By Michael Rizzo
Back in the early ’80s when the movie TRON was made, most people had never seen a computer outside of the giant mainframes occupying entire rooms. During our revisit to this pre-desktop era, we meet Dean Mitzner, production designer and early visionary of the visual effects revolution.
Like all films of the computer-generated genre, TRON’s success is grounded in a clearly visual vocabulary. Mitzner at the time had a few films under his belt, most notably Steven Spielberg’s 1941. His participation in this animated, live-action Disney experiment heralded a personal creative departure, and the film’s bold concept succeeded mostly because of its flawless, singular vision.
In technical terms, it ventured far beyond the seamless marriage of traditional animation techniques and live-action in films such as Mary Poppins (1964) by also including backlit animation. TRON was the first film created using 3D computer-generated imagery, or CGI, in its vehicles and action sequences. It involved over 1,000 visual effects shots, compositing on average of 12 to 15 layers per frame. “That’s a lot of intensive work to consider in addition to our even more demanding postproduction process,” recalled Mitzner during a recent Film Society tribute to his work on the film.
To provide the optimal physical background for the actors in the live-action sequence shooting, Mitzner covered every inch of scenery with black-flocked paper; literally miles of it. Aside from inadvertently giving the film a handmade quality—a cinematic paradox—it successfully absorbed all ambient light and provided the perfect nonreflective palette for director Steven Lisberger’s $18 million composited odyssey. Mitzner also masterfully achieved a decisive contrast between the neon-colored heat of the reality within the digital world of the master computer’s hard drive and the cold, darker starkness of the Encom video company’s interior spaces.
Re-viewing this groundbreaking film makes one realize just how amazing it was for its time. Yet, Disney gambled and failed financially on this watershed project—which can be viewed as a sure testament to the company’s reputation as an innovative film and animation company. Ironically, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences disqualified the film from being nominated for a visual effects Oscar because it “cheated” by using computers.
Mitzner admits to having felt somewhat in the dark at the time “designing scenery for such a high-concept film, cutting inroads into such uncharted territory.” But without his unshakable faith in Lisberger’s vision and in his own contribution, the success of this technical milestone and its followers like Star Wars, the Matrix and Lord of the Rings trilogies and even Toy Story, would never have been possible.
By Michael Rizzo