Interview: Justin Springer and Steven Lisberger, co-producers of Tron: Legacy

We caught up with the co-producers of the forthcoming Tron: Legacy, Justin Springer and Steven Lisberger, to discuss the making of the film, and Lisberger’s creation of the classic original...

Some two months ahead of Disney’s release of Tron: Legacy, Den Of Geek was lucky enough to be invited to effects studio Digital Domain’s surprisingly low-key base in Los Angeles to meet with the actors and makers of the film.

In the first of a series of interviews, we enjoyed a lengthy and fascinating round table discussion with co-producers Justin Springer and Steven Lisberger. Lisberger, of course, wrote and directed the original Tron, and acts as producer on the forthcoming Legacy.

Lisberger began by giving us a fascinating insight into the creative origins of Tron, a story that begins in the late 70s…

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Steven Lisberger: The original animation studio was actually right up the street. Like, seven blocks from here – it used to be called Washington. It was at that studio, which was an extension of my Boston studio, where we continued design work on a warrior that we made out of neon.

Everybody was doing backlit animation in the 70s, you know. It was that disco look. And we thought, what if we had this character that was a neon line, and that was our Tron warrior – Tron for electronic.

And what happened was, I saw Pong, and I said, well, that’s the arena for him. And at the same time I was interested in the early phases of computer generated animation, which I got into at MIT in Boston, and when I got into that I met a bunch of programmers who were into all that. And they really inspired me, by how much they believed in this new realm.

We started to write a story about those kinds of professionals –

Justin Springer: These weren’t programmers looking to get into the movies or television. You saw a way of using what they were working on at MIT, right?

SL: Right. And at the time there were no PCs. There were computers that you could own, but they only ran on machine language. And this very idealistic idea came to us, which was that if we could all access the information in computers, if we could all communicate, wouldn’t the world be a much better place?

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It was hopelessly idealistic, and actually as I think back on it, we were telling the audience, “You’ve got to get your hands on a computer, and you’ve got to get connected to cyberspace!”

But thinking about it, there really was no way for them to do it. [laughs] It wasn’t really until the PC came out that this became possible. It was possible at the time if you worked for the Defence Department. ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) was a worldwide net, and they certainly had their computers. Ironically, it was over in Culver City that we had a film recorder with 6,000 lines resolution back in 1980, and it came from the Defence Department. It was part of a spy system, and we got our hands on it, using it to create film footage of the MCP.

JS: Much better usage. [laughs]

So, the entire concept of Tron came from this single neon warrior. That was the germ of the idea?

SL: Yeah, the basic germ. You have an animation studio, and two things are inherent to that. One is, who’s going to be your Mickey Mouse, you know? You can see that with Pixar and [John] Lasseter, with Toy Story.

He [Tron] was going to be our Mickey Mouse, but what artists really love is when you give them a fresh arena. If you look back at the history of animation, Disney was always trying to give them something that hasn’t been visualised in a long time, or maybe never visualised – and artists love that.

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So, we realised we had a character and a look that suggests other characters, and when we saw videogames we saw a fresh arena. But we didn’t have deeper character issues or motivations until we met programmers who were part of that. And all that came together within six months to a year.

Was there a certain hippy ideology that came out of it as well?

SL: No question about it. I am part of the boomer generation, and we were idealistic. The Gen-Xers are more realistic. My generation is certainly guilty of being too unrealistic. We dreamt so big and didn’t follow through.

But by the same token, I think the challenge for the next generation, the Gen-Xers, is to be more realistic, but not give up totally on idealism. My son’s generation, basically Justin’s generation, has the problem of putting both those elements together.

So, there’s a correlation between the first film in that the original was idealistic, and this film deals with the technology in a much more realistic, practical and grounded way, and I think that reflects what their attitude is. I used an analogy once – I don’t think it’s necessarily that great an analogy – but I felt I had a tiger by the tail when we dragged in this whole computer graphics, cyberspace realm into our animation studio. We were just amazed that we pulled it in.

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This new generation is making this tiger jump through burning hoops and training it. What impressed me is how relentlessly determined Joe and Sean have been about making it do exactly what they want. And is that not the challenge of your generation? That if you’re going to have all this stuff, then dammit, you’re going to make it do what you want it to do?

Whereas, for us, it was more like “We can get it to do something. Isn’t that a miracle?”

I think that was what the original Tron was borne out of, that even when you watch it now, it’s almost abstract in places, almost arthouse. Was your studio’s partnership with Disney a comfortable one from an artistic standpoint?

SL: There’s fairly unknown quote from Walt that went, “I don’t make movies to make money. I make money to make movies.” And when we were working on the film at Disney, I remember one of the old timers saying, “The fact that this film is so scary and so experimental, and people are concerned about that, is making the studio feel like it used to feel when Walt was here.”

People have this misconception that in the heyday of Disney, they were so surefooted about where they were going, but they weren’t. It was highly experimental, and I think there was enough of that ethos at the studio, but Tom Wilhite, who greenlit the movie, he was 29 years old, had just become the head of the studio, and I was 29 years old. And Tom told me, years later, that “It’s a good thing I didn’t know more, because if I had I wouldn’t have made this.”

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Certainly, I had gone to film school, most of my experience was in animation. I had done hours and hours of animation, and Lisberger Studios had a staff of about 70 people. But when the full scope of what we were attempting became clear to everyone, I think any other studio would have completely freaked out. But because this was Disney Studios, what we were doing was sort of in their DNA. We were actually going to blow up every single frame of this movie, and make multiple mattes that would allow us to tint the faces and treat a live-action movie like it was animation. We could have filled this entire room with the frame blowups from this movie. It was two tractor trailer trucks full.

The 13 animation stands photographed this stuff to composite it, but at that point, even though we were going over budget, actually, said, “This is what we do. This is manageable.” They felt strangely comfortable.

What they never felt comfortable with was using computer animation. At the time, that was the Devil. I can’t tell you how scared of computers people were back in the day. And the argument that the film was making was, “It’s scary because you are not part of it. You have no access. You have no idea what’s going on. If it’s in your hands too, and you will be empowered.”

Since then, of course, the technology has divided our world into two parts – the analogue and the digital – and that is the underlying symbol of Tron. Holding the disc overhead is the symbol of unity.

It can be argued that we all have to have a feeling that “How do we put ourselves back together?” We’re so divided between these two realities, and the story and Flynn and his son and his cyber-son, Clu, is a story of technology dividing and how those come back together.

JS: I’ve got a good example of how scared people were of CG technology back in 1982. The Academy eliminated Tron from the Visual Effects Award that year because they said it was cheating.

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SL: We were not even nominated for special effects.

JS: Coming back to your point about the abstraction of Tron in 1982, and where we are in 2010, one of the interesting things for me is that, in 1982, the digital world was such a new frontier that it was like Steven and this small team that was on the inside of what this world might look like, and introducing that to an audience.

And I think that, as 30 years have passed, what’s interesting is that digital technology is so pervasive in our lives. It’s certainly been that way for the past 15 years. In 1982, they were using a lot of CG technology, but also practical tools to imagine a digital world.

Now we’ve been there, Joe [Kosinski, Tron: Legacy director] has taken the approach of how can I use all these digital tools to create a world that is very real. And you can see in the footage that Tron has now become a more realistic place, and that you’re starting to see evidence of the organic appearing in a synthetic world, and the themes have changed.

The overarching themes are still there, but you have the theme of holding onto your humanity in an increasingly digital world, and what is the relationship between man and machine, and all those things that you were kind of considering then, but it was more about “Here’s the next frontier.”

Now that we’ve lived with it, we’re asking, “What are the dangers of this frontier we’re living?”

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SL: We dealt with it in a sort of mythic way, and this is a practical approach, in the sense of asking, how does it affect our individual lives, and come between a father and a son.

In the original Tron, you could see the technology up there on the screen. It was very digital looking, but you’re saying you don’t want it to look quite like that any more?

SL: It’s an evolution. When we went to Disney, we had a team of artists that were really good, and at one point, the number of people who went on to have big careers from that studio was unbelievable. Roger Allers, who was my right-hand guy, and drew the MCP, he went on to direct The Lion King.

John Norton, who drew the original neon warrior, he was the Disney animator for years after that. He walked on Tarzan. Brad Bird worked at the studio, and Bill Kroyer and Jerry Rees, they’ve all directed animated feature films.

And we went to Disney who said, “If you could have anybody you wanted, who would you want?” I wanted Mobius, and Richard Taylor, my effects guy, wanted Syd Mead. I got to know both of them, and I got them both.

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I can’t tell you what a difference that made to us. We were scared before. We’re still a little scared, but now we have these top guns. With these two artists, there’s nothing we can’t do. When I think about how great that was, that cyberspace had not been imagined, and the first gang to go there would involve the efforts of these super talented artists, I love that part of the story.

It’s always been form following function. Computers have always been doing what they do best. And that is certainly true, when I see Joe being the conductor, overseeing everything coming together, and see how he is capable of tricking the technology to doing exactly what he wants. He seduces it into doing what it does best.

The Light Cycles look more like they’re supposed to look now than when we did them. We were so limited that Syd gave me the original designs for the Light Cycle, and there were too many compound curves. So, I had to, over a weekend, work out how to get rid of some curves, so I sort of squeezed most of the Light Cycle between two invisible planes of glass, and that eliminated a lot of compound curves while keeping the windshield and the fairing on the front, and it still, in profile, looked correct.

We didn’t have the ability to put the rider on the back and make his helmet part of the design. That was Syd’s original design. What’s happened now is that we have a Light Cycle that looks much more like we’d hoped.

For me, that bike is the symbol of man coming one with a machine.

JS: It’s that iconic look that certainly inspired us when we went looking to revisit this saga. And we looked back and said that one of the things that’s most memorable about Tron is, for sure, the look that the team had created.

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That was Joe’s pitch, that he wanted to take what was so iconic about the first movie and not throw it out the window and do it afresh, but evolve that look forward.

We have the tools to be far more photorealistic with things, but let’s still hold true to the design of what Steven’s team had created in ‘82.

So, when you look at parts of the world, and you can see from the logos to the Recogniser and Jeff Bridges, when we sat down and said, at a fundamental level, “What do we need Tron to be?”, we wanted it to look like the movie Steve had created, and feel like it, and we needed Jeff Bridges. So, that’s what set us on the path to continuing the story.

It’s a standalone sequel, so you won’t have had to have seen the original film, but if you have, it’s fun to be able to take that narrative and write a mythology from the late 70s when the original started, through the 80s, where Kevin Flynn disappears, all the way into 2010 when Legacy begins. So, from a design perspective, from a story perspective and a thematic perspective, there are really strong ties between the two films that has created this pretty rich and lengthy mythology.

SL: It turns out that people don’t really change. Whatever idealistic view I had, that people are going to see my Tron I did in 1982, and then they’re going to come out as different people, didn’t happen.

What really happened is, 35-year-old and 40-year-old people took their eight-year-old and 10-year-old kids, and the parents freaked out. They’d just seen a Disney film which had a lot of stuff in it they didn’t understand, and was disconcertingly different. And that wasn’t supposed to happen.

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The marketing department at Disney was not that sophisticated, and really hadn’t warned these people. And when their 10-year-olds looked at their parents freaking out, they said, “This is good. This is for me. Sign me up for more of this.”

And it turns out that they were the ones that, the minute the PC was there, said, “I gotta get this.” They were the ones that embraced videogames. They were the ones that embraced digital culture, and they grew up with that technology, and made it theirs.

At a certain point in time, the gears really lined up with the original Tron. And it turns out they didn’t forget that. And after 28 years, those kids are now producers, and studio executives, and they were now 35 and 40, and in a position to make the film and take their own kids.

And that, for me, is the reason why it took 28 years for the wheel to go around.

The look of Tron is very sophisticated, and very specific, but isn’t there a question of why this internal world looks the way it does?

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SL: The reason it looks like that is because there’s an ongoing tendency to take computer technology and make it look like the real world. So, what happens is, we get a certain amount of fascination out of saying we’re going to take supercomputers and make things that look like stuffed animals, or spaceships, or whatever CG things you see in films.

What Tron does, is say, there’s a magician, there’s a power behind that, and we get a certain satisfaction from making it do what we want, but what it really wants to do is not this. It doesn’t really want to do images that look like the real world.

Computers really want to do images that, say, “You know what I actually like? You know what the landscape of my interior is? It’s that. [points to movie stills on the wall] It’s pulling off the magician’s tablecloth and finding out what’s really under the table.

And when you do that you end up with this look.

JS: And also we had the idea that Tron is a world that exists on a server. And once you’re in there it’s this massive universe, but the idea that from 82 to 2010 this server has been sitting there like a Galapagos island, fully powered up and also evolving, self-generating new programs.

And then Kevin Flynn came in and started making it look more and more like his own world, which is – one of the comfortable things humans try to do with technology is try to use it to create a more realistic simulation of the world they come from.

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Over the course of thirty years, with ideas like Moore’s Law, which is this rapidly repeating grid system, is becoming more and more realistic. So, by the time you see the Grid in Legacy, you see mountain formations and Programs that look very real and Programs that are acting independently and have some form of individualism. You see vehicles that look more realistic, and there are weather systems with rain and fog, and there’s thunder and lightning in the clouds.

We’ve come up with a narrative explanation for why the world looks different from how it does in 1982.

SL: It’s computer powered. The underlying architecture’s the same. I recently remastered the first film for Blu-ray. And there’s software that enables you to take a frame of the film and then puts cursor lines and vector lines around certain things you want to alter. And it was most interesting, because when I put those things up there to start to manipulate the frame, you couldn’t tell they were there, because they actually looked like Tron.

The cursor frames, the wire frames, just fit perfectly into the original Tron image.

JS: Another good example that I remember freaked you out a little bit, was the idea that in Tron there’s a famous scene of Jeff Bridges being digitised and put inside a computer. And when we began working on Tron: Legacy, and we started to create Clu, we put Jeff in front of a laser and basically digitising him to go inside the system. [laughs]

SL: …and I’d made that up! That was a pain in the ass 28 years ago!

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JS: Jeff was like, “This is wild, man!”

SL: And then the technicians that were doing the scanning didn’t appreciate the irony. I said, “Don’t you realise I just made that up all those years ago!” and they said “You made it up, so of course it came true this way.”

So, I had this strange feeling that, when you predict what is going to happen, then it’s like “Well, of course, it’s inevitable that it went that way.” But I guess if you get it wrong in a big way, it’s almost more shocking.

Do you think there’s a danger that, where the original Tron was borne out of adversity, modern computer technology is so advanced, you can almost, theoretically, do anything? So, you have to, in essence, reign your imagination in a little bit?

SL: I know what you’re saying. It’s a misnomer when people say artists don’t like limitations. It’s actually quite the opposite. Artists do best when it’s, like, just a block of marble, or your blue period, a piece of paper and just a pencil.

When you can do anything, you get a problem. I think there is an artistic danger to that. And I think that Joe has been really good about avoiding that pitfall, just in the same way as the new generation, by comparison to my generation, anything with this technology.

You can be on the phone talking to your friends constantly, if you want. If you decide to meet for lunch, you can have 16 phone calls the day before lunch. “I’m 10 blocks away. I’m one block away. I’m actually in the parking lot. I’m approaching the table. I’m can see you! I’m sitting down. Oh, hey, we’re at lunch!”

You can do that if you want. That’s the responsibility of how you deal with this technology now.

So, how do you give yourself boundaries?

JS: That’s what’s so great about Joe’s vision for this is that he came in from the first day and said that what was special about Tron was its look, its aesthetic. With the current technology, we could make a CG version of this room and say it’s inside a computer, but then you’ve moved away from what is fundamentally Tron.

So, he sat down with Steve first and said, “Show me what you’re working on”, and Steve pulled out this big book of all the original art that Syd Mead and Mobius had worked on together, so Joe took that. The fundamental design principles of Tron and Tron: Legacy are the same, we just have the technology to push it forward.

SL: What’s interesting is, he made the distinction of saying, “This stuff over here is going to look like the evolution of the original stuff, but true to it in spirit.” The first film pushed boundaries so hard that we have to find an area where we can use the technology and push the boundary totally, and that’s what he did with Clu.

But he also pushed the boundary in rendering that looks to a level and completeness that is incomprehensible to those who worked on the first film. To see how realistic that world looks, and still looks Tron-esque, it’s pretty spectacular.

JS: Anyone have any Tron world questions? You know, what is the world, what is the Disc?

Yeah, what is the Disc? [laughs]

SL: It’s a frisbee [laughs]. I think the Disc, for me, is one of my favourite parts of the Tron world for multiple reasons. It is a contemporary symbol that, by fate or chance, lines up with something that goes through human history. The Mandala has been with us for, you know – the Egyptians, the Mayans – the circle is the symbol of wholeness.

And that we should end up, in the contemporary era, with these holographic discs that hold all this information, is to me an artistic and intellectual irony, and that they are, in essence, as powerful, as they are meant that they could be weapons. They could be symbols of self.

Frankly, I’m really bored with seeing actors pretend to be marksmen, soldiers, hitmen, who aren’t really good with weapons at all, and whose idea of being deadly is having their agent call you, and carrying prop guns, and pretending to kill people with them.

I’m just really bored with it. It’s strange, because in this day and age, people get bored with anything if they have to endure it more than twice, but for some reason you can go to a movie theatre, and you’ll see six major actors in a row fondling guns, for one reason or another. Followed by them pretending to kill people with guns. And people never seem to get bored with it. I’m bored with it.

JS: It’s cool, though, that in Tron you have these discs that are both your weapon and spiritual centre. It’s where all the information about you is stored, it’s fundamentally who you are.

SL: It’s a symbol of self.

Don’t you think it’s weird to throw a symbol out of yourself, so you’re separating your body from your soul?

SL: I’ll give you an analogy of that, I’m glad you brought that up. We are born with our self. We don’t develop our ego until we’re about eight years old. Prior to that stage in our life our super-ego has been implanted in us by our parents. We have no protection against them. We don’t have an ego yet. Whatever they tell us goes right to the harddrive. When your friends hurt you it goes right to the harddrive.

So, what happens is, your ego starts taking a pounding, and you develop a personality to protect your ego. And what happens is, the personality becomes so good at protecting the ego, it completely cuts the ego off from the original self. And that’s when people start to feel quite a bit of dissatisfaction.

And when they go to a film, for instance, or they fall in love, part of their personality is broken away, and the connection can flash between the original self and the ego. That’s why people will say to you “That movie made me feel like a kid again,” or, “When I’m with this girl, I feel happy again. I feel like the person I really want to be.”

So, the idea that you’re cut off from yourself is represented by the fact that you put your disc out there, and part of your soul may remain, but part of the disc is out there, the way we put ourselves out there in society, at work, and if we’re not careful, we get cut off from who we really are.

That concept is hidden underneath the idea of projecting your disc. I think that what the world is doing to us now isn’t a problem to do with ego. It’s a problem to do with toxic personality. And our egos are expressed through cyberspace. The ego helps you function in society, and it helps you work. You have to have one. And that’s the role that cyberspace plays. Good luck finding a job, or being part of society, if you’re not connected to the net.

And all that is part of the ego. Look how many toxic personalities there are on the Internet. And as that becomes more and more a part of life, we get cut off from who we really are. The whole idea of anonymity on the Internet represents being cut off from the original true self.

So, all of cyberspace and the mechanism of cyberspace is becoming a Rorschach to our true condition. That’s about as heavy as it gets! [laughs] That’s the penthouse.

When you thought of the Grid, the world of Tron, was it intentional that it reflected The Wizard Of Oz?

SL: It’s interesting that you should say that. It did reflect The Wizard Of Oz to me, and no one made that connection. It’s really strange, because we were completely overshadowed by E.T. that summer, and people kept comparing E.T. to The Wizard Of Oz, which I really didn’t understand at all.

But then I realised their definition of The Wizard Of Oz was just as something for kids, and that meant it was connected to The Wizard Of Oz

Salman Rushdie wrote a great piece about The Wizard Of Oz, where he talked about what it really means is we go through life trying to grow up, looking up to our parents as wizards, and then one day we realise that’s just a face on a curtain, and behind that curtain is my mother or my father.

And that’s very much the story of this film, because Sam Flynn, his father’s nothing but a big legend. In this film, he really is like The Wizard Of Oz. You can’t love a legend. You can’t really connect with it or relate to it. And in this film, the legend becomes just a man, which is a good thing, and the son goes from being just a memory to a man. And when they can both look at each other as men, then the connection is there.

In the case of the first film, this idea of the Programs looking up to us as gods is very much like The Wizard Of Oz, and the MCP is the Wizard, and we know that, underneath, he’s just a bunch of bits and bytes.

We weren’t chasing down The Wizard Of Oz, thematically, but I think it’s in our DNA. The Coen brothers have said the film that has influenced them the most is The Wizard Of Oz.

Justin Springer and Steven Lisberger, thank you very much!

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