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Monday, July 09, 2007

Tron's 25th Anniversary: A Chat with Director Steven Lisberger

An e-mail from Michael Coate reminds me that today is the 25th anniversary of the release of 'Tron' in 1982.

'Tron' was the movie that served as the "shot heard 'round the world" for computer-generated visual effects. Coate notes that 'Tron' was nominated for two Academy Awards, in sound and costume design. But it wasn't nominated for Best Visual Effects.

I had a chance to chat with 'Tron' director Steven Lisberger last month for a book project I'm wrapping up, and I asked him why that was.

"We found out that the statement that was made was that we had cheated when we used computers," he said.


Some other snippets from our conversation...

"When we did 'Tron,' there was very much a feeling of standing at the frontier -- that it was all possible."

"There was a spillover from the 1960s rebellion and counter-culture, and that was reflected in 'Star Wars' -- the rebels taking over the establishment. I had some of that energy. There was a sense that things were possible in Hollywood, because 'Star Wars' had gotten made."

"Even if it failed, it was gonna be revolutionary. We looked at it like a 'Fantasia' kind of thing -- this is what artists do when you give them freedom -- they go for it. What we did was impossible." He said 1100 effects shots were completed in nine months.

On the complexity of making 'Tron,' and then having Disney executives nit-pick about the final result, Lisberger said, "It was like we had just made a jet plane out of recycled Coke cans, and those guys weren't amazed that it flew, but they were asking what the meal was." Disney's legendary 2-D animators didn't offer much help throughout the production process.

Lisberger said that when 'ET' came out a few weeks before 'Tron,' Disney executives told him they wished 'Tron' had turned out more warm and fuzzy... like 'ET.' ('ET' won the Best Visual Effects Oscar for 1982.)

We talked a bit about how visual effects look today, and how they're incorporated into movies. "The technology dances and jumps through the hoops like a trained monkey," he said. "It doesn't feel dangeous. The new sense of danger is the enormous money in production and marketing, and the only thrill is, will it get its money back? There isn't the same sense that there was in the pioneering days."

These days, Lisberger is writing screenplays -- and doing some pretty amazing woodworking at his place in Santa Monica.

There's a certain thrill in that, he noted. "If that piece of wood flies off the lathe -- that's dangerous."

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