Special-effects gurus of 'Tron' keep it real (Q&A)

CNET sits down with the Oscar-winning effects wizards behind "Tron:Legacy" to talk about how the film's visual pyrotechnics came about.

Josh Lowensohn Former Senior Writer
Josh Lowensohn joined CNET in 2006 and now covers Apple. Before that, Josh wrote about everything from new Web start-ups, to remote-controlled robots that watch your house. Prior to joining CNET, Josh covered breaking video game news, as well as reviewing game software. His current console favorite is the Xbox 360.
Josh Lowensohn
11 min read
Steve Preeg and Eric Barba
Animation Supervisor Steve Preeg (left) and Visual Effects Supervisor Eric Barba pose inside their effects shop, Digital Domain, in Venice, Calif. Josh Lowensohn/CNET

VENICE, Calif.--Just a few blocks from Venice Beach in Southern California is a rather nondescript warehouse--a few windows, a parking lot decorated with an old basketball hoop. If you drove by, you might mistake it for the Public Storage building on the next block over.

But inside is special effects shop Digital Domain, and the only stored relics you'll find are movie prop miniatures like a replica of the Titanic and a 3-foot-tall Apollo space capsule. The rest of the building is made up of meeting rooms, gadget-filled workstations, two screening theaters, and a server farm that's cooking away at the latest effects for the upcoming sci-fi extravaganza "Tron: Legacy."

In a quiet part of the open-plan office sits Eric Barba, a director and visual effects supervisor who has taken up the latter role on the "Tron" sequel. His office's walls are lined with conceptual mock-ups of vehicles, set components, and characters that will be in the movie--the kind of stuff you might get to see in an encyclopedia-size coffee-table book long after a film has been out. In front of him sits a large computer screen that casts a soft, bluish glow on his face as we talk. We're joined by Steve Preeg, the animation supervisor at Digital Domain.

Together, the two--who, along with Burt Dalton and Craig Barron won an Academy Award for the company's digital effects work on last year's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"--are in charge of bringing the world of Tron back from its nearly 30 year hiatus, as well as giving it an extra dimension.

Other projects for which the studio has done effects include "Transformers," "2012," and the reboot of "Star Trek." This past weekend, CNET got a sneak peek at some of the just-finished effects for the next Tron, and the chance to chat with Barba and Preeg. Below is a complete transcript of that conversation.

CNET: What got you into special effects?
Barba: I went to a college called Art Center College of Design, in Pasedena. And I went there to be a car designer. It's one of the few schools in this country that offer that program, and it's known to be one of the best in the world. So it immediately attracted me as a Southern California native. When I first went up there, I was blown away by the work in the student gallery and very intrigued, so I worked really hard to get in. And it's one of those places where you have to be careful for what you wish for, because once you get in, then good luck getting out.

Just about before I graduated, one of my instructors who I had taken a class from--at the time it was a program called Alias, and designers use it to this day to design cars and you-name-it product design. So I got sucked into that, and one of my instructors had just finished doing the shields for the first Batman film, and I was intrigued with digital effects, and so I was like, 'I get to use my art-design background, and now that I'm learning some of these computer things, I could do digital effects for movies?'

And then I graduated, and got hired by a company to resell that product to Hollywood, and the first thing they did was send me out to Universal. And Stephen Spielberg had started a TV show called "SeaQuest." And they wanted me to go over there and show how they could use these tools to tell that story. I was there for about three weeks, and then they made me an offer I couldn't say no to, and I've been in the business ever since.

Q: So for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," you were the guy in charge of making Brad Pitt look old. But in this case you're doing the opposite. Did that end up having a big effect on how you approached it?
Barba: Yes and no, but yes. (laughs) But mainly yes. It's a different paradigm, right? I mean young Brad can drive old Brad, and it kind of worked. Not to say that Jeff (Bridges) is old, but certainly Jeff is aged now--driving a younger version of himself was much more difficult.

We don't know what Brad's going to look like when he's older, but we all know what Jeff looked like when he was younger, and playing against himself, there's no room to hide. So that raises the bar. And of course we have to do it all in 3D, and it has to be superprecise and it makes it much more difficult, so it pegs the meter.

Q: Did you go back and look at some of the videos of the older films Bridges was in to get sort of a reference?
Barba: Yeah, we got great footage, and we've looked at the old films. I certainly watched "Against All Odds" again, because that's kind of the era we're aiming for. And we got this really great piece of interview that was done as a promotional piece that Jeff did right after they filmed "Against All Odds," and that's been a really good guide of how he moved, and how he talked in that specific era, because you know he was lean and trim and was playing a professional athlete in that film, and you know he put on a little weight moving forward to some other films.

We had to ask "which Jeff Bridges do we want?" because they're all great, but we decided that this is the one we want. So that's a challenge--it's gotta be that guy who makes the women swoon as well, you know?

Derezzing action
A "Tron: Legacy" character getting "derezzed" while competing in the games--a gladiator-style arena game with fights to the death. Disney

Q: You had worked on "The Fifth Element," and these car commercials. What kind of tricks from those jobs got carried over to this film?
Barba: You know that my background was in car design. Daniel Simon, who designed the cars, came from the car design world, and Neville Page, who did a lot of the stuff. I mean we're all designers, and we're all artists, so immediately we get together.

I've spent many years obviously doing commercials and films, but yeah I know how to light cars because I've been doing it long enough in a virtual world, so to put these vehicles in this world and make them look good, you know, we can do that--that's easy. But that head? That's hard.

Q: But it's getting easier to blend the analog with the digital, right?
When you have a plate of live action to put CG (computer-generated graphics) into, I think in some ways it's much easier because a lot of what you chase when you do it all virtually are those nuances and things you wouldn't ever put into it if it was just CG. It's the imperfections and the way things go together, and the way the art department walked away from the set--you know, they got ripped off the set so they could start shooting. It's just those little things you don't tend to do when you make it up from scratch. I think it's become a little too antiseptic.

In this case, we're creating a world that is truly a simulation. We're in the computer. We can accept that. It's the way it is. It's grown from the original film; it just looks much more real, and it's certainly much more deadly. So we try to use cues from modern cinematography with lens flares and camera moves, and the "physicalness" that we keep our camera to, but we're still in the computer and trying to fight those same things. So the camera work, and the live action where we have human actors and sets, and the camera work we use in the CG world, is exactly the same. The language stays the same throughout.

Q: When you're working with 3D, does that make some effects more difficult to pull off?
Barba: Yes. Some movies have brought on a stereographer, as they call them, or the "3D specialists." Because I think it's such a hard thing to wrap your head around. It's like "uhh, you've got a caterer, you've got a director, just bring on the stereographer--he can deal with that!"

"I hope everybody likes what we did on the big screen. We tried to make it an immersive world, and make it easy to look at. And you know, you want to look at it. You want to see this world we've created."
--Eric Barba, FX supervisor for "Tron: Legacy"

On this movie we couldn't do that. I have to go with Steve Lisberger's a genius on that. Joe (Kosinski) has to accept it. Claudio Miranda--the DP has to accept it. It's not something we can just say, "we'll get someone else to worry about it." We immediately have to entrench ourselves and [say] "OK, what does it mean, and what's the technology; what's the terminology; how do we communicate with each other; what are the tools; and how do we make it work; what hurts; what doesn't hurt?" So we just immersed in it, and thankfully we've got two years of crash course.

I hope everybody likes what we did on the big screen. We tried to make it an immersive world, and make it easy to look at. And you know, you want to look at it. You want to see this world we've created.

Q: You were saying earlier today that you wanted to avoid these effects that look like they were just popping out of the screen, because they looked ridiculous. How hard is it to contain it when you get something like debris flying all over the place, which appears to happen quite often in this film. How do you draw that line?
Steve Preeg: In scenes where it's fully CG, we'll back off on things. Like if something's going to fly off camera, let's go ahead and lower the inner-occular, and pull the convergence plane back so that it's not like the screen is a mile away, and this stuff is flying all crazy at you. Even though we may lose a bit of feeling in depth in that shot, we'll sacrifice depth for the entire shot to make sure that stuff's not as painful.

Barba: And it doesn't ruin scale. Because that's the other thing you can ruin easily is scale.

Preeg: A lot of that has to do with the director being onboard with not trying to do that. You can easily have a director who goes, "no no, I just want stuff coming at the audience the whole time so they're always ducking!" And Joe is definitely aware of that whole gimmicky "pointing a spear at the camera" trick.

You don't want to make it feel like they're going to the thrill ride at Seaworld.
Preeg: Well yeah, it just hurts your brain at a certain point. There's limits to what your occular system can do.

Barba: You're tricking your brain with the current stereo technology because the left eye gets the image and your right eye gets the image. Your mind's eye puts those two things together. But your eyes still have to connect to those images and it does mess with your head. That's why some things can just hurt, like if we've gone too far and put something on the screen and your initial reaction is just to turn away from it because it physically hurts because your muscles are moving in your head.

So you have to be really cogniscent of that. Someone could sit there and watch a two-hour film on a 50-foot screen and not get eye strain, and not get a headache or feel nauseous. And I think we've seen with some stereo conversions that they've gone too far and it's just, "turn it to 10 or 11 and make audiences jump out of their seats!" But it's not a good experience.

A recognizer
The revamped versions of the "recognizers" in "Tron: Legacy" still serve the same function of tracking down and capturing off-grid programs and conscripts. Disney

Q: You were talking earlier in the day about how you go into the theater every day and watch an effect in progress. Eating your own dog food, if you will. How quickly do you get a turnaround on one of these effects?
Barba: When we originally started dailies, it's meant to be a daily occurence, and I'm doing reviews of the team, and we have Joe here on Fridays, and we review the week's work with Joe. And that came to, "we're going to have Joe here on Tuesday, and we're going to have Joe here on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday, to we're going to have Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday."

Preeg: And Saturday.

Barba: And Saturday. I'm in reviews from the moment I walk in at 9 a.m. until I escape at 9 p.m. usually, just reviewing work. It's constant, and it's not just the work here, it's the work being done in Vancouver, or our partners. We have five partners from Mumbai to Mexico City to Toronto--or as we call it "Tronronto," and we're constantly getting work coming in, and we're evaluated.

Preeg: We have to prioritize. I mean, we can push. If we want to see a shot turn around for the next day, for sure--and it has a lot of different layers and elements, we can push that through at the highest priority and it'll get done. But that means other shots are going to suffer, so we sort of say, "OK, this is a long render, this is a long process, let's push other stuff now and let that one run on the weekend."

Barba: We have a delivery schedule, so we kind of have to keep everything on schedule, which is lot easier said than done. (laughs)

Preeg: We can turn it around if we need to, but we need to prioritize with some of these shots. We can push things in a couple of hours if we know Joe is coming and wants to see a shot. We can just turn the entire farm at it and just push.

Barba: Maximum firepower is my call, and the whole farm goes on that shot, and it gets done.

Q: Last question. A growing number of people are watching movies on their phones now. Do you take that into account at all when making these effects?
Barba. Absolutely not! If they're not seeing it on a 50-foot IMAX screen, then we're not really thinking about that. If you think about the director, he gets one chance to tell this story, and what's the best medium? Well an IMAX screen, or the biggest screen at your local cinemaplex or whatever. And that's the way movies are intended to be seen. Once they get down into the smaller and smaller levels, the viewer has to know that they're leaving part of that movie experience behind in order to watch it on the go or whatever. It just doesn't work, unfortunately.

Preeg: Even the music, you know. Without 7.1 you're going to lose a lot of that--both image and sound, and everything. That experience is diminished.

Thanks for your time guys.