Full Coverage: Talking Tron with Digital Domain

We had a chance to catch up with the crew that brought TRON: Legacy to life, Digital Domain. Not only were they the forces behind its production—alongside director Joe Kosinski, of course—they helped shaped the film far before a pixel was even rendered.

Giving us a fully detailed account of their creative and technical processes were Eric Barba, Visual Effects Supervisor; Ed Ulbrich, Digital Domain Commercials Division President and Executive Producer; and Darren Gilford, Production Designer.

When people got their first look at TRON: Legacy, the audience thought they were watching a teaser, but really where watching what Ed Ulbrich called a “prototype of an entertainment property.”

Ed: Hollywood’s traditional way of developing material is with words on a page. Most major blockbusters start out as a screenplay. Writers are brought in, and you typically spend substantial amount of money on at least an initial script. But TRON: Legacy began development during the WGA writer’s strike at the end of 2007. Without having the benefit of a screenplay, director Joe Kosinski (who we had been working with on commercials for several years), Producers Sean Bailey and Steve Lisberger, the creator and director of the original TRON, came to us to help them create a visual prototype of the TRON world to communicate the concept to the studio. This concept test would be an appetizer, a highly representative sample of what the finished movie would look like—something that was so visceral and compelling that Disney would get a clear picture of Joe’s vision and how bad ass TRON in 2010 would look, to give them no choice but to make the movie.

This prototype would also help Disney envision the possible extensions of the IP that could be spun off across a TRON franchise, from the videogame to the theme park ride to toys and other channels, based on the film’s assets. It was also shown at Comic Con at 2008.

Did Steve Lisberger, director of Tron (1982), ever give his official or unofficial input on TRON: Legacy?

Ed: Yes from the beginning all the way through. He was integral to the team. Steve is one of the film’s producers and was involved heavily in the development of the concept, design and script.

In comparison to other vfx heavy films, how was Tron a non-traditional project, in terms of its production?

Ed: For TRON: Legacy, we weren’t brought on as just a visual effects house to add CGI to live action plates, but as a creative production partner to help Joe and Sean realize their vision of the TRON world.

I wouldn’t consider it outsourcing—it’s really insourcing—and the future for how many big VFX-heavy movies will be made in the future.

In that sense, we took on a role that was much more significant than a visual effects company—we managed the digital production process across two continents and several countries, which allowed us to take advantage of the economies of mass scale global digital production. I wouldn’t consider it outsourcing—it’s really insourcing—and the future for how many big VFX-heavy movies will be made in the future.

TRON:Legacy represents a new way of making movies. Frankly, I don’t even know what the term ‘postproduction’ means anymore. The traditional conventions of prep, shoot, edit and post are obsolete. Avatar, and now, TRON: Legacy prove the legitimacy of digital filmmaking, where computers are just as valid a filmmaking tool as cameras, lights and lenses. It’s not a post process anymore, it’s just digital filmmaking.

Eric: Because so much of the movie is digital—five of the major sequences are fully CG, and there are very few scenes that didn’t have a CG background, set extensions, or suit enhancements, it didn’t make sense to drive production from a live-action sensibility. What we built was essentially an animated feature pipeline – but without the three-year timeline of a typical animated feature. We extended this pipeline to all of our outsourced partners, providing them with assets from the initial pre-viz, a lighting system and other production methodology, and had them standardize on the same rendering and software tools. This was all done on a massive, global scale, in two years’ time.

In the digital production process, how many artists were involved in the making of TRON: Legacy?

Eric: There were about 800 artists working globally.

How does working on a 3D/stereoscopic film, in comparison to a traditional vfx film, affect pre-production?

Eric: TRON: Legacy is in stereo 3D the entire time audiences are in the TRON world, which is about 85% of the film. The movie was planned and shot fully in stereo 3D from day one. As it was the first stereo 3D film for both Joe and I, we worked out a lot of the planning in pre-viz. In addition to making stereo adjustments to get everything in proper XYZ space, we also had challenges with brightness and polarization that required extensive review and manipulation to get specular highlights and reflections consistent in the fixed eye and stereo eye.

On top of that, the entire on-set performance capture setup for Jeff/Clu was made more complex by stereo 3D. On Benjamin Button, we synced two witness cameras to the primary A and B cameras during main unit shooting, recording the performances of the stand-in actors on set, which resulted in perfectly synchronized data between all cameras. On TRON: Legacy, in stereo, each ‘A’ camera was really two cameras, and each ‘B’ camera was really two cameras. With two additional witness cameras we had six cameras going at any given time—plus the four head cameras on the helmet rig to get Jeff’s performance. That brought us up to 10 cameras! Capturing all of that data to disk recorders was a significant challenge.

With a film that is so dependent on the digital production, how hands on was director Joe Kosinski with Digital Domain?

Ed: Joe was involved at a very deep level from the outset. We pre-vized the entire film with him in stereo at Digital Domain in Venice and we were also involved in planning and supervising the live shoot with Joe.

This close collaboration has a lot to do with our relationship with Joe, which goes back a ways. We were first introduced through David Fincher who sent us the reel of a young director who had this background as an architect and designer.

Frankly, I don’t even know what the term ‘postproduction’ means anymore… It’s not a post process anymore, it’s just digital filmmaking.

We watched his reel and were blown away. Eric Barba is David Fincher’s Visual Effects Supervisor, so Eric started working with Joe – they did a number of commercials together. And cinematographer Claudio Miranda, who works with David Fincher, also started working with Joe, and ended up lensing TRON: Legacy. So we were already a tight-knit group who had worked together for a long time in the commercials world and were all brought together on this massive TRON project. In fact, it was the commercials team at Digital Domain that created the TRON concept prototype. Much of that team never stopped working. Once the movie was greenlit, most of them just rolled right into production on the film.

The technology behind TRON: Legacy is certainly ground breaking. Can you explain the kind of software was used in post?

Eric: Probably the most important new technology that was developed for TRON: Legacy was the whole digital human synthesis process. This included capturing Jeff’s facial expressions, (Paul Ekman’s FACS shapes) and digitizing the expressions to create a library of micro-expressions comprising every possible move his face is capable of.

We then made a life-cast of Jeff and sculpted it to create a maquette de-aged to approximately 35, which was then scanned/digitized into a 3D CG model. We captured Jeff’s performance on-set and animators finessed the anatomy to match current-Jeff expressions to young-Clu using hand animation. We then applied custom software for hair, eyes, skin, teeth and all elements that make up Clu.

We also developed custom software to track the exact movements of the body actor and the camera to integrate the CG head precisely with the body, in full S3D. Finally we composited Clu’s elements in minute detail to integrate animation, textures and lighting and create the final shot.

Were any aspects of post-production outsourced to other studios, or was post 100% Digital Domain?

Eric: Digital Domain supervised all 1,565 digitally-created or enhanced shots—and approximately 1,000 of those were created at our Venice and Vancouver studios. We devised and planned the overall shooting methodology and developed a hybrid pipeline that ended up resembling an animated feature more than a traditional live action/visual effects show, and managed the balance of five partner companies around the world.

Did the art department ever refer back to the work of French comic artist, Moebius, who is responsible for much of the look seen in Tron (1982)?

Eric: One of our goals was to live up to the original design and artistry of Moebius and Syd Mead when executing the vision of a TRON world 28 years later. Joe wanted those designs to be the DNA of this world and should be recognizable, but at the same time, we needed to bring something new to audiences. We evolved new versions of the iconic vehicles designed by Moebius and Syd Mead, such as the light cycles and solar sailers and recognizers, while also inventing new vehicles.

Darren: When we began the process of designing TRON: Legacy, the first step was to study every aspect of the first film. The original film was the primary design source for the evolution of TRON: Legacy. But we also had access to Steve Lisberger’s complete TRON archive. Steve was the director of the original film, and his archive files were filled with never-before-seen design exploration that inspired our concept team during the earliest stages of development. Having insight to early concepts and ideas from legendary designers like Syd Mead and Möbius provided momentum for our team to begin the design process.

While studying the design language of the original film, two distinct design directives quickly became the art department’s mantra. The simplicity of geometric form and the light lines were our two design constants. The geometric simplicity and elegance established in the original film was driven somewhat by the limitations of the technology from the early eighties. We locked into a design philosophy early on that was based on the same clean geometric simplicity, but with a form sophistication that took full advantage of today’s powerful modern post production tools and processes. The second cohesive design theme was the seamless integration of light lines. The design glue that connects everything in the world of TRON is the language of light lines. Within each composition how light lines carry the viewer’s eye from costumes to vehicles to sets was instrumental to the universal look of TRON: Legacy.

One of the most challenging and exciting aspects of designing TRON: Legacy was the daunting task of updating the iconic vehicle designs developed by Syd Mead and Möbius, the film’s original concept designers. The lightcycle, recognizer, and solar sailor from the original film had to be updated for TRON: Legacy. We felt a tremendous amount of responsibility to deliver designs that paid homage to the original film, but also evolved into the global aesthetic we were aspiring to achieve.

Was the art department still figuring out the production design of the film when previs was being done?

Eric: Disney’s art department was headed by production designer Darren Gilford (who also has DD roots—he used to run our art department.)

Disney set up the TRON art department inside Digital Domain, so Darren and his team could word side by side with our modelers as we developed vehicles, characters and environments. We built an entire pre-viz department in house, led by Scott Meadows, which created the whole world, every shot, in pre-viz, complete with the correct stereo cameras. We were able to essentially play the whole movie in segments on a big screen, create the layout and make stereo adjustments on the spot with Joe; planning everything up front so that we could go straight into production upon Joe’s approvals.

We were very involved creatively from the very beginning so by the time we got around to planning the live shoot – which I was involved in organizing with Joe – we’d figured out what we would build and what we wouldn’t need to build, and where we would need to shoot stages. We did a lot of planning before we started shooting in March 2009.

What role, if any, did Mothership play in Tron?

Ed: Our experience on TRON: Legacy, particularly the visual prototype test, led to the launch of Mothership. We saw how directors, studios, productions, brands, agencies and production companies were responding to our concept prototype as a development tool to help studios and brands envision what a world and a property could look like. This proof-of-concept approach has enormous relevance and potential applications when developing games, music, movies and marketing. This led to the formation of Mothership as a place to develop our own material while building a hybrid next-gen production company with marketing capabilities.

What was the biggest challenge throughout the entire film?

Eric: The biggest challenge by far was creating and maintaining a physically and emotionally believable CG head for Jeff Bridges’ Clu character that was driven by Jeff’s own performance.
As Joe says, there is no harder thing than creating a believable digital character that will be in the same scene with live actors – especially when it’s driven by an iconic actor that audiences worldwide know and cherish.

While we had created an 85-year old Brad Pitt for Benjamin Button, no one knows how Brad’s going to look when he’s that age. Everyone knows what Jeff Bridges looked like when he was in his 30s. For TRON: Legacy, we had to develop a completely computer-generated head for the Clu character and have Jeff’s’ performance drive the CG likeness of his younger self across 165 shots.

Building on the process we developed for Button, we enabled Jeff to perform on-set with other actors (which Brad wasn’t able to do with 2005 technology) and we developed a new tracking system to address the challenge of integrating a CG head onto a live-action body in stereo 3D. We combined these new advances with volumetric scans of Jeff’s facial expressions, head-cams that captured his performance, physical and digital head models and a custom deformation rig to bring Jeff’s art to Clu, and Clu to the TRON world.

Also: Check out Digital Domain’s in-depth behind the scenes microsite.