Walt Disney and Digital Domain hosted an open house at Digital Domain's studios in Venice, California where they are hard at work completing the special effects for the 3D high-tech adventure film starring Jeff Bridges.  Digital Domain has worked on over 80 films including Transformers, iRobot, X-Men, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, and another another highly-anticipated film Thor

On hand for the behind the scenes presentations were TRON: LEGACY director Joseph Kosinski, Digital Domain’s Visual Effects Supervisor Eric Barba, and the architects behind the lightcycles, costumes, and weaponry.  The film’s original star Jeff Bridges was present along with co-stars Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde, and Twilight’s Michael Sheen who talked about their roles and how the technical needs of the production impacted their acting.

Olivia Wilde and Garrett Hedlund in TRON: LEGACY

TRON's (1982) original director Steven Lisberger  is an integral part of the sequel to his groundbreaking film as a producer.  Lisberger told the audience at Digital Domain that technology has changed quite bit since his days of struggling to make TRON twenty-eight years ago.  According to Steven, Disney was originally "afraid of computer animation" when he first approached them, calling the technology "radical" and "un-Disney". TRON changed the future of movies.  Now Disney has long since embraced the digital age, rarely using hand-drawn 2D animation (except for last year's The Princess and the Frog).

After Avatar broke new ground in film technology, the pressure is on to produce an equally visual film with TRON: LEGACY.  Before seeing the 23-minute preview, Digital Domain walked us through the process of creating the world of TRON.

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To achieve the look of TRON: LEGACY, green screen and partial sets were utilized.  Digital Domain’s Eric Barba showcased a couple of scenes that required many visual effects and the use of new technology.  Raw footage with the actors and green screen were shown in contrast with the completed scene.

The before and after shots makes you realize the scope of work going into post production specifically for one challenging scene involving Jeff Bridges' younger self Clu 2.0, Kevin Flynn’s nemesis.  Jeff Bridges also reprises his role of Kevin Flynn but aged and trapped in the Grid.  Clu was created by Flynn to oversee the Grid but Clu takes over the Grid, relegating Flynn to a dark treacherous place in the outskirts of Tron.

Creating Clu, a younger Jeff Bridges was no easy feet for the crew.  Originally, director Joseph Kosinski planned to recreate a 35 year-old Kevin Flynn (Bridges) using digital animation but Bridges preferred working with the actors on the set.  The TRON: LEGACY director had to come up with an alternate means to capture Clu.  Joseph told CineMovie it delayed the production because new technology had to be created.  Digital Domain designed a Helmet Mounted camera (HMC) using advanced Emotion Capture technology and strapped it to Jeff Bridges' head with a thick utility waist belt so he could interact with the actors.

Tron's Clu -  A younger Jeff Bridges

Michael Sheen and Beau Garrett in TRON: LEGACYOne particular scene showed the use of the new technology.  Two identical scenes had to be shot in order to successfully place Jeff's younger digital head and body upon another actor.  In this particular scene, everyone but Jeff are in full costume.  Michael Sheen is Castor, a Ziggy Stardust influenced character, while James Frain is suited up in a light suit and Beau Garrett is a Siren in an 80s-inspired Grid nightclub.  Jeff, in street clothes and wearing his gear, acts opposite his co-stars.  The same scene has to be repeated using another actor. An actor wearing Clu's lighted suit and a green hood mimics Jeff's every move while re-enacting the scene with the other actors.  The actor must watch the previous footage with Jeff to be precise in his movements for the visuals to match.  The final scene looks flawless and Jeff's performance is intact but you can't help but still wonder ‘how did they do that?'

Jeff Bridges admits having the helmet attached to his head was "very bizarre" and he had to forget what he knew to "get with the program."  “I never thought I'd be making a movie without cameras but sensors," said the Oscar-winning actor.

Jeff Bridges is Kevin Flynn in TRON: LEGACY

While the Helmet and Emotion Capture created by Digital Domain looks and sounds familiar to what James Cameron used for Avatar,  Eric Barba assures us it is a different capture system.  According to Eric, the special effects community is very small but they don't share their creations or advancement between them.  Since dozens of visual effects houses vie for the same Hollywood movies, the competition is fierce and secretive.  Director Joseph Kosinski also chimed in saying that TRON: LEGACY was already in the works before Avatar's techniques were made public so the technology used for TRON: LEGACY is in fact different.

When it came time to watch the preview, we were excited to see how the behind the scenes footage would come together in the final look from a 2D print.  The sneak peek began with an introduction to Sam (Garrett Hedlund), Kevin Flynn’s grown up rebellious son, left bitter about his father’s disappearance.  Sam receives a visit from Alan, Kevin Flynn’s partner in the first film ( Bruce Boxleitner reprises the role), to tell him that his father contacted him on a beeper which hasn’t been used since his father went missing.  This prompts a visit to his father’s old arcade and secret underground office where he is accidentally transported to the Grid.

Once Sam is in the Grid, the world of Tron is set up and Sam is thrown into the life or death games of the Grid. Once we get a taste of the high-tech lifestyle and its gadgets, the next scenes has Olivia Wilde as Quorra rescuing Sam and taking him to his father in the outskirts of the Grid, a rocky and desolate area.

While it was introduced as unfinished footage, the footage seemed seemless and perfect.  The lines between reality and CGI have clearly been blurred and polished.  Having shot the real world in 2D and the Grid in 3D cameras helped to immerse us in the experience.

While we marveled at the visual effects of TRON: LEGACY during the preview, one scene proved TRON: LEGACY is not all about the special effects but there is an actual story behind the high-tech adventure.  The reunion scene between father and son had many tearing up during the emotional scene including Michael Sheen (Castor) who said during an interview that he "found it really moving."  It made him "glad," he added, because it "confirmed that the strongest thing about this film is the story that's at the heart of it."  James Frain (True Blood), Clu's sidekick in the film, was also present during our visit and agreed he took on the role because the script's strength was the story of the father and son relationship.

The 23-minute preview was projected in 2D but Digital Domain did provide a couple of 3D scenes to watch.  It's safe to say the Disney Digital will be on the same level of quality as James Cameron's Avatar.   TRON: LEGACY will be available in 2D and Disney Digital 3D when it opens on December 17.  While at Digital Domain, CineMovie asked Eric Barba if he employs two teams working on the different formats.  Surprisingly, his team first works on the 2D version of the film and once Joseph approves the final cut of the film, his team works on the 3D version.  According to Eric, they have not started work on the stereoscopic format.

With two months to go before it's December release, the pressure is on for the team at Digital Domain to finish TRON: LEGACY but from our behind the scenes look, Digital Domain's hard work is sure to be a box office smash this holiday season and worth the wait for those anxiously counting the days.

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