Interview : Harrison Ellenshaw

To coincide with the 20th Anniversary release of “Tron” on DVD down under, CLINT MORRIS caught up with Harrison Ellenshaw, the visual effects supervisor and all round god of early superstuff on the movie. In this exclusive interview, he talks about how the movie – thought to be way ahead of it’s time – got made, how effects have changed since 1982 and the much rumoured sequel, Tron 2.0

How did you get involved in TRON?

I was at Disney Studios working on the revised ending to “Watcher in the Woods.” It was a film that Disney had released to less than complimentary reviews and in a rare move they pulled it from distribution. I had just finished working at ILM and was called in and asked by Disney to do some editing and shoot a new ending for a re-release. During this, Tom Wilhite, Disney’s head of production introduced me to Steven Lisberger. Since I had worked on “Star Wars” and “The Empire Strikes Back,” Steven wondered if I might have some thoughts about a very ambitious effects film that he was going to make called TRON. We had a lot of discussions and after a while I guess I convinced him [fooled him] that I knew what I was talking about and he asked me to work on the film. I jumped at the chance and though it turned out to be a real struggle, I certainly have no regrets and it remains one of the best experiences of my career.

How have effects changed since TRON?

The biggest difference is that now digital compositing has replaced optical printing as the only method used to composite different elements onto one piece of film or digital media. Though TRON is mainly known for its computer graphics, much of the film was done utilizing what we called “backlight compositing,” which was hugely labor intensive. Each frame of approximately 85,000 frames of 65mm film was enlarged onto 16 by 20” Kodalith [x-ray] film, then each frame had to be hand rotoscoped, inked and painted and then rephotographed many times under an animation camera. Today, all this would be done digitally.

Is there anything in the movie you’d change, if you could?

There is very little that I would change in TRON, after all it was Steven’s vision. But I do think the film would have been more effective if we had cut back to the real world at least a couple times from the electronic world. You had to wonder what the heck the “users” were doing while all that excitement was taking place inside that computer. And I definitely would include the “love scene,” that takes place inside Yori’s apartment. It was a last minute cut by Steven and I fought hard to keep it, but as I said it was Steven’s vision, and he deserved the final say

In you mind, was TRON a success?

Yes it was. In so many ways TRON broke new ground especially in terms of its visuals. Sure it wasn’t a commercial success, but that’s something that makes it even more noteworthy.

What have you been working on lately?

I’ve been working on a documentary, about my father Peter Ellenshaw and I’m developing a combination CGI and live action film, that has nothing to do with bugs, monsters or toys.

Have you a pet project you’ve always wanted to get off the ground

John Milton’s Paradise Lost would make an incredible film. Before digital technology became so pervasive, this would have been an impossible film to make. But now, there is the potential to realize such an epic project. We even contacted Stanley Kubrick about making it – he would have been the perfect director.

When did you see the finished cut of the first TRON and how did you like it?

I can remember seeing the first rough cut of the film with everything in the electronic world still in black and white. It wasn’t about liking or not liking, I was too overwhelmed by the amount of work we faced. I had no idea how we would ever complete it all in time for the release date less than six months away.

They’re talking sequel, would you be involved in that? And if so, any ideas for it?

I am aware that a sequel is in the works, but I haven’t yet been contacted about working on it, so I haven’t given the sequel a lot of thought. It would certainly be a challenge, maybe even more so than the original.

Who’d play the lead in TRON 2 if it got made?

I don’t know whom Disney is considering. But I’d cast Jeff Bridges and Bruce Boxleitner in the film. It’s difficult to imagine anyone else playing those parts. I think they’d do it if the script were right.

As the visual effects supervisor on the last “Superman” film – “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” – what do you think holds in store for Brett Ratner’s upcoming remake?

I imagine this sequel/remake should be pretty good. It’s easy to see what NOT to do by looking at some parts of the earlier sequels. My only hope is that they return to the real essence of what Superman is. He is an icon, not just another comic book hero. Superman is very American, very unique; you have to be very true to his origins and understand what makes him different than all the other superheroes – not an easy task for any scriptwriter. I wish them good luck.

To Buy "Tron : Collectors Edition (2 Disc)" Click Here

Tron : Collectors Edition is available in Australian DVD stores 20th March.