2021年2月25日  |  Column


There’s one movie franchise that has a rather impressive visual design, and that is TRON. May it be the original TRON (1982) which may be compared to today’s standard would looks rather if not very lame and dated but was a groundbreaking achievement back in the day; as well as its sequel Tron: Legacy (2010) that has garnered many praises in its visual design that successfully brought and updated the original look of the original film to the modern standard of visual design and realism.

But first let’s talk, what is it all about? TRON is a movie franchise that set in our current computerized world, where it imagines that inside our computers are a living breathing world called “the Grid”, the computer hardwares, its circuitry and peripherals serve as the city and landmarks where the softwares and data in the form of individual lives as serve its programmed purposes; and then there’s human, the protagonist(s) who by accident gets digitized into digital information and enters the computer world where the story in the movie plays out.

TRON, from the day of its release has created great impact in popular culture, especially in the field of visual design, or more precisely the computer graphics and visual effects design. It is unique in a way that it is shaped by the computer visual design of the time as well as shaping the computer visual design in the years after its release.


Original TRON poster  ©Buena Vista Pictures

The original TRON that was released in 1982 was known for being one of the first films that utilize computer animations for story telling. However it is need to note despite using the word computer animation, it is not an automated process but must be animated frame-by-frame. What makes things even more difficult was that those frames must be transferred to film (as digital format for movies are yet to be ready) and there are no way to print out these animation frames, therefore the only solution was to directly point the camera to the computer screen that display the frame, such a rough technique!

Similarly to other movie-making craft at the time, such fantasy themed move requires a huge amount of creativity and original thinking to design a solution for the filmmaking needs. Numerous techniques that I could not explain all here, but I will take one particular element that defines the film look.

The cityscape of the computer world in TRON albeit most of them are monotones (that were produced by various film layering technique, including reversed negative and positive image) are decorated with many colorful lines, especially in the human / program character. These lines that are inspired by the circuitry in a computer, are designed to shine on top of the monotone base of the characters and the city. The effect is a futuristic and high tech look of the character that make you believe that this is not our real world, but a world that all this time we could only see on the screen of computer or perhaps in an arcade games. This simple combination of monotone background and high contrast lines later defined further what we consider as high-tech look in our popular consciousness. This look is the reason why even until today when we search images on the internet with keywords such as: technology, network, computer; we will receive various images with a similar theme of lines that are drawn with a high contrast (usually blue) and connecting to each other forming a certain network or circuitry pattern.

High-tech and futuristic themed design of TRON character  ©Buena Vista Pictures

Ironically, despite of its ground-breaking visual effect design that are years ahead of its time, the movie was not nominated for Best Visual Effects category in the Oscar because it was considered cheating by using computer to create visual effect. Today, one could not imagine winning a Best Visual Effects category in the Oscar without using computer animation.

TRON: Legacy

Almost three decades later, the sequel to the original TRON was released, this time with an updated look. The light circuitry design that was made to appears shining by using rotoscope back in the day now fully animated with realistic CGI and various modern technique in design. The overall cityscape design, machineries, and characters costume also designed to look more streamlined and sleek.

TRON: Legacy poster with updated character design ©Walt Disney Pictures


While the updated costume’s circuitry lines doesn’t shine by itself in real world, thus requires to be illuminated post-production just like the original movie, but the identity disc that also became a staple item in the movie is now illuminated with LCD and looks much cooler and resemble more to an actual weapon like a hi-tech Indian chakram or a discus rather than frisbee with rotoscoped patterns in the original TRON movie.

Another anticipated visual update of the sequel of course the famous light cycle. While the original light cycle animation is made of primitive blocks and colored with solid color even the jetwall doesn’t shine (while I expect them to shine to differentiate it with the main body of the lightcyle); finally technology could do justice to it in the sequel series. The light cycle in the sequel is absolutely cool and it looks fluid now and resemble actual bike movement compared to the original square-ish movement of the original light cycle scenes.

Light Cycle in TRON: Legacy ©Walt Disney Pictures


Overall, as it would be very obvious to point out that TRON: Legacy with the improvement in computer animation technology finally able to show us realistically how does the computer world (in TRON universe) actually look like, and it is absolutely stunning.