Academic journal article CineAction

"Then One Day I Got In." Computer Imaging, Realism Tron

Academic journal article CineAction

"Then One Day I Got In." Computer Imaging, Realism Tron

Article excerpt

Director Steven Lisberger's groundbreaking effects film Tron (1982) concludes with a single static shot (captured from the roof of a skyscraper) of an anonymous city as it moves from light to darkness. As the grey cityscape transforms into a bustling neon glow and ultimately fades to black, the image's prescient metaphor becomes clear: the "real-world" nighttime city closely resembles the film's computer world (the Grid), suggesting that Tron is merely a step towards an inevitable future in which the audience's second life inside of the machine will become increasingly normalized. Tron's delayed sequel Tron Legacy (directed by Joseph Kosinski, released some 28 years later) mirrors Tron's fitting coda in its commencement--abstract lines over a basic "grid" slowly transform into a city street as Kevin Flynn (in voiceover) explains his conception of the Grid. If the finale of Tron is to suggest a hopeful utopian future enabled by computers, the opening of Tron Legacy seems to announce the arrival of that future. Though the likening of the corporeal body of the city to the abstract network of the machine interface seems appropriate for two films that often conflate reality and fantasy on the level of narrative, the changing attitudes between the coda of Tron and the prologue of its sequel are perhaps representative of a shift in Tron's means of presenting the inside world of the computer across the 28 years between their respective releases. The ultimate question posed by Tron and Tron Legacy is one of technology and realism, and how traditional cinematic codes thought to demarcate notions of "reality" have been adapted to the growing field of computer graphics, despite their inherent ability to represent anything conceivable to the human imagination.

In Chapter 4 of his monumental study of "new media", Lev Manovich takes up the question of realism in computer generated imaging, noting that after the 20th century art world's rejection of the pursuit of illusionism:

  The production of illusionistic representations has become the domain
  of mass culture and of media technologies--photography, film, and
  video [...] Today, everywhere, these machines are being replaced by
  new digital illusion generators--computers [...] this massive
  replacement is one of the key economic factors that keeps the new
  media industries expanding. As a consequence these industries are
  obsessed with visual illusionism. (1)

This "obsession" with visual illusionism, defined by the perceived ability of a computer generated image to faithfully "recreate" reality, mirrors similar concerns for illusionism in the visual arts at large, concerns that are reduced by Manovich into 3 primary arguments: the image's representations must share some features with the physical reality it recreates; the image should be presented in a manner that reflects natural human vision; each new image should contain an element of realistic representation that is superior to the last: "for instance, the evolution of cinema from silent to sound to color". (2) Manovich takes up these arguments and, using the film theories of four primary scholars of cinematic realism--Andre Bazin, Jean-Louis Comolli, David Bordwell and Janet Staiger--effectively asserts that the history of realism in computer-generated imagery (CGI)--from its development in the late 1970s to its renaissance in the early 1990s--echoes similar developments in the history of cinema from its emergence in 1895 to the present era of digital cinema. By addressing each of these theorists in turn, and examining Manovich's application of their theories to the medium of CGI, one is able to discover in Tron and Tron Legacy the fulfillment of Manovich's argument that "the history of technological innovation and research is presented as a progression towards real-ism--the ability to simulate any object in such a way that its computer image is indistinguishable from a photograph" (3) And yet while this teleological progress narrative of finding realism in computer representations can be discovered in the movement from Tron to Tron Legacy, the latter film's increased library of codes of cinematic realism marks a regression in the utopian potential of Tron's visual style. …

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