'Tron' Sequel Re-Imagines A Virtual World

Guest host Audie Cornish talks to Darren Gilford, the production designer of Tron: Legacy, and the man behind the slick new vehicles on screen in the 3-D re-imagining of the original.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, host:

And I am Audie Cornish.

The number one movie at the box office this weekend was the sequel to a flop - "Tron: Legacy." The original "Tron," released in 1982, struggled at the box office, but it since built a huge cult following. In the new film, Jeff Bridges reprises his role as Kevin Flynn, a game designer who disappears into the computer world he created.

(Soundbite of movie, "Tron: Legacy")

Mr. JEFF BRIDGES (Actor): (as Kevin Flynn) The grid. A digital frontier. I tried to picture clusters of information as they moved through the computer. What did they look like? Ships? Motorcycles? Were the circuits like freeways? I kept dreaming of a world I thought I'd never see. And then one day, I got in.

CORNISH: The original "Tron" survived long enough to inspire a sequel largely because of its look: revolutionary for 1982. The actors' skin was gray. The body suits trimmed in neon, hues of orange, blue and red. Motorcycles, cars and weapons were fashioned out of beams of light. Among the fans of the original is Darren Gilford, the production designer on the new "Tron: Legacy."

Mr. DARREN GILFORD (Production Designer, "Tron: Legacy"): The entire universe of Tron, in theory, comes from the mind of one man, which is Kevin Flynn, gives you an opportunity to design a complete universe that's seamless and cohesive, together as a unit. So everything from costumes to sets, to vehicles, to architecture, to make it look like it's all tied together was the challenge.

CORNISH: I spoke with Darren Gilford about what it was like designing "Tron: Legacy." He told me that, as with the first film, the look of the sequel depends on one key design element: light.

Mr. GILFORD: Everything you see in - once we're inside the computer, in that world, is theoretically from the, you know, the creator, who is Kevin Flynn. So, you know, to tie all this together, we really needed a design cue that would kind of wrap all this together, and light lines were the key for us and how we use light lines and the proportions of light lines and how they were rectilinear and then they would turn a corner but still keep a form, not get super organic.

My set decorator, Lin MacDonald, had literally a team of maybe, I don't know, between 15 and 20 people that their job was to just glue little LED lights together and bury them throughout the set in every way possible. And the...

CORNISH: Because the Tron landscape is actually incredibly dark. And it seems as though every square inch of this film is lit in a very different way or light is used in a very different way.

Mr. GILFORD: Yeah. I mean, light, again, is the glue. It's the bond that kind of ties everything together. So costumes were lit. It was really important to Joe to have the actual lighting of the costumes illuminate the characters.

CORNISH: So those little - those long strips on their bodies, those are actual lights. Those aren't added in after?

Mr. GILFORD: No, those are lamps. Those are working lamps.

CORNISH: Oh, my god.

Mr. GILFORD: That was another wrench thrown into the production, kind of, pipeline, that was another thing to manage that was very, you know, very temperamental and intricate to deal with, but I think the end result was just really beautiful.

I think if you would have done it in post-production, you wouldn't have got that interactive lighting between the characters. And even all the vehicles have light lines that wrap inside the interiors and the streets and the sidewalks and the buildings and the interior sets all have light wrapping in and out of them in every way we could kind of conceive.

CORNISH: Why was it important for you to do it that way? Because, you know, in this day and age, I think all of us expect a certain amount of computer-generated imagery. And it would seem that for "Tron," based on the original, that would be a proper fit.

Mr. GILFORD: Well, we do have a tremendous amount of CG set extensions and handoffs. But again, because this is a digital simulation and Joe Kosinski, our director's, you know, kind of mandate from day one was I really want this to feel as real of a simulation as possible. So we really wanted to - I think we really wanted to build as much as we could. And I think people would be surprised at the proportions of what we built.

CORNISH: Without giving too much away, can you describe an example of that, of something that you built that audience might not have expected?

Mr. GILFORD: Well, we built - actually, the back lot for Tron City was a really large building. It was almost a complete city block. And we built it up to about the height of 12 feet in areas and up to 16 feet in other areas. So we tried to capture the action on the street level as much as we could in camera with real actors and then extend all that above. So when we see Tron - the Tron world, a lot of that is physical set that the actors are actually walking in and interacting with and then it gets extended above.

CORNISH: We have another clip that I want to play. And in this scene, one of the central characters, a woman named Quorra, comes to save the day of the protagonist, Sam Flynn.

(Soundbite of movie, "Tron: Legacy")

Mr. GARRETT HEDLUND (Actor): (as Sam Flynn) Where you taking me?

Ms. OLIVIA WILDE (Actress): (as Quorra) Patience, Sam Flynn. All your questions will be answered soon.

Mr. HEDLUND: (as Sam Flynn) Whoa.

CORNISH: Now, I'd like to say I could describe what this vehicle look like, that they escape in, but it is pretty intense. And talk a little bit about the ways that you had fun designing in this film, because I read that you actually went to school for automotive design.

Mr. GILFORD: I did. But the practicality of that job is bumper heights and air bags and taillights and radio knobs. And I just - it was little limiting for me. So, getting a chance to work on movie vehicles, which are, really, just purely visual and, you know, we're not beholden to traditional engineering standards. It's just more fun than you can imagine. The ultimate design element of the film is the light cycle. I think it's the - it's one of the defining memories from the first film. And I think it's one of the most iconic movie vehicles ever.

CORNISH: And is this supposed to be - I mean, it's a motorcycle for those of us who haven't seen what it looks like. Only it's basically the coolest motorcycle you can ever think of in your life. I mean, I don't know if these actually - are there prototypes of these around that we can see in real life?

Mr. GILFORD: Yeah. We actually built a couple of them and they've been kind of traveling the world for marketing purposes. And it is so much fun to see that thing live in front of people and watch people kind of gawk and stare at it. And that was one of the things that was really important to show is seeing the lineage of the light cycle.

One of the things that I got to see early on was Steve Lisberger, the original director of the first film. I got to see his entire archive when I started the project. So I got to see the original Syd Mead designs of the light cycle. And he envisioned it originally as an open, you know, cockpit vehicle similar to what we'd executed in our film, but they just couldn't do it back then. The rendering - power to render a character on top of that bike just didn't exist and they ended up closing the canopy often. It still became an incredibly iconic design.

But we, you know, Joe and I thought wouldn't it be great to kind of go back to that vision and really blended the rider into the bike seamlessly for our movie?

CORNISH: As a production designer, how do you go from a movie like "Tron" to anything else?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GILFORD: You know, a lot of people didn't prepare me for that, you know, because it was such a creative opportunity. It was such an unbelievable experience to work on "Tron." I hope there's more out there. I certainly do. But it was an incredible experience, an incredible ride. And, you know, definitely the highlight of my career.

(Soundbite of music)

CORNISH: Darren Gilford is the production designer for "Tron: Legacy." He joined us from our studio in Culver City.

Darren Gilford, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. GILFORD: Thank you very much for having me.

(Soundbite of music)

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