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  • The Legacy of TRON: Light Freaking Cycles
Dec 2010
Dec. 13, 2010 — From Olivia Wilde to Daft Punk, to a Crazy Heart-era Jeff Bridges sharing the screen with a facsimile of his c. 1985 self, TRON: Legacy offers an embarrassment of riches for devotees of the original TRON movie. Only one of these, though, appeals directly to the giddy 11-year-old fan lingering in each of us.

The light cycle.

Released in 1982, TRON tells the story of a video game designer who, for assorted nefarious reasons, is scanned into a computer and pitted against the digital minions of the Master Control Program, or MCP. (Remember, this was nearly 30 years ago, before most people had any awareness of the internet. The notion of interacting with others virtually, somewhere within a machine, might have seemed a bit preposterous.)

Light cycles, 1982.

The inside of a computer, it turns out, looks kind of awesome: all neon-lit with chunky, 8-bit formations dotting the digital landscape. But it’s also a scary, oppressive sort of place, ruled by the Master Control Program. The video game designer – Kevin Flynn, played by a baby-faced Bridges – quickly realizes he must seek out and destroy the MCP if he is to return safely to the “real” world.

Along the way, Flynn is thrust into a light cycle game, zipping across the playing field in a sleek, monochromatic ride trailing walls of colored light, turning quickly and sharply trying to force his opponents into the walls. The scene is one of a handful in the movie to utilize computer-generated graphics. In 1982 it was unlike anything audiences had ever seen.

The light cycle itself emerged as one of the biggest stars of the TRON franchise. It featured in a 1982 Midway arcade game, as well as in a later game for the Atari 2600 console system. And Tomy made a fantastic toy of the vehicle with rip-cord action. Simply put, the light cycle rocked. I will fight you if you say otherwise.

Light cycles, 2010.

But the iconic status of the vehicle presented a challenge for the producers of TRON: Legacy: how to update the design while paying homage to the original movie.

Early sketches from the original movie showed an open-cockpit design, with the rider in full view. But the CG technology of the time was so rudimentary the filmmakers were unable to render a full human body. Thus the closed-canopy design seen in the movie.

For TRON: Legacy, the design team decided to bridge that gap – to develop a bike that grew into the rider. You can see the rider, his forms and shapes, production designer Darren Gilford said in a recent Fast Company interview, but the new design seeks to “blur the lines between where the bike ends and the rider begins.” The team achieved this, naturally, through the use of light.

“Light is such an important aspect of everything in TRON,” Gilford said, “how light wraps around things, how light carries your eyes from the front to the back of the vehicle. Light was the glue that held everything together.”

Like many other sci-fi movies, TRON – and TRON: Legacy – employ light to produce an otherworldly, future-y kind of feel. We see it in the backdrop against which the action takes place – a stark, neon-lit, digital world; in the characters’ outfits and equipment, including the “light discs” they use as weapons; and most of all, perhaps, in the brightly colored, exceedingly stylish, totally awesome light cycles. 


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