Friday, August 28, 2009

FAN Expo 2009 Day one

The Tron Legacy lightcycle

There was a "TRON Legacy" show and tell in room 717 at the Fan Expo today. The highly secret event required all people going into the presentation room to release their cell phones and cameras to security guards. They took your gear and stashed it into a numbered ziplock bag. A ticket stub with the matching number was then given to you. You were then subjected to a metal detector and a frisk down.

With all that trouble of getting into the room we wondered if it was going to be worth sitting through this thing. We were an hour early and already the room was half full (maybe 200 people so far). The main demographic seemed to consist of people in their 30s. They looked like the comic book welding programmer types. You know, the guys that were losing their hair, are wearing jeans and a T-shirt, with running shoes and sporting a bit of a belly. The only thing missing would be the pager, cell phone, magnetic door pass/ID badge, combo.

These are probably the same guys that played the Tron arcade game when they were kids and watched the world of computer graphics explode over the years. Yeah, thems good people and me with my friends, Norman and Ian, fit right in. It's a difficult concept to think the movie was out 27 years ago. Geez.

The presentation was pretty cool. The audience was shown concept drawings, preliminary computer generated renders, the movie trailer that's available online, a sneak peek at some live sequences taken at Flynn's arcade, and some behind the scenes slow motion footage of the new video game warriors stunt tests. The stunt tests were super cool. I can't really explain it here to do it justice. Just think of guys jumping around (really high) doing somersaults in the air then throwing the Tron donut (yes, the frisbee is sooo 80s) all shot at 500 frames per second (or super slo mo) and without spring boards or wires!!! Just based on that I wanted to go see the movie.

Co-Producer Justin Springer, who was wearing a "Flynn Lives" T-shirt, answered some Q&A at the end. Things we found out... It's true, Daft Punk is going to succeed Wendy Carlos and will be doing the music for the new film. Both Jeff Bridges and Bruce Boxleitner will reprise their characters in the movie. Stephen Lisberger, the original director of Tron, is involved with the new movie (but he's not directing it). Will Journey have music in the movie? We're not sure, although the sneak peak footage of Flynn's had Journey playing in the background. The movie will also be in 3D, the 3D requiring you to wear those glasses!!! wowee!

Tron, when it originally came out in 1982, although it did mediocre at the box office and was boring to other kids, made an incredible impact on me personally. Before my interest in Roller Derby, shooting the glamour of catwalks, the craziness of rock concerts, before my career in photography, there was a time where I was fiddling with the idea of computer animation and making stories. I was 14 and was creating small animated films using Dad's super 8 camera.

Around the same time there were some primitive animations on the PET distributed by Cursor magazine, various programs that you loaded off of cassette tape. Some of the programs included animated adventures of Fuzzy and Wuzzy, two characters made out of astrisks (ascii characters), who went to the moon, hawaii, etc. It was computer animated story telling in it's primitive form.

I liked those little animations and thought it would be great to make some myself if only to get away from the one week turn around of getting the super 8 film developed from Kodak. Which now that I think about it was pretty fast. That included shipping AND the developing time.

Also film cost money. I think it was five dollars for two and a half minutes of film. That was a lot of money back then (to a kid anyway). Computer animation could be played back in real time. You could see what you had done instantly. That was the dream anyway.

In reality the coding took longer than expected and I ended up wondering if it was all worth it. That's when Tron came out. It was a film that justified my obsessive collecting of all and any books or magazines on the subject of 3D computer graphics. From the architectural article of Evans and Sutherland in Scientific American to the IEEE Computer Graphics and Applications magazine with the monthly column by James Blinn. I attempted to collect and absorb all the information I could come into contact with regarding this new form of technology.

I loved computer animation back then, the shiny metallic, plastic looking shapes and images. Movies after Tron seemed to come out one right after another. The Last Starfighter, the Genesis project from the Wrath of Khan... and then the unthinkable happened.

Lawnmower man was released in the theaters, the ugliest form of CG to come out at the time. Everything was busy and over textured. The art of computer animation was becoming stale and crappy. In my head, The people that loved doing the work were being replaced by accountant types creating crap to make a quick buck and cash in on this new trend. There didn't seem to be as much care put into the art anymore.

Attending Siggraph (special interest group on computer graphics - yes that's how nerdy I am) conferences over the years also reflected this. The first year I went to a Siggraph conference was in Dallas. It was 1990. Everyone I met that year seemed super uber keen on whatever they were doing. From small animations, to creating lenticular photos, to 3D knee simulations. You could tell the people loved what they were doing just by the enthusiasm in their voice and the wild arm movement. The high light was getting my foot accidentally stepped on by James Blinn while waiting at the bus stop. (I named my pet hamster after the guy)

As the years passed, the people attending Siggraph changed. The hippie that was coding cool stuff just because he could was being replaced by booth babes and guys in suits. There were less people on the floor that actually did any coding. Seeing the booth babes in the conference was great eye candy even if their main function was to get the nerdy guys interested in whatever the product they were selling no matter how much that product was unknown to them. But for the most part the nerdiness and spirit was gone, there were more sales people concentrating on the dollars, or selling other peoples work. The love for the art of coding and computer graphics was gone.

There was the exception. One company in particular stood out. A company that brought out it's own rendering engine. It was Pixar with renderman. You could tell there was something more going on at that company than just trying to make a quick buck. Attention to detail, custom coding, talking to the people that worked there (people like Dan). It was amazing.

Since then there have been a lot of computer graphics in movies and TV but it's rare to see anything spectacular anymore. We're so used to CG in our movie going entertainment. Terminator 2 was one of the last live action movies that comes to mind where I thought "Oh wow cool and holy crap".

You know a visual effect was great when they over use it in commercials and bastardize it. Visual effects and computer graphics in the hands of accountants and people that really don't understand the use of it. Like morphing instead of using a cross dissolve or the 3D bad boy commercials. If you haven't seen the Bad Boy commercials then consider yourself lucky. Ugh.

Pixar is the only company that brings out films on a regular basis with amazing computer generated graphics. I'm not saying that because of Dan, I'm saying that because the CG looks great and it's well thought out. Great art direction, nice composition, good use of the medium. I love that stuff. Watching those movies brings me back to the early days of Tron and the magic of the 25 cent arcades, back when computer graphics were being done by all the geeky people that loved it so much that they spent hours into the night coding new code. All just to show us something new. That's the magic of it all.

As for Tron Legacy, will I see it? Of course I will. Just for the reminiscing value alone it'll be worth it.

1 comment:

Zap Brannigan said...

Great post Bagelhot. You're a man with passion. A rarity.