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A friend recently said he never liked Tron (which I talked about here and here) because he thought it looked stupid. Yes, I guess that's true, in the same way Fritz Lang's Metropolis and William Cameron Menzies' Things to Come look stupid: all are exercises in worldbuilding somewhat embarrassingly rooted in the eras in which they were made. Tron may be dated by its technology, but it's interestingly dated: many of the effects involve ways of rendering and makeshift solutions that won't likely be seen again (e.g., "simulated wireframe" using backlit kodalith), because digital filmmaking has utterly changed in the last 21 years. But not necessarily improved--are the plasticine universes of Finding Nemo etc. any more significant, really?
A few years ago I wrote an essay contrasting Pixar's drive for visual perfection with some of the grotty, low-tech things artists are doing. I think this still holds up:
As the corporate entertainment world introduces greater levels of "virtuality" into films (Toy Story, Jurassic Park) and computer games (Myst, Tomb Raider II), many artists are headed in the opposite direction, toward a kind of a sublime indeterminacy. Blurred transmissions, imperfect copies, and other waste products of electronic and digital media are the model for this new aesthetic, which is both symbiotic to and aloof from the global information network.
The recent marriage of Hollywood and Silicon Valley has revived the age-old quest for what Norman Bryson calls the "essential copy"--the depiction of seamless reality that preoccupied artists from ancient Greece to the late 19th Century. Instead of complex history paintings full of perfectly rendered figures, the goal of current software writers is to create moving tableaux in which the figures interact, cast realistic shadows, and accommodate changing light sources--all at the click of a mouse.
These discoveries take place within labor- and capital-intensive workplaces like Pixar and Industrial Light & Magic, where employees scramble to top previous levels of verisimilitude. Technical achievement, not humanistic speculation or doubt, is the prime concern in these high-tech factories. Artists, on the other hand, are as interested in the "why" of technology as the "how." Where special effects crews are building images using computer-generated skeletons and fractal outer skins, artists are breaking pictures down into critically nuanced, constituent parts. Increasingly they are gaining access to home equipment that enables unorthodox uses of technology.
So what does this have to do with Tron? Not much, actually. The film's director, Steven Lisberger, is just as rooted in digital utopianism as the Pixar folks; in recent interviews he has spoken of how artists can give inspiring form to new technologies, lamented the failed promise of the internet (he believes it's mainly a haven for gossip and p0rn), and dissed the despairing tone of the (original) Matrix. Yet a lot of artists like Tron, perhaps for the wrong reasons: the provisional, cobbled-together look of its technology; its wonderful mix of formal beauty and supreme cheesiness. Also, readers of William Gibson's Neuromancer inevitably thought about Blade Runner when visualizing The Sprawl, but what movie provided a ready template for the blocks of abstract data comprising Cyberspace? Oh, and speaking of anachronisms, the Pixar short that accompanies Nemo, titled Knickknacks, is pure uncut '80s, from the glossy sheen of the design to the '50s-retro wallpaper to the perky Bobby McFerrin soundtrack that makes you want to run screaming for the exits. Now there's something that's not interestingly dated.