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5 Things You Might Not Know About Disney’s ‘Tron,’ Released 30 Years Ago Today

5 Things You Might Not Know About Disney's 'Tron,' Released 30 Years Ago Today

As has been discussed ad infinitum this year, on its 30th anniversary, the summer of 1982 holds a very special place in the hearts of geeks of a certain age; between May and August, a number of films now deemed genre classics hit theaters, proving to be a life-changing experience for many. Conan The Barbarian,” E.T, Blade Runner,” The Thing,” Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan — all have only grown in reputation over time. And one of the last of that wave, Disney‘s “Tron,” perhaps inspired one of the most fervent cults of them all.

Only the most rose-tinted geek would put “Tron” among some of the films that hit around the same time in terms of pure quality; the script is very ropy and some of the performances are patchy. But the film was undeniably revolutionary in its use of visuals, as one of the first major releases to use computer-generated imagery, and holds up remarkably well as spectacle today, even when placed against its $200 million 2010 sequel “Tron: Legacy,” a film that makes its predecessor look like “The Godfather” when it comes to script quality. The film hit theaters 30 years ago today, on July 9th, 1982, and to mark the occasion, we’ve assembled five facts you might not be aware of about the film and its production. Check them out below.

1. Director Steve Lisberger funded development by borrowing against the profits of his animated feature “Animalympics.”
Tron” director Steve Lisberger started off as a traditional animator. A graduate of the School of the Museum Of Fine Arts, he won a Student Academy Award nomination for his film “Cosmic Cartoon” in 1973, and worked in television for much of the ’70s. In 1976, Lisberger saw pioneering video game “Pong” for the first time, and became fascinated with the medium, telling American Cinematographer magazine at the time that, “I realized that there were these techniques that would be very suitable for bringing video games and computer visuals to the screen. And that was the moment that the whole concept flashed across my mind.” However, it took a little time to get going. Lisberger and producing partner Donald Kushner moved to California and set up Lisberger Studios out there, and the following year were comissioned by NBC to produce “Animalympics,” two shows — one 30 minutes, one an hour — set to tie in with the 1980 Summer Olympics, featuring a series of skits involving animals taking part in sporting events. Featuring voices of comics like Billy Crystal, Gilda Radner and Harry Shearer, Lisberger was funding the development of “Tron” by borrowing against the expected profits of the film, but things were thrown off when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, causing Jimmy Carter to boycott the Moscow games, and NBC decided that they wouldn’t air the hour-long special (the half-hour one, which centered around the Winter Olympics, had already aired). Fortunately, the film — which was something of a training ground for future animators, as Brad Bird and “The Lion King” director Roger Allers both worked on it — was recut and released successfully in theaters internationally. Warner Bros picked it up for home video and pay TV, and it became something of a staple throughout the 1980s, without really finding a U.S. audience until after “Tron” was released. Nevertheless, by the time the Olympics rolled around, Lisberger and Kushner, having been turned down by most studios around town, had set the “Tron” project up at Disney, a rare case of the studio hiring outside talent for a film, and one that didn’t endear them to Disney animators, who mostly refused to work on the project, meaning that most of the animation was done in Korea.  

2. Peter O’Toole and Debbie Harry both could have been cast in the film.
Featuring a mix of relatively new talent (Bruce Boxleitner), bona-fide stars (Jeff Bridges) and veterans (David Warner), “Tron” had a pretty strong cast, given the effects-driven nature of the project. But it might have had another true screen legend at one point, as Peter O’Toole actively pursued the project, enthused by the script and the world. The “Lawrence Of Arabia” star had been approached to play the villainous role of Ed Dillinger/Sark/the Master Control Program, eventually taken by David Warner. But according to Lisberger, O’Toole wanted to play Alan Bradley/Tron instead, and during a meeting with the director, the then 49-year-old actor jumped between the two beds in the hotel room to convince him he could pull off the physical aspect of the role. Reportedly, however, the actor had misunderstood the nature of the production, arrived to discover that the computer world was being created through animation, and left the project, leaving Boxleitner (then best known for TV show “How The West Was Won“) to step in. Meanwhile, for love interest Dr. Lora Baines/Yora, a number of actresses were tested, including Blondie frontwoman Debbie Harry, who was also up to play Pris in the same year’s “Blade Runner.” Designer Syd Mead, who was behind the film’s vehicles (as he was on Ridley Scott‘s film), was around during the audition process, and apparently joked that they should pick the actress who could spell the word “chrysanthemum.” It’s unclear whether his suggestion was taken, but it was “Caddyshack” star Cindy Morgan who got the gig.

3. The film contains less CGI than you think.
While the film was undoubtedly pioneering in its use of computer animation (Pixar head John Lasseter said “Without ‘Tron,’ there would be no ‘Toy Story‘”), the film’s setting, and bold mix of techniques likely tricks modern audiences into thinking that more of it was created by computer than it actually was. The film was originally conceived entirely as animation, but Lisberger’s decision to use live-action elements meant that the computer techniques had to be scaled back; the limitations of the technology meant that actors couldn’t be incorporated into the CGI scenes (the computers used had 2MB of RAM, and 330MB of storage). In fact, there’s only just over 15 minutes of computer animation in the film. Instead, it was done through a technique called “backlit animation.” For these scenes, actors were filmed in costume on a black set, on black-and-white 65mm Kodalith high-contrast film (specially produced by Kodak for the film), before being colored both by animators, and through photographic techniques, including lighting through colored gels to give a glow. It also limited what Lisberger could do with his camera — the techniques meant that camera movements had to be severely limited, and the crew went as far as nailing it to the floor to lock it off, so that “it wouldn’t move even if hit by a car.” There were still issues, however. Kodak had instructed the filmmakers to use the Kodalith in the order of manufacture, so as to produce a consistent image, but there was a mix up, leaving the film speed to vary during production, causing glitches and glowing outlines on the print. Rather than reshooting on a film that had already cost a then-massive $17 million, Lisberger decided to incorporate those errors into the script, as malfunctions within the film’s universe.

4. The soundtrack took 20 years to come out on CD, and originally would have featured songs by Supertramp.  
Thanks in part to “Tron: Legacy” and Daft Punk‘s contribution to the soundtrack (as well as the band’s long-term love of the world), music and “Tron” are entwined in the public mind. But that’s always been the case, really, thanks to the terrific electronic score to the original by Wendy Carlos. Carlos came to fame in 1968 thanks to her multiple-Grammy winning album Switched-On Bach which reconstructed music by Johann Sebastain Bach using a Moog synthesizer. She came to the attention of Stanley Kubrick, who hired her for the music for “A Clockwork Orange” (and later, “The Shining“). The score (Carlos’ last film soundtrack), was a hit when originally released alongside the film, but Carlos later fell out with CBS Records, which for many years delayed a possible release on CD. Things were pushed back even further when it was discovered that the original masters had deteriorated. Eventually, however, Carlos was able to use something called “tape baking,” where the masters were baked in an oven in order to harden the glue that kept them together, so that they could be transferred to digital, and the score finally came out on CD in 2002, to tie in with the 20th anniversary of the film. Carlos’ contributions aren’t the only ones on the album: there are two tracks by Journey, “Only Solution” and “1990s Theme,” which also feature in the film. But the band were in fact a last-minute replacement as Supertramp were set to lend a pair of tunes, but pulled out, according to frontman Roger Hodgson, simply because they were too busy.

5. Keep your eyes peeled from cameos from Mickey Mouse and Pac-Man.
Disney is heading back to the video-game world later in this year with “Wreck-It Ralph,” about a Donkey Kong-like bad guy who decides to leave his game, and the film seems to be stuffed with cameos from recognizable characters from Q*Bert to Dr. Robotnik. But this isn’t the first time the studio has seen an iconic game star appear in one of their films; if you keep your eyes peeled after the Light Cycle scene, you can see Pac-Man, accompanied by his traditional sound-effect, on the map that David Warner‘s character studies (Pac-Man is also set to return to the screen, in 3D form, for “Wreck-It Ralph”). Disney also found a way to get their most iconic character into the movie as well. There’s a tradition of including “Hidden Mickeys,” silhouettes of Disney mascot Mickey Mouse, across the company’s theme parks and films — going all the way back to “Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs” in 1937 — and one can be glimpsed as the Solar Sailer heads to the MPC’s core. Watch clips of both below.

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