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Cinefantastique Volume 12.4 - May-June, 1982

By David J. Hogan

Necessity is the mother of invention and nothing is more necessary, these days, to the movie industry than an audience. Walt Disney Productions has learned tills from a long and bitter attempt to combat shifting audience demogrphics, the influences of television, increased film realism, and other factors that have undermined its traditional audience.

Accordingly, they have tried to broaden their appeal. In the past, that's meant movies like this this year's NIGHT CROSSING and a soon to be released coming-of-age drama called TEX. Now, in search of an audience, Disney has travelled to the frontiers of science with TRON, a science-fantasy adventure due to be released July, 9. The Disney people hope this landmark film may breathe new life into their organization, but it may also be the precursor of technological advancements that will shake the entire movie industry to its core.

Central to TRON's story is the notion of an alternate electronic universe existing within the circuitry of a computer. To realize this idea, the filmmakers are turning to digital computer imaging, a complex and fascinating process that liberates the vision of writers, designers, animators and special effects technicians. Sets, vehicular design, movements, even human figures can be created and manipulated in previously undreamed of ways. TRON'S title sequence has been designed and computer-generated by Robert Abel and Associates of Los Angeles; when asked about the probably future significance of TRON's computer animation, Abel replied, "Jesus, it's like STEAMBOAT WILLIE!" The future, it seems, is now.

TRON is the brainchild of writer director Steven Lisberger and producer Donald Kushner, who colaborated on the recent cartoon animation feature, ANIMALYMPICS. Their development of TRON continued for two years before the project Was successfully pitched to Disney. Budgeted at approximately $18 million, the film will contain 53 minutes of fantasy footage that would not have been possible without recent developments in computer technology.

In Lisberger's script, the vast computer system of a communications conglomerate is controlled by a single program. One man breaches this system and is plunged into the bizarre inner world of the computer, where beings composed of electricity and light struggle to overthrow the program which controls their lives. The picture has a WIZARD OF OZ-ish slant in that characters in the real world have electronic counterparts in the computer world.

Jeff Brides, David Warner, Bruce Boxleitner, Barnard Hughes, and Cindy Morgan star. Disney matte artist Harrisson Ellenshaw is associate producer; he shares co-supervisor of special effects credit with Richard Taylor of Triple I (Information International Inc.), a Los Angeles-based computer graphics firm. Abel and Associates, MAGI (Mathematical Application Group, Inc.), and Digital Effects Inc. (the latter two from New York) are the other computer graphics houses involved in TRON. More than 90% of the film's effects are being generated by Taylor's Triple I and MAGI.

Computer imaging has had industrial application (notably in flight simulators) since the 1960's, but its application in the entertainment field has heed made possible only by recent advances in computer chip technology that allow for quicker and finer resolution of complex, modeled images.

A traditional video screen, like the one in your living room, generates a disply of 525 scan lines, each line composed of numerous pixels, points of light and dark information. This allows for good picture resolution on a small screen, but a 525 line display looks terrible on a surface the size of a movie screen. The obvious solution is to increase the number Of lines on display. Obvious but, until rece