Sometimes groundbreaking movies turn out to be classics in their own right. Look at two Disney flicks, for example. 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first feature-length animated film and it remains one of the all-time greats. In addition 1995’s Toy Story offered the initial full-length computer-generated feature, and it’s still an absolute joy.
Another Disney flick entered new territory but it doesn’t enjoy the same stellar reputation as those other two. 1982’s Tron provided some of the first use of computer graphics in a film, and it integrated them to an unprecedented level.
All of this seemed extremely cool to those of us who were young at the time. I was 15 when Tron hit screens in the summer of 1982 and I definitely fell into its target audience, not just because of my age. My family obtained our first personal computer - an Apple III, for the record - a few months earlier, and I was deeply in love with the wonderful world it introduced. I’ll always remember the summer of 1982 as my first big experience with computer games; I spent a spooky amount of time playing Wizardry, which remains one of the greatest games ever, in my book.
When I heard about Tron, it looked like it’d be terrific. The graphics were so awe-inspiring that the flick just had to be killer, right? Well, as we’ve learned over the years, terrific visuals have absolutely no correlation with product quality. While Tron provided state-of-the-art graphics for its era, the movie itself was little more than a warmed-over pastiche of action flick dynamics that did little to differentiate itself other than through its visuals.
Tron follows talented computer programmer Flynn (Jeff Bridges). He currently runs a videogame arcade and seems like a fun-loving sort, but it quickly becomes clear that he got burned in the not-too-distant past. He used to work for Encom, a computer conglomerate that produces many of the most popular arcade games. It turns out the Flynn developed these hits but his work was stolen by an unscrupulous executive named Dillinger (David Warner).
As such, Flynn spends a lot of his time trying to crack the Encom security code to find proof that his material was pilfered. Eventually he recruits ex-girlfriend Lora (Cindy Morgan) and her current beau Alan (Bruce Boxleitner) - both of whom still work at Encom - to assist him as he gets into the system.
Along with older scientist Dr. Walter Gibbs (Barnard Hughes), Lora’s been working on a device that will dematerialize and then reconstruct objects, kind of like the transporter on Star Trek. Once Flynn starts to taunt the Encom MCP, the latter takes charge of that object. It uses it to zap Flynn and place him within the world of the computer.
You see, Tron posits that there’s life in them thar chips. There’s a whole struggle that takes place beneath the cyber-surface, all of which is run by the oppressive MCP. Flynn enters this environment and quickly gets caught up in the fight for freedom led by Tron, the computer alter ego of Alan (and also played by Boxleitner). He meets doppelgangers for Lora (called Yori in the bits), Gibbs (Dumont), and Dillinger (Sark) as well as other characters like Ram (Dan Shor). Because he’s really a “user” - viewed as god-like figures by those in the computer world - Flynn has super-powers, and he helps the others on their quest while he also tries to find the proof that Dillinger stole his work.
On the positive side, I definitely respect the pioneering work found in Tron. During this disc’s supplements, Toy Story director John Lasseter relates that without Tron, we probably would never have gotten the great flicks that have come from Pixar. I don’t know if that’s really true; even if Tron itself never existed, someone would have made a movie with then-fresh computer imagery.
Nonetheless, the flick definitely had a positive effect in regard to the use of computer graphics in movies, and it deserves credit for that. 20 years down the road, it’s hard to remember just how amazing Tron looked back then. Today, the film’s computer work would look poor in a Playstation game, but back then, it was amazing stuff.
Unfortunately, Tron mainly feels like it was an excuse to show us state-of-the-art graphics with little else behind it. The story seems like an uninspired combination of Spartacus and Star Wars, and it never catches fire in any way. Bridges brings a modicum of spark to the role of Flynn and Warner lends his usual dark elegance to both Dillinger and Sark. The other actors are acceptable but more mundane; none do much for the flick but they don’t actively harm it.
Mainly, Tron just comes across as a bland and generic experience. It seems like so much emphasis was put on the technical elements that little time was devoted to story and characters. In that way, Tron strongly resembles a more recent innovative piece of animation: 2001’s photo-realistic computer work Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. As with Tron, Fantasy shows us the best imagery for its era but it really doesn’t bother to do much more than that. I thought it was a watchable film, but the material failed to live up to the graphics.
Unfortunately, Tron doesn’t look very impressive anymore, though it has some still-cool elements. To represent the computer world, some very unusual methods were used above and beyond the normal CGI. These create a unique appearance for the film that still allows it to stand out in the visual realm. The computer animation comes across as very dated and weak, but some of the other graphic elements are still compelling.
Even if the movie retained all of the visual impact it had 20 years ago, Tron would remain a fairly lackluster piece. The flick seemed watchable but bland when I was 15, and it comes across the same way now that I’m 34. Actually, this more recent viewing may have been a little more satisfying; I had high expectations for it when I was a kid, but I didn’t anticipate much from it today. Overall, Tron seems moderately entertaining but it fails to present much excitement or depth.
Tron appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.20:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although the picture displayed a few minor concerns, as a whole it offered a very pleasing presentation.
Tron created a slew of opportunities for the image to look bad. Many of the scenes that took place inside the computer world used multiple composited layers, and each one of those introduced additional possibilities for problems. To be sure, most of the DVD’s issues revolved around those segments. However, the image still managed to present a very pleasing impression most of the time.
Sharpness largely appeared distinct and concise. A few wide shots demonstrated some minor softness, but those concerns seemed infrequent. Otherwise, the picture looked accurate and well defined. Moiré effects and jagged edges offered no problems, and I also witnessed no concerns related to edge enhancement.
Although compositing often introduces many source flaws, that didn’t seem to be the case for much of Tron. At times I saw examples of grain, dust, and grit, but those issues seemed to remain fairly minor during most of the film. The image took on a flickery look that also appeared to stem from the compositing and other technical elements, but this actually worked within the computer world, so it wasn’t a distraction.
Colors varied dependent on the setting. In the “real world” shots, they consistently appeared vivid and natural. Inside the computer, the hues tended to appear heavier and more artificial. I don’t know how much of that was intentional and how much just came along with the processes used, though I feel much of it occurred by design. In any case, the computer scenes seemed a bit murky and drab, but they made sense within the context of the film.
Similar issues related to black levels. During the real world scenes, they came across as nicely deep and intense, but they could seem a little murky when we entered the computer. This didn’t create any problems, however, and shadow detail appeared solid. Low-light sequences were appropriately opaque but not overly dark. Ultimately, Tron offered a good representation of the original material.
Even better was the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Tron. Given the vintage of the film, I didn’t expect much from the mix. To my surprise, it turned out to be a very active and engaging affair. The soundfield created a rather vivid and involving setting. The forward spectrum offered nice stereo imaging for music, and effects also were well placed and blended together reasonably cleanly. At times, I thought the mix seemed a little speaker-specific, but as a whole, the various elements meshed well and created a solid setting.
Surround usage was quite positive, especially for an older movie. The rears worked actively through most of the film, and they added a fine layer of reinforcement to the audio. They also contributed a high level of unique audio and created a nicely enveloping presence. A reasonable amount of split-surround usage occurred, and the mix seemed quite vibrant at virtually all times.
Audio quality also came across as well above average for its era. Dialogue seemed natural and distinct, with no signs of edginess or problems related to intelligibility. Music appeared bright and vivid, and its dynamic range sounded full and rich. Effects showed no signs of distortion; they came across as clear and realistic at all times.
Bass response was extremely heavy throughout the movie. Frankly, I thought it was too heavy, as the LFE channel frequently threatened to destroy my house. My poor little subwoofer feared for its life, as this track absolutely poured on the low-end. I love bass as much - if not more - as the next guy, but this was ridiculous, especially because some of the low-end audio seemed a bit boomy and indistinct. Nonetheless, that was a small mark against a soundtrack that otherwise stood out strongly among it age-based peers.
This new “20th Anniversary Edition” of Tron replaces an old movie-only DVD. Apparently the 2002 release improves upon the original with an anamorphic image and 5.1 sound, and it also packs in a terrific roster of extras on this two-disc set. Most of these appear on DVD Two, but we get a couple of features on the first platter.
Most significant is an audio commentary from director Steven Lisberger, producer Donald Kushner, special effects supervisor Richard Taylor and visual effects supervisor Harrison Ellenshaw. All four men were recorded together for this running, fairly scene-specific piece. Ported over from a 1995 laserdisc boxed set - more about it later - this track occasionally seemed somewhat dry, but it offered a reasonably interesting discussion of the film.
Not surprisingly, technical considerations dominated the piece. The participants provided a lot of remarks about various effects techniques and challenges. However, we still got some good material that went over other areas. They talked about a nice mix of issues that related to the production and generally made this a compelling program; heck, they even made fun of some of the movie’s sillier elements at times. The commentary was a little flat on occasion, but overall, it seemed informative and worthwhile.
Also on Disc One are a few ads. When you boot up the DVD, you’ll get a promo for something called the Tron Killer App. This offers a promise of something coming in 2003, but what this is remains vague. It guides you to but no additional answers are forthcoming there. Oh well - it’s kind of cool anyway. In the Alternate Programs area of Disc One, we also get “Sneak Peeks” for Atlantis and Return to Neverland.
Lastly, DVD One includes the THX Optimizer. Also found on DVDs such as The Phantom Menace, it purports to help you set up your home theater to best present the movie on the disc in question. Apparently the Optimizer is unique for each DVD on which it’s included; unlike programs such as Video Essentials, the Optimizer should tweak your set-up differently every time. Frankly, I’ve been very happy with my already-established calibration and I’m afraid to muck with it, so I’ve never tried the Optimizer. If you lack calibration from Video Essentials or a similar program, or if you’re just more adventurous than I, the Optimizer could be a helpful addition.
As we move to DVD Two, most of the extras fall in various subdomains. Under Development we get five programs. "Early Development of Tron" offers a two-minute and 37-second piece that consists of interviews with writer/director Steven Lisberger and producer Donald Kushner. Based on the quality of the piece and the styles displayed by the participants, I’d guess that it comes from the period in which Tron was made. Lisberger discusses his inspirations and his insistence on the use of computer animation, while Kushner tells us how they ended up working with Disney. It’s a short but reasonably informative featurette.
Next we find "Early Lisberger Studios Animation". Basically a 30-second promo logo that I suppose was meant to tout the studio, the traditionally-animated clip seems silly and dated, but it shows some of the roots of Tron and is a nice addition for archival reasons.
In "Early Concept Art and Background Concepts" we find a stillframe gallery. As with virtually all recent Disney DVDs, the images appear in thumbnails; I love that presentation for it makes access much easier. We get four screens of art for a total of 30 pictures. These offer a pretty good look at early visual ideas.
"Computers Are People Too" provides a snippet from a May 1982 TV program of that name. The piece looked at that era’s top-of-the-line computer work, and we hear from Lisberger and co-supervisor of special effects Richard Taylor in this Tron-centered segment. In many ways, the four and a half minute clip just acts as a preview of the movie; we get a little information about the techniques used in the flick, but essentially it emphasizes the basics. It’s another piece that’s nice to have for archival value, but it’s not terribly useful otherwise.
Lastly, "Early Video Tests" intends to include a 30-second reel commissioned by Disney to prove the viability of the film’s techniques. Unfortunately, this area provides the wrong material. It shows a 1981 test reel displayed to exhibitors, not the bits created to prove the styles would work.
Storyboarding gives us another five mini-topics under its banner. "The Storyboarding Process" runs for three minutes and 55 seconds as we hear from computer image choreographer Bill Kroyer. First he guides us through a narrated look at boards for one of the lightcycle sequences, and then he shows us and discusses some diagrams created for the film to assist the computer artists. It’s a decent little piece but not overly informative.
"Creation of Tron Main Title - Moebius Storyboards" is a 15-second running look at some proposed art for the opening, while "Moebius Miscellaneous Storyboarding Artwork" gives us another stillframe gallery. We get 78 thumbnailed images in all. Similar material appears in "Early Storyboard Artwork", which includes 94 frames.
Finally, the "Storyboard to Film Comparisons" look at the “Lightcycle Chase” sequence. After a 50-second “Introduction” from Bill Kroyer, we can watch the two-minute scene in these ways: “Lightcycle Chase Split Screen” - with the boards on the top of the screen and the movie itself on the bottom - as well as “Lightcycle Chase Storyboard Only” and “Lightcycle Chase Final Film”. Oddly, the split screen puts the letterboxed images into squares. As such, the images become much smaller than they should be. The individual elements span the width of the screen, so they’re definitely easier to watch.
As we move to Digital Imaging, we get another five subsections. "Backlight Animation" runs 100 seconds as effects technical supervisor John Scheele gives us a quick demonstration of the manner in which that work was done. "Digital Imagery In Tron" lasts three minutes and 45 seconds and gives us statements from Richard Taylor and Bill Kroyer; they cover some of the challenges created by working with computer imagery.
"Beyond Tron" offers a snippet of a TV special of the same name. It lasts four minutes and we get some information about the material created by a company called MAGI. We hear from MAGI founder Dr. Phillip Mittelman, and we learn about their origins and their work. Lisberger appears to relate his early exposure to MAGI and how it influenced his decisions for Tron. We even see a cute early piece of computer animation in this fairly interesting little program.
In "Role of Triple I", we get a 35-second clip from Richard Taylor in which he briefly explains how that company helped get Tron off the ground. Lastly, the "Triple I Demo" includes a two minute and 15 second example of their computer imagery from the early Eighties.
Within the Design domain we get four more subprograms. "Introduction to Design" lasts 70 seconds as Lisberger briefly touches on visual inspirations. "The Programs" splits into another 10 smaller areas. These cover “Flynn”, “Yori”, “Sark”, “The Bit”, “Guard”, “Tron”, “Dumont”, “MCP”, “Video Warrior” and “Miscellaneous” as they include stillframe galleries of drawings and photographs; the sections include between 4 and 44 images for a total of 231 pictures. “Animation Test - MCP Speaks” also shows 20 seconds of test footage.
The Vehicles covers some similar territory. “Lightcycles” includes 52 still images plus 18 seconds of “MAGI Animation Tests” as well as “Syd Mead Discusses Lightcycle Design”. In the 114-second piece, the designer talks about some of the challenges.
The “Recognizer” domain offers 22 designs plus 18 seconds of the “Space Paranoids” game created for the film; the latter can be viewed either in its original fullscreen presentation or in a stretched letterboxed version. In “Tank”, we get another 36 images of drawings and photos, while “Sark’s Carrier” and “Solar Sailer” offer 33 frames and 27 stills respectively.
The last Design area looks at "The Electronic World". Here we get another seven stillframe galleries. They cover “Dillinger’s Office and Flynn’s Arcade”, “The Game Grid”, “I/O Tower Designs”, “Power Cave”, “Yori’s Apartment”, “The Electronic World”, and “Triple I Models”. Each includes between 4 and 34 images for a total of 76 pictures.
Music simply offers some unused scoring. We get the three-minute "Lightcycle Scene With Alternate Carlos Music Tracks" and the five minute, 15 second "End Credits With Original Carlos Music". Both are for completists alone, I’d think, as they don’t seem very appealing for more casual fans. Not that I’m complaining, as I appreciate their inclusion here.
More compelling are the three Deleted Scenes. In a two minute and 15 second “Introduction”, Lisberger, associate producer/visual effects supervisor Harrison Ellenshaw and actor Bruce Boxleitner discuss the omission of a romantic scene between Tron and Yori. We then see the 115-second “Tron and Yori’s Love Scene” as well as its follow-up, the 45-second “Tron and Yori’s Love Scene #2”. Lastly, we get an “Alternate Opening Prologue” which added three paragraphs of text that would have clarified the film at its start.
Publicity splits into three subdomains. "Trailers" includes a five minute and five second promo reel created to show the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO), while “Work In Progress” runs 80 seconds and gives us an early look at the flick. An additional four standard theatrical trailers appear as well. "Production Photos" offers 87 stillframe images, while "Publicity and Merchandising" show 37 shots of poster concepts, posters, advertising art, toys, video games, and crew clothing.
Through the preceding sections, we got a decent look at a mix of Tron elements. However, the final extra helps tie all of this together. The Making of Tron provides an excellent 98-minute and 15-second look at the project as a whole. It combines the usual mix of film clips, behind the scenes materials, and interviews. In the latter category, we hear from director Lisberger, animator Roger Allers, producer Donald Kushner, storyboard artist Andy Gaskill, Disney Motion Picture Group Chairman Dick Cook, visual effects supervisor Richard Taylor, associate producer/visual effects supervisor Harrison Ellenshaw, director of photography Bruce Logan, background painter Tia Kratter, storyboard artist/animator Bill Kroyer, A Bug’s Life/Toy Story director John Lasseter, as well as actors Jeff Bridges, Bruce Boxleitner, Barnard Hughes, Cindy Morgan, and Dan Shor.
“Making” covers quite a lot of the production. We learn about the film’s genesis, its casting, and all of the challenges that occurred along the way, technical and otherwise. The participants seem surprisingly blunt at times; while the show includes no true dirt, they express concerns and disagreements, issues that don’t usually appear in this sort of show. Overall, it’s a consistently interesting and entertaining piece that really is the prime supplement on DVD Two. The others are nice but most will mainly appeal to diehards; “The Making of Tron” will be all that most people need.
As I mentioned earlier, many of these materials also appeared on the laserdisc boxed set from 1995. I never owned that package so I can’t make complete comparisons, but from what I know, I believe that pretty much everything here also appeared on the LD. The most significant exception is “Making Tron”, which seems to be a new production; I found no mention of it in listings for the LD.
Does the DVD lose any of the LD’s material? Yes - at least one component of that set fails to make the grade here. Apparently the LD included an isolated music and effects track that didn’t show up on the DVD. Otherwise, based on what I’ve read, it looks like the DVD replicates the LD’s supplements.
Twenty years ago, Tron offered a revolutionary visual experience that dazzled teens like myself. Today it doesn’t look so hot, so it needs to stand on its own merits as a film. Tron continues to deserve respect, but frankly, the movie itself is something of a bore. It features some decent action at times, but it comes across as a rehashing of other better flicks. The DVD provides very good picture and sound as well as a terrific package of supplements. Fans of Tron should be exceedingly pleased with this release.