13 things you (probably) didn’t know about Tron

Tron_PosterDisney

Tron hit screens 40 years ago today. To celebrate, we’re looking back at the making of the sci-fi classic, examining its cultural impact, and seeing where the franchise might go next through these 13 things you (probably) didn’t know about Tron.

Inspired by the success of Star Wars at the tail-end of the 1970s, Disney wanted a sci-fi franchise of their own. The studio tried with The Black Hole, and when that didn’t work, they threw their weight behind Tron, which they hoped would also cash-in on the current arcade craze.

Playing on fears of computers at the time, Tron stars Jeff Bridges as Kevin Flynn, a software engineer works for a shady tech company called ENCOM, and who then becomes digitized and transported into a corporate mainframe where he does battle with living programs.

The film was a modest hit, but very much ahead of its time in terms of concept and visuals. A cult has built up around Tron since then, with the story spawning books, comics, games, an animated show, and even a movie sequel. But let’s go back to where it all began as we reveal 13 facts about Tron and its Legacy.

1. It started with Pong

pong_game_atari_tron-inspirationAtari
Atari classic Pong inspired Tron.

Tron is the brainchild of writer-director Steve Lisberger, who took inspiration from two sources in 1976. The first was a sample reel from a computer company called Mathematical Applications Group, Inc.

“That reel of computer-generated imagery impressed me terrifically with the computer’s capabilities,” Lisberger told the New York Times. ”Shortly after that, Atari came out with the first video game, called Pong and I put the two ideas together.”

Pong is as simple as video games get, but Lisberger thought the one-on-one battles could be turned into something more gladiatorial, and so Tron’s death-matches were born.

2. Rock ‘n’ Tron

Excited by “back-lit” animation – which other studios were using to create sets – Lisberger decided to make a back-lit character to promote his business. As the figure was “electronic” he called him Tron, and like the movie, he throws huge discs. But unlike the movie, this early version of the character had a beard and glows yellow.

The 30-second video was used to promote Lisberger Studios Inc., while a bunch of rock ‘n’ roll radio stations used the animation in their own TV adverts. And the success of those promos inspired Lisberger to try the technology in a feature.

3. Flynn was written for Robin Williams

Robin_Williams_in_Mork_and_MindyABC
Tron’s first writer wanted Mork & Mindy star Robin Williams to play Flynn.

Having previously collaborated on a film script, Lisberger asked Bonnie MacBird to write the Tron screenplay: “I was tasked with creating a script that would showcase these elements,” MacBird told MediaMikes in 2011. “But there was no story, and no characters, except I would have to create one named Tron who looked like this radio ad character.

“In addition to developing a personality and character needs for this figure, my first contribution was to create Flynn, as I felt you needed a real life character to interact with Tron inside of the computer.”

MacBird had recently seen Robin Williams do stand-up in a comedy club, and when he hit big with Mork and Mindy, she wrote the role of Flynn with him in mind.

4. Flynn originally delivered pizza

mike_myers_in_waynes_worldParamount
Flynn could’ve been this dude.

That original Bonnie MacBird script was much less serious than what ended up in the finished film. The screenwriter has variously described her Flynn as being wild and wacky, which is very different to how Jeff Bridges plays the character.

Speaking to Tron-Sector, MacBird says: “Flynn was a pizza delivery boy who fell inside the computer and had to find his way out. The script originally had a lot more humor in it, and more layered characters. The bit who longed to be a program, the program who longed to be a human, etc.”

While MacBird has a story credit on Tron, a bitter dispute over that credit occurred, and very little of her work ended up in the finished film.

5. Peter O’Toole wanted to play Tron

Peter_Otoole_in_my_favorite_yearMGM
Peter O’Toole in another 1982 release, My Favorite Year.

The filmmakers wanted Peter O’Tool to play the villainous Ed Dillinger, Senior Executive Vice President of ENCOM, and the man who steals Flynn’s work.

O’Toole had other ideas however. He wanted to play the film’s hero, Tron. A role written far a much younger man. O’Toole was soon out anyway, as when he heard the film’s sets would be digital rather than practical, he lost interest.

Another Brit – David Warner – ended up playing Dillinger, while Bruce Boxleitner was cast as Tron. And in another casting what-if, Debbie Harry apparently auditioned for the role of Lora, that ultimately went to Cindy Morgan.

6. The genius of Mead and Mœbius

jeff_bridges_and_cindy_morgan_in_tronDisney
Jeff Bridges and Cindy Morgan in Tron.

It’s often accused of having more style than substance, but few films look as good as Tron. And credit should go to two geniuses in their respective fields for the design of the movie.

Syd Mead worked on the vehicles in Tron, including the Light Cycles, Tanks, and Solar Sailor. An industrial designer, Mead contributed futuristic concepts to Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Blade Runner, Aliens, Elysium, and Tomorrowland. Even the AT-ATs in Star Wars are based on art by Mead.

Jean Giraud – better known as Mœbius – was responsible for many of the film’s sets and costumes. As a comic book artist, his work in fantasy and sci-fi was hugely influential, most notably in the pages of Heavy Metal. While as well as Tron, Mœbius contributed designs to movies like Alien, The Fifth Element and The Abyss.

Though while Tron was all about futurism, the costumes Mœbius designed couldn’t have been more lo-fi. Once inside the computer, the actors wore leotards, motorcross helmets, and lacrosse pads to create their various looks. As for that hi-tech circuitry on their onesies? They were drawn on with black pen.

7. Hidden Mickey

Hidden_Mickey_in_TronDisney
Hidden Mickey – underneath the Star Sailor – in Tron.

Disney animators often stick a Mickey Mouse head in their movies and shows, additions that have come to be known as “Hidden Mickeys.” Tron is no different, with that iconic outline visible when our hero’s are on the Solar Sailor.

Similarly Pac-Man can briefly be seen – and heard – just behind Sark when Tron and Ram are escaping from the Light Cycle arena.

And for a real deep cut, the words “Gort Klaatu Barada Nikto” can be glimpsed in an office cubicle. Which is an alien sentence uttered by Klaatu in sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still.

8. No Tron, no Toy Story

woody-and-buzz-in-toy-storyPixar
Toy Story was inspired by Tron.

While working on Mickey’s Christmas Carol at Disney, John Lasseter heard the studio was making a movie using computer animation. He was shown an unfinished clip of the Light Cycle sequence, and it changed his life.

Speaking to Animation World Magazine, Lasseter said “It absolutely blew me away. A little door in my mind opened up. I looked at it and said, ‘This is it! This is the future!'”

Lasseter convinced Disney to let him do a 30-second test that combined hand-drawn animation with computer backgrounds. “It was exciting,” says Lasseter, “but at the time, Disney was only interested in computers if it could make what they were doing cheaper and faster. I said, ‘Look at the advancement in the art form. Look at the beauty of it.’ But, they just weren’t interested.”

That lack of interest led to Lasseter forming Pixar, which who made Toy Story, which was followed by a bunch of hits that inspired Disney to buy Pixar, thereby bringing the whole thing full-circle.

9. Tron gets sexy

A deleted sequence from Tron features a (kind-of) love scene between the title character and Yori, during which Tron realizes what he’s fighting for. The scene plays out in Yori’s quarters, where she lights everything up in a moment more colorful than anything in the actual movie.

Yori then presses Tron’s buttons by touching his circuits, and magically changes into a bioluminescent gown. There’s a bit more circuit fiddling, followed by a classic ‘morning after’ moment. Lisberger regrets removing the scene, but while it’s visually stunning, the sequence does interrupt the flow of the film, and feels out of place tonally.

10. Oscar schocker

Tron_PosterDisney
Tron cheated by using computers, apparently.

Tron received Academy Award nominations for Best Sound and Best Costume Design, but it didn’t receive a nod for Visual Effects, for the strangest of reasons.

According to Steve Lisberger, the snub was because of perceived foul play. Speaking to SF Gate on the film’s 20th anniversary, Lisberger said “We used computer-generated imagery as an actual environment, which hadn’t been done at that point… The Academy thought we cheated by using computers.”

11. Tron: Legacy cameo

daft_punk_as_DJs_in_Tron_LegacyDisney
Daft Punk in Tron: Legacy.

Steve Lisberger wrote and directed the original Tron. He did neither on belated sequel Tron: Legacy, but did consult, and does briefly appear in the film. In a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo, Lisberger plays a bartender called Shaddix in the End of Line Club.

That’s also the venue at which Daft Punk cameo. The electronic pioneers – themselves heavily influenced by the 1982 film – were asked so score the new movie, and also play a pair of DJs in the End of Line.

12. The influence of Oz

judy_garland_in_the_wizard_of_ozMGM
The Wizard of Oz influenced both Tron movies.

Steve Lisberger believes The Wizard of Oz influenced both the original movie, and the sequel. Speaking to Den of Geek, he said…

“Salman Rushdie wrote a great piece about The Wizard Of Oz, where he talked about what it really means is we go through life trying to grow up, looking up to our parents as wizards, and then one day we realise that’s just a face on a curtain, and behind that curtain is my mother or my father.
“That’s very much the story of this film [Tron: Legacy], because Sam Flynn, his father’s nothing but a big legend. In this film, he really is like The Wizard Of Oz. You can’t love a legend. You can’t really connect with it or relate to it. And in this film, the legend becomes just a man, which is a good thing, and the son goes from being just a memory to a man. And when they can both look at each other as men, then the connection is there.
“In the case of the first film, this idea of the Programs looking up to us as gods is very much like The Wizard Of Oz, and the MCP is the Wizard, and we know that, underneath, he’s just a bunch of bits and bytes. We weren’t chasing down The Wizard Of Oz, thematically, but I think it’s in our DNA.”

13. The future of Tron

jared-leto-as-vampite-in-morbiusSony Pictures
Jared Leto in Morbius.

Expectations were high for Tron: Legacy, with a third film planned even before it was released, in which digital characters bled into the real world. But when Legacy received middling reviews and only did solid business, the studio lost interest.

Disney were thought to have green-lit Tron 3 in the summer of 2015, only to cancel the film that October. In August 2020, Garth Davis (Lion, Mary Magdalene) was offered the directing gig, with Jared Leto both producing and starring in a sequel that was rumored to be called Tron: Ares.

Then all went quiet, again. Though earlier this year – while promoting Morbius – Leto offered an update on the project.  Speaking to ScreenRant, the actor said: “I’m a super fan of Tron, and we are working hard on Tron with our incredible partners at Disney. Just an amazing group of creative people. We’re getting closer. We’re getting closer and closer, and who knows? Something may be [coming] sooner than later.”

But that was March, and we’re still waiting…

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