Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Tron

No one user created me.

I re-watched Tron recently, after I had found out about the sequel. I liked Tron as a kid, but I never really thought about it. At the time it was just interesting to look at. The sequences I like the most were the light cycles and the disc throwing.

I feel the need to point out that I suck at video games, and always have. Modern video games, particularly RPGs, are better because they don’t depend as much on my non-existent hand/eye coordination. But Space Invaders and Pac-Man? The degree to which I suck at those games isn’t on the same scale as the degree to which the average person sucks at those games. I’m fairly certain that there are arcade owners I made independently wealthy just on my attempts to get past level one on Pac-Man.

Tron is build on those old games. The main character, Flynn (played by Jeff Bridges), is a programer of games like Space Invaders. In fact, one of Flynn’s major accomplishments is programing the game Space Paranoids. The game Space Paranoids seems to involve using a tank to blow-up pyramids with legs in what has to be one of the earliest examples of a first person shooter (a game genre that is build out of things I suck at). One has to wonder if the perhaps that game, instead of the light cycles, was intended to be the iconic game from the movie.

All of this is to say that Tron has a reputation of being an action flick for kids. Simple plot, lots of CGI, and a bad guy with no discernible sympathetic qualities seem to point to support that conclusion. One of the things I noticed, however, is that the movie is very slow. Quite a bit of the movie is just talking. Some of it is philosophical, but a lot of it is expository. The audience really is dropped in at the end of the story. ENCOM is a large software/hardware giant similar to IBM that has an evil and sentient computer program running amok on not only it’s network, but on other networks as well. How things got that way is the subject of a lot of dialog. And in fact, describing the current situation is the subject of a lot of dialog as well.

This is typically symptomatic of what I like to call the Faux 80s Action Movie. The trope is when a movie is labeled an action movie (typically for kids) because it has some violence in it at some point in the movie, but the majority of the movie is actually people talking about non-violent things. (E.g. the Incredible Hulk TV show staring Bill Bixby.) However, Tron actually has a lot of action in it. The movie starts with Clu in a tank and getting blown-up by a pyramid with legs. The subsequent derezzing isn’t exactly boring either. Also the crux of the movie is that programs are being captured and made to play in gladiatorial style games. The computer games they’re forced to play: light cycles and disc throwing have some interesting aspects as well. It can still be pretty slow at times, but no more than many modern movies.

So how does Tron’s view of computers stack-up with today? Like all things dealing with technology, it’s dated. One of the major difference between now and then is that it doesn’t seem that single person could write a video game in their spare time, at least not the kind of game that is shown in arcades and played on video game consoles, but Flynn seems to have done just that several times over. Another is that we don’t really anthropomorphize computer programs. I’m writing this in a word processor (Pages ’09); I just don’t think of it as something that is capable of being forced into playing frisbee by my Mac’s Finder. Also the idea that my word processor defies the iWork development team and views them as some kind of pantheon just strikes me as odd.

Production Design 101

I think the most dated aspect of the movie are the computer graphics, though not necessarily in the way you might think. The point of modern CGI is to make things look real, not like it was computer generated. Usually we assume something is computer generated because it doesn’t look like claymation and we can’t think of some other way to do it. (E.g. the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park.) But back in the 80s, CGI had a distinct look because photo realism wasn’t possible yet. Of course, another important part is that a lot of the CGI isn’t. CGI being so expensive, a lot of the look and feel was drawn in later.

You can actually see that the production designer was grappling with this in Tron Legacy. In the San Diego Comic Con footage, there seems to be a little bit of pixillation in the sky. Modern CGI doesn’t look pixilated, and neither did the original Tron, but it’s something that a designer can use to show that we’re in a computer world. Beyond that, it’s distilling the design of Tron down to it’s essence and building on that.

Generally speaking the essence of  Tron’s production design seems to be 1) mostly rectilinear scenery and objects, 2) circuit lines on the programs, (complete with colors to represent factions), and 3) Frisbee's on people’s back. Those are the generalities. The specific objects that are uniquely Tron are the pyramids with legs, light cycles, and the tanks.

Let’s take a look at each element.

1) Rectilinear scenery and objects. Largely a product of CGI integration. Most of what we see isn’t CGI, but enough CGI was integrated that the rectilinear design permeates the whole movie. The best example is the light cycles, they create hard straight lines and they turn exactly 90ยบ instantaneously. This is somewhat averted in the solar sail sequence, because the sail isn’t rectilinear.

If the light cycle footage in the San Diego footage and at the end of the trailer is any indiction, this is being softened-up a bit. Hitting a light cycle wall isn’t like hitting a titanium wall anymore. Now it’s more like hitting a thick sheet of aluminum.

2) The circuit lines on the programs are iconic of the costume/production design. It’s also exhibit “A” for the TV trope Color Coded for You Convenience. Aside from that though, the lines seem to be a major source of light in this world. This is what happens when you film in black and white and then had draw the glowing lines later. Black and white photography is mostly concerned with the contrast between light and shadow. Animation, and color photography, is usually concerned with the value of hues on the film. Combining the two created grey faces illuminated with bright and glowing neon lights emanating what looks like cardboard armor.

The new movie appears to use black speedos and color photography using a filter. The faces retain their washed-out look, but lost the graininess the old movie had. What’s really interesting is that the programs had more circuit lines in the old movie, despite the fact that the process used in the first movie was time consuming, labor intensive, and expensive as a result that. Also, in the new movie we see costume designs without circuit lines.

Speaking of lighting, there seems to be an actual sky in the new movie. (The first scene in the computer world in the trailer actually shows lightning, as do the first few seconds of the comic-con footage.) Also, there seems to be a more practical lighting in the new movie as a result of scenery giving off light.

3) The old movie’s Frisbee game was one of my favorite scenes. Obviously, they can’t call them Frisbees, Wham-O owns the trademark. I gotta say, stylistically, I like the change from discs to rings. At first, it didn’t make much sense to me because the discs were used as a shield, in the original, but the trailer for Legacy shows someone blocking with a ring. The rings seem easier to grab and use a prop because the actor can close there fingers around the edge for a firm grip.

None of this is to say I’m judging the quality of Legacy based on the trailer. I’m just comparing the design of what I saw in the trailer with what’s in the original movie. I like to keep in mind something (I think) Philip Kaufman said at a panel at Cinnequest: “after you’ve made the movie the studio puts together trailer, which is the movie they wanted you to make.”

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