January-February 2011 : Volume 32, Number 1

The Ultimate Upgrade
James Haygood on Taking 'TRON' into the 21st Century
by Garrett Gilchrist

Background image from TRON: Legacy. 
(c) Disney Enterprises, Inc.

In 1982, Disney and director Steven Lisberger gave us Tron, a landmark special effects film which took us into a dangerous, groundbreaking computer world. Computer graphics were in their infancy and had to be manipulated one frame at a time, and nearly every frame featured hand-drawn and rotoscoped animated effects. The film was ahead of its time, and some audiences didn't know what to make of it.

Times have certainly changed.
Tron: Legacy is a $170 million 3D visual effects thrill ride, as cutting edge in its technology and design as the original Tron was then. Garrett Hedlund and Olivia Wilde star alongside Jeff Bridges, who returns 28 years later as Kevin Flynn, and also as his younger, computer-generated alter ego, the villainous Clu. Cutting-edge technology has created an eerily lifelike younger Jeff Bridges, and the vast, exciting and deadly world of Tron.

Director Joseph Kosinski, 36 years old, was an architect who began building intricate virtual worlds, then made his name directing award-winning commercials full of CGI effects. This is his first feature film, and it seems a natural fit. Also a natural choice for this stylish, effects-filled film is James Haygood, who edited
Fight Club, Panic Room and The Game for David Fincher, and Where the Wild Things are for Spike Jonze. The Editors Guild Magazine's Garrett Gilchrist spoke to Haygood, as well as visual effects editor Andrew Loschin and associate editor/first assistant Dylan Firshein, about this challenging project.

TRON: Legacy.  (c) 2010 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

GG: What did you think of the original Tron?

James Haygood: Tron is an iconic cult film that's seeped into popular culture, but most people haven't actually seen it. I had to watch it myself, because I only remembered moments. They put an incredible amount of work into it. It's basically a hand-animated film. Your phone is more powerful than what they had to work with in terms of CGI, but you have to respect it for what it meant at the time. Those great designs by Syd Mead, Moebius and the team are still valid and beautiful, and that drew Joe in, that he could update that. There's a lot to work with there. Joe imagined this server that's been disconnected from the outside world for thirty years, and has grown on its own terms.

GG: Were you editing with an unfinished film?

JH: [laughs] It's not finished until just before it's released! We've been working with bluescreen, and with very rough, temporary, cartoony previsuals. There's so much you're not seeing. We see concept art and have a general idea of what's in the background, but a lot of it's in Joe's head, and the production designers'. I'm working with the fundamentals of the story and dialogue and judging it on those terms, making the performances work. Everything else is just gravy that makes it better. Very gradually, shots come in from Digital Domain. "Oh! That's what that looks like!" I've been in the dark to a certain degree. I have a general idea, enough to construct the scene, but it's eye opening to see what's really going on in the background. "Oh my god." It's this enveloping immersive environment with all this depth and nuance.

GG: How involved has Tron director Steven Lisberger been?

JH: He's been around since the script stage, as they were conceiving it. He makes comments, but he respects Joe and doesn't interfere with that. He's a voice which connects us to the original film. He's the soul of the project.

GG: You met director Joseph Kosinski through David Fincher.

TRON: Legacy's visual effects editor Andrew Loschin, left, picture editor James Haygood, A.C.E., and assistant editor Dylan Firshein.  Photo by Gregory Schwartz.

JH: I think David saw something familiar in Joe. Joe's attention to detail, his compositional clarity of vision. They have a lot of similarities, but very different sensibilities. As an editor you're so dependent on connecting with a director, someone you can go on this ride with. I was lucky to have met Joe at the beginning of his career, as I was lucky to meet David at the beginning of his. Luck is very important in this business. Joe's coming in so full of confidence and vision and potential. What he's done on Tron is a miracle, pulling off a huge complicated 3D visual effects film, with a very tight shooting schedule. I worked with Fincher in the very beginning, and he was just born to direct films, to be in the film business. Like he'd been waiting to be of legal age so he could start. Joe has a bit of that too. They both have the confidence and the willpower to inspire confidence in other people, so they'll open their checkbooks or commit their talents and time. It's not just about directing; it's the whole package to get a project off the ground. Joe has that.

GG: On a special effects film, you have to lock the picture pretty early.

JH: There's a 6 to 9 month lead time on these effects shots, a very long process. So you have to commit, and lose editorial flexibility, very early. It can be frustrating. You wish you could allocate the time differently, so you have more time to make these decisions over the year. Any change you make costs money. Do we really need more frames? We're dropping this shot, but we already paid for it. It's a massive job- the number of shots Digital Domain need to do, and at the same time pushing the envelope of technology.

TRON: Legacy.  (c) 2010 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

GG: They're creating a younger Jeff Bridges digitally.

JH: That's not an imaginary character. It's a person. People know what he looks like. It has to look right. It's a really high bar. It's new technology, and up to the minute, they're improving the look of that character. It's a really labor intensive process on their part. For many years, filmmaking was a static thing. Now, every project is a new challenge, and you adapt. We're dealing with 3D, the visual workflow, setting things up and getting material to visual effects vendors.

Dylan Firshein: We're really fortunate that the 3D workflow was set up in a smart way from the start. We shot with the Pace Fusion rig which was used on Avatar. Dave Wattro from Pace did an amazing job, along with data managers Javier Marcheselli and Maja Zdanowski. They were basically our telecine house during the shoot. Almost everything "filmed" went directly to them in their on-set trailer after being shot where they processed the footage and checked that the 3D metadata was correct. When complete, they would archive the footage to LTO tapes. Each LTO tape was treated as original camera negative and housed at Laser Pacific's vault for later VFX pulls ("scans") and the final conform. Pace provided us with Avid bins and media which included a single-eye clip as well as a fused side-by-side stereo clip. Although the production shot in Vancouver, we were cutting in LA so the dailies (often over 100gb/day) were delivered via Aspera to Disney. Additionally, we had some high-speed material shot on the Phantom camera which Laser Pacific dealt with and, motion capture footage which we received directly from the facilities House of Moves and Electronic Arts. Throughout Post, we worked in a shared project on Unity, running Avid Media Composer 3.5, with up to 5 Avids total. For a show of this size, we had a very small crew, so it kept us really busy. The amount of media was doubled at least- we had a stereo piece of media for every take, as well as a 2D version. Jim watched the dailies in 3D to get a sense of what Joe was going for, but we largely cut in 2D, because almost every shot had a comp in it. A flying disc or a light cycle or background. We weren't going to attempt 3D temp comps on every shot. We had timecode issues later, relinking to the 3D media. Every shot was off by between one and four frames. Everyone learned a lot, and after Tron, Dave Wattro went on to Resident Evil: Afterlife, so their experience was hopefully even better than ours.

TRON: Legacy.  (c) 2010 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Andrew Loschin: Jim often watched the dailies in 3D on the Avid to get a sense of what Joe was going for, but we largely cut in 2D, because this film is so visual effects heavy. With our small crew, it would have been difficult to do the number of temp comps we did to help tell the story and have to worry about them being in 3D as well.

DF: Also, our director was very critical about resolution. Between the 3D monitor and a compressed fused image, we found that having the full 1920x1080 image was more important.

JH: Since the production was so careful and conservative about how the 3D was photographed, Joe and I ignored the 3D while we were editing for the most part. We just edited the film in a normal way. Because of the tight shooting schedule, and dealing with 3D and lightsuits on the actors and other complications on the set, there wasn't too much coverage. They also had to film many scenes twice, with Jeff Bridges performing his role as Clu, and then a body double running through the scene as his younger self. So we didn't have a million shots to cut to and that enforced a restrained style to the cutting, which we figured would serve the 3D very well.

GG: Was the 3D your biggest challenge on this film?

AL: It was quite challenging during our initial setup and initial VFX turnovers, but some of the more daunting challenges were the other new things that were thrown our way including motion capture footage, head-cam footage, witness cameras and an array of Red cameras that were shot for one sequence. We made sure all of these different elements were brought into the Avid in a way that we could simply track back to the source when it was time to pull them as part of visual effects turnovers. We also wanted to keep these elements as organized and simple as possible so Jim and Joe could quickly go through and choose the pieces they wanted like any other dailies. This meant a lot of work up-front for me, in manually logging and batch importing to actually have the correct timecode and tape name as part of the Avid metadata, but it helped significantly when we turned over our visual effects shots.

Andrew Loschin, left, and Dylan Firshein.

DF: Getting the 3D shots back didn't change the cut much. The only times we've adjusted cut points based on 3D is when elements are quickly coming at the screen. I'd heard that when James Cameron made Avatar, he wanted a film that people could enjoy in 2D. That was our goal as well.

JH: Editing Tron was challenging, like every movie is challenging. Once we had the footage in the Avid it was like any other show. You see what material you have and you try to tell the story. In a sense it's more focused. You really focus on the performances, because you don't have the full environments until the effects are done. Another benefit when working on a "blue-screen film" is that for reshoots, all that was needed was a bluescreen and a little bit of set, or none at all. We could be very surgical and precise about what we shot, and we could drop a couple new lines right into the middle of a scene. Normally you'd need to return to a location or rebuild some big set, but we could pick up pieces of a bunch of scenes in just a day or two of shooting against blue.

TRON: Legacy.  (c) 2010 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

That was pretty cool, and made significant improvements to the film. They're already paying for visual effects, so you can fix a shot digitally, making adjustments that would be difficult on another film where they weren't expecting to pay for an effects shot there. There's a flexibility to bluescreen shooting that comes at a cost. There's so much rigidity to it. Fortunately Jeff Bridges has that naturalness. He's The Dude. He brings this humanity that's really needed when you're surrounded with synthetic imagery. He's a great person to have at the center of this.

GG: You edited Where the Wild Things Are [with Eric Zumbrunnen] for Spike Jonze in 2009, a powerful story about childhood.

JH: Spike is a child. He still has that very much alive in him. He breaks furniture. He's skateboarding in the office, wrestling with people, drawing on them. He's in touch with that innocence and anxiety about growing up in a world you don't understand. Tron and Wild Things couldn't be more different. Tron is stark and clean and minimalist and shot carefully for visual effects. Wild Things is brown and organic and messy. The visual effects people onset must have been medicated. Spike was running around with cameras, throwing dust and leaves in the air, everything visual effects wouldn't want. A lot of effects people went by the wayside- they couldn't handle it. Fortunately we found a group who saw the opportunity to work with a creative mind and create something different. It was never going to be technically perfect, but maybe it was going to be more alive. Onset the characters' mouths weren't moving. The dialogue was being rewritten all the time in the cutting room. The actors in the suits had done intricate mime to the original performances, but a lot of that was thrown away, and Eric and I had to find footage that would match the new dialogue. It was extremely hard, to make the thing hold together. But I just have a lot of affection for that project- the story and characters. I really thought it was beautiful.

Editing Credits
TRON: Legacy (2010)

Where the Wild
Things Are (2009)
 (co-edited with Eric Zumbrunnen)

The Astronaut Farmer (2006)

Lies & Alibis (2006)
(co-edited with Amy Duddleston)

Unscripted (2005)
(TV series; five episodes)

Eternal Sunshine of the
Spotless Mind (2004)
(additional editor; edited by Valdis Oskarsdottir)

Panic Room (2002)
(co-edited with Angus Wall)

Fight Club (1999)

The Game (1997)
GG: David Fincher is a pioneer in using CGI.

JH: He's always experimenting, talking to people who are dialed into new technology, seeing what's possible. It's not so much looking at the script. He's actually looking at the tools, and finding a place in the script to use them, and push those limits. Effects companies all want to work with him, knowing they're not going to make much money, but they're going to do what hasn't been done before. It works out for everyone in the end. The ideas are good. He shoots for editing and gives you the pieces you need. I've worked on films where my contribution was greater, because I had to raise the material to a higher level when it wasn't that great. With David you're surrounded by great material, great performances. It makes the job much easier. He covers it with a lot of flexibility- you're not just assembling the storyboard.

GG: You were an additional editor on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in 2004, for Michel Gondry.

JH: That was really fun. I came on to help for a few months. Reading the script, you'd do anything to be involved. Michel was always thinking. He'd go into his office, draw these crazy R. Crumb animations on binder paper, shoot them with his 16mm camera on his desk with a desk lamp, process the film in a bucket in the closet, and come out with a strip of film, dripping. He'd hand it to the assistants and say, get this transferred. He'd have a synthesizer in, making sound effects in the cutting room. He's so fun and imaginative, this mad genius figuring out ways to do these intricate things. You watch them baffled, trying to figure out how he did it. He's one of the most talented people that way. You realize it's a simple elegant solution but it looks incomprehensibly complicated.

GG: You edited 2006's The Astronaut Farmer, starring Billy Bob Thornton.

JH: I'd worked with Fincher for years, and was looking to do other things. I read this script, and nobody got shot. I said, I'll do it! The Polish Brothers, I'd enjoyed their film Northfork. And it was just a different worldview, more sentimental, this pastoral world.

GG: In 2006 you edited Lies & Alibis for Matt Checkowski and Kurt Mattila.

JH: Really bright, promising directors. It had already been edited, and it was a really neat, small caper film, but it wasn't working. It was awkward. Characters were hammy and overdone. I had to cross my fingers that there was the material to fix it. Thankfully there was. We got out of shots earlier, cut the bits that didn't work. Steve Coogan is such a great comic, and this was a straight role for him. It was actually a lot of fun, to see what was and wasn't working, and bring it back to life.

TRON: Legacy.  (c) Disney Enterprises, Inc.

GG: How did you approach editing an effects film like Tron?

JH: I tried not to be distracted by the technology and just focus on this father and son story. There were entire departments around the world taking care of the visual effects. I was the keeper of the story. I'm always in awe reading someone like Walter Murch, who is so bright and intellectual about the process, a wealth of resources and references, because I'm not like that. That's not my skillset. My approach to editing is instinctual. Responding to the material and the rhythms and what feels real and natural, and you hope that subtext and rhythmic subtlety, everything you could be intellectual about, just happens in an organic way. You go with what you have.

GG: What, to you, is a well-edited film?

JH: If I see a film and enjoy the performances, I believe the editor's done a good job. I ignore the pyrotechnics, the flashy stuff. The fun part of the job is manipulating these raw performances- these fragments, in pieces. David comes in with very specific ideas about performance. But actors aren't machines. They bring their own interpretation. As an editor you see the reality of the movie beyond what the intention was when it was written and shot. That's working well, and that isn't. This is taking too long. I don't understand this. This is banging us over the head. Maybe it isn't exactly what they thought it was going to be. But if the director has gotten the performances and has the overall vision, you work together to make the film what it really is.

GG: You've worked with directors who have very strong visions.

JH: When you're deep into the minutia of editing those video and audio tracks, you can lose your spontaneity, but David, Spike, Joe, Michel and any director at that level sees the big picture. They're always thinking, coming in with new ideas. You love 'em and hate 'em for that, because maybe it's been so much work to get it the way it is, and now you have to tear it apart and try it a different way to find something new. That distinguishes those directors- they're always trying to find ways to make it better, and they do. Once a movie's finished and in the theater, you hope it looks obvious- you can't imagine it any other way. Only the director and editor know it's all smoke and mirrors and scotch tape and bubblegum. That's the private satisfaction, the magic of it. "Wow, it looks like it was planned that way!"

Garrett Gilchrist is a freelance writer, filmmaker and film editor. He can be reached at orangecow.org.


Articles written by Garrett Gilchrist and (c) The Motion Picture Editors Guild Magazine, 2008-2011.
Website design by Garrett Gilchrist.