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New William Kallay book reveals "How Tron Changed Visual Effects and Disney Forever"

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New William Kallay book reveals "How Tron Changed Visual Effects and Disney Forever"

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It's the sci-fi cult classic that spawned a pricey sequel last year. Not to mention being the jumping-off point for a brand-new animated series which will debut on Disney XD later this year.

"Tron: Uprising," which is due to debut on Disney XD later this summer.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

But you gotta ask yourself: Would "Tron" have become a really-for-real blockbuster back in 1982 if Walt Disney Productions opted to go a different way with this Steven Lisberger film? Like by - say - having Robin Williams play Flynn in this visual effects extravaganza? Or by maybe seriously upping this project's star power by hiring Peter O'Toole to portray all three of this movie's villains: Dillinger, SARK and the MCP?

Or would this ground-breaking motion picture have done far better at the box office that year if Disney executives had just stuck with their original plan. Which was to have "Tron" be the Studio's big Christmas release for 1982, rather than having this ambitious & innovative production go toe-to-toe with that summer's other big scif-fi themed / visual effects-filled films (i.e. "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial," "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan," "Blade Runner," "The Thing" and "Poltergeist").

Those are the questions that you get to ask yourself as you read through William Kallay's "The Making of Tron: How Tron Changed Visual Effects and Disney Forever" (November 2011). This 272-page paperback is a fascinating, in-depth look at a seriously under-reported era in The Walt Disney Company's history: the late 1970s / early 1980s.

By that I mean: This was a time when the Studio was trying to reinvent itself, shake off the old ways and become competitive in Hollywood again. So all sorts of seemingly strange ideas were being considered back then. Like - for example - permanently shuttering Disney's hand-drawn animation unit.

Seriously.  As Jerry Rees told "The Making of Tron" 's author, one particularly memorable morning in the late 1970s started off with this then-newly hired animator being called into a meeting where ...

Art Stevens and Ted Berman ... said, 'Well, if it were us to us, we would just keep re-releasing stuff from the library because we got enough films. But (management wants) us to make another movie.' So that's we started (work on 'The Fox and the Hound') !"

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Of course, what's kind of ironic about this particular situation is that one of the main reasons that "Tron" development team didn't initially want to pitch this CG-heavy film to Disney was because - as producer Donald Kushner explained -- ...

"... we felt (that) they were the vanguard of traditional animation, that they would probably not be interested in computer simulation. Or if they were interested in computer simulation, they would probably want to develop something in-house."

So here was Disney, toying with the idea of getting out of the hand-drawn animation business. And here's the "Tron" team, reluctant to pitch their CG-filled film to the Mouse because all that Disney had ever done up until this point was produce hand-drawn animated features & shorts.

Concept art from the original "Tron" pitch. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

But after "Tron" had unsuccessfully been pitched to Universal Pictures, Bonnie MacBird (i.e. the original writer of this film) heard that there was this executive at Disney - Tom Wilhite -- who was willing to embrace new things.

So Steven, Donald and Bonnie took their movie idea to Tom. And Wilhite thought enough of "Tron" to commission a couple of camera tests. One of which made use of old sentry uniforms from "The Black Hole" that had been dug out of the Studio's costume department. While the other featured ...

... professional Frisbee champion, Sam Schatz. Dressed in clothing and gear raided from a sporting goods store, Schatz threw a Frisbee around as the camera filmed him. The result of both screen tests convinced Wilhite and (then-Walt Disney Studio head Ron) Miller that Lisberger was capable of directing a major $12 million motion picture.

Sam Schatz in all of his sporting gear for the "Tron"
pre-production test.
Copyright Disney Enterprises,
Inc. All rights reserved

Which isn't to say that the production of "Tron" went all that smoothly. As Michael Fremer, the sound supervisor on this film, recalled:

"Because the set was so dark, all black, (Disney had to use so many lights & so much electricity to properly light this set that) they were literally blowing out the transformers at the Burbank power station."

And as Cindy Morgan (i.e. the "Caddyshack" star who was eventually hired to play Lora & Yori) remembers, performing in this all-black void of a set was often quite challenging for the actors. Morgan recalled in an April 2007 interview with Kallay how she used to butt heads with Lisberger over how he was directing particular scenes.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"Okay, Morgan, you're on the Solar Sailer. You're crossing the Game Sea. Go!"
Morgan fixated blankly on the blackness of the set.
"What the hell are you talking about?," she questioned.
Lisberger took out sketches of the Solar Sailer and showed her where to go.
"And you're flying the ship," directed Lisberger.
"Another question - what the hell are you talking about flying the ship?" asked Morgan.
"That table there, that's the control panel," said Lisberger.
"You know Steven, there's nothing here," said Morgan.
"Just do anything and the artists will paint it in."

And speaking of nothing there, Bruce Boxleitner had some very funny stories to share with the author of "The Making of Tron" when it came to this film's costumes:

Jeff Bridges, Cindy Morgan and Bruce Boxleitner in their "Tron" costumes.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"There were no pants," exclaimed Boxleitner."(The male costumes for TRON were) about as close to being naked as you could be. It hid nothing. Thank God we were only thirty or thirtyone years-old and in good shape. I think there was a situation where we had to wear bathrobes if we went outside or to the commissary. The old secretaries were having the vapors with these young butt cheeks standing there."

And as this sci-fi film moved through its post-production phase, the topic of Bruce's butt would come up yet again because ...

"Steve Lisberger was in dailies one day and noted that because there was so much black circuitry on Bruce Boxleitner's original costume butt, the final shots as finished (to be cut into the film) made Tron's butt glow a lot," recalls (Harrison) Ellenshaw (visual effects supervisor on this movie).

Harrison Ellenshaw directs Walter Cronkite in a "Tron" - inspired
sequence for CBS's "Universe" television program.

Lisberger rightly felt that the glowing behind would be too distractive to the audience.

"All the guys would be running down the hallway and they'd be looking like blue butt baboons because they have this glowing ass!" exclaims (Glenn) Campbell (who handled animation camera compositing on this film).

"So we had this thing called the 'butt grad scandal,' " says (Tron animator John) Van Vliet.

Jeff Bridges on the Game Grid. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

"I still have daily reports that say this shot approved, this shot approved, this shot needs butt grads," says Campbell. "(Which) meant that that a shot had to go back and someone has to go through every frame, by hand, and airbrush a darkening density on a guy's ass so it doesn't glow as much."

And speaking of asses ... Perhaps the most startling aspect of "The Making of Tron" is the part of this book which discusses why the film wound up being released to theaters during the Summer of 1982. Visual effects supervisor Richard Taylor places the blame for this movie's mischosen release date on Disney's then-Chairman of the Board Card Walker.

To hear Taylor tell the story, Card was looking to use "Tron" as a way  for the Company to get back at Don Bluth. Who - back in September 1979 - had resigned from Walt Disney Studios and then gravely embarrassed Walker by announcing that he intended to set up his own animation studio which would then do what Disney couldn't do anymore. Which was create hand-drawn animated features that had the same sort of lush design & detail that one used to see in classic Disney films like "Pinocchio" and "Fantasia." Which is why ...

Copyright 1982 MGM/UA. All rights reserved

... Card Walker wanted Tron rushed into release. Tron needed at least six months more post production time for reshoots and audience test screenings to finesse the film. According to (Richard), the film was supposed to be released during the Christmas season of 1982.

"The Secret of NIMH was coming out on that weekend," recalls Taylor. "Card Walker wanted Tron to come out on the same weekend to take away from their box office. And that is the reason. No objectivity. Nothing. Pure revenge. No consideration for Tron being something really special. It was entirely motivated by revenge. The stupidest thing in the world."

These are the sorts of stories that you'll only find out by reading "The Making of Tron: How Tron Changed Visual Effects and Disney Forever." Which is an eye-opening account not only of the making of this ground-breaking motion picture but also a great look back at what the Walt Disney Productions was like back in the late 1970s / early 1980s. What was actually going on at the Studio back then.

David Warner as the Evil Genius in "Time Bandits," the part that supposedly help Warner
win the roles of Dillinger, SARK and the MCP in "Tron." Copyright Disney Enterprises,
Inc. All rights reserved

I mean, did you know that Disney seriously toyed with releasing Terry Gilliam's "Time Bandits" ? I didn't. Not until I read this book, anyway. Which is why - if you're a Disney history buff - I think you'll really enjoy reading  William Kallay's well-researched, highly-entertaining book.

FYI: (Just because there are JHM readers who actually want to know these things) I didn't pay for my copy of "The Making of Tron." Mr. Kallay sent a review copy to me for gratis. But given all of the great behind-the-scenes stories that I tripped over while paging through this paperback, I would have gladly paid for a copy of "How Tron Changed Visual Effects and Disney Forever."

And speaking of paying ... Hey, look! JHM has a tip jar now.

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  • There is no doubt that TRON was a ground breaking film. Though I personally did not like the film nor the sequel, it surely was ground breaking.

  • Ah, Hollywood-the world of 'sniping' your enemies:

    - like Dreamworks releasing 'Antz' before 'A Bug's Life.'

    - or, Disney rer-eleasing 'The Little Mermaid' the weekend that Fox released 'Anastasia.'

  • Just more proof of what an IDIOT Card Walker was and how most of his IDIOT decisions hurt others.

  • Looking forward to the upcoming book on the history of the Walt Disney Studios (especially the animation department) from 1965 to 1983 coming out later this year.  Should provide a remedy to the little known real history behind what was going on--from the real reasons bluth left (the remaining 9 Old Men didn't think he was a very good film maker), to the massive flop The Black Cauldron, and the rise of the talent that forged the rebirth of the studio.  Can't wait!

    EDITOR'S NOTE: I too would be interested in reading a book like that. Do you know who the author is, what company is publishing this book, when the publication date might be? Any and all info would be appreciated

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