Monday, November 12, 2012

TRON 30th: Memories From the Grid (and Beyond!)

TRON dropped audiences into a glowing realm of Bits, Programs, Systems and Game Grids – the unseen computer world manipulated by its Users. As one of the Users on the original crew I still feel that glow in memories that refuse to fade.

There was my first day on production, heart pounding as I met legendary artist Moebius at his desk. Then my heart skipping a beat as he invited me to pull up a chair – we would be sharing the same desk!
There was the Battlezone video game on the set, where crewmembers gleefully trashed one another’s high scores – until Jeff Bridges trotted over in his unitard, easily blasting our best to bits. Every time! So fitting that Flynn would win.

And there was a tangible feeling in the air, each and every day, that we were all part of something radical.

These memories continue to glow. And now, a new one.
The audience at the commemorative screening of "Tron", Grauman's Chinese Theater,  Hollywood.  Photo by Jay West
On October 27th, 2012, I was honored to be included in the 30th anniversary celebration of TRONFans flocked to the legendary Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood to hear stories from a few of us crew members, to watch a beautifully restored print of the film, to compare fantastic costumes, and to mingle at a very hot after-party.

While Bill Kroyer and I shared memories of being Computer Graphics Choreographers with the audience, I surveyed the packed theater. There were so many young people, some of whom must have been born after the film’s release. I recognized several from Facebook, people who had traveled all the way across the country just for this event. What I had often read in print, what I had accepted as a likely piece of trivia, suddenly sank in as an emotionally potent reality – TRON has earned its place as one of the most influential films in our industry’s history. How wonderful to be a part of that legacy.
Jerry Rees with original Moebius storyboard from "Tron".
A few days after the event, I dug through some of my ancient TRON storyboards. There were rough scribbles of the villainous character Dillinger using hand gestures to call up images on the surface of his black touchscreen desk - using his fingers to move photos around, sort through files then sweep them away. Exactly what we do with our mobile devices today. But these drawings were from 1980! It was a vivid reminder that every one of us on the TRON crew had been lured into a bold creative space that encouraged fresh seeds of real invention.

TRON’s director, Steven Lisberger, played a key role that went beyond the obvious effort to tell an original story. He was acutely aware of the tensions surrounding emerging computer technology. The very idea of what a computer represented to society – a powerful tool for good, a powerful tool for evil, or a soulless entity that would eventually shove humans aside – was being argued. His brilliant idea was to directly impact the evolution of computer technology by throwing us artists into the mix. We wouldn’t simply tell a story about where computer technology might go, we would define its path and take it there. While theorizing about history, we would make history.

As Bill reminded me at the celebration, I was the sole staff animator at Disney Feature Animation to join the outsider TRON team. And as soon as I left the nest, questions began - why had I given up “legitimate” animation to do “push button” animation?

In reality, there was nothing “push button” about computer animation in those days. There were no handy motion apps to rely on. No physics algorithms on a pull-down menu. Not even a mouse. It took skilled teamwork simply to build a model, light it, then render a still frame. The trick was to build a stack of these still frames that would convey cinematic drama through motion.
Bill Kroyer and Jerry Rees working on "Tron".  Polaroid by Tom Zimberoff
Bill and I created storyboards to visualize the CGI scenes and worked out timings. We were very accustomed to these processes. But then we went on to manually define a model and camera address for each frame. We mapped out multiple overviews to show paths of action, rates of speed, and drew graphs to define organic acceleration, deceleration, tilt and rotation.

Each scene required its own approach. For a shot where “Recognizers” rebounded off each other like repelling magnets, I resorted to doing cutout animation on a video stand until it looked right. Next I created a list of measurements per frame to guide our computer technicians. Scene-by-scene and frame-by-frame, it was a very handcrafted process.

The coalition of brilliant computer techs seemed thrilled to be participating in our world of cinematic entertainment. And I was thrilled to be participating in their world of scientific innovation. The co-mingling of our skills would achieve something we could never accomplish alone.

Eventually our scenes drew the attention of traditional animators. While they were impressed, most were quick to declare that CGI would never achieve acting. But a few dared to wonder at the potentials and came to visit Bill and me in our TRON lair - which was now a trailer on the Disney backlot, dimly lit and awash with toxic Pantone pen fumes. Chief among the curious were RandyCartwright and John Lasseter. Years later Randy would win an Oscar for his work on Disney’s CAPS. And one day John would – well, you know...

During production I was overwhelmed with excitement about what could happen next for animation. My passion was to create a “grand central station” in the digital space, where traditional drawings could be digitized and painted – where traditional paintings and digital paintings could be composited with characters and stacked in multiplane fashion. Hand painted textures could even be “wallpapered” onto three-dimensional shapes to allow camera fly-throughs without that “computery” plastic look of the era. While such a system had not yet been configured, it seemed plausible in the near future. I began to plan COPS – the Computer Oriented Production System (viewable on my website).
Brad Bird and Jerry Rees during the "Spirit" days in northern California.
Looking ahead, my next gig was scheduled to be an animated feature of Will Eisner’s The Spirit, with Brad Bird writing/directing and Gary Kurtz producing. In 1981, while still on TRON, I discreetly pitched the idea of using COPS to make “The Spirit” the first film to blend traditional character animation techniques with digital animation techniques in a virtual workspace. Brad and Gary were enthusiastic.

Gary flew me to meet with computer scientists Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith at Lucasfilm. Perhaps they would join forces. They validated the plan as unique and plausible. But they passed on participating since George Lucas had mandated that they produce pure synthetic imagery – not the blend of traditional and digital art that I proposed.

Gary then flew me to meet with the head of a computer house that was still working on TRON. Like Ed and Alvy, he declared the COPS plan unique and plausible. And he shared it with Disney a few days later. The rest was history – although a different history than Brad, Gary and I had planned.

Despite this disappointing twist of fate I was thrilled to see the early technology prognostications borne out as Disney’s Where The Wild Things Are short was produced and COPS became CAPS.

“I fight for the Users” is a memorable quote from TRON, spoken by a loyal Program. Since I’m a passionate advocate for digital tools I suppose my quote should be “I fight for the Programs.”

It has been a real joy to see hurdle after hurdle overcome. Luddites declared that CGI would never achieve performances worthy of character animation. Along came John Lasseter with Toy Story. Challenge met.

They declared that CGI character animation would never allow nuance of the sort you find when flipping through the original drawings of Pinocchio. Along came Brad Bird with Ratatouille. Trust me, you can discover equivalent frame-by-frame nuance on some of those Remy scenes. Challenge met.

They declared that motion capture would never amount to more than rotoscoping. Along came Peter Jackson and the riveting performance of Gollum in Lord of the Rings. Thanks to Andy Serkis and the Weta team, challenge met again and again.

None of these digital breakthroughs diminished their analog roots, but built upon them. So long as passionate Users are shaping Programs for creative ends, anything is possible.  We are on the verge of another technology threshold, where the role of immersive space and augmented space will not only impact entertainment, but change the paradigm for all global communication for all purposes for a significant period of time. It will fundamentally redefine how economies function, how individuals and societies share and even how we affect the climate. It will be radical.

I feel a familiar glow. 

Jerry Rees And Bill Kroyer address the audience at Grauman's Chinese Theater.
Read about one of Jerry's latest CGI pieces with "Augmented Reality" in this past FLIP post.


  1. A fascinating read - thank you Jerry!!!

    1. Thanks, Greg. Lots of memories and dreams to look back on and look forward to.

      Looking even further back, there's this odd synergy - although I was focused on creative writing, fine art, music and animation during high school, I also took advanced math as an elective. In 1974, two of us students were allowed to take Fortran computer language lessons at the nearby medical university. So in addition to pursuing obviously creative aspirations, I was also punching instruction cards and feeding them into a wall-size computer. Why? I wasn't sure - except that I found it intriguing. Years later, when TRON happened, I had a real "AH-HA!" moment. Finally it all fit together!