Director:  Steven Lisberger

Starring:  Jeff Bridges, Bruce Boxleitner, David Warner

A programmer is absorbed into the electronic world inside a computer, where he is forced to fight for his life.

Can it really be twenty years since Disney released Tron, the first film to feature computer graphics to any significant degree? Watching the film now, it’s not so hard to believe. Tron was certainly groundbreaking, but, although the CGI sequences like the bike race still hold up remarkably well (they’re a little plain, if not downright crude), the film is firmly rooted in the early 80s by the limitations of the photo-chemical compositing processes that were available at the time. Despite what Disney’s publicity unit implied at the time, the bulk of the scenes set inside the computer aren’t computer-generated: they were created with traditional rotoscoping techniques. (This basically involved overlaying animated elements over the top of the live-action film, a painstaking process that sometimes required as many as thirty layers of composited film!) The finished film features about a quarter of an hour of CGI, and about forty-five minutes of rotoscope-enhanced footage. Make no mistake, though: Tron was a remarkable achievement, and significantly advanced the art of special effects in the movies.

The Region 2 disc presents the film in a new anamorphic transfer that replicates its theatrical ratio of about 2.2:1 - it was originally a combination of Super Panavision 70 (for the live-action scenes) and VistaVision (for the CGI material). The transfer is a marked improvement over the original DVD version. (It’s not even worth comparing it to any home video version previously available in the UK). It boasts good detail (sharp enough to reveal a fair bit of film grain), and dazzling, vibrant colours. Contrast seems a little crushed in the darker areas, but this is likely to be an accurate representation of its original theatrical appearance. Flesh-tones – at least, those in the real world scenes – edge towards orange, but are generally acceptable. The disc has an unimpressive Dolby Digital 5.1 audio mix, which adds some nice touches like directional Tannoy announcements to the laboratory sequences; crowd chatter to the scenes in Flynn’s games arcade; little zings to the scenes inside the computer; and a little extra presence and sparkle to the film’s Wendy Carlos’ landmark synthesiser score.

Disney received a lot of criticism for releasing a DVD version in 1998 that lacked any of the special features from the superb Archive Edition NTSC laserdisc that they’d released only a couple of years earlier. They’ve more than made up for that now, though, with a superb two-disc Collector’s Edition DVD set, which contains all the bits and pieces that they’d put together for the laserdisc (including the very interesting commentary track, by director Lisberger, producer Donald Kushner and Special Effects Supervisors Harrison Ellenshaw and Richard Taylor), as well as new material exclusive to the DVD.

Anyone who’s interested in computer-generated special effects should grab a copy of this disc, even if they have little or no regard for the film itself. The companies that created the computer effects for Tron came from various backgrounds (one had created a couple of short animations for the advertising industry, another specialised in modelling simulations of nuclear explosions, for example), and each was pioneering at the cutting edge, discovering new techniques and applications as they explored a new art form. This disc is a valuable snapshot of the infant technology’s first tentative steps.

The backbone of the second disc is the new eighty-eight minute Making of Tron documentary (although this is not immediately obvious from the way the menus are laid out), which presents a comprehensive overview of the film’s gestation, creation and release, featuring contributions from most of the key contributors. The disc also features two deleted sequences (three, technically, but two are bookends of the same sequence: the other involves the simple addition of three screens of text at the beginning of the film). Also on offer are a handful of trailers; several storyboard presentations, and an extensive gallery of costume and set designs, production photo’s and poster art. There are also a couple of extracts from contemporary programmes about computer animation. Some of this material was obviously sourced from analogue NTSC sources, and looks slightly worse on the Region 2 disc than it does in its native format.

The Region 2 disc is a remarkably faithful facsimile of the American disc, which even maintains the very expensive-looking elaborate menus, (although they’ve dropped the cute computer-related menu titles that were on the American disc, which had “Sector Access” instead of “Scene Selection”, “Run Program” instead of “Play”, etc). The Region 2 disc is missing a couple of unrelated promotional trailers (for the surprisingly good Peter Pan sequel, Return To Neverland and a home video trailer for the under-appreciated Atlantis - The Lost Empire) and an unremarkable trailer for the forthcoming sequel, Tron 2.0: Killer App. The American disc also has a higher bit-rate for the audio (it’s at 448kbps - the UK disc is at 384kbps, perhaps so that the Spanish 5.1 mix and array of subtitles could be accommodated).

All credit to Disney for treating the film (which even its most loyal fans would admit has artistic faults) with great respect. They’ve never seemed traditionally fond of their live-action output (happy to license some terrific movies to companies like Anchor Bay, for example), but their Tron disc is an acknowledgement of its technical merits and its historical importance. Few companies have been as diligent in maintaining an archive as Disney, and a disc like Tron demonstrates how that policy is paying off handsomely in the DVD era.












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