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The TRON Legacy: Developing Technology in Film

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My friend, Ann, has three teenage kids between the ages of fifteen and nineteen, and we're all into movies in a big way. The other day, after watching TRON:Legacy on Sky, we started to talk about it. The consensus was that it was a pretty awesome film, with a funky soundtrack and great special effects. We were all very much in agreement. Until I mentioned the original.

I didn't get to go to the pictures too much as a kid - something I made up for by going twice a week when I was in college - but I remember the original TRON very fondly. I was only about four years old when it was released but the light cycles and the glowing neon world in which they existed were eye-popping. Even then, computers were familiar to me; my Dad was a programmer before it was a cool job and as a result we had a BBC-B in the house from before I can remember. For young me, TRON was a magical journey behind the black velvet curtain with its blinking green or white cursor; it literally brought the computer to life. But no matter how affectionately I remember these first tentative steps into a digital world, I have to also remember that in 2011, the original TRON is, as Ann's nineteen year old daughter (born a full decade after the original release) puts it, "a bit naff".

Like so many productions and techniques that were ahead of their time, TRON is now showing its age. The visual effects, nominated for a BAFTA in 1983, were cutting edge; combining live action sequences with extensive digital animation sequence had never before been attempted. Unlike today, where the computer does the lion's share of the work, back when TRON was in production, computers only generated static images. This meant that the animation still had to be constructed in frames, with coordinates for each frame input into the computer by hand. Just 4 seconds of film required around 600 coordinates. In fact, the effects were so cutting edge that TRON was disqualified from consideration in the visual effects category at the 1983 Oscars because using a computer was considered a cheat. Tell that to the animators that programmed the thousands of coordinates by hand!

The late seventies and early eighties witnessed the birth of CGI. Before TRON films had only used computers to generate short sequences that were not integral. Without TRON, we might not have seen the impressive morphing spaceship in the 1986 movie, Flight of the Navigator, the 3D water effects of The Abyss or the photorealistic effects in hundreds of films, from Backdraft to Terminator 2. TRON inspired John Lasseter, the Chief Creative Officer and the brains behind Pixar, to make Toy Story, the first full length feature film made and rendered entirely on a computer; an achievement that took thirteen years.

Every film inspires someone else and no matter how dated a digital masterpiece like TRON might be, it has a legacy. And I'm not just talking about a sequel, reboot or remake. Sometimes it seems like Hollywood has stopped taking forward steps. As technology improves the visual difference on the screen tends to become less impressive while small technological steps facilitate the giant forward leaps that audiences find more noticeable. Over the last decade it hardly seems like CGI has moved on, but you only need to compare Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within and Avatar to see just how far we've come. The future, it seems, will be to develop better 3D technology, but who knows what movie makers will think of next.

So, regardless of what today's teenage audiences make of TRON, I appreciate its contribution to computer generated imagery, which has made and will continue to make many other brilliant movies possible. I forgive it for Jar Jar Binks. But only just.

TRON is currently showing on Sky Modern Greats and TRON: Legacy is currently showing on Sky Showcase. Both are available on DVD and Blu-ray.