Tron: Legacy: an interview with concept artist David Levy

Ahead of the release of Disney’s Tron: Legacy, we chat to concept artist David Levy about his hand in the movie’s distinctive look…

Artist and designer David Levy was, for many years, a concept designer for the videogame industry, heavily involved with such titles as Prince Of Persia: The Two Thrones, and the original Assassin’s Creed. Now the concept artist for director Joseph Kosinski’s forthcoming Tron: Legacy, we caught up with Levy to talk about his involvement in the film’s luminous, distinctive visual aesthetic…

How did you find working on Tron: Legacy after your experience in the games industry?

For the last fifteen years I’ve worked on videogames, so for me this was a very new thing.

But a natural transition, in a way?

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Exactly, yes. I know that’s why they contacted me, because of my experience on games. I perhaps had a different perspective as well, maybe. And [Tron: Legacy] is so CG oriented, and a virtual environment, which is one reason why they contacted me, I think.

What was it like bringing Syd Mead and Mobius’ designs into the 21st century?

Well, one of the reasons I was so excited on working on this movie is because of Mobius. For me, when I was a kid, he was what I could become in the future – being French, he was very inspiring. We’re a very proud country!

So three years ago, when they released the DVD, the first thing I did was look at the making of, because I was really interested in that. To me, this was an extra special project, and when they asked me I asked, “Where do I sign?” I was very excited by it.

So how did you approach Legacy, in terms of design?

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What happened was, Steve Lisberger, the original director, came to us one day with a whole book of sketches by Syd Mead and Mobius. I was in heaven!

These were the original drawings?

Yeah, originals! I was like a kid in a candy store. I was like, “Can I take it?” That was one of the highlights of the job, just seeing these sketches by Mobius and Syd Mead, two of the most influential designers working.

And when you looked at their designs, was it difficult to put your own spin on them, while retaining what made them special in the first place?

I think it came very naturally. When you have those two elements – the teaser, that Joe [Kosinski, director] had done, which had a very clear vision, and we had those designs from Steve, which were the old-school Tron, for us it was very natural.

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I wouldn’t say it was easy, but no project is. In terms of inspiration, it felt very natural.

How do you work? Do you use traditional techniques, or work straight onto a computer?

It’s a very strange process. Because very often, when we do the same thing on the time, we always repeat the same shapes, so it’s good to vary. On many occasions on Tron, I’d switch back to pencils, just so I could break away from the habits I have with a computer. But honestly, it’s whatever works.

So one day I can just sketch on paper with a pencil, and then I can scan that image and turn it into a 3D model, maybe, and sometimes the opposite – I’ll create a 3D model, make a print of it, and have Joe sketch on it directly, or sometimes Darren Gilford, the production designer, would just sketch on it directly. It’s very organic.

I think it’s bad to always have the same habit, because you tend to re-do the same things, so it’s very important to change mediums.

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What element that you’ve designed would you say you’re most proud of?

It’s very hard to say, because there are so many people involved in creating something, so it would be unfair to pick one thing – but I’m going to do it anyway! [Laughs.] I think our proudest moment, was that we worked very hard with Ben [Procter, art director], who was here this morning, on the nightclub, the outside and the inside.

I visited the set last year, and just walking through the club was one of the most amazing moments for me, because having worked in videogames for so long, you never get to do that. You never get to walk through a set, you know? That was very impressive, to get to walk through this set we had designed with so many people was just the proudest moment for me.

So physical sets aside, what are the other differences between designing for film and videogames? Are there any?

To be honest the creative process is the same. The only difference is that what you’re designing is real. But in terms of the creative process, it’s very similar. It’s problem solving. We get this huge problem dropped in our laps, which is the script, and we have to come up with some way to convey the emotions in it.

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Our job is to support the whole script, to make it even more emotional for people to watch. It’s a very tight collaboration between the story and the visuals.

Was there anything that was on the drawing board that didn’t make it into the film?

I think it’s in the nature of our job. We do a lot of sketches, and what you see in the movie is just the tip of the iceberg. What you don’t see, which is kind of the magical part, is the pain behind it!

There are so many things that don’t come out, that don’t work. Failure makes perfect. So we fail a lot, so you only see the perfect side!

Is it frustrating, sometimes, working collaboratively with so many other designers?

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Honestly, this project was the least frustrating I’ve ever worked on. When you have people that are in a management position like Joe and Darren, who are designers – I mean, Darren comes from the same background as I do, which is industrial design and architecture, and Joe comes from architecture – when you’re working with people like that, it’s like telepathy. You don’t have to explain much. They just say one word and I get it.

Actually I was really happy to work with them. It’s been a great experience.

David Levy, thank you very much!

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