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

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

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Was ILM cutting-edge at the time in having such a department? None of the other big visual effects places like Apogee or Boss or Dream Quest, none of those places had computer graphics departments. There were other computer graphics companies, but not in Hollywood.

Tron was unique in that it not only used computers, but was also about computers; it was very transparent in what it was trying to do. Why do you think they used that approach? The type of imagery that was possible to create at the time was very clearly computer-generated; it wasn't going to fool anybody into thinking it was live action. That was a limitation of the technology that worked very well within the story, that fit right in and made a lot of sense: If you're telling a story about events taking place inside a computer, inside a big virtual environment, what techniques should you use? Parts of the film were done by shooting live action, then doing rotoscope and other optical techniques over the top of it, but the stuff that really looked cool and stood out was the stuff that was computer generated.

What was the perception of computers' roles and their future in Hollywood 25 years ago? There were a lot of people who were watching it. I had a friend who would get the SIGGRAPH film and video show tapes. I borrowed a bunch of them from him and was really intrigued by the imagery -- some of it was mind-bending. I thought, "This is related to what I do. Someday, this is going to have an influence on visual effects." We were watching it very closely.

Did Tron vindicate the use of computer graphics and influence the direction ILM was taking? I think it was an appropriate use of computer graphics at the time -- that they probably couldn't have reached a whole lot further than they did at the time. It opened everyone's eyes to something they should be watching because it had a lot of potential.

Yet despite the film's brilliance, it was a box office flop. Why was that? I'm sure it's not because of the technology involved. I don't know -- maybe the story didn't grab people, or they felt like it was too juvenile. I'm not sure, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't technique-related.

Was there a tipping point for computer graphics, both for general audiences and for actors? I think people just got used to it. When computer graphics was a very new technique, I think a lot of people didn't know what to make of it, and as it's become more and more ubiquitous and the quality has gone up, I think it's inspired less fear.

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