Wanting to frame the context of the visual effects also from the inside and shift the focus on the artists that Ellenshaw had to hire, we were able to contact Chris Casady, independent animator and Effects Animator for TRON (1982), who was kind enough to respond promptly and punctuality in an extensive interview. Casady has worked in the creation of cinematic effects, music videos and television commercials and lives in Hollywood. He’s also known for his abstract art and his creations of titles and texts. Winner of several awards for the advertising he realized, he directed animated music videos for the Beastie Boys, Eddie Murphy and Michael Jackson. His animated film, “Pencil Dance”, won the first prize of international animation festivals in Canada, France, Japan and Italy.
Question: First things first: when you started working on the movie, since the graphic concept was unique for its time (and perhaps even now), what were the guidelines that the director or the production provided to you? Since there was nothing like it in the movie scene, how did they explain to you what result they intended to achieve?
Answer: During production I never met the director! I was too “low down on the totem pole” (means unimportant) for the director to talk to me directly. I took my instruction from the head of my department. I was in a department called: Effects Animation. There about 12 of us in Effects Animation. We all sat at desks with pencils and paper. No computers! I met the director, finally, after the film was finished.
Question: More or less, how many people were involved in the creation of those special effects?
Answer: Maybe 100? Count the names in the credit list. I think there were about 100 or more people working on the effects.
Question: Compared to more recent productions in which you participated, how much is the actual pipeline of work different compared to those years?
Answer: It’s totally different. There was no “pipeline”. We didn’t call it a pipeline. Maybe we called it a “workflow”. There were no computers! Not at Disney. Disney didn’t have any computers. The computer sequences were done by 4 different small computer companies, two companies in New York, one in New Jersey, one in Los Angeles. All those companies are gone now. In fact, they were gone just a few years after TRON.
There is only about 20 minutes of computer graphics in TRON (1982). All the rest is traditional animation, it’s supposed to look like it was made with computer, but it was not. It’s made with drawings, cels, photos.
This is what the “cels” look like (see photo). These are some of the scenes that I worked on.
Question: What did it mean being produced by Disney, in terms of resources, organization and experience in animation?
Answer: Big studio. Lot’s of resources. Disney could throw a lot of money at this production, and they did. What they lacked in experience they could compensate with money. They kept throwing money at it until it was done. Even though Disney was famous for animation they had no animation crew when they started on TRON. Almost all the artists were brought in from the outside, they were not Disney employees, they were new, young people, from the world of advertising.
Question: What was your role in the Visual Special Effects of TRON (1982)?
Answer: I was an Effects Animator. I animated a total of 55 effects shots, mostly sparks, electricity and flying things (like discs).
Question: In the sequences that you have made, what techniques have been used?
Answer: This is all hand drawn animation with ink pens. I would call this technique “hand drawn animation” or “traditional animation”.
Were using rotoscope techniques to fit the animation to the live-action scene. Something called “photo-roto”. And we also called the photography: “backlit animation” technique.
Question: What was the most difficult sequence to accomplish? Why?
Answer: The moîré techniques were pretty tricky because they had to be plotted. I don’t remember any of it being hard, just tedious.
The electricity effects and explosions were tricky.
Question:The movie contained more effects produced entirely on computer or especially by hand?
Answer: Most of TRON is made by hand, not computers.
Question: The tools you used were self-produced or already on the market?
Answer: All were custom software tools, there was no market for software. There was no software tools on the market. Nothing for sale. It was 1982.
Question:The live action shots provided by the production were shot on green/blue screen or something else? How were the actors extracted and, subsequently, integrated into the virtual world?
Answer: That is an interesting question. There was NO green of blue screen. In fact, the whole film was shot in Black and White! No color film was used in the sequences inside the computer. As for outside the computer, of course they used color film. The characters were separated by luminance contrast and then masks were painted by hand around every character for every frame of the film, this was done in Taiwan where the labour was cheap.
Question: Why was the film not much successful at the time, while now it’s considered a cult?
Answer: I think the film is not very good, as a film. As a visual invention it is very good, but as a film, no. The story is simple, the script is bad, the dialogue is silly, the acting is poor. Only Jeff Bridges is good. The film is interesting to watch visually, but the film is not very good, in my opinion.
Question: Is there any anecdote which you recall in particular, during the 8 months working on the film, among the most pleasant or difficult moments?
Answer: Lot’s of them. For instance: I slipped in the small image of a Pac-Man as a joke. I thought they would ask me to take it out, but they didn’t. They liked it! And so it stayed in. Later the director said to me: “We should have had more jokes like that in the film”.
Question: Having worked previously in major productions like Star Wars, how changed your career after the more computerized experience of TRON?
Answer: TRON was very good for my career. Because it was well recognized film and well respected (visually): it was good to say I worked on it.
Question: Thank you very much for your patience and willingness to share this experience with us.
Answer: You’re welcome. Thanks!