Tron: Legacy: An interview with producer Justin Springer

In our latest interview ahead of the release of Tron: Legacy, we caught up with its producer Justin Springer to talk about special effects, 3D and Easter eggs...

It’s late September, and we’re at the home of digital effects studio Digital Domain in LA. We’ve been shown 20 minutes of Tron: Legacy, the long-awaited follow-up to the 1982 Disney classic. And as we’re bombarded with stunning visuals and the booming Daft Punk soundtrack, a render farm elsewhere in the building is busily baking the final few effects shots for the completed movie.

When we got a chance to sit down for an interview with producer Justin Springer, the movie’s special effects were therefore at the front of our minds…

We’re huge fans of Tron at Den Of Geek, and we’re now fans of Legacy, from what we’ve seen today.

You liked what you saw? That’s great. We’ve still got a lot to do, so…

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How much is there left to do? Can you give us a rough idea?

There’s a lot. What you saw today was only in 2D, and not even finished. But it’s kind of moving the whole movie forward at once, you know, so it’s not like we have to finish those 20 minutes, and then we’ll move on to the next 20. There’s a lot of stuff that’s at varying stages of completion, which all has to be finished for late November.

So there’s still a ton to do, and a lot of the stuff comes in at the end, as you complete it all shot by shot. In the last month, a third of the movie will be finished. We’ve been working on the post-production for 18 months. Then it becomes your traditional post-production stuff for the film, finishing off the score which Daft Punk have just written in London, and then it’s about doing the sound design and mixing at Skywalker. So we’re spending the next couple of months making sure it’s all the way there.

And once all of it’s done, and all the visuals are finished, then it takes a little bit of time to convert everything to 3D. The reason you have to see so much of it in 2D is because we need to finish the process to give you the other eye. We don’t do that until we have the finished shots. To do these 20 minutes in 3D for the press would have taken a lot of time and money to do.

How hard was it to bring all these different production elements – from the designs, practical and CG effects to the music – and get them all together on time?

It’s a tribute to Joe Kosinski, the director. He had ideas about what the new world of Tron would look like, and pitched an idea that looked very similar to what we have today. To have a guy like that, who has a specific vision and can articulate it, that’s why he’s created such a  consistent look with the vehicles, costumes and also the music. I have to give him the credit for that.

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I helped with the management of it, but the director’s always in charge of the ship. He put together an amazing team of people.

While Tron: Legacy has been described as a stand-alone sequel, would you still recommend that people watch the original Tron first to get a better idea of its backstory?

We’re so accustomed to seeing movies with amazing visual effects now, that we just expect it. The amazing technical achievements of the original Tron in 1982 would be lost on most audiences in 2010, I think. Most people would probably think it doesn’t look that cool, really, and wonder why it looks that way.

If you first watch Tron: Legacy, and see the amazing, cutting-edge effects, and then go back to see where it originated from, back to its roots, and see this overarching idea, in the first Tron from 1982, you might respect it more.

I think if the average ten-year-old saw Tron today, I think it’d still get to them on a story level, but I don’t know that watching them in chronological order would make sense. Not with videogames and cutting-edge movies – it’s like comparing apples to oranges, in a way. I think watching Tron after Tron: Legacy would better inform the movie.

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Why were those shots we saw today specifically chosen? Were they a good illustration of the film, without giving too much of the plot away?

It was a lot of things. One, it was what we had finished, close enough to the point where we were comfortable with showing them. It’s not still blue screen backgrounds or greyscale animation or whatever.

It’s also about trying to find a cross-section of the film that shows all the points we wanted to hit. There is a lot of action in this movie, stuff you’ve never seen before. It’s massive in scope, it’s a big world. But also there’s character, story and emotion, which hopefully you saw in the safehouse scenes with Jeff Bridges and Garrett Hedlund. We wanted people to see that what we’re aiming for here is more than just an effects-laden action movie. It’s a visual spectacle, but we also have character and story, and it’s rich with emotion.

On the original Tron there were a few production difficulties – quite old-school ones, that you wouldn’t expect now, like cells getting stuck together and stuff like that. Has there been anything of a digital equivalent on Legacy, so far, or has it been quite smooth sailing?

I’m trying to think if there are any specific examples, but there are difficulties, because we’re trying to push the envelope, by 2010 standards. So no matter how much new technology you have, when you’re really trying to push it, then it’s going to be difficult, you’re going to have problems. You’re going to sit down at a table and say, “We need a solution to this. Digital Domain needs to write new software to solve this problem.” That’s happened a number of times in the process.

If we were trying to remake Tron, as they did it in 1982, it wouldn’t take all that much – technology’s evolved 30 years. We’re trying to push what’s possible in 2010, and so all the time we have issues we have to deal with. There are 200 or more talented people sitting around writing new algorithms for us.

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Was it always conceived as a 3D film from the very earliest stages?

Pretty early. Long before production. In the visualisation phase, we thought it would be interesting to use 3D technology to shoot, because we wanted to transport viewers to this world, and create this immersive experience. We shot on the Sony F35, which at the time hadn’t been used in movies, only commercials. We used Vince Pace, who partnered with James Cameron to create the 3D system for Avatar, and created a 3D system for our production team.Has the story been left so there’s room for a sequel? Is that something that’s been discussed?

From a storytelling perspective it was like, we get one shot at this, let’s put it all in the movie. That being said, because we took the ‘82 movie as historical fact, and wrote this mythology for the intervening years, there’s a really tight, emotional story in that world, but hopefully you get a sense that there’s stuff happening outside it.

Hopefully we’ve created a pretty large mythology, and that there are more stories to be told. Many of those stories will be told in months and years in other media, like the videogame, and Disney Publishing is doing a graphic novel. There’s talks for a TV animation series.

So there’s all this stuff going on, a rich sandbox where many stories could be told. But as for another movie, franchises are dictated by audiences. If people are excited by Tron: Legacy, then maybe we’ll have that conversation.

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The original Tron had some great little Easter eggs in there. Pac-Man made a brief appearance in one shot…

And Mickey Mouse……yeah, behind the Solar Sailer. Has anything like that been worked into this one?

Yeah, definitely. There are a lot. Many that we know about, because we like that too – and the writers of Lost are famous for it, so they’ve put their own in – and we’ve got huge Tron fans working on this film, working on the details, so I’ve no idea what will pop up in the movie from the animators. “I think I’ll pop this in!” Which I think is how it happened in the original Tron a lot. There’s a lot of stuff in there, if you’re a fan of the original film. If you watch the trailer, there’s lots of little hints to locations and little details from the first film – and there’ll be many more in the movie itself.

Justin Springer, thank you very much.

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