Wolfram Computation Meets Knowledge

The Legacy of TRON

Editorial note: A future post will explore some of the contributions to the visual arts and media facilitated by Mathematica.

The year 1982 saw a lot of important movies: Blade Runner, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Poltergeist, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, The Thing, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, Pink Floyd The Wall, First Blood, Conan the Barbarian, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Dark Crystal, and TRON.

I used Mathematica functionality to turn the TRON logo into something you can manipulate. You can download my notebook to play with the logo. (Mathematica Home Edition could be used to do this as well.)

Tron Logo

In the early 1980s, there were four main firms doing computer graphics: Information International, Inc., Robert Abel and Associates, Mathematical Applications Group, Inc., and Digital Effects Inc. For TRON, all four firms were hired. For example, Digital Effects produced the Bit sequence. Bit’s “no” state is the 35th stellation of the icosahedron. The null state is a dodecahedron-icosahedron compound.

A Bit in a no state

TRON marked the first time computer animation was a major part of a movie. Systems of the era had 2 MB of memory and used disks with 330 MB of storage. To compensate for this, they faded anything non-vital to black to save on memory. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences refused to consider a special effects award for TRON because the use of computers was considered cheating at the time.

The Light Cycle sequence was based on the computer game Surround (also called Snake, Blockade, and Worm). For me, it was one of the first times the Cartesian grid was rendered in an exciting way.

The Light Cycle sequence

Many staples of computer graphics today, such as Perlin noise, were originally developed for TRON. The sequel, TRON: Legacy, has a reputation to follow—not only cutting edge computer graphics, but also general computer geekiness. For example, the rotating scoreboard in one of the TRON: Legacy games has 16 notable computer scientists (image below from Justin Springer’s The Art of TRON: Legacy).

Scoreboard from TRON: Legacy

Here are a few of the scientists listed on the scoreboard:

John Backus developed FORTAN.
Tim Berners-Lee developed the World Wide Web.
Seymour Cray developed supercomputers.
J. Presper Eckert developed ENIAC.
Cuthbert Hurd developed the IBM 701.
Thomas Eugene Kurtz developed the BASIC programming language.
Peter J. Landin developed ALGOL.
Ed Logg developed Centipede and Gauntlet.
Bob Miner co-found Oracle.
Rob Pike developed the first window system for Unix.
Alan Turing developed many of the initial concepts of computers.
William Wulf developed the BLISS programming language.

If a teapot appears in the movie, you can bet that it will be a Utah teapot, which is a historically famous computer graphic image.

Tempestuous Teapot

Justin Springer (co-producer) was kind enough to send us an image.

Legacy of Tron

He also sent an image containing Escher’s Solid.

Legacy of Tron Eschers Solid

The director of the sequel is Joseph Kosinski, who got his start with computer graphics and their applications to architecture. Very early on in the development of TRON: Legacy, he digitally created all the sets. As always happens in architecture, these designs saw many changes. In some movies, the effort would have stopped there—the Star Wars prequels are good examples. Instead, most of the sets were physically built.

Classically, movies created a sense of awe with “How did they do that?” type effects. Computer graphics have become so good that they became the answer to every question, which served to deflate the awe. The movie Iron Man broke that cliche by really using props in many cases where they could have used computer animation. TRON: Legacy has continued in that line, by letting the film crew control the computers instead of the other way around.

I greatly look forward to seeing it.

Update 2/1/11: Justin Springer, co-producer of Tron: Legacy, clued me in on scientists I missed in the scoreboard, and added a few pictures for our use.

Download notebook


Join the discussion

!Please enter your comment (at least 5 characters).

!Please enter your name.

!Please enter a valid email address.


  1. I downloaded the .nb file, but there was no “turn the TRON logo into a Manipulate” code. Just the article….. Could you send a link?


  2. Is that an Escher solid or a Yoshimoto cube? I thought it was the latter –> http://www1.ttcn.ne.jp/a-nishi/y_cube/z_y_cube.html