Rolling Stone - August 19, 1982
The solar sailer, a fragile-looking vehicle that resembles a satellite with vast gossamer wings, glides along a beam of yellowish light. As weightless as a specter, it sails through great canyons of angled metal and above a floor that pulses with patterns of color, floating toward its redoubtable destination: the fortresslike headquarters of the Master Control Program, ruler of this strange, glittering world.
The most remarkable thing about this and other sequences in Tron, Walt Disney Productions' new $20 million science-fiction feature, is that nothing in the frame has any physical reality. There are no models of the Solar Sailer, no miniature sets of the faceted canyons. They exist as ideas in the mind of writer-director Steven Lisberger, as sketches by his designers - including Moebius (Jean Giraud of Heavy Metal), airbrush artist Peter Lloyd and futurist Syd Mead - and as pulses of energy in the memory banks of computers.
Lisberger and his associate, producer Don Kushner, have been planning this fantastic adventure, which takes place inside the circuitry of a mammoth computer, since 1976. A stocky man of thirty-one with dark hair and dark eyes and a trim beard, Lisberger radiates an intensity and tension that sometimes suggest a toy that has been wound one turn too tight. His attention bounces from subject to subject, and he speaks with equal enthusiasm about right-left brain functions, elements of Chinese and Meso-American art, and Tron.
"The idea for Tron was born when Lisberger saw a video game while directing Animalympics, a pair of animated television specials. "I saw real-time animation for the first time," he explains, "a little electronic beam going beep-beep-beep across a screen. To me, it was living animation - I was thinking animation at the time. I had been studying computer graphics and was aware that the technology was making big leaps, both in the areas of producing small equipment that could be put in the home and of generating images. When I saw that crude little character in the Pong game, I realized that by melding the two ideas, I could use computers to tell a story about video games. It seemed like a natural marriage."
At the time, Lisberger was already a noted animator. In 1973, in order to complete the equivalent of a master's degree at Boston's School of the Museum of Fine Arts, he made Cosmic Cartoon, a film collage of brightly colored dancing stars and human bodies. It received a Student Academy Award nomination and toured the country as part of the Fantastic Animation Festival. After graduating in 1974, Lisberger organized his own animation studio in Boston, doing commercials as well as title and feature segments for television programs, including Make a Wish and Nova.
But commercial animation is often a frustrating business, with small studios depending on whatever work is available. Lisberger's search for a more stable working environment led to the creation of his first major work, Animalympics. Lisberger came up with an idea - an animated spoof of the Olympics - that he thought was commercial. He struck a deal with NBC for some seed money, moved his staff of twenty to California and produced the Animalympics TV specials. One was broadcast in February 1980, and the second was aired last month.
Meanwhile, Lisberger continued to work on his idea for a fantasy-adventure inside a computer. “I probably could have sold it to the networks as a special when I first got the idea,” he says. “I preferred to develop it first to see how valid it was.”
It took thirty-six outlines and eighteen rewrites of the script before Lisberger and Kushner were satisfied. Then, unable to organize independent financing, they spent $300,000 of their own money creating a development package to present to major studios. It included a draft of the