Dave Cobb on the TRON legacy
Interview by Joe Kleiman
ABOVE: Dave Cobb excited about his ride on TRON at Shanghai Disneyland. Photo courtesy Dave Cobb.
2017 marks the 35th anniversary of Disney’s groundbreaking 1982 science fiction film TRON. The movie became a cult phenomenon but never attained much theme park presence. However, that could change. The new Disneyland Shanghai park features a TRON roller coaster – it was well received, and the studio is reportedly considering more films.
TRON tells the story of Kevin Flynn, a computer programmer who is physically transported into the computer world and forced to fight programs for his survival. Noted for being one of the early films to feature computer animation (around 15 minutes total), the film was considered a financial flop, though it later became a cult classic. In 2010, it spawned a sequel, TRON Legacy, which featured Flynn’s son Sam entering the computer grid in search of his missing father. Legacy was tied in with an animated television show and the attraction at Shanghai Disneyland.
InPark news editor Joe Kleiman took the opportunity to discuss the TRON legacy with a fellow TRON fanatic, Dave Cobb of Thinkwell Group. In addition to his work on such attractions as Men in Black: Alien Attack, Star Trek: The Experience, and The Hunger Games: The Exhibition, Cobb is a renowned expert on gamification.
Let’s start with your memories of the original TRON – how you found out about it and how you reacted to the film.
I’m going to borrow from a previous online review of the original that I wrote a few years ago…
When TRON came out in 1982, I was 12 and saw it three times on opening day, in between bouts of dropping quarters into the TRON game at the nearby arcade.
Even though I’d been inducted into my love of sci-fi film by the likes of Lucas and Roddenberry and Kubrick, it was actually Lisberger [creator and director of the original TRON] and Bridges and Boxleitner [the actors portraying the characters of Flynn and TRON, respectively] who conjured up for me a new world that, for the first time, really felt like mine, like it was meant for my generation specifically. In addition to the arcade a block from my house, I had an Atari 2600 at home, and a school filled with TRS-80 computers that we were all trying to figure out and program. So, seeing these glowing, videogame worlds that my nascent digital generation were heretofore exploring solely on tiny TV monitors suddenly expanded to epic movie-screen-size, populated by living, breathing characters, absolutely blew my adolescent little mind. I took TRON as my own and imprinted on it *hard*.
TRON hit me square between the eyes, and was the first time I really felt a movie had been made specifically for me.
Why didn’t TRON become more of a franchise in Disney parks? In 1982, there was a “TRON-esque” trailer for Epcot attached to the theatrical run of the film. Plans for distinct TRON attractions and arcades never came to be; there was only the overlay of the Superspeed Tunnel, at the Anaheim and Orlando parks.
First of all, TRON the movie wasn’t the “Star Wars”-sized hit that the studio wanted. This, added to the disappointing performance of “The Black Hole” a few years earlier, reflected Disney in a post1970s period, trying to figure out what its product was, both in movies and in the parks. This is well before “Splash” and Touchstone Pictures and Disney realizing they could succeed with more upscale, adult-oriented stories as well as family and kids’ fare.
But let’s not forget how absolutely experimental the making of TRON really was. Save for a few high-budget commercials, no one had made a film like this before. And, truthfully, no one has since. It was pioneering in a way that no film has ever been before – and not just because of CGI.
I remember in the 1980s seeing TRON included as a segment of Feld Entertainment’s Magic Kingdom on Ice. Do you recall any TRON tie-ins from this period?
I remember a TV special filmed on Main Street [Disneyland in Anaheim] filled with musical numbers – one in particular was the Pointer Sisters performing the Neutron Dance with TRON dancers. Get it – New TRON Dance? Yeah, it was the ‘80s.
TRON has influenced TV and film over the years from Automan to The Last Starfighter. What are some of your favorite TRON-ish productions?
Well those are two good ones, of course. I managed to inherit an Automan action figure from a collector friend a few years ago – and even had it signed by star Chuck Wagner!
But I think you can see TRON’s influence in a ton of other scifi. Avatar even lends itself to a similar glowing aesthetic. Many video games are described as TRON-esque in their aesthetic. Any film that builds a world so complete that years later you can still look at something else and say “it’s kinda TRON like” shows how original and important it was. It’s become part of our design vernacular.
As a kid growing up in the coin-op age, I can recall TRON and Discs of TRON being the hot games in Disneyland’s Starcade for a couple of years until everyone became entranced with Dragon’s Lair. After that, things got a bit stagnant with TRON as a game franchise until 2003, when Disney released a PC game called TRON 2.0. What were your thoughts playing this game?
I thought it was really cool that they were basically creating the sequel to the film (which we never thought we’d get, and was announced five short years after this game’s release). It was awesome that it was sanctioned by Lisberger and made official canon (until Legacy erased it). Making it a game (versus a movie or TV show) gave it a more interesting platform to explore that story world.
Having said that, the story was pretty basic, and it was really the awesome combat/LightCycle game modes that made it worth playing. The multiplayer modes were really fantastic, and totally tapped into that fan impulse to want to interact “on the grid.” Alas, the PC version (like its film predecessor) didn’t really sell well, so the popularity of the online multiplayer never really caught on.
I played the XBOX version of the game too (called “TRON 2.0: Killer App”), which modified the PC version slightly. It also had some good multiplayer, but came towards the end of the original XBOX’s lifecycle — and didn’t have an emulation mode on its successor, the XBOX360, so it sort of died on the vine.
How would you compare the main character of TRON 2.0, Jet Bradley, who is the son of Alan Bradley (alias TRON) with Sam Flynn from TRON Legacy?
I thought the Jet Bradley story was fine, and worked in the game, but was personally not strong enough for a movie. Not that Sam Flynn was necessarily better – Legacy obviously has its flaws – but the anti-hero beginning for Sam, the sort of digital Robin Hood stealing from the tech-haves in honor of his dad, was, to me, a far more interesting opening for a character.
But honestly, Legacy does borrow a bit from 2.0, and there are a lot of parallels – the megalomaniacal takeover of Encom (Dillinger Jr. in Legacy, fCon in 2.0), the virtual kidnapping of his dad, the call to action by a digital entity (CLU in Legacy, Ma3a in 2.0), the bad guy trying to inflict computer virus-style warfare onto the real world (Clu’s army in Legacy, the “Datawraiths” in 2.0), are all sort of the same song in a different key. I mean the actual sequel’s title, TRON Legacy, was a plot point in 2.0 anyway.
So for me, it was all about how to reinvent the story and the worldbuilding for a modern audience in 2010, and not just continue what the cult film and cult videogame had established. I have problems with the scripts for the original, and 2.0, and Legacy – but I still love them, warts and all.
Watching TRON Legacy in IMAX, I was quite pleased to see Steve Lisberger’s brief cameo, which was a very Stan Lee type role. Speaking of which, as Disney purchased Marvel and Lucasfilm and continued its Pirates franchise, has Legacy been overshadowed?
Yeah, that’s the simple answer. They’re in the Star Wars and Marvel business now. I actually was working on the development of an action-based animated series [for Disney – nothing to do with TRON] the year before Marvel was purchased – and when that deal happened, our show dissolved, because they simply didn’t need original action shows anymore, they had the Marvel canon [and now Star Wars].
I’m a huge champion for original, hard sci-fi – so TRON: Legacy, even though it was a sequel, was also doubling-down on that thinking. A serious story in a fully-realized world that wasn’t based on a universally known IP.
It’s easy to see why Star Wars and Marvel would take precedence from a business sense – and so far, creatively, both of those worlds are being handled in fun ways. But I don’t think we can expect a studio today to dabble in the kind of experimentation that happened on the original TRON. Or even TRON: Legacy, for that matter, which was at the forefront of making a live-action movie that was really more like an animated movie in terms of CGI and world-building. Say what you will about the creepiness of certain scenes of youth-ified Bridges as Clu – it was done in stereo, modeled in 3D, which was a huge accomplishment. Digital aging a la Benjamin Button had only been done in 2D films before that, so Legacy was much, much harder, and it was pretty great in spots.
I believe the reason the original TRON was overlooked for a special-effects Oscar was that the Academy at the time thought “computers make it easier” and didn’t consider it. But the lack of a nomination for TRON: Legacy simply floors me. They got nothing for free in making that movie, and had to create everything from scratch. Yet, it feels real, down to the rain spatter on the lens and atmospheric effects. TRON: Legacy should not have been overlooked in terms of FX awards.
And for all the talk about how the first film was at the forefront of CGI, in truth, there’s only about 15 minutes of actual computer generated imagery in the film. Most of TRON’s world (the glowing costumes, the sets of the computer world behind the actors) was created through painstakingly hand-painted backgrounds and back-lit cel animation – all made even more difficult by the fact that it was done in 70mm. Seemingly waved-off by modern audiences, it’s a technique that was both first of its kind and also hasn’t been used since – they basically produced the film twice, once on sound stages with cameras, and a second time on animation stands… all in 70mm. There are myriad production techniques that were mind-bogglingly difficult in the production of TRON, and computer-generated imagery is only one of them.
I fully admit that this is one of the biggest reasons I still adore the original film – it’s staggering that a major studio would have funded such a wacky, experimental effort. It’s like seeing a Unicorn: sometimes corny and campy, for sure, but a rare marvel and beautiful to look at nonetheless…
…not to mention that the original TRON’s computer-generated visuals were animated via hand calculations – no graphical WYSIWYG interfaces in 1982, so each frame was figured out through numbers on graph paper!
What are some of your favorite TRON inspired attractions? I personally will never forget the preshow for Rocket Rods at Disneyland, Anaheim with the grid-ish overlays given to classic ride vehicles.
I think you and I agree that in the lead-up to Legacy’s release, we saw some really cool TRON park promotions, including the LightCycle wrapping of the Disney World monorails and the TRON addition to World of Color and ElecTRONica, both at Disney’s California Adventure. Then there are those attractions at Disney and other parks that borrow something from TRON, such as Terminator 2:3D and Test Track 2.0.
I loved the opening scenes of Horizons with the blacklight abstract cityscape of the future, that always struck me as TRONlike. And the superspeed tunnel on the Peoplemover through the world of TRON was always my favorite thing at Disneyland.
One thing that TRON really taught me, as a designer, is that abstraction can be a compelling way to tell a visual story. How many blacklight dark rides have we seen that use those kind of techniques that Horizons did? TRON relied on negative space (black) as much as it did color to define its shapes and environments, which has had a huge influence on me in dark rides that I’ve designed.
As a TRON fanatic, what were your impressions experiencing the coaster at Shanghai Disneyland? Did it do an effective job in creating a suspension of disbelief?
Well, I rode it eight times, if that’s any indication. It’s really wonderful. The reveal of the launch in the preshow is one of the best gags I’ve ever seen. The vehicles are gorgeous, and respond to your touch as you pull down the handles, “rezzing” from dark blue to white as you “activate” the safety restraint. The outside portion is so gorgeous at night. The onboard soundtrack brings the ride vehicle to life. And the indoor “game grid” section is so visually stunning. My only complaint is that it’s a little short!
I’ve heard fans complain about the outdoor segment. Look, I’m the ultimate TRON fan, and I had my doubts. But, how they treat it – as an energy grid that keeps the vehicles rezzed while they’re outside – is gorgeous and clever, even without an on-the-nose narrative story explanation. Plus, there’s actually precedence for it in Legacy, because Quorra is rezzed outside of the grid into the physical world at the end of the film. It’s a bit like complaining that there wasn’t a 14-passenger LightCycle train in the movies – you have to make certain allowances for a high-capacity theme park attraction. Having it go outside is cool, and that’s good enough for me. Your mileage may vary.
I was really blown away by the minimalism of the load station – it really felt like I’d stepped onto the virtual set of the movie’s game grid.
With VR finding its way into home consoles and theme parks, do you think Disney will adopt the TRON franchise for commercial uses of this evolving technology?
It would be a natural, wouldn’t it? Might be a compelling (and less expensive than feature-film) way to bring the world of TRON to life. I was a huge fan of the animated series, which was not only gorgeous but also had a really well-crafted story arc, it’s a shame it got lost in the post-Marvel, post-Star Wars development craze.
Many Blue Man Group props bear a striking similarity to props and costumes in the original TRON. Do you think they are a spiritual successor to TRON?
Definitely kissin’ cousins for sure, even down to the electronic music. I’m not sure if they were directly influenced, but it would make sense. And the humor that BMG creates with that aesthetic is unique – and something that the original film certainly didn’t lack. It had goofy existentialism, the breezy chemistry between the leads, a silly-yet-earnest script that’s embedded with nerdy dialogue and puns (“oh, my user!”)
Legacy tried a few moments of levity (especially Flynn/Dude stuff), and it probably could have used a bit more. Imagine if BMG had showed up as an “act” at the End of Line Club along with Daft Punk! Shanghai Disney should have the End of Line club as a bar. I would hang out there as much as Trader Sam’s. • • •