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‘Tron’ Showed the Way

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Future film historians may well describe 2001 as the Year of Computer Graphics: Two of the top critical and box-office successes were the computer-animated “Shrek” and “Monsters, Inc.” Computer-generated effects figured prominently in many of the year’s other big hits, including “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” “Jurassic Park III” and “The Mummy Returns.”

The use of computer-generated imagery can be traced back to a pioneering film that premiered 20 years ago this summer: “Tron,” which Disney has just released on DVD.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Feb. 21, 2002 FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 21, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 2 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Oscar facts--A Feb. 7 Calendar Weekend article about the DVD release of “Tron” incorrectly reported that the 1982 film had lost the Academy Award for best visual effects to “Poltergeist.” In fact, “Tron” wasn’t even nominated in that category, and the winner that year was “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.”

Although the film came out on video and laser several times--the last reissue was a “Special Archive Edition” laser disc in 1995--it’s been unavailable for years and has become a sought-after commodity among computer enthusiasts, who have elevated the movie to cult status.

“Tron” and its eagerly awaited DVD release have been the subject of lively discussions on Slashdot (“News for Nerds”) and other high-tech Web sites; related merchandise, including 20-year-old toy lightcycles, action figures and trading cards, is selling briskly on EBay.

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But “Tron” remains an oddity: a film that’s significant without being very good.

“Tron” broke new ground with its extensive use of computer-generated backgrounds and effects. Today, photographing actors on a bare stage and putting them into a computer-generated world is standard operating procedure in Hollywood, but in 1982, it was unprecedented. Elaborate backgrounds that couldn’t be built as sets were done by combining footage of the actors with matte paintings or location plates.

Similarly, computer-generated monsters, from the trolls in “Harry Potter” and “Lord of the Rings” to the dinosaurs in the “Jurassic Park” movies, have replaced stop-motion puppets and men in rubber suits. But the idea that the lightcycles Tron and Flynn ride existed only on film and in computer memory banks dumbfounded people two decades ago.

“Tron” deserved an Oscar for special effects, but it lost to the more conventional--and more popular--"Poltergeist.”

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Despite extensive media coverage, “Tron” was not a hit. Although it boasts an interesting concept, excellent design work and innovative visuals, the film suffers from a weak story. Video game designer Flynn (Jeff Bridges) is sucked into the alternate world within his computer’s memory. This world is dominated by the tyrannical Master Control Program, or MCP (David Warner, with his voice slowed down) and its hench-program Sark (Warner again), who send Flynn to the Game Grid, where programs are forced to participate in life-and-death gladiatorial combats.

On the Grid, he meets the title character (Bruce Boxleitner), a square, square-jawed hero and his ladylove (Cindy Morgan). The trio instigates a revolt against Sark and Master Control that leads to the undoing of their nasty counterparts in the real world.

As a film student and novice writer, I saw sections of the film 20 years ago while working on stories about it for Rolling Stone and Film Comment. The visuals were so exciting, I naively believed they would carry any story. When I saw the finished film, I realized even groundbreaking imagery couldn’t make up for wooden dialogue and one-note characters.

Two decades later, those flaws are still obvious, but many of the visuals remain exciting. They’re simpler than recent computer-generated effects, but the designs and effective use of the medium still pack a visual wallop.

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“Tron” may have exerted its greatest influence through its crew of young artists who have gone on to do important work in animation and special effects: Tim Burton (director of “Planet of the Apes,” “Ed Wood,” “Edward Scissorhands”), Roger Allers (co-director of “The Lion King”), Barry Cook (co-director of “Mulan”), Dennis Edwards (producer of “Osmosis Jones”), Andy Gaskill (art director of “The Lion King”), Bill Kroyer (director of “Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest”), Jerry Rees (director of “The Brave Little Toaster”).

John Lasseter, the Oscar-winning director of “Toy Story” films, has said that as a young Disney animator, he was so excited by the work his friends were doing on “Tron” that he decided to move into the new field of computer animation. It’s easy to see why, even 20 years later.


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