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.
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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.