“Tron” at 30: How Art Center Helped Power the Grid

A tender moment from "Tron," which this year celebrates its 30th anniversary.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Disney’s Tron, the movie which introduced a generation to light cycles, identity discs and a glowing spandex-clad Jeff Bridges. It was also the first time most filmgoers marveled at computer-generated special effects.

The history and evolution of Tron wouldn’t be the same without the work of a number of members of the Art Center community who were involved in the groundbreaking film, its 2010 sequel Tron: Legacy and the current Disney XD animated series Tron: Uprising.

To celebrate three decades of “the grid,” let’s take a look at how Syd Mead TRAN ’59, Eric Barba TRAN ’92 and current Entertainment Design student Annis Naeem helped shaped Tron’s digital frontier.

The iconic light cycles from "Tron" (1982) were designed by Syd Mead TRAN '59.

For many, the most indelible imagery associated with the original Tron are the light cycles, those geometric motorcycles that digitally manifest themselves around the film’s characters in the computer world. They glide effortlessly across the grid, turn only at sharp 90 degree angles, and leave behind them a “jetwall” trail that, when collided with, can instantly annihilate an opponent. And they make really cool sounds.

The man behind the light cycle design, as well as the film’s tanks, aircraft carrier (the villain Sark’s command ship), the interior control set for the recognizer and many other elements is Art Center alumnus and legendary visual futurist Syd Mead. Mead’s impressive career began shortly after graduation at Ford Motor Company’s Advanced Styling Center and over the next few decades his work expanded and evolved into imagining future worlds for films such as Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), Blade Runner (also 1982) and Aliens (1986).

In an interview with Dotted Line, Mead said one of his initial challenges on working with Tron was understanding exactly what he was expected to produce. “Everything I designed, other than the release title graphic, was to be thought of as a three-dimensional interpretation of a two-dimensional digital display on the back side of a CRT,” said Mead.

He also had to throw out the concept of gravity. “I realized early on that computer constructs have no ‘weight,’ and their position in three-space is non-gravitational,” said Mead. “[This created the opportunity] to design elaborate constructs that retain their relative position without being physically connected. This was particularly evident in my design of Sark’s aircraft carrier.”

Eric Barba TRAN '92 made Jeff Bridges appear decades younger in "Tron Legacy" (2010).

Now fast forward a quarter of a century. Just as Eric Barba TRAN ’92 was finishing up visual effects work on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (which would eventually earn him an Academy Award), he took on the job of overseeing the visual effects for the film’s 2010 sequel, Tron: Legacy, a film which took the unexpected position of being a direct sequel to the original and not a “reboot.”

One of Barba’s biggest challenges? Jeff Bridges would appear as two characters in the film—as 61-year-old Kevin Flynn and as Clu, a digital avatar of Flynn who looks like a 35-year-old version of Bridges. Barba needed to not only pull this off, but to make it look convincing.

In an interview with Dotted Line shortly after the release, Barba said that element of the film was the most daunting. “The work we had done on Benjamin Button was considered the holy grail of special effects because we were aging a human face, which hadn’t been done before,” said Barba. “The [Jeff Bridges] character Clu pushes that envelope so far, and so much faster, than we expected. We didn’t know that these sorts of effects were even possible to do.”

Barba also said that following in the footsteps of fellow alumnus Syd Mead was no easy task. “It was a huge artistic challenge from day one. As the first movie to use computer graphics, Tron is the grandaddy of our industry,” said Barba. “We asked ourselves, ‘How do we live up to the work of Syd Mead and Moebius, and what they did on Tron?’ They created such a groundbreaking and visionary look. Not to mention, today’s movie audiences expect a lot more.”

Still from "Tron Uprising," courtesy Disney XD.

Cut to the present, and Disney XD is seven episodes into the first season of Tron: Uprising, an animated series that upgrades the grid with new characters—Beck (Elijah Wood), Paige (Emmanuelle Chriqui) and Tesler (Lance Henrickson)—new vehicles —light crawlers, light boats and the mass transit light rail—and a narrative that bridges the gap between the two films.

And right there in the middle of the uprising is current Entertainment Design student Annis Naeem, who began working on the show between his fourth and fifth terms. Naeem started by working on vehicle designs with the show’s lead designer, Dan Simon, in February 2011 and was even able to design a few light cycles of his own. He continued working on the show until September, at which point he had to make a tough call. ”I came back to school in September of 2011 for my fifth term at Art Center,” said Naeem. “It was a very difficult decision to make, as I was given such a big role in the design of things throughout the show.”

Fortunately, as soon as the Fall term was over, Naeem was able to work again for the show, this time working on environments for key scenes that ranged from tech-heavy interiors to broad exteriors. For Naeem, the experience of working on both vehicles and environments for the show has been rewarding. “It’s definitely very fun to fit it all together,” he said.

Tron will celebrate its 30th anniversary at the Chinese Theatre.

What does the future hold for Tron?

First, an upcoming two-part episode of Tron: Uprising titled Scars will air in the near future.

Disney also announced at Comic Con that a special 30th anniversary Tron screening and party would take place later this year at Hollywood’s Chinese Theatre. An exact date is still being worked out, but interested parties can follow @Tron30th for more information.

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