In 1982, computer software engineer extraordinaire and former ENCOM employee Kevin Flynn owns and operates a video arcade called Flynn's. During his time at ENCOM he wrote several video games and was about to start his own enterprise when Ed Dillinger, a colleague, stole Flynn's ideas and passed them off as his own, earning himself a meteoric rise through ENCOM's ranks to Senior Executive VP, and the authority to fire Flynn to cover up his larceny. In the nearly three years since Flynn's dismissal, he has made attempts to obtain evidence of Dillinger's crime by hacking into the ENCOM mainframe, but despite his shrewdness Flynn keeps getting caught by ENCOM's Master Control Program ("MCP" for short), an AI software program which was originally a chess program created by Dr. Walter Gibbs, ENCOM's co-founder. But with Dillinger's modifications, the MCP has become sentient and power-hungry, unlawfully annexing personal, corporate, and even government and military programs, assimilating them to itself to increase its own capabilities; the MCP informs Dillinger of its plans to subjugate both the Pentagon and the Kremlin, and expresses interest in China with its request for Chinese language files, going so far as to blackmail Dillinger himself into compliance by threatening to publicly reveal records of his theft.
Flynn's ex-girlfriend Lora Baines and her current boyfriend, fellow ENCOM engineer Alan Bradley, visit Flynn at his arcade to warn him that Dillinger is aware of his hacking attempts and has tightened security at ENCOM. Flynn explains his situation to them and then persuades them to sneak him back into the facility where he forges access for the three. Lora takes Flynn to the terminal in her lab to continue searching for evidence of Dillinger's theft. In response, the MCP uses an experimental laser to digitize and download Flynn into the ENCOM mainframe, particularly an area the MCP calls the Game Grid, where programs are living entities appearing in the likeness of the human "Users" who created them. Once inside, Flynn quickly learns that the system is under the totalitarian rule of the MCP and its second-in-command, Sark, who enslave and intimidate other programs to renounce their "belief" in the Users; those who refuse are imprisoned in the Game Grid and forced to play in lethal competition against other programs. Flynn meets Tron and Ram as they are about to compete in a Light Cycle match; the three defeat their opponents and escape from the Grid and into the system, but Flynn and Ram are attacked by a pursuit force of game tanks that Flynn himself created; Flynn is only stunned, but Ram is mortally wounded. They stop to rest, but to Flynn and Ram's surprise, Flynn learns that as a User he can manipulate energy and matter within the system, effectively allowing him to control its environment. With his newfound User power Flynn reassembles a destroyed pursuit ship (called a "Recognizer"). Just before he de-rezzes, Ram begs Flynn to help Tron.
Separated from Flynn and Ram, Tron reunites with his love, Yori (an input/output program created by Lora), and they furtively make their way to an input/output junction where Tron makes contact with his User "Alan-1", who writes information on Tron's code disc that will erase the MCP, but only if Tron can get the disc to the MCP's base. Tron and Yori then steal a "solar-sail simulation" to travel to the MCP's core and are reunited with Flynn who unwittingly disguised himself as one of Sark's soldiers; Flynn then reveals to them that he himself is a User. Before they can reach the core, Sark's command ship overtakes and destroys the simulation, capturing Flynn and Yori and supposedly destroying Tron. Sark alights from his command ship and orders its de-resolution, but Flynn keeps it intact with his User power while Sark reaches the MCP's core on a shuttle carrying other captured programs slated to be subsumed by the MCP, making it complete. Tron then reemerges and critically damages Sark in a fierce disc fight, prompting the MCP to transfer its functions to Sark increasing his size and power. As Tron repeatedly hurls his disc at the MCP's base in an attempt to breach its shield and get to its core, Flynn leaps off the command ship into the MCP's beam, distracting it just long enough to reveal a gap in its shield; Tron then throws his disc through the gap which destroys the MCP and Sark.
As programs throughout the system are once again able to communicate with their Users, the laser that digitized Flynn reverses its function and restores Flynn's corporeal form, and a nearby printer provides the hard copy proving that Dillinger had stolen Flynn's creations. At daybreak, when Dillinger enters his office and finds the MCP deleted and proof of his theft now unrestricted, he slumps in his chair in defeat. Flynn later ascends to his rightful place as ENCOM's new boss and is greeted by Alan and Lora on his first day.Jeff Bridges as Kevin Flynn, a former programmer and game developer at ENCOM and video arcade proprietor who is beamed into the ENCOM mainframe via a digitizing laser by the Master Control Program.
Bridges also portrays Clu (Codified Likeness Utility), a hacking program developed by Flynn to find evidence of Dillinger's theft in the mainframe.
Bruce Boxleitner as Alan Bradley, Flynn's work partner and fellow programmer at ENCOM.
Boxleitner also portrays Tron, a security program developed by Bradley to self-monitor communications between the MCP and the real world.
David Warner as Ed Dillinger, the Senior Executive Vice President of ENCOM and former co-worker of Flynn's, who used the MCP to steal Flynn's work and pass it off as his own, earning himself a series of undeserved promotions.
Warner also portrays Sark, a command program developed by Dillinger to serve as the MCP's second-in-command.
Warner also provides the uncredited voice of the Master Control Program (MCP), a rogue artificial intelligence operating system (originally a chess program created by Dr. Gibbs and "improved" by Dillinger) which monitors and controls ENCOM's mainframe.
Cindy Morgan as Dr. Lora Baines, Bradley's co-worker and girlfriend, as well as assistant to Dr. Gibbs on the digitization experiment.
Morgan also portrays Yori, an input/output program developed by Dr. Baines and an ally of Tron.
Barnard Hughes as Dr. Walter Gibbs, a co-founder of ENCOM running the company's science division, who creates the SHV 20905 digitizing laser with Dr. Baines's assistance.
Hughes also portrays Dumont, a "guardian" program developed by Dr. Gibbs to protect input/output junctions in the mainframe.
Hughes also provides the uncredited voice of the Master Control Program's original incarnation.
Dan Shor as Roy Kleinberg, an ENCOM employee
Shor also portrays Ram, an actuarial program possibly developed by Kleinberg to sort out connections between ENCOM and an unnamed insurance company, who is a close ally of Tron and Flynn.
Peter Jurasik as Crom, an accounting program matched against Flynn on the Game Grid.
Tony Stephano as Peter, Dillinger's assistant.
Stephano also portrays Sark's Lieutenant.
The inspiration for Tron occurred in 1976 when Steven Lisberger, then an animator of drawings with his own studio, looked at a sample reel from a computer firm called MAGI and saw Pong for the first time. He was immediately fascinated by video games and wanted to do a film incorporating them. According to Lisberger, "I realized that there were these techniques that would be very suitable for bringing video games and computer visuals to the screen. And that was the moment that the whole concept flashed across my mind".
Lisberger had already created an early version of the character 'Tron' for a 30 second long animation which was used to promote both Lisberger Studios and a series of various rock radio stations. This backlit cel animation depicted Tron as a character who glowed yellow; the same shade that Lisberger had originally intended for all the heroic characters developed for the feature-length Tron. This was later changed to blue for the finished film (see Pre-production below). The prototype Tron was bearded, and resembled the Cylon Centurions from the original 1978 TV series, Battlestar Galactica. Also, Tron was armed with two "exploding discs", as Lisberger described them on the 2-Disc DVD edition (see Rinzler).
Lisberger elaborates: "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."
He was frustrated by the clique-like nature of computers and video games and wanted to create a film that would open this world up to everyone. Lisberger and his business partner Donald Kushner moved to the West Coast in 1977 and set up an animation studio to develop Tron. They borrowed against the anticipated profits of their 90-minute animated television special Animalympics to develop storyboards for Tron with the notion of making an animated film.
The film was conceived as an animated film bracketed with live-action sequences. The rest would involve a combination of computer-generated visuals and back-lit animation. Lisberger planned to finance the movie independently by approaching several computer companies but had little success. However, one company, Information International Inc., was receptive. He met with Richard Taylor, a representative, and they began talking about using live-action photography with back-lit animation in such a way that it could be integrated with computer graphics. At this point, Lisberger already had a script written and the film entirely storyboarded with some computer animation tests completed. He had spent approximately $300,000 developing Tron and had also secured $4–5 million in private backing before reaching a standstill. Lisberger and Kushner took their storyboards and samples of computer-generated films to Warner Bros., MGM, and Columbia Pictures – all of which turned them down.
In 1980, they decided to take the idea to the Walt Disney Studios, which was interested in producing more daring productions at the time. However, Disney executives were uncertain about giving $10–12 million to a first-time producer and director using techniques which, in most cases, had never been attempted. The studio agreed to finance a test reel which involved a flying disc champion throwing a rough prototype of the discs used in the film. It was a chance to mix live-action footage with back-lit animation and computer-generated visuals. It impressed the executives at Disney and they agreed to back the film. The script was subsequently re-written and re-storyboarded with the studio's input. At the time, Disney rarely hired outsiders to make films for them and Kushner found that he and his group were given a less than warm welcome because they "tackled the nerve center – the animation department. They saw us as the germ from outside. We tried to enlist several Disney animators but none came. Disney is a closed group."
Because of the many special effects, Disney decided in 1981 to film Tron completely in 65-mm Super Panavision (except for the computer-generated layers, which were shot in VistaVision and both anamorphic 35mm and Super 35 which were used for some scenes in the "real" world and subsequently "blown up" to 65mm). Three designers were brought in to create the look of the computer world. French comic book artist Jean Giraud (also known as Moebius) was the main set and costume designer for the movie. Most of the vehicle designs (including Sark's aircraft carrier, the light cycles, the tank, and the solar sailer) were created by industrial designer Syd Mead. Peter Lloyd, a high-tech commercial artist, designed the environments. Nevertheless, these jobs often overlapped, leaving Giraud working on the solar sailer and Mead designing terrain, sets and the film's logo. The original 'Program' character design was inspired by Lisberger Studios' logo of a glowing bodybuilder hurling two discs.
To create the computer animation sequences of Tron, Disney turned to the four leading computer graphics firms of the day: Information International, Inc. of Culver City, California, who owned the Super Foonly F-1 (the fastest PDP-10 ever made and the only one of its kind); MAGI of Elmsford, New York; Robert Abel and Associates of California; and Digital Effects of New York City. Bill Kovacs worked on this movie while working for Robert Abel before going on to found Wavefront Technologies. The work was not a collaboration, resulting in very different styles used by the firms.
Tron was one of the first movies to make extensive use of any form of computer animation, and is celebrated as a milestone in the industry though only fifteen to twenty minutes of such animation were used, mostly scenes that show digital "terrain" or patterns or include vehicles such as light-cycles, tanks and ships. Because the technology to combine computer animation and live action did not exist at the time, these sequences were interspersed with the filmed characters. The computer used had only 2 MB of memory, and no more than 330 MB of storage. This put a limit on detail of background; and at a certain distance, they had a procedure of mixing in black to fade things out, a process called "depth cueing". The movie's Computer Effects Supervisor Richard Taylor told them "When in doubt, black it out!", which became their motto.
Most of the scenes, backgrounds, and visual effects in the film were created using more traditional techniques and a unique process known as "backlit animation". In this process, live-action scenes inside the computer world were filmed in black-and-white on an entirely black set, printed on large format Kodalith high-contrast film, then colored with photographic and rotoscopic techniques to give them a "technological" appearance. With multiple layers of high-contrast, large format positives and negatives, this process required truckloads of sheet film and a workload even greater than that of a conventional cel-animated feature. The Kodalith was specially produced as large sheets by Kodak for the film and came in numbered boxes so that each batch of the film could be used in order of manufacture for a consistent image. However, this was not understood by the filmmakers, and as a result glowing outlines and circuit traces occasionally flicker as the film speed varied between batches. After the reason was discovered, this was no longer a problem as the batches were used in order and "zinger" sounds were used during the flickering parts to represent the computer world malfunctioning as Lisberger described it. Lisberger later had these flickers and sounds digitally corrected for the 2011 restored Blu-ray release as they were not included in his original vision of the film. Due to its difficulty and cost, this process of back-lit animation was not repeated for another feature film.
Sound design and creation for the film was assigned to Frank Serafine, who was responsible for the sound design on Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979.
At one point in the film, a small entity called "Bit" advises Flynn with only the words "yes" and "no" created by a Votrax speech synthesizer.
BYTE wrote "Although this film is very much the personal expression of Steven Lisberger's vision, nevertheless [it] has certainly been a group effort". More than 569 people were involved in the post-production work, including 200 inkers and hand-painters, 85 of them from Taiwan's Cuckoo's Nest Studio. Unusually for an English-language production, in the end credits the Taiwanese personnel were listed with their names written in Chinese characters.
This film features parts of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; the multi-storey ENCOM laser bay was the target area for the SHIVA solid-state multi-beamed laser. Also, the stairway that Alan, Lora, and Flynn use to reach Alan's office is the stairway in Building 451 near the entrance to the main machine room. The cubicle scenes were shot in another room of the lab. At the time, Tron was the only movie to have scenes filmed inside this lab.
The original script called for "good" programs to be colored yellow and "evil" programs (those loyal to Sark and the MCP) to be colored blue. Partway into production, this coloring scheme was changed to blue for good and red for evil, but some scenes were produced using the original coloring scheme: Clu, who drives a tank, has yellow circuit lines, and all of Sark's tank commanders are blue (but appear green in some presentations). Also, the light-cycle sequence shows the heroes driving yellow (Flynn), orange (Tron), and red (Ram) cycles, while Sark's troops drive blue cycles; similarly, Clu's tank is red, while tanks driven by crews loyal to Sark are blue.
Budgeting the production was difficult by reason of breaking new ground in response to additional challenges, including an impending Directors Guild of America strike and a fixed release date. Disney predicted at least $400 million in domestic sales of merchandise, including an arcade game by Bally Midway and three Mattel Intellivision home video games.
The producers also added Easter eggs: during the scene where Tron and Ram escape from the Light Cycle arena into the system, Pac-Man can be seen behind Sark (with the corresponding sounds from the Pac-Man arcade game being heard in the background), while a "Hidden Mickey" outline (located at time 01:12:29 on the re-release Blu-ray) can be seen below the solar sailer during the protagonists' journey.
The soundtrack for Tron was written by pioneer electronic musician Wendy Carlos, who is best known for her album Switched-On Bach and for the soundtracks to many films, including A Clockwork Orange and The Shining. The music, which was the first collaboration between Carlos and her partner Annemarie Franklin, featured a mix of an analog Moog synthesizer and Crumar's GDS digital synthesizer (complex additive and phase modulation synthesis), along with non-electronic pieces performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra (hired at the insistence of Disney, which was concerned that Carlos might not be able to complete her score on time). Two additional musical tracks ("1990's Theme" and "Only Solutions") were provided by the American band Journey after British band Supertramp pulled out of the project. An album featuring dialogue, music and sound effects from the film was also released on LP by Disneyland Records in 1982.
Tron was released on July 9, 1982, in 1,091 theaters grossing USD $4 million on its opening weekend. It went on to make $33 million in North America, which Disney saw as a disappointment, and led to the studio writing off a good chunk of its $17 million budget.
The film was well received by critics. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film four out of four stars and described the film as "a dazzling movie from Walt Disney in which computers have been used to make themselves romantic and glamorous. Here's a technological sound-and-light show that is sensational and brainy, stylish, and fun". However, near the end of his review, he noted (in a positive tone), "This is an almost wholly technological movie. Although it's populated by actors who are engaging (Bridges, Cindy Morgan) or sinister (Warner), it is not really a movie about human nature. Like Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back, but much more so, this movie is a machine to dazzle and delight us". Ebert closed his first annual Overlooked Film Festival with a showing of Tron. Tron was also featured in Siskel and Ebert's video pick of the week in 1993.
InfoWorld's Deborah Wise was impressed, writing that "it is hard to believe the characters acted out the scenes on a darkened soundstage... We see characters throwing illuminated Frisbees, driving 'lightcycles' on a video-game grid, playing a dangerous version of jai alai and zapping numerous fluorescent tanks in arcade-game-type mazes. It's exciting, it's fun, and it's just what video-game fans and anyone with a spirit of adventure will love—despite plot weaknesses."
On the other hand, Variety disliked the film and said in its review, "Tron is loaded with visual delights but falls way short of the mark in story and viewer involvement. Screenwriter-director Steven Lisberger has adequately marshalled a huge force of technicians to deliver the dazzle, but even kids (and specifically computer game geeks) will have a difficult time getting hooked on the situations". In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin criticized the film's visual effects: "They're loud, bright and empty, and they're all this movie has to offer". The Washington Post's Gary Arnold wrote, "Fascinating as they are as discrete sequences, the computer-animated episodes don't build dramatically. They remain a miscellaneous form of abstract spectacle". In his review for the Globe and Mail, Jay Scott wrote, "It's got momentum and it's got marvels, but it's without heart; it's a visionary technological achievement without vision".
As of May 2015, the movie review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes rated the film at 70% on its Tomatometer, based on the reviews of 54 critics. A consensus statement for the movie said, "Though perhaps not as strong dramatically as it is technologically, TRON is an original and visually stunning piece of science fiction that represents a landmark work in the history of computer animation."
In the year it was released, the Motion Picture Academy refused to nominate Tron for a special-effects award because, as director Steven Lisberger puts it, "The Academy thought we cheated by using computers". The film did, however, earn Oscar nominations in the categories of Best Costume Design and Best Sound (Michael Minkler, Bob Minkler, Lee Minkler, and James LaRue).
In 1997, Ken Perlin of the Mathematical Applications Group, Inc. won an Academy Award for Technical Achievement for his invention of Perlin noise for Tron.
The film, considered groundbreaking, has inspired several individuals in numerous ways. John Lasseter, head of Pixar and Disney's animation group, described how the film helped him see the potential of computer-generated imagery in the production of animated films stating "without Tron there would be no Toy Story."
The music video of the song "Abiura di me" of the Italian rapper Caparezza is based on Tron. The two members of the French house music group Daft Punk, who scored the sequel, have held a joint, lifelong fascination with the film. In the music video for the song "Feel Good Inc." by Gorillaz, Russel, the fictional drummer of the band, can be seen wearing an Encom hat.
Tron developed into a cult film and was ranked as 13th in a 2010 list of the top 20 cult films published by The Boston Globe.
The Disco Biscuits, a Philadelphia-based jam band heavily influenced by electronic music, played an entire free-form set to correspond with the movie "Tron", which was projected onto a partially transparent curtain in the front of the stage for their 12/31/2015 New Year's Eve show from the PlayStation Theater in Times Square, New York city.
In 2008, the American Film Institute nominated this film for its Top 10 Science Fiction Films list.
A novelization of Tron was released in 1982, written by American science fiction novelist Brian Daley. It included eight pages of color photographs from the movie. Also that year, Disney Senior Staff Publicist Michael Bonifer authored a book entitled The Art of Tron which covered aspects of the pre-production and post-production aspects of Tron. A nonfiction book about the making of the original film, The Making of Tron: How Tron Changed Visual Effects and Disney Forever, was written by William Kallay and published in 2011.
Tron made its television debut, as part of The Disney Channel's first day of programming, on April 18, 1983 at 7:00PM (ET).
Tron was originally released on VHS, Betamax, LaserDisc, and CED Videodisc in 1983. As with most video releases from the 1980s, the film was cropped to the 4:3 pan & scan format. The film saw multiple re-releases throughout the 1990s, most notably an "Archive Collection" LaserDisc box set, which featured the first release of the film in its original widescreen 2.20:1 format.
Tron saw its first DVD release on May 19, 1998. This bare-bones release utilized the same non-anamorphic video transfer used in the Archive Collection LaserDisc set, and did not include any of the LD's special features. On January 15, 2002, the film received a 20th Anniversary Collector's Edition release in the form of a special 2-Disc DVD set. This set featured a new THX mastered anamorphic video transfer, and included all of the special features from the LD Archive Collection, plus an all-new 90 minute "Making of Tron" documentary.
To tie in with the home video release of Tron: Legacy, the movie was finally re-released by Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment on Special Edition DVD and for the first time on Blu-ray Disc on April 5, 2011, with the subtitle "The Original Classic" to distinguish it from its sequel. Tron was also featured in a 5-Disc Blu-ray Combo with the 3D copy of Tron: Legacy. The film was re-released on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK on June 27, 2011.
"Tron: Uprising takes place during the time period between the story lines of the two movies Tron (1982) and Tron: Legacy (2010). In the series, young program Beck becomes the leader of a revolution inside the computer world of The Grid, tasked with the mission of freeing his home and friends from the reign of Clu and his henchman, Gen. Tesler. To prepare for the challenge, Beck is trained by Tron - the greatest warrior The Grid has ever known - who mentors Beck as he grows beyond his youthful nature into a courageous and powerful leader. Destined to become the system's new protector, Beck adopts Tron's persona to battle the forces of evil."
On January 12, 2005, Disney announced it had hired screenwriters Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal to write a sequel to Tron. In 2008, director Joseph Kosinski negotiated to develop and direct TRON, described as "the next chapter" of the 1982 film and based on a preliminary teaser trailer shown at that year's San Diego Comic-Con, with Lisberger co-producing. Filming began in Vancouver, British Columbia in April 2009. During the 2009 Comic-Con, the title of the sequel was revealed to be changed to Tron: Legacy. The second trailer (also with the [Tron: Legacy] logo) was released in 3D with Alice In Wonderland. A third trailer premiered at Comic-Con 2010 on July 22. At Disney's D23 Expo on September 10–13, 2009, they also debuted teaser trailers for Tron: Legacy as well as having light cycle and other props from the film there. The film was released on December 17, 2010, with Daft Punk composing the score.