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?!

Mobile Telephone

The Internet and the mobile phone are two mighty forces that have bent contemporary culture and remade it in their form. They offer immediacy, connectivity, and social interaction of a wholly different kind. These are technologies that have brought profound changes to the ways academia consider technoscience and digital communication. Their relationship was of interest to academics in the early 1990’s, who declared that their inevitable fusion would be the beginning of the age of Ubiquitous Computing: “the shift away from computing which centered on desktop machines towards smaller multiple devices distributed throughout the space” (Weiser, 1991 in Manovich, 2006). In truth, it was the microprocessor and Moore’s Law- “the number of transistors that can be fit onto a square inch of silicon doubles every 12 months” (Stokes, 2003) that led to many of the technologies that fall under this term: laptops, PDA’s, Digital Cameras, flash memory sticks and MP3 players. Only recently have we seen mobile telephony take on the true properties of the Internet.

The HARVEE project is partially backed by Nokia Corp. which recognises its potential as a Mobile 2.0 technology: user-generated content for mobile telephony that exploits web-connectivity. Mobile 2.0 is an emerging technology thematically aligned with the better established Web 2.0. Nokia already refer to their higher-end devices as multimedia computers, rather than as mobile phones. Their next generation Smartphones will make heavy use of camera-handling systems, which is predicated on the importance of user-generated content as a means to promote social interaction. This strategic move is likely to realign Nokia Corp.’s position in the mobile telephony and entertainment markets.

Last year, more camera phones were sold than digital cameras (Future Image, 2006). Nokia have a 12 megapixel camera phone ready for release in 2009, and it will be packaged with a processing unit equal to the power of a Sony PSP (Nokia Finland: non-public product specification document). MP3 and movie players are now a standard on many handsets, stored on plug-in memory cards and viewed through increasingly higher resolution colour screens. There is a growing mobile gaming market, the fastest growing sector of the Games Industry (Entertainment & Leisure Software Publishers Association (ELSPA) sales chart). The modern mobile phone receives its information from wide-band GPRS networks allowing greater network coverage and faster data transfer. Phone calls are the primary function, but users are exploiting the multi-media capabilities of their devices in ways not previously considered. It is these factors, technologic, economic and infrastructural that provide the perfect arena for Mobile AR’s entry into play.

Mobile Internet is the natural convergence of mobile telephony and the World Wide Web, and is already a common feature of new mobile devices. Mobile Internet, I would argue, is another path leading to Mobile AR, driven by mobile users demanding more from their handsets. Mobile 2.0 is the logical development of this technology- placing the power of location-based, user-generated content into a new real-world context. Google Maps Mobile is one such application that uses network triangulation and its own Google Maps technologies to offer information, directions, restaurant reviews or even satellite images of your current location- anywhere in the world. Mobile AR could achieve this same omniscience (omnipresence?) given the recent precedent for massively multi-user collaborative projects such as Wikipedia, Flickr and Google Maps itself. These are essentially commercially built infrastructures designed to be filled with everybody’s tags, comments or other content. Mobile AR could attract this same amount of devotion if it offered such an infrastructure and real-world appeal.

There is a growing emphasis on Ubiquitous Computing devices in our time-precious world, signified by the increased sales in Smartphones and WiFi enabled laptops. Perhaps not surprisingly, Mobile Internet use has increased as users’ devices become capable of greater connectivity. Indeed, the mobile connected device is becoming the ubiquitous medium of modernity, as yet more media converge in it. It is the mobile platform’s suitability to perform certain tasks that Mobile AR can take advantage of, locating itself in the niche currently occupied by Mobile Internet. Returning to my Mixed Reality Scale, Mobile AR serves the user better than Mobile Internet currently can: providing just enough reality to exploit virtuality, Mobile AR keeps the user necessarily grounded in their physical environment as they manipulate digital elements useful to their daily lives.