Set Visit: ‘Tron Legacy’ uses reality to create a digital universe

03.17.10 8 years ago

Walt Disney Studios

Standing on a physical set for “Tron Legacy” was not what one would expect when a sequel to the groundbreaking 1982 motion picture was first announced.  The original “Tron” brought CG animation to the movies for the first time and became an iconic fixture of 1980s Sci-Fi movies as well as inspiration for a whole generation of filmmakers and video game developers.  It was also largely shot on green screen with CG backgrounds mixed with hand-painted effects on the actor”s costumes and faces added later.  Sets were hardly part of the picture. 28 years, “Legacy” takes a step forward by taking a step backward by integrating real sets into the mix.  And on this early July day, that means a fight scene at the end of the line bar and original “Tron” star Jeff Bridges receiving a massage before he gets into it with what can only be described as the Black Guard.

Months before he could ever be considered an Oscar contender let alone winner, Bridges is back as Kevin Flynn, the genius programmer who unintentionally created the original digital world in the first “Tron.”  A lot has changed since then, however.  Flynn”s been missing since 1988 and he has a grown son Sam (Garrett Hedlund) who has little knowledge of his him.  When an old colleague of Kevin”s, Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner), gives him a clue that he might know where his father is, Sam inadvertently becomes transported to a digital world unlike anything seen in the early 80s.  

As we wait on the set for director Joseph Kosinski to review the shot in his specially set up 3-D monitors, the lovely Olivia Wilde comes over to meet the journalists lounging in the bar”s stark white booths and stools plopped right out of Design Within Reach.  Best known for her role in TV”s “House,” Wilde plays Quorra an inhabitant of the digital universe who is a confident of Kevin Flynn”s and someone that may hold a secret to what has happened over the 22 years since Kevin disappeared.

“We”re constantly hearing stories from Boxleitner, Bridges and [“Tron” director Steve] Lisberger about what they went through to make the original, and how unfamiliar they were with the terms,” Wilde says. “Like everything from the term program to bit. It sounded really technologically advanced and foreign and to us it”s everyday lingo. So, I”m amazed that they were able to turn it into a story and have it be something kind of really funny and entertaining at the time, having it all be mostly gobbly gook to them.”

Shooting a cameo in tonight”s scene as a bartender is none other than Lisberger, the man who originally started this madness.  Brought on as a producer this time around, the visionary has no problems with the new “Tron” world appearing so vastly different from the one he created (in his eyes, it”s just a new program) or having someone else lead the charge.

“I think of it as a natural progression, you know, the seasons, the four phases of this world,” Lisberger says.  “And it”s almost like cyberspace being what it is, it becomes a Rorschach to whichever generation has to deal with it.”

Lisberger continues revealing, “Plus, I dig this role of being the Obi-Wan Kenobi or the Yoda on this film more than being the guy in the trenches.  I mean I can”t do what Joe is doing.  I cannot work 16 hours a day staring at 25 monitors for most of that time. I can”t do it physically.  He can, God bless him.”

Our visit on this particular set included a stop by the props table where we got to play with the fancy new flying discs and batons (can you say Christmas” hottest toys?) as well as some cool ball grenades that will be a new weapon on display in the picture.  Meanwhile, the stunt co-ordinators continued to work out an intricate fight sequence that found Wilde, Hedlund and Bridges throwing their weight, er, batons, fists and feet around. 

On a side note, one of the more dramatic moments of the visit was a seemingly quiet one.  The press had been informed that the electronic music duo Daft Punk, who are composing the film”s original score, were shooting their cameo in the bar scene sometime that week.  As most Daft fans know, however, Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter try to keep their physical appearances as secret as possible to the public, let alone the media.  And yet, there they were just watching the action alongside the rest of the crew (Of course, if they make the cut of the movie, expect them to appear with trademark masks in tow, but you didn”t hear that from this writer).

Kosinski only had time for a brief hello on this busy night visit, but producer Sean Bailey (who now just happens to be the president of production at Disney) ended up being the most revealing member of the “Legacy” team. Sitting down to chat in what can only be described as a production design “war room,” Bailey laid down the ground rules that any true “Tron” fan must know to understand how so much has changed from the first film.

“Sam Flynn finds his way to the ‘Tron’ universe and goes in, and it is a world that has been sitting on its own since the late 80s and has evolved on its own.  We talked a lot of the Galapagos Islands,” Bailey says.

The producer also adds that this isn”t an “Internet” movie, “The ‘Tron” universe, based on how we get there, is its own discreet controlled universe. It”s not a story where we”re dealing with ‘Oh, and now he”s loose in the mainframe and he”s scrambling around, you  know, getting nuclear launch codes.””

And while the simpler “Tron” world found each “person” Kevin met having a specific role within the program, Bailey says they felt that was a little played out this time around noting, “We aren”t gonna make any specific references to, ‘Well now you”re in the flash drive.  And here”s the accounting program.  And here”s the security program.””

How Kosinski, Bailey and Lisberger see the program now is more in the vein of a Western where data is moving to and fro and their paradigm consists of light cycles instead of horses.   And speaking of light cycles, it turns out the new version that has excited fans from the early concept test to the latest teaser trailer was what Lisberger intended it to look like all along.

“[Lisberger] said originally the light cycle rider was meant to be exposed and wholly integrated into the cycle,” Bailey recalls. “He said, [they] simply couldn”t render at that level in “82.  So they came up with that kind of spherical shape you see in the movie.  And Joe said, ‘Well, that”s where I wanna go with the design.  I wanna do what you wanted to do in “82.  So, the updated light cycle which is kickin” around here a couple places is kind of, I think the 2010 version of Lisberger and team”s original vision.”

But for fans hoping to get a glimpse of the “82 version of “Tron” recreated in “Legacy,” you can end those dreams now.  Bailey makes it clear that while there are flashbacks to an earlier time in the new program, there won”t be a moment when it ever looks like “82.

One character who hasn’t got a lot of attention in the early publicity breaks or materials is the title character himself, Tron.  Bruce Boxleitner will portray Tron again, but this time with the actor in a motion-capture suit (well, maybe).  As Bailey reveals, “Tron the character, and what happened to him, is dealt with in this movie.  And where he ends up is kind of one of our, you know, what happened to him is kind of one of our secrets.  But certainly he is involved in the move.”

So, even though it”s “Tron” in the title, it”s the “Legacy” that this film is really all about.  Could “Legacy” actually be more than a hip marketing title? Bailey says. “The focal points are Sam, this new character Quorra, played by Olivia Wilde, and Flynn, but we certainly deal with Tron and what happened to him and where he ended up.”

The hardcore fans may be relieved to know their hero will be dealt with in some way, but what they really want the dirt on are the games.  Just how will the competitive in-movie games that spawned a number of popular arcade games be dealt with?  Bailey describes the new version of the disc game as a tournament style set up where players are part of a larger board – similar to March Madness NCAA tournament brackets – where the match ups shift in real time as the event evolves.  The new disk is still the primary weapon and the consequences of losing are still very, very deadly.

Lastly, no one during the visit last summer had any inkling Bailey would rise to his new position at Disney, but his comments about the company and particularly how its perceived as a brand were very telling.

“I personally am really interested in expanding what the Disney label and I think ‘Pirates” did a pretty darn good job of that, of expanding what people think of as the Disney label,” Bailey says. “You know, Walt, and I”m not gonna get the year right, Walt had a great quote when he was making ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” And people said, ‘Well, what are you doin”?  This isn”t a Disney movie.  Why are you doing it?” And Walt said, ‘I never want the name to define the movies.  I want the movies to define the name.  And it is an aggressive, darker world.””

And “Tron Legacy” may have unintentionally become Bailey”s first example of what he thinks the Disney label can be.

Look for more behind-the-scenes from “Tron Legacy” in the months ahead on HitFix.

For a revealing on-set sit down with Jeff Bridges, click here.

To check out behind-the-scenes photos from the end of the line bar set with Bridges, Wilde, Hedlund and more, click here.

“Tron Legacy” opens nationwide in 3-D and IMAX 3-D on Dec. 17.

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