Q&A: John Knoll on CGI, Tron and 25 years of change

Back then, using computer graphics to make a movie was considered cheating

John Knoll
John Knoll, visual effects supervisor at Industrial Light and Magic

In 1982, Disney studios released Tron, one of the first films from a major studio to feature extensive computer graphics. The movie is about a programmer (played by Jeff Bridges) who gets "digitized" and finds himself inside a computer where he is forced to play the gladiatorial games he wrote. (Bridges' character eventually escapes and sets out to topple the despotic Master Control Program, or MCP.) Even though Tron was something of a milestone for computer-generated imagery, it met with little success at the box office and failed to garner a special effects nomination from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. At the time, the academy considered the use of computers in films as "cheating."

Monday marked the 25th anniversary of the release of Tron, whose computer graphics were seen as revolutionary at the time. With that anniversary in mind, Computerworld spoke with John Knoll, a visual effects supervisor at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM). Knoll, who served as visual effects supervisor for such films as Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, Pirates of the Caribbean, Star Trek: First Contact and Mission: Impossible, weighed in on the limitations of CG back then and how far it has come in the past quarter century. (Knoll may also be known in the IT world for his role in the creation of Photoshop, which he developed with his brother Thomas.)

Excerpts from that interview follow:

Tell me about your first encounter with Tron. I saw Tron when it came out and thought it was really cool -- something unique and different that hadn't been seen in the cinema before. I was really captivated by the imagery. I was working in visual effects at the time as a model maker, and then as a cameraman, and computer graphics was something I thought was really fascinating. But Tron and The Last Starfighter were two things that definitely got me thinking in those lines.

When did you become involved in computer graphics? I was hired at ILM as a motion-control camera assistant, working as a camera operator for a while before I moved over to the computer graphics department. Part of it was just convenience: ILM was the first place I'd ever worked at that had a computer graphics department, so there was the opportunity to go over and visit.

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