By Richard Huffman

George Lucas. Peter Jackson. Robert Zemeckis. Three film visionaries who bet the farm on untested technologies for film production; bets that led to the creation of some of the world’s most successful film production and effects houses. But have you heard of Steven Lisberger? How about Kerry Conran? Both of these filmmakers were almost entirely untested by Hollywood. Both of them helmed freshman productions costing tens of millions of dollars using entirely new, completely unproven techniques. And both of them failed spectacularly—or were perceived to have failed; never to make another film since.

Steven Lisberger was the force behind Tron, and Kerry Conran created Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Had each of these films succeeded, it’s certain that the production houses built to create them would be major forces today in Hollywood. Had either of these directors succeeded, perhaps they’d be the household Hollywood names that Lucas, Jackson, and Zemeckis have become. But they didn’t succeed. Nevertheless, they deserve to be praised for their vision and the risks they took. Read on…

Steven Lisberger, the man behind Tron


Truth be told, Steven Lisberger’s Tron (1982) wasn’t actually a failure. In fact it made about 35 million dollars in 1982 against its reported cost of 17 million. But compared against the sky-high expectations for the film, Tron just died on the vine.

But as a pioneering unique artistic and technical achievement, Tron deserves to a place alongside Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, George Lucas’s Star Wars, and John Lasseter’s Toy Story. As the first movie to extensively use computer graphics, Tron has been justifiably lauded as a landmark production. But equally important in the success of the look of Tron was landmark hand animation techniques pioneered by Lisberger that melded perfectly with the brief, rudimentary computer graphics.

Tron tells the story of a computer video game programmer, Flynn (Jeff Bridges), who’s best work has been stolen by an evil megacorporation. Flynn is sucked into the mainframe computer of the evil corporation, and finds himself alongside avatar representations of his real world friends (sort of like in The Wizard of Oz). Flynn battles the computer by playing the games he created and mastered in the real world and ultimately defeats the master program.

tron3In the late 1970s, Steven Lisberger was a young animator who ran his own tiny animation studio out of Boston, with a staff of about a dozen people. They created advertisements using traditional animation techniques along with some more radical techniques. One of the more dazzling effects that they mastered was a backlighting animation effect, which utilized the creation of a white on black master cell, and a mask made from the master. Bright lights would shine through colored gels behind the mask, creating an appealing glow in the highlighted areas. It really was an amazing effect in the late seventies and was much imitated at the time.

Liserberger Studios created a short test clip featuring the technique that ended with a representation of a electronic man; Lisberger dubbed him “Tron,” which was short for electron. He sold the clip to several radio stations around the country to serve as an ad for their rock stations. At the back of his mind, Lisberger began to formulate a movie plot around his little Tron character.

Lisberger and his entire studio packed up and moved from Boston to Venice, California to complete two animated films for NBC TV in conjunction with the Winter and Summer Olympics. While working on the films, Lisberger began fully developing his Tron film; tentatively setting it up as an independent production. After the cancellation of NBC’s coverage of the Summer Olympics, Lisberger’s second Olympics film was cancelled as well, and Lisberger began to realize that he needed a partner to get Tron produced.

Lisberger pitched every studio in Hollywood; they all passed, until he approached Walt Disney. The Walt Disney Studios in 1980-1981 is a far cry from the juggernaut that it grew to become over the last twenty years. Long gone were the glory days of 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, and even the success of lower-budget fare like Herbie the Love Bug were a decade old. But they were a diversified company, flush with theme park money, and could afford to take some chances. They bought the project with Lisberger as the director.

Tron2In retrospect, it’s pretty extraordinary the chances they took with Tron. Essentially the film used two entirely new film techniques; backlit animation and computer animation. Both techniques were central to the film; 80 to 90 percent of the film would use one technique or both. And neither had been used in any film before for anything more than a few seconds of footage.

The film was not cheap; Steven Spielberg’s E.T. was produced at the same time for 11 million dollars. Lisberger’s Tron would cost almost twice as much.

To capture the action inside the computer world, Lisberger shot scenes using a VistaVision 65 millimeter camera with black and white film. Each scene was filmed on an entirely black set, with the actors wearing stark white costumes, with black detailing. The old-school, high resolution VistaVision film stock with its enormous size (compared to the standard 35mm) was necessary because the film would need to be processed several times as layers of animation were added, degrading the stock with each step.

Every single frame in the film (outside of the bookend “real world” scenes) was printed on a huge cell, and was hand animated by a legion of California and Taiwan animators. The distinctive glow of each character’s suit was created by shining gelled lights through the cell. Because of the complexity of some shots, with multiple characters and challenging backgrounds, some cells were the product of 20 to 30 animation passes… for every 24th of a second of film.

The end result was unlike anything ever seen before or since. It’s hard to describe the look; black and white faces, oddball glowing elements on stark, yet beautiful geometric backgrounds. These backgrounds were almost all hand-animated, but the look was so unique that most people at the time (and since) assumed that they were part of the much touted computer animation of the film.

There really was no other way to have created the look and feel of Tron than using Lisberger’s pioneering backlit animation technique. Unfortunately the look is so distinctive that there really has been no reason to use the technique again; and with the advent of computer animation, you could certainly replicate the look easily without the giant VistaVision cameras and legions of hand animators.

The film features about twenty minutes of pioneering computer graphics as well. By today’s standards, the footage is plainly rudimentary. Tanks, cosmic ships, “lightcyles” and other effects are strewn throughout the production. It’s to Lisberger’s credit that they meld perfectly and fluidly into the overall look of the film. Their simple clean shapes match perfectly with the hand drawn backlight scenes they support.

Every single computer animation in Tron could have been recreated on the fly by a Playstation 1 computer in the mid 1990s. But in 1981, a second of footage might take a day to render. And there was no preview image available; programmers would figure out on graph paper the various x, y, and z axis’s of each object for each frame, and then punch them into the computer by hand. The first they’d see of the result was in the dailies theater along with Lisberger and everyone else.

Lisberger also pioneered a production method for computer graphics that has only recently become quite common; farming out the jobs to several production houses. Lisberger hired four different computer animation houses to each tackle specific jobs for the film. Given the newness of the technology, it was either a genius move to not put all of his eggs in one basket, or a desperate move to make sure that the animation was completed within a reasonable time. Either way, the days of large productions using a single effects production house is increasingly giving way to farming out the effects to dozens of smaller houses (one look at the credits of Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto shows what seems like two dozen different computer effects houses listed; increasingly a typical occurrence).

Probably the most important production technique that Lisberger mastered for Tron was the black screen filming; a virtually identical process to today’s blue and green screen productions. For months on end the actors found themselves on an entirely black set, performing to tennis balls and masking tape x’s on walls. This technique is the defacto standard today, but in 1981 it was truly revolutionary, and certainly a major challenge for the actors.
Expectations were quite high when the film was set to be released in the summer of 1982. Disney was justifiably proud of the unique film and many Disney executives began to mentally prepare for a blockbuster.

Alas, it was not to be. It may have been the Juggernaut that was E.T. The Spielberg film had been released a month earlier, but was already on its march to becoming the top grossing film of all time (later beaten by Titanic). It may have been just too different or odd for the marketplace. The look of the film may have been too off-putting to be engaging. Whatever the reason, the film was not a blockbuster, and though it earned a profit, it was lumped together with the Black Hole as proof that Disney was out of the mainstream.

And for Lisberger, it was his last Hollywood film. So much of the reputation of the film was tied up in the radical production techniques–and not the quality of the direction–that perhaps Lisberger was not viewed as a viable commodity in Hollywood.

In 2002 Disney put out a terrific video game, Tron 2.0, based on the original film. They also released a definitive 20th Anniversary DVD of the film. As the DVD and video game neared market, Lisberger and Disney began serious plans for a sequel to Tron; the DVD is littered with references to a forthcoming film, and Jeff Bridges was said to be very interested in recreating his character of Flynn.

But 20 years later it became déjà vu all over again. Like the original Tron film, the Tron 2.0 video game sold OK, but well under expectations. The DVD sold well, but not spectacularly. And the plans for a Tron sequel? They’re back on hold, waiting for another revival.

Next: Sky Captain

Kerry Conran, the man behind “Sky Captain”


Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004) began in 1994 with a young man, a Macintosh computer, and acres and acres of talent. With the help of his brother and some friends, Kerry Conran pieced together a short film inspired by the fantasy movie serials of the 1930s. A truly stunning work, the film “the World of Tomorrow” used spot-on vintage film techniques coupled with high-tech 3D animation and compositing to create a short, 6-minute masterwork. Zeppelins, flying robots, and a hero named “Sky Captain” who circled New York in a plane populated this beautiful work.

First shown around Hollywood in 1998, it was mesmerizing and unlike anything ever produced before. The fact that it was apparently done by one guy (actually with the help of others) in his spare time, on a lowly underpowered Macintosh only added to the allure of the film. Hollywood was beginning to embrace CGI for its live action films, but nothing had ever been produced that employed CGI on this scale with this much visual style and panache.

sky2Film producer Jon Avnet saw the film was blown away. Avnet has a history in Hollywood as successful producer of quality productions (Men Don’t Leave, Fried Green Tomatoes) and family-friendly fare (the entire Mighty Ducks franchise). Avnet proposed to Conran that they develop a full feature film based on his short, with Avnet producing.

In the producer’s commentary track on the DVD release of Sky Captain, Avnet offers revealing insight into the production. Though he doesn’t say so explicitly, it’s clear that Avnet was thinking: “If this guy can put out this amazing work in his basement, with no money, then if we give this guy a small stable of artists and computers, he should be able to deliver a full film for next to nothing.” In retrospect it was clear that Avnet and Conran drastically underestimated their ability to produce the film cheaply, in-house.

Avnet used his considerable connections to get Jude Law and Gwenyth Paltrow to sign on (for drastically reduced rates) and shopped the project around for financing. Worried about interference from a studio, Avnet opted to seek independent, international financing.

After four years of work, Avnet finally lined up financing and production began. Conran set up a mini-studio in Van Nuys, in the heart of the porn production empire of the San Fernando Valley. He hired animators and gave them first rate workstations and a larger renderfarm to use. The plan was to work for about a year on the graphics, punctuated early on with a one-month shoot with Law, Paltrow, and the other actors in London.

sky3Reality set in early for Avnet and Conran as they realized that their renderfarm didn’t have the computing power to deliver what they needed. After building up the system, they found that they constantly had to bring in new portable air conditioners to prevent brown out. And none of their efforts were even close to being enough; the original plan was to have Conran’s crew create all 2000 effects shots in-house. After doing some back of the envelope calculations—already well into the production—they realized that they could only complete about half of them in the allotted time with their existing set-up.

Avnet sought out new financing and secured a partner with Paramount. With this new angel to support them came a sword of Damocles, a hard release date that the production crew MUST meet. Conran transitioned into more of a supervisory producer as he shopped out shots to many additional houses, adding expense to the production but offering the ability to deliver the film on time. By the time the production was finished, this low-budget, seat-of-the-pants production that had started in one guy’s basement, ballooned in costs to a reported 71 million dollars.

But what a glorious, precious production it was. The imagery and vision developed in Conran’s original short was beautifully, fully realized. The film looked like the perfect visualization of some form of alternate reality; a great serial of the late-1930s with effects techniques of the coming new century. As an exercise in nostalgia, it succeeded beautifully.

But as a financial success? Not so much. It opened to a respectable 15 million, but quickly dropped before topping out at 38 million US. Internationally it fared much worse; bringing in only 20 million.
There are many equally likely theories for Sky Captain’s failure. Though it was a brilliant exercise in style, it was oddly uninvolving. The film starred two of the top actors of the day, Jude Law and Gyweneth Paltrow. While it may have been a coup at the time securing their services for the film, in retrospect Sky Captain seems like the first steps of their eventual career slide. And Jude Law seems especially wrong in the dashing hero role.

The failure might also have been because the long, labored history of the project ensured that many other CGI products had already flooded the market; it didn’t seem quite so special anymore. What was truly extraordinary in 1998 became just another exercise in style in 2004, after the release of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy and dozens of other films. What should have been the first film out of the gate ended up arriving well after the last of the initial gee-whiz CGI spectulars that could inspire awe before the effect become pedestrian in the eyes of the movie-going public.

It’s too bad that artistic success tends be conflated with financial success because Sky Captain truly is a beauty to behold; Conran’s vision was fully realized and unique.

He hasn’t helmed a film since, and none are listed on the horizon in the IMDB.