Chapter 14: CG in the Movies

14.3 Tron

The 1982 movie Tron was produced by Walt Disney Productions, with CGI by MAGI, Digital Effects, Robert Abel and Associates, and Information International Inc. (III)

The following text is from a 1982 press release:

Steven Lisberger

“Walt Disney Productions has combined computer-generated imagery with special techniques in live-action photography that have marked a milestone in optical and light effects. Tron brings to life a world where energy lives and breathes, where laws of logic are defied, where an electronic civilization thrives. Starring in Tron are Jeff Bridges, David Warner, Bruce Boxleitner, Cindy Morgan and Barnard Hughes. Steven Lisberger makes his feature directorial debut on the film, which he scripted and developed with producer Donald Kushner.

Futuristic industrial designer Syd Mead, comic artist Jean “Moebius” Giraud – whose work is a prime inspiration for the magazine Heavy Metal – and high-tech commercial artist Peter Lloyd served as special visual consultants. Harrison Ellenshaw was associate producer. Special effects were supervised by Ellenshaw and Richard Taylor. Bruce Logan was director of photography.

Characters in Tron are set in landscapes that could not physically exist in the real world, a world where terrains and vehicles are created by computers. Although CGI was used sparingly in movies before (eg, Westworld, Star Trek, Looker) Tron was the first motion picture to make such extensive use of computer imagery.

Tron completed principal photography in July, 1981. Post-production continued through the spring of 1982 for a summer 1982 release by Buena Vista, in color by Technicolor. Filmed in Super Panavision 70.”

Tron is set in two worlds: the real world, where a vast computer system in a communications conglomerate is controlled by a single program; and the electronic world, whose electric-and-light beings want to overthrow the program which controls their lives. The electronic world was shot on sound stages at Walt Disney Studio in Burbank. Photography for the real world took place at locations around Los Angeles, and at the U.S. Government’s Lawrence Livermore Laboratory outside Oakland, California.

Computer graphics were first applied to aerospace and scientific research in the mid-1960s, when methods of simulating objects digitally in their dimensions proved as effective as building models. The technology was then diverted into the entertainment field. Information International Inc. (Triple-I) and Robert Abel & Associates of Los Angeles, and the Mathematic Applications Group Inc. (MAGI) and Digital Effects of New York – four of the nation’s foremost computer graphics houses – produced the computer imagery for Tron.

Computer-generated landscapes, buildings and vehicles provided settings for live-action characters in the film’s electronic world. MAGI, the single largest contributor of computer imagery, speeded the process of supplying its work to Disney Studios in Burbank by a trans-continental computer hook-up. Before each scene was finalized in MAGI’s lab in Elmsford, N.Y., it was previewed on a computer monitor at Disney. Corrections could then be made in the scene immediately. Previously, the only way of previewing the scene was to film it, ship it to Burbank, get corrections made, ship it back to Elmsford… and continue this ping-ponging until the scene was correct. The computer link cut between two-and-a-half to five days from the creation of each scene.

Tron was not a box office success, for several reasons. One big reason is that its release, originally scheduled for Spring of 1982, was delayed until summer. It therefore competed with several other major films, including ET: The Extraterrestrial, Blade Runner, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Poltergeist, Friday the 13th (Part 3), and Star Trek II The Wrath of Khan (and, of course, Porky’s). Also, the 15 minutes of CGI and the over 50 minutes of backlit animation drove the cost of the movie to over $20M.


Harrison Ellenshaw was associate producer and co-supervisor of special effects. After earning a degree in psychology from Whittier College in 1964, Ellenshaw turned to art and apprenticed in the matte department at Disney Studios. Within 10 years he was considered one of the top matte artists in the film business. Ellenshaw has painted mattes for The Man who Fell to Earth, Star Wars, The Black Hole, and was part of the team which won the optical effects Oscar for The Empire Strikes Back.

Richard Taylor

Richard Taylor, who headed the Entertainment Technology Group at Information International Inc., was co-supervising the special effects on Tron. He oversaw the design and programming of the film’s computer animation. After stints in the Naval Academy, the Merchant Marines and as a Wyoming ranch hand, Taylor earned a graduate degree in art and film from the University of Utah in 1969. He then co-founded Rainbow Jam, a company which designed computerized light shows for rock concerts. In 1973 Taylor joined Robert Abel and Associates in Los Angeles, where he designed graphics for television commercials. In 1979 he moved to Information International. He was assisted at MAGI by Larry Elin, head of MAGI’s computer graphics division, and by optical effects artist John Scheele.

The production of Tron marked the first time that computer-generated imagery (CGI) had been extensively used in a feature film. A full fifteen minutes of the film consists of moving images generated entirely by computer. Additionally, there are over two hundred scenes that utilize computer-generated backgrounds. Much of the remaining effects in the film were backlit optical effects. Because of the amount of the computer-generated imagery necessary for Tron, the filmmakers decided to divide the work among four different companies that specialized in computer graphics: Digital Effects, Robert Abel & Associates, Mathematical Applications Group Incorporated (MAGI), and Information International Incorporated (Triple-I).

In the paragraphs below, Computer Effects Supervisor Richard Taylor and Computer Image Choreographer Bill Kroyer discuss the challenges of using computer generated imagery for the film:

Taylor: “I think the most difficult thing in doing Tron was to marry the computer simulation moments with the live-action photography, and have them feel like they were all in the same place. The fact that we were shooting people in black and white costumes on sets that were black, and matting those people into computer simulated worlds, and that many of those backgrounds were computer simulated scenes putting people in them or computer simulated images into graphically created scenes and matting people into that; to have that all homogenize and feel like it is the same place so you don’t say ‘that was done that way and this was done this way.’ And also that all the work done by MAGI, Triple-I, Abel all married and felt like one thing, so you wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, that was done by MAGI, that was done by Triple-I,’ so that it just became a homogenized world where it all melted together. As a design problem and as a film-making problem, I think that was the most difficult thing to do. It was what I was most pleased with that it did work so well. I noticed very early on in my work with computer simulation that all the different companies who did it basically had their own technique for doing it. It’s like they each had their own kind of hot rod, and their own kind of crew, and they were all hybrid systems. The most difficult thing was getting them to have the same vocabulary, same understanding, same description of three space motion, same description of a color.

After looking at it for a while, I realized that there were similarities that everybody understood. Basically, it’s everybody’s understanding of three space, of dimensional choreography, how surfaces are rendered, whether one company could make things shiny or smoother or more like chrome; that’s basically when you get down to making a picture a matter of art direction.”

Kroyer: “When we started dealing with the computer companies on Tron, you have to remember that a lot of the people developing software for computers are not really film-makers. The didn’t begin their career as film-makers. So they won’t approach the creation of visual imagery the same way that a film-maker will. We went in not knowing anything about computer technology. We only knew what we wanted to achieve on the film. With discussions with the development groups of each company, we were convinced that we could actually develop the technology as we went along and marry it with the creative needs, and end up with a film that would look good. As an example, we wanted a feeling of vast scale in Tron. We wanted that cycle arena to feel like it was miles wide. When a computer creates a picture, it will create everything crystal clear. So something that’s a mile away will actually appear as clear and distinct and as well lit as something that’s a foot away. That just doesn’t look real. So we said that we need a feeling of atmosphere in these shots. We have to make it look as though things that are far away are far away. In real life you do that by softening the focus, and kind of dimming the colors.

We came up with something that is very simple and I think is standard technique now in computer graphics which is called depth glowing. You assign a mathematical progression to the light of the points, depending how far away they are from the camera source. The farther away they are the less distinct they are, and that makes them look farther away. It’s something you automatically get in live-action photography. It’s something you have to mathematically apply to a computer image. Again, it was this constant give and take with our visual requirements with their technical possibilities that created Tron. When we finished Tron, we had pushed the technology of these companies I think many, many years ahead of where they would have been if they hadn’t worked with us during the feature.”

Digital Effects, Incorporated, animated the Bit character and the creation of the Tron character in the opening title sequence.

Robert Abel & Associates provided the remaining animation for the opening sequence and for Flynn’s transition into the Electronic World.

Because of their abilities to create complex motion and 3-D shaded graphics, the bulk of the computer animation was handled by MAGI and Triple-I. MAGI’s computer imagery occurs mostly in the first half of Tron in the Game Grid area, where they created such vehicles as the Lightcycles, Recognizers and Tanks.

MAGI employed a unique process of computer simulation call SynthaVision. This process utilized basic geometric shapes that the computer recognized as solid objects with density. By varying the size and quantity of these shapes, MAGI could construct a limited variety of three-dimensional designs and animate them easily. The SynthaVision process was limited in its ability to create complex objects. It was, however, very easy to create fluid motion (choreography) for these objects. Based on its strengths in motion animation, MAGI was assigned the computer imagery for the first half of the film, which consists mostly of dynamic action sequences.

The following are transcribed interviews from excerpts of a TV special entitled “Beyond Tron,” which explores MAGI’s involvement in Tron.

Dr. Phillip Mittelman, Founder of MAGI: “When MAGI was first started in 1966, we were working primarily with the government doing what’s called nuclear radiation transport. Worrying about, if you had a nuclear reactor, how much radiation would come out and what kind of radiation dose would people get. The way we did that was to describe three dimensional objects, and then follow around the nuclear radiation, follow it through its path through the material. One day we realized that if we followed light rays instead of nuclear radiation, we could simulate photography. We could simulate following the light rays from the sun to the object, from the object in through the camera lens to the film. If we could just calculate how much light hit each point on the film, we could make a photograph of things.”

General MAGI information From The Special: In 1967, the Mathematics Application Group, Incorporated turned their efforts to developing a program to create movies in the computer. They added color and other refinements to the software, and in 1972, MAGI SynthaVision introduced the process to the advertising world. The program has been refined over the years, but is still unique in the industry. Rather than use just polygons as the beginning point for the animation, MAGI SynthaVision uses combinations of other kinds of shapes to describe objects and to bring texture and contours to the surface. In 1975, a young animator from Boston was present at a screening conducted by Phillip Mittelman of the computer graphics his company had been creating for advertisers and other clients. The future writer/director of Tron, Steven Lisberger, was fascinated with the computer’s ability to conquer perspective and lend a 3D feeling to images.

Steven Lisberger: “I think on that original reel from MAGI, the thing that stuck with me the most, that I couldn’t get out of my head for years, was the image of moving through a computer generated environment. When a year or two after that, the video games started becoming popular, and I started talking to the computer people, it seemed that I now had the characters I could put into that computer environment.”

The computer imagery seen in the second half of the film, such as the MCP and the Solar Sailer, is the work of Triple-I.

These images are among the most complex designs in the film. Unlike MAGI’s SynthaVision process, most computer graphics companies today employ a method similar to that used by 
Triple-I. Using a schematic drawing or blueprint, Triple-I engineers recorded the visual images by tracing the lines of a drawing onto a digitizing tablet. This information was translated 

to the computer as an image whose surface is composed of a multitude of polygons (i.e., triangles). At a 1981 convention for computer graphics (SIGGRAPH), Triple-I presented a demonstration 

reel that illustrated the company’s achievements in computer imagery. This reel was instrumental in convincing the Disney Studios’ executives that computer animation could be successfully integrated into a motion picture.

Richard Taylor discusses the role that the Triple-I demo reel played in Disney’s decision to make Tron:

”The conference saw a big 35mm representation of what really had a beginning, middle, and an end. It tried to really demonstrate to the world the potential of this medium. It had a great effect. It helped other people develop their things. It gave them an insight into what you could really do. And it had everything to do with why Disney believed that Tron could be done. Because it was a piece of film that they could see that worked overall and had a wide range of things that had been choreographed and created specifically.”

Tron began as the inspiration of Writer-Director Steven Lisberger. In the mid-seventies, Steven Lisberger was operating a studio in Boston that was producing animation for commercials and for the title sequences of television programs. At that time, he began exploring the possibilities of using computer-generated imagery for a story about characters that lived inside a video game. Using conventional animation, Lisberger produced this animated logo for his studio, which was licensed as advertising to several radio stations around the country. This was the first appearance of a character that he called Tron. As originally conceived, Tron was to be predominantly a traditional animated film. The story would begin with live action to portray the Real World. Later, the Electronic World inside the computer would be represented by a combination of computer-generated imagery and hand-drawn, backlit animation.

In 1977, Lisberger partnered with attorney and theatrical producer Donald Kushner to produce an animated spoof of the Olympic Games entitled “Animalympics.” Lisberger and Kushner moved their studio (along with eighteen artists) to Venice, California, in 1978. Their hope was to finance Tron independently with the revenues from this film. Unfortunately, the U.S. boycotted the 1980 summer Olympics, and “Animalympics” was not as lucrative as it otherwise might have been. Lisberger and Kushner were forced to seek studio backing for Tron. In June, 1980, they approached The Walt Disney Studios with a detailed proposal for the project. Their ideas were enthusiastically received, and pre-production began shortly thereafter. Steven Lisberger and Donald Kushner discuss the early stages of development and inspirations for Tron:

Lisberger: “When I wrote the script for Tron, it was my intention that the film would be done by computer generated imagery, because you could only tell the story with computer generated imagery. It wasn’t a question of a choice where one would say, ‘well, we can do it this way, we can do it that way.’ I was inspired by the film Star Wars, not just in a specific sense of effects. I was inspired by that film, I guess it came out in the late 70’s. I was inspired by that. I was inspired by Jaws. Just because it seemed up to that point in time that films were becoming very formula oriented. When those two films in particular came out, it seemed that they had so much energy and so much excitement, and that they were willing to try new techniques in ways that would aid their stories and cinematically make certain things possible. Those films definitely had some bearing on making me feel that a film like Tron would be possible or could get made.”

Kushner: “One of the difficult areas on Tron was to create a unified look for both the real world and the electronic world. Like in The Wizard Of Oz, there are two worlds. The difficult part was integrating both of the worlds. We used computer simulation, we used backlit techniques, and we used conventional live action. The difficult part was to make them all part of a cohesive look in this film. In that respect, I think we achieved our goal, of creating an overall unified look. When we started marketing the picture to studios, Disney was one of the last on the list. The reason is that since they were the vanguard of traditional animation, that they probably would not be interested in computer simulation. Or if they were interested in computer simulation, they would probably want to develop something in house. As it turned out, when we presented the project to them, they were very susceptible from the very beginning. So it turned out that it was very easy to persuade them since this was an area that they had been looking for and were exploring how to get involved in. We presented them with a project that was ready to go.”

Soon after Disney committed to the project, conceptual artist Andy Probert (who later would go on to create designs for the television series “Star Trek: The Next Generation“) was brought on to create designs of vehicles, sets and costumes. However, none of his designs were used in the final film. In early 1981, Steven Lisberger assembled an illustrious team of artists to finalize the designs for Tron. This team included Jean “Moebius” Giraud, Syd Mead and Peter Lloyd. Moebius, a French comic book artist known for his work in the magazine “Heavy Metal,” contributed costume designs and storyboard art. The designs of the vehicles and computer environments fell to futuristic industrial and film designer Syd Mead. Commercial airbrush artist Peter Lloyd designed environments and backgrounds, in addition to serving as a color stylist.

Gallery 14.1 Peter Lloyd Designs

Gallery 14.2 Syd Mead Designs

Gallery 14.3 Moebius storyboard art

See also

Movie 14.17 Tron Trailer

Original trailer for the movie Tron from 1982.



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14.3 Tron by Wayne E. Carlson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.