Design Excellence in Tron Legacy

I watched Tron Legacy this weekend.
Awesome movie, if only for the following reasons:

  • The music
  • The aesthetics
  • Jeff Bridges
  • That’s it

Despite not having the greatest storyline or script, the film has still had quite a profound effect on me thanks to its frankly mind-blowing visual identity.

As with most of the films I watch these days, I like to do a quick post-view scan of the web to consolidate my thinking around certain plot points, characters, or to brush up on production trivia.

This time, I hit up IMDB’s forums to read others’ views on Tron’s iconography, delved into some pretty weird fan pages, and researched the history of the crew – but in all of my post-view readings, I think I’ve found the major contributing factor towards why this film looks so damn good.

This film looks so damn good, in my belief, due to Joshua T. Nimoy, a software artist who worked on the film’s procedural artwork and user interfaces, which add a thick and gooey layer of believability to both Encom’s software, and to Tron’s 3D environment.

He has this to say:

I made software art before there was Flash or Processing. Things have not grown easier or harder, they are simply different. I am not just a user of Adobe and 3D programs. I work in the source ideas from which those programs originate. If I need a new algorithm, I learn it from theories, ask one of my peers, hunt for reusable code, or invent my own way. My most contagious meme is BallDroppings. My most visible work is commercial. My artiest works have shown in serious galleries and museums.

So, here we have a guy who is just brilliant at design, working on some of the world’s coolest and most progressive brands, plus a shitload of other stuff, and who knows how to hack to achieve a great effect. Pretty much the perfect dude to lead the march at Digital Domain when they were asked to work on Tron Legacy.

Following clearance from Disney, Josh has published a fascinating piece on his site about his work on the film, which I’ve pulled some interesting thoughts from:

I spent a half year writing software art to generate special effects for Tron Legacy […] in addition to visual effects, I was asked to record myself using a unix terminal doing technologically feasible things. I took extra care in babysitting the elements through to final composite to ensure that the content would not be artistically altered beyond that feasibility.

I take representing digital culture in film very seriously in lieu of having grown up in a world of very badly researched user interface greeble. I cringed during the part in Hackers (1995) when a screen saver with extruded “equations” is used to signify that the hacker has reached some sort of neural flow or ambiguous destination. I cringed for Swordfish and Jurassic Park as well. I cheered when Trinity in The Matrix used nmap and ssh (and so did you). Then I cringed again when I saw that inevitably, Hollywood had decided that nmap was the thing to use for all its hacker scenes (see Bourne Ultimatum, Die Hard 4, Girl with Dragon Tattoo, The Listening, 13: Game of Death, Battle Royale, Broken Saints, and on and on).

I like this guy even more now – who hasn’t cringed at stuff like this?

In Tron, the hacker was not supposed to be snooping around on a network; he was supposed to kill a process. So we went with posix kill and also had him pipe ps into grep. I also ended up using emacs eshell to make the terminal more l33t. The team was delighted to see my emacs performance — splitting the editor into nested panes and running different modes. I was tickled that I got emacs into a block buster movie. I actually do use emacs irl, and although I do not subscribe to alt.religion.emacs, I think that’s all incredibly relevant to the world of Tron.

Now, I don’t understand much of that last paragraph, but it’s cool to consider that there are people out there applying proper nerdery to their work, that 99.9% of people would totally miss. It just makes things better, doesn’t it?!

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Tom Saunter

I like to think about the media, technology, pop-culture & the future. When not blogging, I tweet @freedimensional & work @MediaComUK. Feel free to visit my Personal Bio to learn more about me.