‘Tron: Legacy’ costume designer talks light-up suits, pixie hairdos and Spanx


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Skin-tight, motocross-inspired suits that light up, negative heel platform shoes and men in corsets. I’m not talking a runway show in Paris, I’m talking ‘Tron: Legacy.’ The film’s costumes are a stylish thrill a minute, sure to be studied, rewound and replayed for years to come by fanboys and girls, and fashion designers alike.

The film follows Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund), the 27-year-old tech savant son of Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), as he looks into his father’s disappearance on ‘the grid.’ It’s the same digital universe of tyrants and blood sports that filmgoers were introduced to back in the 1982 original ‘Tron.’ And yet it’s completely different in the same way that video games are different than they were 30 years ago.

When it comes to iconic looks, the film -- which opens Dec. 17 -- should rank up there with sci-fashion fantasies ‘Barbarella,’ ‘Mad Max,’ Bladerunner,’ ‘Star Wars’ and ‘The Matrix.’ It’s no wonder Disney Consumer Products is in fashion collaboration overdrive, introducing everything from a colorblocked clothing collection designed by Opening Ceremony to cyber-chic jewelry designed by Tom Tom.

I talked to Christine Clark, co-costume designer* for the film, about how faithful the ‘Tron: Legacy’ costumes are to those in the original, and what exactly went into designing the garb worn on and off the grid.

How do you begin a project as enormous as this? Did you start with sketches, images from the original film or some kind of brief from the director?
All of it. When [costume designer] Michael Wilkinson and I began there was the original film, which we watched as a refresher course, and also the Comic-Con teaser, and some preliminary costume concepts done for the studio. So we had great inspiration to set the tone, then we started researching like crazy -- fashion, military uniforms and classic films such as ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘Resident Evil.’

Did you look at any specific designers for inspiration, such as Gareth Pugh, Olivier Theyskens or Nicolas Ghesquiere?
Gareth Pugh’s name comes up a lot, and there is a conncetion to his edgy vibe. But there was no one specific.

How many costumes did you design for the film?
Hundreds. There were times I would walk into the room and have loss of breath. We did about 150 super suits which you see on all principals, and about 154 suits for the supporting cast that had a more economical lighting system, more than 60 helmets and about 65 real-world costumes too.


Were you given parameters, like no natural fibers?
We definitely wanted to create a synthetic world, so we used nothing organic. Even for Jeff Bridges’ character, who was meant to be Zen-like, we wanted his clothing to have an organic, rough linen look. But it’s still polyester.

When it came to designing the super suits, form followed function, yes?
Absolutely. [Director Joseph Kosinski] said he didn’t want them to feel like Batman suits. He wanted things cut close to the body and action-oriented. Nothing too clunky. Motocross is always a great place to look when you are going for something industrial-looking.

How did they differ from the suits in the original 1982 ‘Tron?’
I actually visited one of those original suits in person, and because all of the special effects of the original movie were digital, and done afterward, the actual costumes are underwhelming. They are really just Spandex form-fitting suits with white lines that would later become lights. Although the line work and artistry is certainly beautiful.

How did you light the new suits?
From the beginning, we knew we had to do practical lighting on the suits, so we reached out to three special effects houses in the Los Angeles area. And one of them, Quantum Creation FX, found a sample that had just been developed, and had only been used on Japanese security vests. It was a thin vinyl sheeting, flexible and pliable. The technical name for it is a polymer-based elastomeric electro luminescent lamp.

We worked with them to develop the technology for ‘Tron.’ So it doesn’t exist except on the grid! We wanted all the power and lighting to be self-contained to the actors, and to fit into the hubs of the disk on their backs. The lighting was powered by lithium batteries. And they didn’t last long. We could only get about 12 minutes out of Sam Flynn’s suit before the battery died. We had a remote control station so we could monitor the power of all the suits and we knew who was about to die. Normally on a set, you hear them say, ‘sound speeding, camera speeding, action!’ We also had ‘light ‘em up.’

The suits themselves were designed digitally in 3-D, right?
We worked with an application called ZBrush to digitally sculpt the suits. So we took an actor’s digital scans, then sculpted on top of the scans using the program. The material is foam latex with a little Spandex.

Were they difficult to get into?
To get one on is so much worse than putting on Spanx. We called it an ‘interactive dressing experience.’ The actor would have to participate resisting. The pants went on first and the top next.

How is Quorra’s (Olivia Wilde’s) costume different?
She may come across looking sexy, but we didn’t want to hypersexualize her. She is an intelligent warrior woman. She wears a female version of the grid suit, and her costume tells a story about her being different. It is asymmetrical, and all the other costumes have symmetry in the light design. Initially, the skirt was longer. But I like how it ended up. It echoes the line of her hairdo, which is also asymmetrical. I think she looks adorable. It was a fresh idea to give her that pixie elfin charm.

There’s a great fashion scene in the film, when Sam Flynn first enters the grid, and a group of sexy Sirens dresses him. Was that in the original script?
It was not as specific as it ends up playing out on camera. It was developed in rehearsals, and choreographed into this whole robotic scene. It’s one of my favorites.


The shoes the Sirens wear are incredible -- platforms with cutout heels.
From the beginning, we liked the idea that there would be substance to the shoes and not just stilettos. All of the patterns in the suits screamed for cutout heels, so we played wth the geometry of the grid even in the shoes, using positive and negative space.

Zuse (Michael Sheen), the proprieter of the End of Line club, is quite fun to look at, very Ziggy Stardust in his corset and high-heeled boots.
Definitely. There was an androgyny to the character, even in the way it’s written. When we were discussing preliminary research, Ziggy Stardust was tossed out. And Michael Sheen lit up like a Christmas tree. He mixed in some Joel Grey and Mae West too.

Although futuristic, at times the costumes felt quite retro. Was that intentional?
I’m excited to hear people are picking up on that. We wanted to create Kevin Flynn’s synthesized reality of a world he once knew. and play on time periods he would have been touched by.

Do you see the costumes influencing fashion?
I feel like it’s already happening. Versace did a collection recently that looked a little ‘Tron’ inspired. And people have been so excited about the illumination, I think it’s only a mater of time before the application becomes affordable and everyone will want it.

-- Booth Moore

For more coverage of ‘Tron: Legacy,’ check out the Los Angeles Times Hero Complex blog here.

[*UPDATED 12/09/10 9:40 a.m.: In an earlier version of this post, Christine Clark was incorrectly identified. She is co-costume designer for ‘Tron: Legacy,’ not assistant costume designer.]

[UPDATED 12/14/10 2 p.m. In an earlier version of this post, Joey Grey’s last name was incorrectly spelled as Gray.]