TRON - Art and Technology

by Bob Plissken

Tron was born of art, and not necessarily technology, but it is necessarily technological.

Tron was essentially the first film to utilize computer animation. While there were many films that came before it that dealt with computers, computers with artificial intelligence, and disappearing into another world, none dived into the inner-realm of the computer, whether its depiction was virtual or literal. Director, Steven Lisberger was interested mainly in the artistic rendition of the technological. He not only got Syd Mead and Moebius on board to design, his own roots come from animation, and illustration. Tron is more art than comic book, and more science-fiction than even Star Wars. Star Wars implies nothing about science, or technology, everything in it is matter-of-fact, taken for granted. It's art is basically utilitarian, it serves to describe its generalities. Bad guys look like nazis. Vile characters are ugly aliens, and good guy allies are cute and furry creatures. The rest is technical graffiti, whatever looks good enough. Its brilliant art designer was not George Lucas, but Ralph McQuarrie, and without him, it would have failed miserably. His talents far outshine George Lucas' abilities to tell a story, and it was McQuarrie who really gave us Boba Fett, C3PO, Darth Vader, and what Star Wars looks like. His vision was his own, and while Lucas likes to claim he invented everything, he never would have made the Star Wars we know had he really been in control of every detail. Star Wars was nothing but an amalgamation of prior science fiction novels, comics, and designs. Add John Williams music, the talent of the actors, and you then have something.

Tron's story takes place in two worlds, and in the world of the computer-realm, or 'the Grid,' nobody knew or let alone imagined such a thing at the time. Tron imagined something we hadn't. Star Wars imagined something that we had seen, only it was in higher definition, more detailed, and arranged in such a way that appealed to us. Tron took a bigger risk, it tried to imagine beyond what we knew, beyond where we were, technologically, and culturally. In order to do such a thing, it requires the talent of artists. Science fiction authors can only attempt to describe what they see as what is beyond, and often, one can only write what they cannot convey in images, an artist in the visual media must 'show' us what is that beyond.

This is not as easy as it seems, especially in the guise of a movie which is a story--which requires writing. Obviously, all films are of the combination of writing, music, acting, and art design, but a science-fiction film which attempts to reach beyond, and take a step further and attempt to deal with technology which is just beginning to reach the masses, and technology which is years away, and how characters, or how 'we' will be involved in such things, is a very risky thing indeed.

What Tron did was imagine a world in which we are somehow so involved with computers, where we interact with programs, and applications which will one day perhaps be tyrannical, some sort of corporate control of our computers will hold us back, and we will have to figure out a way to deal with this problem. At the time, nobody was using programs to the extent we do now, people attempt suicide when they can't get on Facebook now. Perhaps that's tyranny. Perhaps that's insanity, but as the characters are sucked into the computer world, we are just as much 'sucked into the world of the computers.'

Art sometimes has to be literal, it is after all visual, the characters in Tron were sucked into the world of the computer...this weird esoteric alien realm, which hadn't even been fully put into place yet in the real world, yet somehow this is what it predicted. A world where things like wikileaks, hackers, and corporate fascists will be an ordinary everyday thing. Inside this 'Oz' like computer-realm, the shadows of ourselves live out a dreamlike version of our true intentions, hopes and passions. There simply aren't enough films like Tron, and possibly because as hard as it is to describe all this, these ideas, people assume one means more movies 'exactly' like Tron--which is the way Hollywood studio executives think, how non-artists think. To put it plainly, we need more artists, and we need more artists to do more of what they do, and that is--imagine.

With the movie Tron, in both the making of it, as well as within the story of it, we have science, technology, and the development and implementation of the highest tech possible, there are people who have 'created' programs in order to display images in ways we haven't seen or imagined them before, we have people who are taking real objects, and having them converted into computer data, perhaps so that they can be observed with the computer itself, studied, taken apart and examined, and many of these technicians simply aren't capable of looking at real-world objects and studying them as they are without 'deconstructing' them with technological toys. One can look at an Orange with the mind, and the imagination, and understand it in ways one never previously did before without having to disintegrate it and reconstitute it with a computer, but it requires imagination, the very same kind of imagination required to building such devices which will perform such an elaborate and pointless task.

What this means is that art is as important to develop as 'science' or 'technology' which is really what supposed science is really doing these days, nothing but improving and developing more technology, not 'understanding.' As much as we are proud of ourselves in developing more and more technology, and constantly fund and support the building of more toys, almost with a politcal ambition, boasting that it is 'evolution' and that we are performing 'miracles' and that science must march on, we fail to see that 'art' is something that must always catch up, and that we consistently fail to push the 'art pedal to the metal.'

Tron is an example which both illustrates this fact, in its story, as well as its production. Since there really are no 'scientists' anymore, only technologists, and scientific politicians, (as well as unscientific politicians), all that we are doing is advancing our technology, often for the sake of itself. We need more artists, more art, and more imagination which comes not from technology(a computer didn't film TRON), and which can both realize and re-purpose the crap we already have, and instead of inventing more and more deadlier crap, (more deadly than it already is), we have to figure out what we can do with what we have now, and what we will have to do in the future. We've reached a point where we have to imagine just how bad it is going to be in the future, in order to convince people to stop, and we've been doing this for so long, we have either forgotten, or simply been so beaten down, that we haven't been imagining what good there could possibly be way beyond all of this. So far beyond it all, that we have to think beyond apocalypses, and world wars, and cybernetic holocausts. We know all these things will slowly unfold now if we do not do something to stop them, but how do we stop them, now that we know? The answer is back with the imagination once again. The artist has the talent, the skill and the ability as 'mere training' in order to take up this challenge, and perhaps the only people who can take the first step in the direction which will 'save us.'

Art can be terribly bizarre and confusing, and shocking and frightening, and yet, it is also beautiful and amazing, filling us with wonder, and even hope. What an artist can do is change your frame of reference, and pre-concieved notions, it can displace you, and put you in a state of awe that you didn't have before, such as seeing a film about people going to another world. One has to imagine that world in order to transport you there, and though I don't think we can be sure whether or not we really create it, or whether it creates us, but an artist can help take us there. Technology doesn't take us to another world, it only seems to dissolve one world, and replace it with another, it alters a world, and temporarily perhaps for the better, but being what technology really is, nothing but a mirror reflection of ourselves, how can nothing but a mere shadow of ourselves direct our future?

Artists look around, and take something they see before them, and re-purpose it for something that they see needs to be done, they are like 'inventors' of the imagination, they create the smallest simplest things, without wasting time with mathematical equations and technicalities, though they can make art out of those things too. An artist can reach out and see a physical object, such as even the computer in front of you, and see it as something completely different than it ever was before, all without doing a single calculation, or any scientific research. With the simplest things, art comes into existence, with the artist, and immediately begins to transform the world around it. If only more money was used in some way, some how to support, inspire and advance the arts, and the artists, we could turn this world right around, and though it seems obvious that 'art' might be an element of the 'design' of every piece of technology, we must never let 'art' be nothing but a cog in the machine. Art is more than that, and if we ever want to be more than what we are, we better apply ourselves to our art, and to our artists, before the machine takes us all.

--Check out John Wesley Huff's TRON REDEMPTION HERE