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Tron: Culture and Legacy

Although Tron (1982) is often cited as the first use of computer animation in mainstream film, there is far more to its significance than what we see on screen. As an artistic influence on everything from fashion to music, Tron has created a cultural cosmos we now term its ‘legacy’. All this thanks to a 29 year baby boomer who dared to dream idealistic…

Creator and director of the original Tron, Steven Lisberger, freely admits that his film, the very idea in fact, was born out of hippie ideology; the creation of unity between the analogue and digital world:

We were idealistic. The Gen-Xers are much more realistic, but at the same time my generation is certainly guilty of being too unrealistic. We dreamt so big and we failed to follow through. But the challenge is for the Gen-Xers to be realistic but to not give up totally on idealism.

The first visual representation of Tron was as a warrior figure in neon; this is contrast to the popular backlit disco silhouette of the 1970s. Any conflict between a combatant and Lisberger’s proposed message of harmony can be reconciled by the ‘disc’ this character would eventually carry above his (or her – androgyny is an important factor in the world of Tron) head. The disc is the single most important symbol in the Tron universe.

This disc, fundamentally a ring-shaped beam of light attached to the rear portion of the suit worn by those inside the Tron world or ‘Grid’ is intended to represent life force. That it can be removed from the body and used as a weapon is emblematic of how this life force can disassociate from the wearer’s personality; that by throwing the disc you are somehow ‘putting yourself out there’. On a more primitive level the disc is either alienation from technology, or your synchronization with it.

The ‘light suits’ worn by protagonists in the original movie, Kevin Flynn/Clu (Jeff Bridges), Alan Bradley/Tron (Bruce Boxleitner), Lora/Yori (Cindy Morgan) et al are fondly remembered, though as fabricated from a thin layer of tan spandex, surprisingly basic. Aside from a luminescent blue light added in post-production, most significant was their display of ‘exposed technology’ – bare digital circuitry elemental to the design motif.

A desire to encompass rather than hide technology is a component of 1980s design. Arguably inspired by Tron, the suggestion of seeing how technology worked proved a fascinating component: see-through plastic cases on watches, personal stereos and flashlights, for example, and by mid-decade onwards with fashion by Jean Paul Gaultier, most apparent on screen with his creations for Kika (1993) starring Victoria Abril as sadistic TV personality ‘Andrea Scarface’.

The Tron ‘look’ has also pervaded music too, recently with Daft Punk, the French electro pop duo whose performance style owes much to influence of the film. Moreover many pop videos of the 1980s took inspiration from the dazzling light landscapes of Tron, as well as night-clubs and wine bars adopting a cool blue vibe with a nod to the barren alienation of technology. Steven Lisberger may have intended Tron as the union between analogue and digital, yet a more common reading is fear. A suggestion that has not escaped his notice:

We thought if we could access the information and computers, if we could all communicate, wouldn’t the world be a much better place? It was hopelessly idealistic.

More positively, Tron did inspire the future father of its evolution, now assistant professor of architecture at Columbia University and one time commercials director Joseph Kosinski, in all his creative works up to and including taking the reigns for Tron Legacy – even if he cites this influence as purely subliminal:

I never really thought about it. I grew up loving the work of Stanley Kubrick and Ridley Scott. And David Fincher movies. My work is a combination of all those influences.

It is worthwhile noting that Joseph Kosinski’s most famous commerical ‘Les Jumelles’ (The Twins) for Nike in 2004 was ‘Tron like’ before he even signed on. The one-piece, skin tight running suits were overtly similar to the original film’s costume design – Kosinski just went where his creativity took him:

(Nike) brought those suits to me. It was called the speed line for the Olympics that year. That’s maybe an example of ‘Tron’ influencing Nike in a way, and fashion, which it certainly has done.

In practical terms Tron’s most obvious cultural implication is that it can be used as a verb. A 2005 music video with vector style graphics and lookalike light cycles, ‘Paris to Berlin’ by Infernal, can undoubtedly be described as ‘Tron like’. As can a bright orange LED dress designed by Alexandre Vauthier, worn by singer Rihanna during her recent Last Girl on Earth tour.

For Steven Lisberger, his intention was that ‘form follow function’, but in the world of high fashion in particular, i.e. purely aesthetic construction, function will always be secondary to design. ‘Tron like’ does not equate to purpose, it equates to expression.

What this will mean for the future of the concept is imminently debatable and yet entirely in the lap of our present cultural zeitgeist. Tron Legacy is Joseph Kosinski’s evolution of a world which is now technically obsolete. The suggestion here is that the Grid itself has evolved along with the real world. This is a natural progression in terms of storytelling, although cultural significance cannot be measured in terms of what is ‘natural’ or even instinctive. Kosinski notes:

That’s one of the main reasons why I was attracted to this project: the possibility to do something new. The legacy of the original ‘Tron’ was that it pushed boundaries in so many different ways.

Thus this begs a new question: What is the legacy of Tron Legacy? Immediately it would seem that the advancement of technology, specifically the first 3D use of visual effects company Digital Domain’s ‘Emotion Capture’ to ensure Jeff Bridges is the only actor to ever play opposite a younger version of himself. Despite this hi-tech marvel, however, it is hoped that Tron Legacy, as with the original film, will take us beyond shifting technological goalposts and into a new realm of artistic design. Tron 2.0, in others words.

Steven Lisberger and Joseph Kosinski were interviewed at Digital Domain in Los Angeles, September 2010.

Look out for more Tron Legacy articles coming soon at Clothes on Film, including a detailed look of the development of the new light suits and an analysis of the paradox inherent with Tron inspired fashion merchandising.

© 2010 – 2018, Lord Christopher Laverty.