Creating a New Legacy for 'Tron'

Read how Digital Domain tackled Tron: Legacy while raising its game to a new level.

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Digital Domain upped the previs, lighting and rendering components. All images © Disney Enterprises Inc.

Disney's Tron: Legacy might not be a game changer like Avatar, but it's a groundbreaker for Digital Domain. In addition to creating thousands of digital assets that comprise the dark, neon world of the Joe Kosinski-directed sequel, DD had to design a tracking system for handling the stereoscopic 3-D shoot, improve their workflow, management system and pipeline, raise their game for performance capturing Jeff Bridges as the younger Clu 2.0 avatar, seamlessly integrate a new satellite DD studio in Vancouver and coordinate all of the work from the five vendor partners: Mr. X, Whiskeytree, Ollin Studio, Prana Studios and Prime Focus.

Indeed, out of a total of 1,565 vfx shots, 882 were done by DD (723 in Venice and 159 in Vancouver).

What was the experience like? "Very daunting," admits Eric Barba, DD's visual effects supervisor, who oversaw the production, taking full advantage of his design background as well as his extensive vfx experience. "To me, I feel like I [was] a creative partner from the very beginning with Joe. And DD [was] a partner to help bring the production to life. A large part, of course, [was] happening virtually here and through our five outsourced partners and our other company in Vancouver. As far as the stereo aspect [using the new Sony F35 with Master Prime lenses, which open up to 1.3 for less light but shallower depth of field], both Joe and I had never done a stereo movie before and we did our homework and just had to plan out as best we could and we looked at it in bite-size chunks, and we wanted to make sure that all the previs was in 3-D, so we could literally cut the movie together and watch it."

Clu necessitated versatile onset performance capture with a smaller footprint.

The first priority was to recruited previs specialists for the creation of a new in-house previs department, led by Scott Meadows, who supervised previs & layout. This enabled them to collect assets and designs directly from the art department or the model team, which would go directly to the previs and publishing system so they could start blocking shots with Kosinski. "We would do previs in Venice with Joe to sign off on and then publish out all the layout, including the animation and assets, and send that to Vancouver, which would then put it in the database," Barba adds. "The lighters would then load up the shots and immediately go to work and render stuff out using the same templates for the compositing and the renderer to assemble the shots and then send them back to Venice for feedback."

DD also created a more efficient lighting system. "We spent a lot of time working on the transition from previs to layout and how that would get into anim, and we wrote a whole new set of tools to have the lighters aware of what should be in their shot," explains Steve Preeg, DD's animation director. "The suite consisted of a file that could be customized per sequence, where you could define a group, say Clu and all the items in the Light Cycle sequence. We wrote a UI that would allow us to load, update and change assets, and you could define the shot better."

DD additionally rewrote internal tracking software to allow simultaneous stereo camera solve and also incorporated V-Ray for the first time into the feature pipeline, adding to the shader development and allowing artists to launch renders more easily."What is carrying over immediately is our stereo workflow," Barba suggests. "This show had to get that first pipe up and running. How we fix stereo issues and deal with the workflow is now being used on Transformers: Dark of the Moon."

But achieving the younger Jeff Bridges was difficult, even with the actor driving his performance.

However, the most ambitious challenge was definitely performance capture -- the reverse of the Oscar-winning Benjamin Button, in which the 60-year-old Bridges was made to look 25 years younger as the ruthless Clu. "We had to utilize these mounted cameras and figure out what to do with that data, which meant writing a lot of software internally," Preeg suggests. "We also put this volume process in the hands of the animators so they could run the iterations and choose parameters for the solve; and we put it all into a nice interface for them. I think that was a big change for us and they've been very responsive to that process."

Still, there is no getting around the difficulty of trying to recapture Bridges in his prime, even if he is driving the performance. The physiology is different. "Trying to get Jeff's performance on set was ideal for Jeff but maybe not the most ideal thing as far as our needs in terms of the number of cameras to position around him and lighting," Barba offers. "But it allowed Jeff to get into character and be Clu with the other actors. We had EA in Vancouver helping us on set with the cameras and tracking the data and handing it back to us, which we ran through our solve. That part of the system worked great. We have ideas on how to get better cameras that weren't available when we shot, and how to get better results next time. But we're happy with the results."

Now they await the assessment of their peers.

Tron: Legacy has a lot to live up to, but DD has raised its game to bring it into the 21st century.

"Tron's like the birth of our entire industry, so to go mucking about with that sacred thing, we hope we've maintained some of that same visual feeling but brought it to a newer generation," Preeg offers. "They were completely groundbreaking in starting a whole revolution [in 1982]. They were even disallowed for being up for an Oscar because the Academy said they were cheating by using a computer and now computer graphics is so widespread, it's not even thought about anymore. Whether or not there was a new renderer or a new software package that we wrote, that kind of thing happens all the time. Yeah, people are going to look at this just like any other effects movie, and then they're going to say, 'But this is Tron! -- don't mess that up!'

"For me, besides the obvious challenges we had with the Clu character, I hope people will see the artistic challenges we had along with the technical challenges," Barba concludes.

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.

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