I had to be ambitious with this movie," the director told Tech Radar when we caught up with him at the London Tron Legacy premiere. "The first movie pushed the envelope in so many ways, and if nothing else I wanted to really go for it, in both the visual style and the technology we were using."
Improving on James Cameron's 3D
The end result is a breathless mix of live action and photo realistic animation, which embraces every type of hi-tech movie making discipline: blue screen, motion capture and 3D. So did the director invent anything new in the process?
"You know, I think we did," he tells us. "We improved, or evolved, the Fusion 3D camera system James Cameron developed for Avatar, as well as developing newer lenses, and we also invented a new type of costume in the shape of the Tron Lightsuits."
Kosinski says that he wanted the suits worn by the denizens of the Grid to be real rather than CG. "It was very complicated to get the batteries, electroluminescent lights, the inverters and the remote controls built into these suits - but they were definitely a huge innovation."
Give us a CLU
Perhaps Tron Legacy's biggest tech achievement is the creation of CLU, a digital recreation of the young Jeff Bridges. Left to rule the Tron universe since the first movie, CLU is first photorealistic 3D digital character based on living actor in film history.
"That was probably the most ambitious thing we attempted," concedes the director. "Creating a digital human is the hardest thing you can do in visual effects."
CLU represents an evolution of the aging technology first used on (The curious case of) Benjamin Button. Kosinski says that he never doubted that his VFX artists could pull it off. Having worked as part of the Benjamin Button visual effects team, he was always confident that it was possible to create a convincing digital character.
For CLU, Jeff Bridges donned an innovative helmet mounted camera system (HMC) able to track 52 facial markers. A 3D scan of Bridges' face with corresponding points, augmented by photographs taken of the actor when he was in his thirties, reflected every nuance of his performance, bringing to life the younger Bridges in the digital domain.
The big breakthrough, says Kosinski, was that Bridges could wear the HMC (Helmet Mounted Camera) on set, interacting with others in each scene.
"That was the big improvement we made (over Benjamin Button)," says Kosinski. "Previously, it would have to been done after the fact, in another setting. It was really exciting to see Jeff playing CLU on set with Michael Sheen. When I saw that all coming together, I got pretty excited."
The look of Tron legacy
Production designer Darren Gilford says the idea was always for Tron Legacy to stay true to the spirit of the original movie. "The first film had an iconic look which was basically created by a limitation of what they could do with computers in the Eighties.
It was very geometric, very simplistic. With the technology we have now, it's limitless what we can do." But rather than change the Atari aesthetic of the original, Gilford and his team simply softened some of the shapes.
"We definitely tried to maintain those basic Tron geometric shapes," he says.
On your bike
Futuristic vehicles have long been a key part of the Tron mythology - and none are more iconic than the Lightcycles. The vehicles return for the sequel, of course, only this time the bikes have been pimped and their manoeuvring skills have been improved.
One highlight of the film features a duel between ten Lightcycles on a multi-level grid. With dazzling high-speed choreography it's a challenge to keep up with the action, made all the more spellbinding by the film's 3D presentation.
The man charged with evolving these wheels is Daniel Simon, who joined the Tron Legacy team in 2008. "I was working on my on car designs, doing some work for Bugati in Berlin, when I received an email from director Joe Kosinski," he tells Tech Radar when we catch up with him on the London Junket. "I thought: how the hell did he find my email address?"
Simon says that the key to the designing fantasy tech like the Lightcycles is to keep them grounded in reality. "You can't go crazy because then it becomes too surreal. If you look back at the first movie, that's what happened," he says.
"Tron was so ahead of its time, so quirky and surreal, that many people could not connect to it. Sure it foresaw the future, the internet and everything, but we wanted to create a piece of mainstream entertainment with Legacy. We had a lot of crazy ideas, but we ditched many of them to be more realistic."
Simon adds that he pushed new vehicle concepts as far "as I could, then snapped back and found ground somewhere in the middle. It doesn't make sense to create the weirdest looking hyper bikes, that are half virtual and half floating because then people cannot relate to them.
Right now, little boys dream of a lightcycle because they can see themselves thundering off on one after school."
"It's kind of dangerous to be too visionary," he adds. "If it's too hardcore, the technology takes away from the spirit and the action. So we are a little bit more lightweight on this one. However, we think the designs will stand the test of time. We hope people don't look back and say, that movie was soooo 2010."