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Tron's long journey back into theaters

Upcoming sci-fi blockbuster "Tron: Legacy" had humble beginnings as a three-minute visual-effects concept test leaked to the Internet. Find out what's happened since.

Tron logo

Two years ago, near the back of a crowded screening room at Comic-Con, someone managed to record the entire teaser trailer for "Tron: Legacy," which at the time was titled "TR2N." No cameras of any sort were allowed.

The video, which stretched nearly three minutes, featured a high-speed chase on updated versions of Tron's famous lightcycles. It was a visual-effects concept made by a small team of animators before the film went into full production. The goal of that clip--as CNET learned during a "Tron: Legacy" press day Saturday at special-effects house Digital Domain--was not only to show Disney what could be done with modern-day effects, but to gauge people's interest in a continuation of the series. If it was well received, the sequel's production would be fast-tracked.

The video was quickly uploaded to YouTube, and spread across the Web, eliciting much of the same excitement from fans that could be heard from the Comic-Con audience within the video's muffled audio. Despite pulling that video down, Disney was pleased by the reaction. And at the next year's Comic-Con--just three months into shooting the green-lit film--an official version of the video was offered up to fans with the film's new name and a 2010 release date.

Fast forward to today, when "Tron: Legacy" is at the tail end of post-production. The rumored $150 million budget title is due out December 17, and will be accompanied by video games, toys, clothing tie-ins, and what original "Tron" creator and "Legacy" producer Steven Lisberger calls a "cyber-opera" soundtrack by French electronic artist Daft Punk. Optics maker Oakley is even hard at work on a several- hundred-dollar pair of Tron-inspired 3D glasses that consumers can sport when watching 3D films at home or in theaters. In other words, Legacy is being introduced just like any other modern-day film-turned-franchise. But "Tron" didn't have it so easy in the beginning.

The 'Tron' legacy
Tron holds a special place in the history of Disney--and film at large. The original motion picture was an experimental project that changed how special effects were produced. It also changed how Disney was perceived as a studio, and arguably helped put it on the path to ditching pens and pencils in favor of computer mice--a move that would be reversed just a few years ago when Disney purchased Pixar and put analog production methods back into its animation studios.

But on a deeper level, the first "Tron" film introduced people to the idea of the Internet long before it ended up in their homes.

Take a look at how the old and the new compare in the interactive image below; Silverlight needed (what is this?):

At the time the first film was being pitched, "Tron" writer, director, and producer Lisberger found it difficult to sell Disney on the idea of using computers to create the effects for the film. "In 1982, computers were a threat to everyone, even Disney," he said during a roundtable discussion at Saturday's media event. In fact, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences wouldn't recognize the first "Tron" film for an Academy Award nomination because back then, Academy members viewed computer use as cheating.

Another challenge, Lisberger explained, was infusing a sense of humanity into a world of technology that was alien to so many people. "People were scared of this new vocabulary. Words like 'users,' programs,' domains,' and 'matrix' felt cold to them," he said.

The challenge with the new film, Lisberger said, is that people now take these concepts for granted, though issues like control of information--a concept introduced in the first film--continue to be a driving force in modern-day politics. "Thirty years later people have an idea of a digital context," he said. "The story [then] was about breaking down the barrier." The answer for this film, then, was to focus on how people have become overly dependent on technology and get sucked in by it. That tends to happen regularly in the world of "Tron."

The new story
The "Legacy" screenplay was penned by Eddy Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, both writers and producers on the popular ABC TV show "Lost." Their goal, they explained during the media roundtable, was to help fill in the blanks where the first film leaves off, while fleshing out the digital world viewers only get a taste of in that movie. Lisberger added that the time in between the two films only adds to the allure of such a story, because it has the same kind of mystery and intrigue found in literary classics like "Robinson Crusoe" and "Rip Van Winkle."

In the new film, the world from the first "Tron" has been humming along, completely separated from real-world technological advances for nearly three decades. It's ruled by a tyrannical king of sorts, played by Jeff Bridges, who has been made to look like he's in his early '30s, thanks to the same techniques used on Brad Pitt in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."

Jeff Bridges
(Left) Bridges as 'Tron' protagonist Kevin Flynn. (Right) Bridges as Clu, Flynn's power-hungry control program. Walt Disney Pictures/Screenshots by CNET

This effect was accomplished by painting dots on Bridge's face, then recording his performance from four different cameras attached to a harness on his head. That movement capture would then be pasted onto the face of Bridge's younger body double, and processed to add touches like smoother skin and a fine stubble to match Bridges' appearance as a professional athlete in the 1984 film "Against All Odds."

Playing opposite Bridges is Bridges himself, at his current age. His character has been trapped in a world of his own making, and thus missed out on raising his son, who ends up accidentally transporting himself into this virtual world in much the same way his father did in the original film. This much we know from the trailers.

Whether good will prevail over evil, there's little doubt that it will all look very pretty. That, in part, is due to a unique blend of analog and digital special effects.

One of the groundbreaking effects in the original film was that its characters glowed to show energy and political allegiances. The good guys were blue, and the bad guys were red. That's no different in this film; what is different is how it's been done. In the first film, the glow was accomplished by hand-tinting each frame, something Lisberger said often gets mistaken for CG work. In "Legacy," the effect is still analog, accomplished using electroluminescent lamps and colored gels built into the actors' suits.

Each suit was custom-created by first doing a digital body scan of the actor, then wrapping a layer of silicone around their virtual self. That body design would then be cut out of foam by a laser, and molded in a silicone matrix.

According to Christine Bieselin Clark, who designed all the costumes in "Legacy" and spoke to press during CNET's visit, the true test for these suits was that one of the characters in the film could do a back flip while wearing one. Apparently this wasn't tested until the suits were well into production. "That's the day we didn't get fired," she joked.

Tron suits
Actors Olivia Wilde and Garret Hedlund don the high-tech, custom-made suits in "Tron:Legacy" Each suit has electricity pumped through it to power built-in electroluminescent lamps. Disney

These suits posed certain safety risks though. Because they were so difficult to get on and off, actors were provided between takes with special "inversion boards" that would recline and get them off their feet. They're also the reason there's no rain in the world of "Legacy"--even though its creators had originally intended there to be. Despite the virtual storm clouds, which clap with thunder and light up with lighting, there were worries about electrocuting the actors and extras, who would be flipped on just before the cameras began to roll. The batteries, in case you were wondering, were stored in the iconic disc that mounts onto their back.

The other standout feature of the film is 3D, something the first film never had. "Legacy" makes use of the same 3D technology found in James Cameron's "Avatar," though unlike that film, viewers won't see anything in a third dimension until they enter the digital world. The goal there, as "Legacy" director Joseph Kosinski explained before a screening of some of the film's nearly finished scenes, was to make the two worlds feel dramatically different from one another.

The big question though, is why this film didn't come sooner?

According to "Legacy" special-effects supervisor Eric Barba, creating a believable version of Bridges' younger self would have been impossible just 5 to 10 years ago. And the fancy 3D technology and cameras wouldn't have been where they are today. Nor would 3D projectors in theaters--due mostly to Cameron's push in the last few years.

Today's digitally literate audiences, Liserberg said, demand much from their media. "In essence they're asking to be overwhelmed in all categories: they want the visuals, they want the music, they want the emotional story, and they want it all to be cutting edge," he said. "If you want to pursue cinema at this level, you sort of have to put a check on every one all these boxes. And I like to think we've done that."