Tron – Concept Process

You might be starting to sense some sort of a theme here, and you can probably imagine my excitement when I discovered the following images over on the Wired’s Underwire blog.

As a fan of both the original film, and Daft Punk, I’m not only particularly looking forward to my trip to the IMAX later this week for Tron:Legacy, but as a designer I’m often intrigued and fascinated by the process that films and products take.  How do the concepts and sketches on the back of an envelope compare to the final artefact?  How did that prototype model help to iterate the design and whittle it down to what we see before us?  I’m especially looking forward to the visuals, and seeing how well they’ve been executed (incredibly well if early reviews are anything to go by) when compared to the original film’s somewhat questionable, yet still groundbreaking for the time, special effects.

Some may say it ruins the illusion, but with me that’s far from it.  Understanding the process enhances the end product, helping me to (ever so slightly) understand and appreciate what went into it, and now Disney have offered us a mere teaser behind the scenes in their latest venture, Tron:Legacy.

Designer Daniel Simon was the main guy behind the 2010 light cycle design, and having a background working for Ducati  you must agree puts him in good stead to acheive the glossy heights that Tron:Legacy aims for.  I’d say the (shortened) process shown, of working through concept sketches through to final models and artworks, is fairly typical in the world of industrial and automotive design, though the standard is far from typical as it of the highest calibre.

The final light cycles did change ever so slightly when the 3D models were truly put through their paces with a physics engine.  Trying to work out how a 3tonne motorbike reacts on a glass floor at 90mph is quite something! So full credit to Disney for the attention to detail in really executing the realism. Even the small items such as the air brakes on the back  of the bikes are inspired by genuine real life working examples of brakes on jets.

Even the completely new items have been created such that the mechanism for it comes across as entirely plausible, leaving you not even batting an eyelid in questioning how it may (or may not) work.  That’s great detail design.

While at university I was the subject of a 3d body scan which, when mapped to a video of me in a lycra suit covered in tiny silver markers recorded by eight strategically placed cameras, translated to  a bio-mechanically correct 3D figure of, well, me!  You won’t need me to tell you it wasn’t a patch on the cameras Jeff Bridges had inches from his face allowing the crew to triangulate and stream footage of his every facial movement to impose an aged version of his head on another body.

The recording, mapping, and final effect shown in a hugely condensed three steps.

The special effects team for the film’s costumes claim the lights in the film “were by far the craziest thing they’ve ever done”.  Not being sure how to achieve the effect they were after they gave every effects house in LA a small budget to find something that would work.  In the end Quantum Creation FX came up with a polymer-based “stretchy thing that would bend, deal with sweat, not hurt anybody and still get bright enough,” perfect for the job in hand.

Measuring 1/8th inch thick, the illuminated tube lamps were screen-printed and incorporated into the trim on each sleek suit, all powered by a lithium ion battery on a wiring harness running the length of the suit.  This self contained unit allowed perfect lighting, consistency and reaction throughout the whole film.

You might also notice that many of the outfits in the film fit rather more snug than usual.  Each character had a custom moulded outfit created by laser scanning each person and sculpting a life size foam figure upon which to mould the outfit from a CNC machine.  The result was a millimetre perfect fit for each protective, yet athletic prowess permitting, outfit.

If you’re in any doubt over what I’ve just  said, or maybe you’ve already seen the film and are still somewhat baffled, then check out the rather good Tron Wiki which should reveal all.  No excuse not to know your Recognizer from your Solar Sailor now!

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