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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For example, I had a very fruitful and friendly relationship with Bill Nighy [who plays Davy Jones] on the Pirates pictures because we were both contributing our best to the creation of a character. He was very much the author of the performance, and so he didn't feel he was a cog in the machine or that his artistic contribution would then somehow be adulterated by a bunch of computer graphics geeks. We understood what he was doing and tried to preserve it to the best extent possible. I think when actors see those kinds of relationships and collaborations working, they see it as a creative possibility as opposed to something that's destroying the craft of film making and storytelling.

Genius is rarely recognized in its day. What films like Tron may not have been box office successes, yet were pioneers in their field? Young Sherlock Holmes, for me, had a big impact. The stained-glass man in Young Sherlock Holmes, I thought, was amazing. I was super-impressed by that, yet the film got very little attention.

In the past five years or so, there has been renaissance around Tron: a Tron 2.0 computer game, a Tron level in the Kingdom Hearts video game, a 20th anniversary DVD set. To what do you attribute the staying power of the franchise? I think it was really different. It was something new and different, and there were a lot of things that were really cool about it: the imagery, the design. Given the lack of sophistication of some of the tools they had to work with, there was a very clever design done to work within the capabilities. The Light Cycles, and the Tanks, and the Recognizers and all that stuff were very clever designs. They're super-minimal, and there were really great art direction choices made about color and camera angles. I thought the Wendy Carlos music was really memorable. All those things leave a lasting impression.

The movie came out at the same time as the arcade game, and although the movie was not a financial success, the game was. Do you think a Tron movie could succeed nowadays? I don't know! Whatever made it not successful in the first place would probably still be present in a remake, if they went with the same story. The fundamental plot devices are anachronistic now, so it'd need to be updated to be Internet-aware, with much less emphasis on mainframe computers and a much higher emphasis on personal computers and small portable devices. You could go in the Matrix direction, where some aspect of his personality is transferred over into the computer and they're linked in a way.

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