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Digital Domain Creates a 21st-Century Tron: Legacy

By Christine Bunish

  The location of Flynn's arcade — on Moebius and Mead Streets — pays homage to the electronic conceptual designers of the 1982 film. Photo © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved
  The location of Flynn's arcade — on Moebius and Mead Streets —
pays homage to the electronic conceptual designers of the 1982 film.
Photo © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Fans of 1982's Tron, the groundbreaking VFX film of its day, have waited almost three decades for its sequel, Tron: Legacy, which picks up the story with a now-grown Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) discovering a way to enter The Grid, a virtual world inside the computer where his father, Kevin (Jeff Bridges), disappeared.

With a fan base of baby boomers to please and a new generation of moviegoers to captivate, the stakes have been high for Tron: Legacy. A month after it was released the stereo 3D feature from Walt Disney Studios had grossed more than $343 million worldwide and passed the $50-million mark on IMAX screens alone.

Since all but a few minutes at the start and end of the film take place in The Grid, VFX play a starring role. The digital artists who worked on Tron: Legacy at Venice, California's Digital Domain (www.digitaldomain.com), the film's lead digital production studio, and its international outsource partners, were outfitted with equipment and capabilities that their counterparts on the original Tron could only dream about.

Academy Award-winning Digital Domain's involvement in the project began more than four years ago when VFX supervisor Eric Barba teamed with Tron: Legacy director Joseph Kosinski on spots for the launch of Xbox 360 video games Gears of War and Halo 3. "Joe [Kosinski] came to the attention of producer Sean Bailey who talked to him about what he wanted in a sequel to Tron," Barba recalls. "They came to us for a test for Tron, but I was heavily involved with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button at the time and passed it off to another team here at the end of 2007."

By the time the Digital Domain team finished six months later the test had grown to a three-minute piece in stereo 3D that dazzled audiences at Comic-Con 2008.


Kevin Flynn's nemesis Clu bears the face of his younger self (Jeff Bridges) in a tour de force of acting and VFX.
Photo © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Although Barba was still engrossed with Benjamin Button, a key part of which had direct applications to Tron: Legacy, he was named VFX supervisor for the latter and began to plan how to tackle the sequel.

  Digital Domain VFX supervisor Eric Barba put his experience on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to good use on Tron: Legacy
  Digital Domain VFX supervisor Eric Barba put his experience on
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to good use on Tron: Legacy.

Barba was a collaborative partner with Kosinski from the beginning. "Joe had strong visual ideas about what should happen, and we had to live up to what [electronic conceptual designers Jean] Moebius [Giraud] and [Syd] Mead designed for the 1982 film. It was a huge artistic challenge to make people feel connected to the first film and yet make a new film for a modern audience."

A team staffed with "amazingly-talented artists and designers" began blocking out a world with Kosinski that felt like The Grid three decades later. "Darren Gilford worked with Joe to set up Disney's art department for Tron: Legacy here at Digital Domain," Barba explains. The convenience of having the designers and VFX artists working side-by-side would prove to be immeasurable. "Our modeling and pre-viz team had a quick, interactive process [with the designers] to figure out sequences," he says. "Some designs were easy to adapt in 3D software and get fully-realized 3D models. But some amazing 2D illustrations were harder to translate into a moving environment."

Enter Stereoscopic 3D
An additional challenge was that Tron: Legacy was conceived as a stereo 3D production at a time when that was still relatively rare for major feature films. "It was well before anyone saw Avatar," Barba reminds us. "We had never done a stereo 3D movie before. The state-of-the art technology was still two cameras strapped together with a mirror when we began shooting in 2009."

They knew that stereo 3D pioneer Vince Pace was "the guy" to partner with on Tron: Legacy's production. Avatar had been shooting with Sony HDC-950 and F23 cameras, but Kosinski and DP Claudio Miranda opted for Sony F35 cameras with a Super 35mm-sized sensor that required new rigs. "Joe and Claudio wanted the bigger sensor for more traditional depth of field," Barba says. "That plays out in how the movie looks. It was something we could use artistically as well."

When and how to use pop-out stereo 3D effects were based on what Barba calls "a window approach to the world. We decided we wouldn't bring it on as a gimmick or a gag but only where it was appropriate to a scene."

A lot of software for dealing with stereo 3D was developed at Digital Domain, he adds. "To test and view the 3D we had to install a RealD system on a Christie projector here. We had to develop tools to adjust the stereo 3D — some were as simple as making the virtual camera look like the cameras in the Pace rig and sharing that with our outsource partners so we could load all the data, do the renders and the live-action integration and it would all look like it was shot by the same DP. With the [F35's] sensor on Master Primes you get a shallow depth of field and beautiful images with lights and colors. All the CG had to match that live-action cinematography."

Digital Domain VFX supervisor Eric Barba put his experience on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to good use on Tron: Legacy.
The nerve center where Digital Domain's digital artists working on Tron: Legacy performed their wizardry.

Digital Domain also teamed with The Foundry to develop a suite of tools for ColourMatcher, an OCULA plug-in for Nuke, that fixed polarization issues found in the photographic plates. An alpha build of the new solution was implemented in the Digital Domain pipeline and rolled out to its VFX partner studios; the alpha has since been released as OCULA 2.1.

Digital Domain's own tracking software also had to be revamped to track the left and right eyes precisely. "When you see a CG head on a live actor on a 50-foot IMAX screen it has to sit beyond a half-pixel precision," Barba says.

During production, "we paid attention to the 3D movies that came out and the complaints we heard from audiences," he notes. "Some movies shot live action with too much separation, and on a 50-foot screen that becomes very uncomfortable for viewers. [The Grid] was a super-contrasty world with bright lights and dark backgrounds and that can produce ghosting, which is also uncomfortable to see. So we spent more time than we expected to make sure the 3D was a comfortable, enjoyable experience."

Kosinski, Miranda and Barba made a group decision not to use a stereographer for the film believing that having a stereographer on set "allows everyone to hide from the responsibility of learning and understanding stereo 3D. We all wore the stereographer hat and learned how to make our own artistic decisions."

Digital Domain animation director Steve Preeg became known as Captain Stereo during the course of production, however. "He had an amazing sensitivity to when something was not right; he had a finer sense of it than Joe or I," says Barba. "We were all very concerned that the 3D be an immersive experience for the audience but not one that would give them headaches or make them feel nauseous."

Moments after finding himself in The Grid, Sam Flynn is captured by a Recognizer and flown through the city on his way to becoming a disk-game combatant. Photo © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Moments after finding himself in The Grid, Sam Flynn is captured by a Recognizer and flown through the city on
his way to becoming a disk-game combatant.
Photo © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Clu, In The Grid, With an Army
One of the biggest challenges for Digital Domain was creating Clu, Kevin Flynn's nemesis who seized control of The Grid and forced Kevin into hiding when the portal back to the real world closed. Clu, who is seen throughout the film, is the alter ego of the Kevin Flynn we saw in the 1982 Tron. Much of the movie has Clu, depicted as the younger Jeff Bridges, squaring off against today's Jeff Bridges playing the older Kevin Flynn.

Sound complicated? It was. But, fortunately, it was not without precedent at Digital Domain. Barba was working on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, in which real-life young Brad Pitt also plays his older self, when the test for Tron: Legacy was produced.

"While I was finishing Benjamin Button I was able to roll my team onto Tron: Legacy," he says. "We had a huge knowledge base and had devised a method of working on that film that could be brought to the new picture. But remember that we've all seen Jeff Bridges at 35; we know how he looked and acted. We haven't seen an 85-year-old Brad Pitt, so we had more artistic license with [Pitt]."

Skin and eye systems developed for Benjamin Button did not have to be retooled for Tron: Legacy, "a big bonus" for Barba's team. But "Clu had 10 times as much as hair as Benjamin Button, and it was blowing around," he says. "So we had to rewrite the hair system and the dynamic system for the hair; digital hair supervisor Mattias Bergbom did a stellar job."

Another major difference was how the actor's performance was captured. "After Benjamin Button was cut Brad came in and did a new performance [as his older self] with a four-camera system recording him. He'd click into character instantly," Barba recalls. "Jeff wanted to be on the set, feeling the other characters and being in the moment. So we came up with a four-camera, helmet-mounted system for Jeff [who had 140 optical performance-capture dots on his face] to wear on the set. The hardware was from Image Movers Digital and Disney; we wrote the software."

Digital Domain's Faceplant software took the 3D moving-point data from the four cameras and calculated what the movements meant to Bridges's face based on a library of face shapes made during a motion-capture session in June 2008. Those timings were retagged onto the younger model of Bridges built in the computer, and a fully-CG Clu head was composited onto actor John Reardon's body.

"The animators were able to make fine adjustments to his performance, but Clu's performance was all Jeff," says Barba. "The last thing you want to do with an actor of Jeff's caliber is have an animator try to interpret his nuances — and he's very nuanced as Clu who's strange, creepy, full of pent up anger. Watching Jeff slip into those different roles on the set was great to see."

The same techniques applied to Clu were used to create the Tron character who also appeared in the original film. He bears the face of the young Bruce Boxleitner who co-stars in Tron: Legacy as Kevin Flynn's colleague and the catalyst for Sam's journey to The Grid. Since the Tron character is not as prominent as Clu, the animators did not spend as much time on him, opting for a "slimmed down and more cost-effective process" to capture his performance.

Nevertheless, "creating a photoreal human has been the Holy Grail of animation," Barba notes. "Tron: Legacy pushed us further than ever before and the fact that it was 3D made it more difficult."

The Light Cycles were entirely CG; no prop cycles were built for the live-action cinematography. Photo © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
The Light Cycles were entirely CG; no prop cycles were built for the live-action cinematography.
Photo © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Bikes Like Liquid Glass and Suits That Glow
Other elements in the storyline proved challenging, too.

Barba remembers how "the disk game and light ride from the first Tron made an indelible impression on my young, creative brain. That I was responsible for putting them on the screen for a new generation scared the crap out of me!"

Barba's experience doing VFX for "lots of car commercials" came in handy for the all-CG Light Cycles; no prop Light Cycles were built for the film. "We used every trick we knew about how to light cars," he says. "Joe wanted the Light Cycles to look like liquid glass with lines on them: very reflective and refractive. With those qualities ray tracing would be the way to go, but it's traditionally a very CPU-intensive process. So we had to come up with smart ways to make it feasible."

The disk-game players were shot bluescreen and featured some incredible acrobatic and stunt performances, such as one delivered by martial artist Anis Cheurfa who played Rinzler, Clu's primary enforcer. "He did his stunts without rigging," says Barba. "He could turn 360 degrees from a jump in the air. His performance competing against Sam was all done in-camera."

For some disk-game shots, though, Digital Domain had to track the helmets of the players, rotomate their bodies and render CG versions of their bodies to create accurate reflections in the all-glass environment.

Digital Domain met the director's request that the Light Cycles look like liquid glass. Photo © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Digital Domain met the director's request that the Light Cycles look like liquid glass.
Photo © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) is the target for a fiercely-acrobatic disk game. Photo © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) is the target for a fiercely-acrobatic disk game.
Photo © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Frame-by-frame rotomating of the performances was painstaking, and "working in 3D space was so much trickier," says Barba.

Quantum Creation FX built the actors' sleek custom suits and equipped them with software-controlled inverters and remote controls for the suits' practical lighting effects. Digital Domain enhanced the suits "to give life to their glow. In the original Tron [frame-by-frame] rotomating gave life and crackle to the suits' lights, and we thought we'd pay homage to that and add crackle to our suits," says Barba. "We also added soft diffusion to integrate the suits into the environment and added atmosphere where we could, which helped with the ghosting from the stereo 3D."

The cityscape of The Grid traditionally would have been matte paintings. "But in a 3D movie other 3D elements won't look right with a flat matte painting," Barba says. "You can't cheat like that. We had to project everything onto geometry with scenes built to the correct scale and depth."

The goal of delivering cohesive VFX from Digital Domain and studios in Mumbai, Toronto, Mexico City and Vancouver was daunting but, ultimately, achievable, he says. "When movies send VFX to multiple facilities you always fear that each sequence will look different. We wanted to keep everything consistent, to have it feel as if everything was conceived in the same place. Two years, 1,565 shots, several VFX companies — it was a massive logistical and technical challenge for all involved."

With Tron: Legacy delighting baby boomers and bringing throngs of new fans to the Tron franchise Barba has ample evidence of a job well done.

"We know how much the original film was loved, and it was a huge burden to live up to that legend," he says. "But I couldn't have imagined a better job."

Vicon House of Moves Provides Motion Capture for Tron: Legacy

tron legacy
HOM’s large, permanent motion-capture stage.

The Los Angeles stages of Vicon House of Moves (HOM) hosted five days of rehearsal and seven days of motion-capture shooting for Tron: Legacy. The crew shot high-impact stunt work along with more subtle body and finger poses and movements of the actors sitting and riding Light Cycles at HOM's 26,000-square-foot studio. HOM (www.moves.com) had previously worked on motion-capture shoots for the film's first teaser at Comic-Con 2008.

The principal cinematography crew was on set alongside the mo-cap team at HOM to capture live-action footage of select actors' faces to map inside the helmets of the digital doubles that appear in the film. The HOM crew captured motion of the actors riding a modified Light Cycle prop that could be manipulated on the mo-cap stage. For high-action stunt work, actors wore protective wires as they were thrown off Light Cycles and flew through the air after a high-speed crash.

The soundstage studio at HOM has capabilities for full body and face capture
The soundstage studio at HOM has capabilities for full body and face capture.

Tron: Legacy "benefited from both of the House of Moves stages, working on our fully-enclosed soundstage to capture more subtle movements and our 70-foot-long main stage which gave them the ability — and space — needed to fling stunt performers long distances," says HOM executive producer Scott Gagain.

HOM is the service company for Vicon, the world's largest supplier of precision motion-tracking systems and match-moving software.

Laser Pacific Lends Post Expertise to Tron: Legacy

DI colorist Dave Cole at work on Tron: Legacy
DI colorist Dave Cole at work on Tron: Legacy.

In the same way that Digital Domain got an early start on the VFX for Tron: Legacy, Hollywood's Laser Pacific (www.laserpacific.com) began servicing the feature's postproduction needs by handling all the digital negatives.

"We were involved in early discussions and testing since the Sony F35 cameras in the Pace 3D rigs were going to record to a Codex digital hard drive," says AndrÈ Trejo, Laser Pacific's vice president of DI and mastering operations. "We needed to combine parts of various workflows in a unique way for Tron: Legacy because they were recording 3D to hard drive, not tape.

"It required a lot of collaboration among our engineering team, Pace and Codex to make sure everyone was on the same page with file-naming conventions and how to identify the LTOs [Linear Tape-Open magnetic tape data storage] since there were no camera reels. We had to manage all the data and deliver it to all the parties efficiently."

Laser Pacific archived LTOs of the film's daily output that essentially became the original digital negative. When the cutting room began to provide EDLs, the facility was able to pull the required files for Digital Domain's VFX work. "We used our proprietary file-management software to wrangle all the data; we can now apply the meat of that to our next 3D project," Trejo says.

Early on DI colorist Dave Cole developed and tested color looks with director Joseph Kosinski and prepared the Tron: Legacy trailer for Comic-Con 2009. But the real "nitty gritty of finishing" began last September, Trejo reports.

Autodesk's Lustre was selected for both the film's conform and color correction. "Everything lived in the same box; we weren't bouncing between two platforms," says Trejo. "Whenever there was an edit change Dave could immediately apply color grades to the new material, so it was very advantageous."

Laser Pacific boasts the biggest DI grading theater in Los Angeles with a 33-foot screen; screen size is very important for 3D depth perception, so the more closely the grading environment matches an actual movie theater, the better.
Laser Pacific boasts the biggest DI grading theater in Los Angeles with a 33-foot screen; screen size is very important for 3D depth perception, so the more closely the grading environment matches an actual movie theater, the better.
Laser Pacific boasts the biggest DI grading theater in Los Angeles with a 33-foot screen; screen size is very important for 3D depth perception, so the more closely the grading environment matches an actual movie theater, the better.
Laser Pacific boasts the biggest DI grading theater in Los Angeles with a 33-foot screen; screen size is very
important for 3D depth perception, so the more closely the grading environment matches an actual
movie theater, the better.

Laser Pacific worked closely with Autodesk on Lustre capabilities that would aid the stereo 3D finish. "Lustre already offered powerful 3D capabilities such as stereo sync grading, and [based on] our experience from the early days of the feature, the stereo sync grading tools within Lustre were refined and enhanced," Trejo says.

As it was finishing the feature, Laser Pacific was also juggling trailers for theaters, TV and the Internet; a 20-minute promo for a Tokyo event; and a piece for elecTRONica, a techno dance party promoting the film at Disney's California Adventure Park. "We were able to source a lot of different needs," notes Trejo. "Our trailer department used Autodesk Smoke which can publish to Lustre, so they worked well together."

A first for Laser Pacific was establishing a remote color-grading environment at Skywalker Sound when Kosinski moved there for the mix. With just a two-week turnaround, the facility set up a Lustre suite for Cole who joined the director at Skywalker Sound. "We were able to continue with the heavy editing here and send files Dave could pull up on his Lustre over secure fibre connections," explains Trejo. "Once Dave was done, he sent us his graded files and we applied them to the media here. It was a hugely successful process — they loved it."

Laser Pacific has undoubtedly "gained a lot of 3D experience over the last three years" with its extensive work on Tron: Legacy and, before that, Step Up 3 and Cats and Dogs 2. "We recently wrapped up the 3D documentary Justin Bieber: Never Say Never from director Jon Chu of Step Up 3," Trejo reports. "We have additional 3D projects committed for 2011 that will provide exciting opportunities for our team and the filmmakers."