If there was any question just how cutting-edge the effects for Disney’s TRON were in 1982, those questions should be put to rest with the short video above wherein the making of the Disney film is explored by Walter freaking Cronkite. He adds a certain gravitas to the subject of a dude getting zapped into a computer that it might not otherwise have. Can’t you just feel the 1980s leaking off that video? Brace yourselves: it was even “recorded and archived in Betamax® format.” Somebody tell Max Headroom to toss me a New Coke, would ya?
All jokes aside, I eat stuff like this up. It’s one of the reasons I love the Internet (at least on the days I don’t hate the Internet). The clip is from Cronkite’s science series Universe, which ran from 1980 – 1982. It’s a reminder of just how far technology has come in a relatively short amount of time, from the days when TRON was a jaw-dropper to the point where we can pretty much put anything you can think of up on screen, it’s just a matter of money.
But even three decades later, TRON still impresses precisely because the technology they were using was still in its infancy. We’re all so used to seeing people dolled up in motion-capture suits in front of walls of green that it’s fascinating to look back at how the filmmakers combined those nascent CGI effects with more traditional techniques such as the backlit cell animation that gave the film’s characters their distinct and striking look. TRON: Legacy is a visual wonder, but all that modern digital wizardry is built on the legacy of a film that was truly breathtaking at the time.
And honestly? Even now there’s something magical about the sequence where they “digitize” Cronkite and follow his lead to immerse him within the world of the Grid. Even though more advanced effects are a dime a dozen these days, there’s still a sense of the frontier looking back at footage like this. Maybe it’s just because this is a relic of my youth, but it doesn’t take much for me to let myself slip back into the mind of my four-year-old self while watching this and still be enchanted by the magic of it all. And this is one sort of magic that isn’t lessened at all by knowing how the trick was done.