Tron, in 70-millimeter and in your head

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Jeff Bridges and Cindy Morgan in Tron
  • Jeff Bridges and Cindy Morgan in Tron
For me, the most fascinating part of the 70-millimeter print of Tron that the Music Box screened this weekend was the distinct look of the actors' faces and hands. As I learned later from the movie's IMDB trivia page, the "computer world" sequences were shot on black-and-white 65-millimeter film, printed on high-contrast Kodalith sheet film, and then shone through with colored light before effects teams added the pioneering CGI effects frame by frame. Has any other movie employed this process? I can't think of anything else shot in black-and-white 65-millimeter—in fact, I was surprised to learn that the stock ever existed, as 65-millimeter is all but synonymous with colorful spectacle (like West Side Story and Jacques Tati's Playtime, both of which will screen in the Music Box's 70-millimeter series this February). That's too bad, as it looks extraordinary when projected; there's a hyperreal definition to both human features and the shadows around them. The people look like monuments—just seeing them move is breathtaking.

Innovations like these merit the term "special effect." Not only do they produce moments that are impossible in real life, they resemble little else we've seen in other movies. I find it hard to get enthusiastic anymore about effects movies that show us more cities blowing up. Since Independence Day, the computer-generated disaster has become a familiar—and increasingly soulless—moviegoing event. At this point whenever I see a skyline in flames, all I can think of is a marathon, Crowd-style row of programmers bent over their expensive monitors. Sure, one effects sequence may be better than another in terms of detail or suspense, but what's the difference if both present images well within the grasp of an average moviegoer's imagination?

Some of the most impressive shots in Tron take place on planes that extend beyond any visible horizon—images that cannot exist outside of the imagination. On a technical level, these are some of the simplest effects in the film, built with such basic tools as diagonal lines and negative space. Yet they appeal to the spectator in ways that more sophisticated CGI does not. To quote the narrator of another Disney classic—the educational short Donald Duck in Mathmagic Land—only the mind can see infinity. For Tron's images of horizonless and bottomless space to achieve their full effect, the spectator must continue them in his or her thoughts. This is a far less passive experience than the digital explosion fest that Marvel Studios releases every few months.

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Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.

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