Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. Partially animated Edition. Tron

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. We’re all done with the animated films and are now dealing with the partially animated and live-action films. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: Tron

Year: 1982

Budget: $17 million

Box office: $33 million

Plot: Kevin Flynn is a leading software engineer formerly employed by the computer corporation ENCOM, who now runs a video arcade and attempts to hack into ENCOM’s mainframe system. However, ENCOM’s Master Control Program (MCP) halts his progress. Within ENCOM, programmer Alan Bradley and his girlfriend, engineer Lora Baines, discover that the MCP has closed off their access to projects.


When Alan confronts the senior executive vice president, Ed Dillinger, Dillinger claims that the security measures are an effort to stop outside hacking attempts. However, when Dillinger privately questions the MCP, he discovers the MCP has expanded into a powerful virtual intelligence and has become power-hungry, illegally appropriating personal, business, and government programs to increase its own capabilities. The MCP blackmails Dillinger with information about his plagiarizing Flynn’s games if he does not comply with its directives.


Lora deduces that Flynn is the hacker, and she and Alan go to his arcade to warn him. Flynn reveals that he has been trying to locate evidence proving Dillinger’s plagiarism, which launched Dillinger’s rise in the company. Together, the three form a plan to break into ENCOM and unlock Alan’s “Tron” program, a self-governing security measure designed to protect the system and counter the functions of the MCP. Once inside ENCOM, the three split up and Flynn comes into direct conflict with the MCP, communicating with his terminal. Before Flynn can get the information he needs to reveal Dillinger’s acts, the MCP uses an experimental laser to digitize and download Flynn into the ENCOM mainframe cyberspace, where programs are living entities appearing in the likeness of the human “Users” (programmers) who created them.

Flynn learns that the MCP and its second-in-command, Sark, rule and coerce programs to renounce their belief in the Users. The MCP forces programs that resist to play in deadly games and begins pitting Flynn in duels. Flynn meets other captured programs, Ram and Tron, between matches.


Partnered, the three escape into the mainframe during a light cycle match, but Flynn and Ram become separated from Tron by an MCP pursuit party. While attempting to help Ram, who was wounded in the pursuit, Flynn learns that he can manipulate portions of the mainframe by accessing his programmer knowledge. Ram recognizes Flynn as a User and encourages him to find Tron and free the system before “derezzing” (dying). Using his new ability, Flynn rebuilds a vehicle and disguises himself as one of Sark’s soldiers.

Tron enlists help from Yori, a sympathetic program, and at an I/O tower, receives information in his identity disk from Alan necessary to destroy the MCP. Flynn rejoins them, and the three board a hijacked solar sailer to reach the MCP’s core. However, Sark’s command ship destroys the sailer, capturing Flynn and Yori, and presumably killing Tron. Sark leaves the command ship and orders its deresolution, but Flynn keeps it intact by again manipulating the mainframe, while Sark reaches the MCP’s core on a shuttle carrying captured programs.

While the MCP attempts to absorb captive programs, Tron, who turns out to have survived, confronts Sark and critically injures him, prompting the MCP to give him all its functions. Realizing that his ability to manipulate the mainframe might give Tron an opening, Flynn leaps into the beam of the MCP, distracting it. Seeing the break in the MCP’s shield, Tron attacks through the gap and destroys the MCP and Sark, ending the MCP’s control over the mainframe, and allowing the captured programs to communicate with users again.

Flynn reappears in the real world, rematerialized at his terminal. Tron’s victory in the mainframe has released all lockouts on computer access, and a nearby printer produces the evidence that Dillinger had plagiarized Flynn’s creations. The next morning, Dillinger enters his office and finds the MCP deactivated, and the proof of his theft publicized. Flynn is subsequently promoted to CEO of ENCOM, and is happily greeted by Alan and Lora as their new boss.


Background: The inspiration for Tron occurred in 1976 when Steven Lisberger looked at a sample reel from a computer firm called MAGI and saw Pong for the first time.

“I realized that there were these techniques that would be very suitable for bringing video games and computer visuals to the screen. And that was the moment that the whole concept flashed across my mind”.


Lisberger had already created an early version of the character ‘Tron’ for a 30 second long animation which was used to promote both Lisberger Studios and a series of various rock radio stations. The film was eventually conceived as an animated film bracketed with live-action sequences. He had spent approximately $300,000 developing Tron and had also secured $4–5 million in private backing before reaching a standstill.

In 1980, he decided to take the idea to the Walt Disney Studios. The studio agreed to finance a test reel which involved a flying disc champion throwing a rough prototype of the discs used in the film. It impressed the executives at Disney and they agreed to back the film. Because of all the personal information about citizens which exist inside computer networks, such as social security number and driver’s license, the idea was that each real world person has a digital counterpart inside the Grid based on information about them, which is why it was decided to use some of the same actors in both worlds.

Animation: French comic book artist Jean Giraud (also known as Moebius) was the main set and costume designer for the film. Most of the vehicle designs (including Sark’s aircraft carrier, the light cycles, the tank, and the solar sailer) were created by industrial designer Syd Mead. Peter Lloyd, a high-tech commercial artist, designed the environments.


Tron was one of the first films to make extensive use of any form of computer animation. The computer used had only 2 MB of memory, and no more than 330 MB of storage. This put a limit on detail of background. The computers at the time could not do animation, so the frames had to be produced one by one. There was no way to digitally print them on film either; rather, a motion picture camera was placed in front of a computer screen to capture each individual frame.

Most of the scenes, backgrounds, and visual effects in the film were created using more traditional techniques and a unique process known as “backlit animation”.In this process, live-action scenes inside the computer world were filmed in black-and-white on an entirely black set. These negatives would then be used to make Kodalith sheets with a reverse (positive) image. The Kodalith sheets and cel overlays were placed over a light box while a VistaVision camera mounted above it made separate passes and different color filters. A typical shot normally required 12 passes.


Sound design and creation for the film was assigned to Frank Serafine, who was responsible for the sound design on Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979.

Music: The soundtrack for Tron was written by pioneer electronic musician Wendy Carlos, who is best known for her album Switched-On Bach and for the soundtracks to many films, including A Clockwork Orange and The Shining. The music, which was the first collaboration between Carlos and her partner Annemarie Franklin, featured a mix of an analog Moog synthesizer and Crumar’s GDS digital synthesizer, along with non-electronic pieces performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra.



Jeff Bridges as Kevin Flynn/Clu. He won numerous accolades, including the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role as Otis “Bad” Blake in the 2009 film Crazy Heart, and earned Academy Award nominations for his roles in The Last Picture Show, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Starman, The Contender, True Grit, and Hell or High Water. His other films include Jagged Edge, The Fabulous Baker Boys, The Fisher King, Fearless, The Big Lebowski, Seabiscuit, Iron Man, and The Giver. Bruce Boxleitner as Alan Bradley/Tron. He is known for his roles in the television series How the West Was Won, Bring ‘Em Back Alive, Scarecrow and Mrs. King, and Babylon 5. He co-starred in most of the Gambler films with Kenny Rogers.

David Warner as Ed Dillinger/Sark/voice of the Master Control Program. He appeared in numerous films such as Morgan – A Suitable Case for Treatment, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Tom Jones, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, Straw Dogs, Cross of Iron, The Omen, Holocaust, The 39 Steps, Time After Time, Portrait in Evil, Time Bandits, Titanic, Mary Poppins Returns, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country and Star Trek: The Next Generation. In 1981, he won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or Special for his portrayal of Pomponius Falco in the television miniseries Masada. Warner also played Bob Cratchit in Clive Donner’s A Christmas Carol. Cindy Morgan as Dr. Lora Baines/Yori. She is best known as Lacey Underall in Caddyshack. She also appeared on Falcon Crest, Matlock, The Larry Sanders Show, Amazing Stories, CHiPs, and Bring ‘Em Back Alive.

Barnard Hughes as Dr. Walter Gibbs/Dumont. He won Broadway’s 1978 Tony Award as Best Actor for his portrayal of the title role in Hugh Leonard’s Da. He also appeared in such films as Midnight Cowboy, Where’s Poppa?, Cold Turkey, The Hospital, Maxie, The Lost Boys, Doc Hollywood, Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit, The Odd Couple II, and The Fantasticks. He appeared on TV in such series as Naked City, The Secret Storm, Dark Shadows, Love Story, Blossom, Homicide: Life on the Street, All in the Family, Lou Grant. The Bob Newhart Show, Doc, Mr. Merlin, The Cavanaughs, and as The King in the PBS mini-series Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Dan Shor as Roy Kleinberg/Ram. His most recognized roles include Enoch Emery in John Huston’s Wise Blood and Billy the Kid in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Shor’s acting credits include Air Force One, Red Rock West, Friendly Fire, Elvis and the Colonel, The Blue and the Gray, Cagney and Lacey, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Star Trek: Voyager.

Peter Jurasik as Crom. He is known for his television roles as Londo Mollari on Babylon 5 and Sid the Snitch on Hill Street Blues. Tony Stephano 1 as Peter/Sark’s Lieutenant. Under the name Tony Stefano he was the centerfold for the women’s magazine Foxylady (February 1975 issue), which was similar to Playgirl.

Critical Reception:

  • Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film four out of four stars and described it as “a dazzling movie from Disney in which computers have been used to make themselves romantic and glamorous. Here’s a technological sound-and-light show that is sensational and brainy, stylish and fun”.However, near the end of his review, he noted (in a positive tone), “This is an almost wholly technological movie. Although it’s populated by actors who are engaging (Bridges, Cindy Morgan) or sinister (Warner), it’s not really a movie about human nature. Like Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back but much more so, this movie is a machine to dazzle and delight us”.
  • Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune also awarded four out of four stars, calling it “a trip, and a terrifically entertaining one at that…It’s a dazzler that opens up our minds to our new tools, all in a traditional film narrative.”
  • InfoWorld’s Deborah Wise was impressed, writing that “it’s hard to believe the characters acted out the scenes on a darkened soundstage… We see characters throwing illuminated Frisbees, driving ‘lightcycles’ on a video-game grid, playing a dangerous version of jai alai and zapping numerous fluorescent tanks in arcade-game-type mazes. It’s exciting, it’s fun, and it’s just what video-game fans and anyone with a spirit of adventure will love—despite plot weaknesses.”
  • On the other hand, Variety disliked the film and said in its review, “Tron is loaded with visual delights but falls way short of the mark in story and viewer involvement. Screenwriter-director Steven Lisberger has adequately marshalled a huge force of technicians to deliver the dazzle, but even kids (and specifically computer game geeks) will have a difficult time getting hooked on the situations”.
  • In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin criticized the film’s visual effects: “They’re loud, bright and empty, and they’re all this movie has to offer”.
  • The Washington Post’s Gary Arnold wrote, “Fascinating as they are as discrete sequences, the computer-animated episodes don’t build dramatically. They remain a miscellaneous form of abstract spectacle”.
  • In his review for The Globe and Mail, Jay Scott wrote, “It’s got momentum and it’s got marvels, but it’s without heart; it’s a visionary technological achievement without vision”.

Legacy: A novelization of Tron was released in 1982, written by American science fiction novelist Brian Daley. It included eight pages of color photographs from the movie. A sequel, Tron: Legacy was relessed in 2010 with Bridges and Boxleitner reprising their roles. The animated series Tron: Uprising takes place during the time period between the story lines of the two movies.


Shanghai Disney has a ride based on the film and a version is planned for the Magic Kingdom in Orlando.


My take: As a kid I thought this movie was awesome. I was so impressed as a kid with the computer animation, and although animation has made leaps and bounds since then, the graphics are such a representation of the era, that it just works (Have you noticed that many years later they are still playing the same games?)

Next Week: Flight of the Navagator