TRON (1982)

Tron (stylized as TRON) is a 1982 American science fiction action-adventure film written and directed by Steven Lisberger from a story by Lisberger and Bonnie MacBird. The film stars Jeff Bridges as a computer programmer who is transported inside the software world of a mainframe computer where he interacts with programs in his attempt to escape. Bruce Boxleitner, David Warner, Cindy Morgan, and Barnard Hughes star in supporting roles.

Development of Tron began in 1976 when Lisberger became intrigued with the early video game Pong. He and producer Donald Kushner set up an animation studio to develop Tron with the intention of making it an animated film. Indeed, to promote the studio itself, Lisberger and his team created a 30-second animation featuring the first appearance of the title character. Eventually, Lisberger decided to include live-action elements with both backlit and computer animation for the actual feature-length film. Various film studios had rejected the storyboards for the film before Walt Disney Productions agreed to finance and distribute Tron. There, backlit animation was finally combined with the computer animation and live action.

Tron was released on July 9, 1982 in 1,091 theaters in the United States. The film was a moderate success at the box office, and received positive reviews from critics who praised the groundbreaking visuals and acting. However, the storyline was criticized at the time for being incoherent. Tron received nominations for Best Costume Design and Best Sound at the 55th Academy Awards, and received the Academy Award for Technical Achievement fourteen years later. Tron was not nominated in the category of visual effects because the academy saw it as cheating to use computers to generate environments and effects. Over time, Tron developed into a cult film and eventually spawned a franchise, which consists of multiple video games, comic books and an animated television series. A sequel titled Tron: Legacy directed by Joseph Kosinski was released on December 17, 2010, with Bridges and Boxleitner reprising their roles, and Lisberger acting as producer, followed by the animated series Tron: Uprising set between the two films.

Kevin Flynn is a leading software engineer formerly employed by the computer corporation ENCOM, who now runs a video arcade and attempts to hack into ENCOM’s mainframe system. However, ENCOM’s Master Control Program (MCP) halts his progress. Within ENCOM, programmer Alan Bradley and his girlfriend, engineer Lora Baines, discover that the MCP has closed off their access to projects. When Alan confronts the senior executive vice president, Ed Dillinger, Dillinger claims that the security measures are an effort to stop outside hacking attempts. However, when Dillinger privately questions the MCP, he discovers the MCP has expanded into a powerful virtual intelligence and has become power-hungry, illegally appropriating personal, business, and government programs to increase its own capabilities. The MCP blackmails Dillinger with information about his plagiarizing Flynn’s games if he does not comply with its directives.

Lora deduces that Flynn is the hacker, and she and Alan go to his arcade to warn him. Flynn reveals that he has been trying to locate evidence proving Dillinger’s plagiarism, which launched Dillinger’s rise in the company. Together, the three form a plan to break into ENCOM and unlock Alan’s “Tron” program, a self-governing security measure designed to protect the system and counter the functions of the MCP. Once inside ENCOM, the three split up and Flynn comes into direct conflict with the MCP, communicating with his terminal. Before Flynn can get the information he needs to reveal Dillinger’s acts, the MCP uses an experimental laser to digitize and download Flynn into the ENCOM mainframe cyberspace, where programs are living entities appearing in the likeness of the human “Users” (programmers) who created them.

Flynn learns that the MCP and its second-in-command, Sark, rule and coerce programs to renounce their belief in the Users. The MCP forces programs that resist to play in deadly games and begins pitting Flynn in duels. Flynn meets other captured programs, Ram and Tron, between matches. Partnered, the three escape into the mainframe during a light cycle match, but Flynn and Ram become separated from Tron by an MCP pursuit party. While attempting to help Ram, who was wounded in the pursuit, Flynn learns that he can manipulate portions of the mainframe by accessing his programmer knowledge. Ram recognizes Flynn as a User and encourages him to find Tron and free the system before “derezzing” (dying). Using his new ability, Flynn rebuilds a vehicle and disguises himself as one of Sark’s soldiers.

Tron enlists help from Yori, a sympathetic program, and at an I/O tower, receives information in his identity disk from Alan necessary to destroy the MCP. Flynn rejoins them, and the three board a hijacked solar sailer to reach the MCP’s core. However, Sark’s command ship destroys the sailer, capturing Flynn and Yori, and presumably killing Tron. Sark leaves the command ship and orders its deresolution, but Flynn keeps it intact by again manipulating the mainframe, while Sark reaches the MCP’s core on a shuttle carrying captured programs. While the MCP attempts to absorb captive programs, Tron, who turns out to have survived, confronts Sark and critically injures him, prompting the MCP to give him all its functions. Realizing that his ability to manipulate the mainframe might give Tron an opening, Flynn leaps into the beam of the MCP, distracting it. Seeing the break in the MCP’s shield, Tron attacks through the gap and destroys the MCP and Sark, ending the MCP’s control over the mainframe, and allowing the captured programs to communicate with users again.

Flynn reappears in the real world, rematerialized at his terminal. Tron’s victory in the mainframe has released all lockouts on computer access, and a nearby printer produces the evidence that Dillinger had plagiarized Flynn’s creations. The next morning, Dillinger enters his office and finds the MCP deactivated, and the proof of his theft publicized. Flynn is subsequently promoted to CEO of ENCOM, and is happily greeted by Alan and Lora as their new boss.

Cast

  • Jeff Bridges as Kevin Flynn, a former programmer and game developer at ENCOM and video arcade proprietor who is beamed into the ENCOM mainframe via a digitizing laser by the Master Control Program.
    • Bridges also portrays Clu (Codified Likeness Utility), a hacking program developed by Flynn to find evidence of Dillinger’s theft in the mainframe.
  • Bruce Boxleitner as Alan Bradley, Flynn’s work partner and fellow programmer at ENCOM.
    • Boxleitner also portrays Tron, a security program developed by Bradley to self-monitor communications between the MCP and the real world.
  • David Warner as Ed Dillinger, the Senior Executive Vice President of ENCOM and former co-worker of Flynn’s, who used the MCP to steal Flynn’s work and pass it off as his own, earning himself a series of undeserved promotions.
    • Warner also portrays Sark, a command program developed by Dillinger to serve as the MCP’s second-in-command.
    • Warner also provides the uncredited voice of the Master Control Program (MCP), a rogue artificial intelligence operating system (originally a chess program created by Dr. Gibbs and “improved” by Dillinger) which monitors and controls ENCOM’s mainframe.
  • Cindy Morgan as Dr. Lora Baines, Bradley’s co-worker and girlfriend, as well as assistant to Dr. Gibbs on the digitization experiment.
    • Morgan also portrays Yori, an input/output program developed by Dr. Baines and an ally of Tron.
  • Barnard Hughes as Dr. Walter Gibbs, a co-founder of ENCOM running the company’s science division, who creates the SHV 20905 digitizing laser with Dr. Baines’s assistance.
    • Hughes also portrays Dumont, a “guardian” program developed by Dr. Gibbs to protect input/output junctions in the mainframe.
    • Hughes also provides the uncredited voice of the Master Control Program’s original incarnation.
  • Dan Shor as Roy Kleinberg, an ENCOM employee
    • Shor also portrays Ram, an actuarial program possibly developed by Kleinberg to sort out connections between ENCOM and an unnamed insurance company, who is a close ally of Tron and Flynn.
  • Peter Jurasik as Crom, a compound interest program matched against Flynn on the Game Grid.
  • Tony Stephano as Peter, Dillinger’s assistant.
    • Stephano also portrays Sark’s Lieutenant.

The inspiration for Tron occurred in 1976 when Steven Lisberger, then an animator of drawings with his own studio, looked at a sample reel from a computer firm called MAGI and saw Pong for the first time. He was immediately fascinated by video games and wanted to do a film incorporating them. According to Lisberger, “I realized that there were these techniques that would be very suitable for bringing video games and computer visuals to the screen. And that was the moment that the whole concept flashed across my mind”.

Lisberger had already created an early version of the character ‘Tron’ for a 30 second long animation which was used to promote both Lisberger Studios and a series of various rock radio stations. This backlit cel animation depicted Tron as a character who glowed yellow; the same shade that Lisberger had originally intended for all the heroic characters developed for the feature-length Tron. This was later changed to blue for the finished film (see Pre-production below). The prototype Tron was bearded, and resembled the Cylon Centurions from the original 1978 TV series, Battlestar Galactica. Also, Tron was armed with two “exploding discs”, as Lisberger described them on the 2-Disc DVD edition.

Lisberger elaborates: “Everybody was doing backlit animation in the 70s, you know. It was that disco look. And we thought, what if we had this character that was a neon line, and that was our Tron warrior – Tron for electronic. And what happened was, I saw Pong, and I said, well, that’s the arena for him. And at the same time I was interested in the early phases of computer generated animation, which I got into at MIT in Boston, and when I got into that I met a bunch of programmers who were into all that. And they really inspired me, by how much they believed in this new realm.”

He was frustrated by the clique-like nature of computers and video games and wanted to create a film that would open this world up to everyone. Lisberger and his business partner Donald Kushner moved to the West Coast in 1977 and set up an animation studio to develop Tron. They borrowed against the anticipated profits of their 90-minute animated television special Animalympics to develop storyboards for Tron with the notion of making an animated film. But after Variety mentioned the project briefly during its early phase, it caught the attention of computer scientist Alan Kay. He contacted Lisberger and convinced him to use him as an adviser on the movie, then persuaded him to use real CGI instead of just hand-animation.

The film was eventually conceived as an animated film bracketed with live-action sequences. The rest would involve a combination of computer-generated visuals and back-lit animation. Lisberger planned to finance the movie independently by approaching several computer companies but had little success. However, one company, Information International Inc., was receptive. He met with Richard Taylor, a representative, and they began talking about using live-action photography with back-lit animation in such a way that it could be integrated with computer graphics. At this point, Lisberger already had a script written and the film entirely storyboarded with some computer animation tests completed. He had spent approximately $300,000 developing Tron and had also secured $4–5 million in private backing before reaching a standstill. Lisberger and Kushner took their storyboards and samples of computer-generated films to Warner Bros., MGM, and Columbia Pictures – all of which turned them down.

In 1980, they decided to take the idea to the Walt Disney Studios, which was interested in producing more daring productions at the time. Tom Wilhite, Disney’s vice president for creative development, watched Lisberger’s test footage and convinced Ron Miller to give the movie a chance. However, Disney executives were uncertain about giving $10–12 million to a first-time producer and director using techniques which, in most cases, had never been attempted. The studio agreed to finance a test reel which involved a flying disc champion throwing a rough prototype of the discs used in the film. It was a chance to mix live-action footage with back-lit animation and computer-generated visuals. It impressed the executives at Disney and they agreed to back the film. The script was subsequently re-written and re-storyboarded with the studio’s input. At the time, Disney rarely hired outsiders to make films for them and Kushner found that he and his group were given a less than warm welcome because they “tackled the nerve center – the animation department. They saw us as the germ from outside. We tried to enlist several Disney animators but none came. Disney is a closed group.” as a result of this, they hired Wang Film Productions for the animation.

The soundtrack for Tron was written by pioneer electronic musician Wendy Carlos, who is best known for her album Switched-On Bach and for the soundtracks to many films, including A Clockwork Orange and The Shining. The music, which was the first collaboration between Carlos and her partner Annemarie Franklin, featured a mix of an analog Moog synthesizer and Crumar’s GDS digital synthesizer (complex additive and phase modulation synthesis), along with non-electronic pieces performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra (hired at the insistence of Disney, which was concerned that Carlos might not be able to complete her score on time). Two additional musical tracks (“1990’s Theme” and “Only Solutions”) were provided by the American band Journey after British band Supertramp pulled out of the project. An album featuring dialogue, music and sound effects from the film was also released on LP by Disneyland Records in 1982.

Tron was released on July 9, 1982, in 1,091 theaters grossing USD $4 million on its opening weekend. It went on to make $33 million in North America, which Disney saw as a disappointment, and led to the studio writing off a good chunk of its $17 million budget.

A novelization of Tron was released in 1982, written by American science fiction novelist Brian Daley. It included eight pages of color photographs from the movie. Also that year, Disney Senior Staff Publicist Michael Bonifer authored a book entitled The Art of Tron which covered aspects of the pre-production and post-production aspects of Tron. A nonfiction book about the making of the original film, The Making of Tron: How Tron Changed Visual Effects and Disney Forever, was written by William Kallay and published in 2011.

Tron was originally released on VHS, Betamax, LaserDisc, and CED Videodisc in 1983. As with most video releases from the 1980s, the film was cropped to the 4:3 pan and scan format. The film saw multiple re-releases throughout the 1990s, most notably an “Archive Collection” LaserDisc box set, which featured the first release of the film in its original widescreen 2.20:1 format. By 1993, Tron had grossed $17 million in video rentals.

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