TRON's legacy

SU professor Larry Elin led the team of computer animators that brought the original 'TRON' to life -- and spurred a motion picture revolution.

Larry Elin spent most of 1981 holed up in his Elmsford, N.Y., office, staring at a boxy, 8-bit computer that crashed almost as often as it worked.

His fellow employees at MAGI Synthavision, a tiny computer graphics firm, regularly stayed overnight to work on the project. If anyone needed a nap, they curled up under their desks. If the computer went down, they all struggled to fix it.

Photo: Courtesy of Larry Elin
Larry Elin, shown here in 1982, led a pioneering team of computer animators at MAGI Synthavision that created a 22-minute sequence in the cult classic, TRON.

And after 12 months of work, the team finally had something to show for it: a 22-minute sequence in the 1982 cult classic TRON.

The much anticipated, TRON: Legacy, hits theaters this Friday, nearly three decades after the original film broke major motion picture ground. The sequel piggybacks on the original plot, bringing the protagonist’s son Sam Flynn into his hacker father’s life-or-death computer world.

What some might not realize, however, is that the polished CGI and state-of-the-art graphics in TRON: Legacy also owe something to the original 1982 flick – and that flick owes its innovation to Elin, now a Television, Radio and Film professor, and his team of animators and computer geeks at MAGI Synthavision.

In 1980, Elin and his team were working small, cutting-edge projects for a range of clients, including Close Encounters of the Third Kind, for which they did a brief film test, and IBM, for whom they made a 3D ad. But when TRON director Stephen Lisberger saw a presentation of the team’s work in Boston, he shelled out $1.2 million to have MAGI on the TRON project.

Before TRON, no other major motion film had used computer graphics in place of traditional, hand-drawn animation. That gave Elin and his team plenty of room to innovate. It also meant that they had no predecessors or standards to guide them.  At the time, for instance, there was no way to make computer-generated light fade or glow, like real light does. Over a month and a half, MAGI employees created that software themselves.

“We had to invent everything on the fly,” Elin said, while sitting in the fourth-floor Newhouse School office he has decorated with memorabilia from FernGully: The Last Rainforest and Honey I Shrunk the Kids, two other films to which he contributed.

To help the project along, MAGI also took on a young animator named Chris Wedge, who later co-founded Blue Sky Studios – the company that made Ice Age and Horton Hears a Who.

Wedge and his antics could sometimes be heard throughout the MAGI offices, as the hands-on animator envisioned the TRON Light Cycle racing vehicles by leaning back and forth in his chair and making motorcycle noises. His enthusiasm clearly paid off. Today, the blue and gold Light Cycle racers remain one of the most iconic images from the film.

"I wasn’t an animator, and Larry really wasn’t an animator," said Nancy Campi, one of the first SU graduates with a degree in computer graphics who worked at MAGI. "We knew how to make things move, but we didn’t know how to make animation look sexy, if you will."

Along with the hurdles that required vision to conquer, TRON presented some practical challenges for Elin and his team.

Being thousands of miles away from Disney’s California studios was logistically impossible, as Elin had to find ways to send their work across the country without any of the Internet technology studios rely on today. They had a computer-like machine connected to a telephone that transmitted information at roughly 1200 bits per second – meaning that an 11-second scene could take an hour to transfer. Often, it made more sense to just put the film cans on a plane to Burbank. In either case, Disney never sent anything back, and MAGI didn’t get to see what the finished scenes looked like until the film premiered.

The movie's arrival in theaters fared less well than expected. While audiences now embrace computer animation, as proven by blockbusters like this year’s Toy Story 3, TRON was a commercial flop. It took in only $26 million, a small sum by Disney standards, and only cemented the idea that the world was not ready for the dramatic change from 2D to 3D computer animation.

Obviously that has changed, as the hype for TRON: Legacy proves only too well. But Elin, for one, won’t take responsibility for the CGI revolution that his studio started almost 30 years ago.

"I think I had a hand on it," Elin said. "Technology is like a bucking bronco. It’s out of control.

"You can only hold on and see what happens."

That's My Uncle/Godfather!!!!

That's My Uncle/Godfather!!!! :] Whoo-Hoo!!!

Larry Elin you sir are a

Larry Elin you sir are a handsome devil, kudos on that mustache.

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