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Steve Preeg, the head of animation on Tron: Legacy, participated in an online chat with members of the media in advance of the movie’s release on Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D. An Academy Award-winner for the visual effects in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Preeg’s work can also be seen in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Flags of Our Fathers, I, Robot, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, and King Kong.

Given the bulk of the action in Tron: Legacy takes place inside a computer, it seems doubly appropriate the conversation with the movie’s head of animation was done online. The following is a transcript of the chat, edited and reorganized for a little smoother flow.

Pushing the Envelope

Steve Preeg
Steve Preeg

What was the hardest part of the animation in Tron: Legacy?

For sure the hardest part was Clu, bringing a human being to the screen has long been considered impossible in CGI, as humans are very used to looking at other humans faces. Avoiding what is known as the uncanny valley is what we all face in this industry in regards to this type of work.

Can you explain the uncanny valley? How did your experience on Benjamin Button help you?

The uncanny valley basically suggests that as a character gets closer and closer to real looking, people respond better and better to it, until you get ALMOST real, and then people become disgusted by it. I think signs like skin that’s off color, eyes that stare off to infinity, etc. are some of the things that throw characters into the uncanny valley. There are many theories about why this is true, but the best one I have heard is that over the generations we have learned to avoid dead bodies to avoid disease, and many of the signs of a dead body are exactly what the uncanny valley seems to be about. Our work on Button certainly helped us learn more about what humans accept and don’t accept about another humans face, but there is still a lot to learn.

Was the process similar in Tron: Legacy working on de-aging Jeff Bridges as Clu 2 to the aging effects applied to Brad Pitt in Benjamin Button?

There was a lot of similarities as far as the work at Digital Domain itself, the main difference was on the aquisition of the data. With Button we captured Brad Pitt months after principal photography, but Jeff Bridges wanted to be captured on set in the moment which required us to come up with some new hardware as well as software to deal with the difference in the data we were receiving here at Digital Domain

What was it like working with a first-time director like Joe Kosinski contrasted with working with a veteran like David Fincher?

They are both great filmmakers. With David you expect him to give great direction and explain exactly what he wants, and he does. As a first time director, I was amazed at how similar Joe was to David. Joe is very clear on what he wants, he had everything in his head of what he wanted. This was a really tough movie to direct for even a seasoned film veteran and Joe took it in stride more than I think anyone thought possible, plus he had a baby right in the middle of production. He is an amazing guy, I would love to work with him again

What is the advantage of your E-motion capture technology compared to the performance capturing system James Cameron used in Avatar?

They are really different tasks. On Avatar, the capture was happening with the body and face at the same time. We needed to make one person’s facial performance on another person’s body movement. They are both very difficult tasks, but require different methods.

Can you explain the additional difficulties that you had to solve because the film was shot in 3D? Did you play with 3D effects to enhance some visual effects?

Well first off there are two cameras to track, and they have to be far more accurate tracks than traditional VFX tracks, because the two together define the depth of an object. It also makes it harder for the end of the pipeline where traditionally you can always paint or nudge things in the final composite, but with 3D that paint work has to be the same in both eyes and that presents a problem, as well. There are quite a few other issues, like polarized light (such as reflections) showing up different in the two cameras, vertical disparity, using elements from two takes that had different 3D settings, the list goes on and on.

Did you have to create any new tools and use anything unique to generate the effects?

Most films we work on require some new tools to be created, we never get a director that comes and says, “just make what you did before.” They always want to push it to the next level. On Tron we had to write new tools for the 3D part of it, as well as a new facial solver for the type of data we were receiving from set. There were a whole host of additional smaller tools written for the different departments, and we are continuing to develop those tools for our current and upcoming shows.

What was the biggest challenge in making Tron: Legacy?

For me personally it was just trying to live up to the legacy of the original Tron. That film started the industry in which I work and is kind of considered holy ground by many of my peers, there was a lot of pressure to not screw it up :)

What in particular are you the most proud of in terms of pushing the envelope of effects?

I think we are all proud to have made a film that paid appropriate homage to the orginal film. It was a daunting task and for the most part our work was well received, which was a great relief for us.

How did you first get involved in this project?

Just as Button was wrapping, Eric (the VFX supervisor) was approached by Joe Kosinski and Disney about doing Tron. Having worked with him for a few years prior, he asked me to be involved, which of course I had to say yes. It’s Tron after all.

The opening sequence was shown in 2D - was this an artistic or technical decision? The real-life scenes seemed perfect in 3D for me.

That was the director’s decision. He wanted the Tron world to feel different, sort of like how the Wizard of Oz was black and white in the real world and in color in Oz. It was a similar effect he was going for.

Tron’s Legacy

What was different about working on Tron: Legacy than other projects, At World’s End, for example?

One of the big differences for us was that it was shot in 3D. This presented a whole new set of challenges and workflows to work with footage from two cameras. We had to be far more accurate and aware of how everything we did would affect the depth of the scene.

Do you think 3D is here to stay or will it move out of fashion again?

That’s a tough call. I think it will depend a lot on the home market and if the box office difference stays as high as it is. I know there are some indications that it is dying down, so maybe it is on it’s way out, but I don’t think anyone really knows.

How much experience did you have with 3D prior to this film?

Very little, our company had done one 3D conversion, but I didn’t work on it. It was certainly a learning process for me.

Where do you see the advantages of 3D for telling stories like Tron: Legacy?

I think in a film where you create a whole new world for people to see is a great place for 3D to be used. You can really use it to give a feeling of actually being in this new place, that’s where I would like to see it used more. I don’t think we need to start seeing romantic comedies in 3D, but that’s just me.

What would you do different now when you look back at the movie?

After every film we examine what we did right and wrong and make a list of what could be done better. There is always room for improvement on technique and execution. I think for myself, there are a number of advancements on how we approach human faces that will change our process, had we known then what we know now, we probably would have tried to implement some of that on Clu. I think we will be learning new things about how to create humans for a very long time to come.

Considering the intricately detailed effects work you put together, what’s your take on people watching movies on small mobile devices like iPhones? Do you feel like your work gets lost in that kind of portable compression compared to what people could experience in a theater?

There is no question that this film was meant to be seen on an IMAX screen. Joe designed a lot of the film specifically to be seen that way. I strongly feel that people watching this on a mobile device are missing a huge part of the thrill that is Tron: Legacy.

What was your favorite sequence in Tron: Legacy, as a fan and as an animator?

I personally really enjoyed the light bike sequence. It has a bit of the original Tron in it but got to be updated for a whole new generation of audience members. It was a real thrill to work on that sequence.

How much pressure did you feel in not only making a sequel to Tron but also in creating the world of Tron now?

This is the most pressure I have felt on any film I have worked on. Trying to live up to Tron, the grandfather of the industry I work in, was always in the back of our minds and often in the front of our minds, too.

Are you a fan of the original Tron?

Of course. I don’t see how anybody wouldn’t be. It was so far ahead of its time and so groundbreaking. Plus after conversations with Steve Lisberger (the director of the original Tron) there is so much more to it than people think. He has amazing insight on our world and I think Tron had a lot of additional meaning that Steve was trying to make.

Were there any moments where you just geeked out when thinking that you are working on a Tron movie?

Some of us were on Tron: Legacy for 27 months, and I think we were in that geek out phase the entire time. It was a real honor to be allowed to continue Tron for a new generation.

Have fans of the original Tron been supportive of the visual effects that you included in Tron: Legacy?

From the responses I have gotten, it seems that fans of the original were quite happy with our work.

Can you differentiate between your responsibilities as Head of Animation and, for example, VFX Supervisor, as far as it pertains to Tron: Legacy?

As head of animation, I was responsible for the movement of everything. From Clu to lightbikes, if it moved that was my responsibility. The VFX is responsible for the look of the film and making sure it matches the director’s vision. So the VFX is dealing with a lot of lighting, modeling, textures, etc. That said, Eric (the VFX) and I collaborate on just about everything. We have a great working relationship and I have no problem hearing his comments on animation just as he listens to my suggestions about lighting, etc.

Did the look of the original movie limit you in your creativity or was there still room for new ideas?

I think it helped spur creativity. How do you take that original look and update it for a new generation? That was one of the most challenging and fun parts about working on this film.

Percentage-wise how much of the film is live action compared to CG would you say?

In the Tron world every shot had some digital work done, even if it was just suit enhancement. Probably about half of the real world footage had work done to it. I am not sure how much of the film was completely CG but I would guess about 20% maybe, all of the lightbike and lightjet sequences were all CG and a large portion of the disc game, as well as the big cityscapes.

This massive 5-disc set may be the biggest 3D Blu-ray release to come out yet. Do you think this could be the title that really spurs growth in the 3D Blu-ray market?

I hadn’t really thought of that, but wouldn’t that be awesome? I haven’t seen it in 3D on Blu-ray yet, but Joe says it looks amazing, so I can’t wait.

Did the first Tron in any way inspire you to work in life/your career in special effects?

Not only was it an inspiration but it started the work that is my career, it has been great meeting some of the original crew of the first Tron and to see how hard it was to make the first Tron, they were true pioneers.

Any word on Tron 3? (Note: Variations on this question were asked three times. These are the three answers.)

  1. I haven’t heard for sure one way or another if there will be a sequel, but it would be a great opportunity to work on it if they do make one.
  2. If I knew anything I probably couldn’t tell you anyway, but honestly I don’t know anything more than you about it. I hope they make one, though, and I hope they ask me to work on it.
  3. Nothing but rumors.

Will you be involved with the animated series Tron: Uprising at all?

At this time I haven’t heard anything about being involved.

Film Science

Do you think that digital actors could replace human actors? What about recreating digital personalities for a movie, like Elvis, Humphrey Bogart or Marilyn Monroe?

That’s a tough question. In general we rely heavily on the performance of the actor to give us a character. We aren’t really out to replace human actors since they are the ones that breathe life into our digital characters. As for bringing someone back from the dead, you can never really get a dead presons take on a role, all you can try to do is mimic what you think they might have done. It may be beliveable to an audience, but in the end it is not really that persons performance, its just a copy.

Digital characters are more and more perfect like Neytiri in Avatar. Actors in digital roles in eyes of critics are not real, but we all see their fantastic performances - do you think in future actors will receive awards for their digital roles?

I hope so. It is just as valid of an acting job to be a digital character and in some ways even harder as there is not always something to react to. Someday I hope the recognition is there.

What’s your favorite aspect of the work you do?

With this industry being both an artistic and technical field, we get to work with a wide variety of people from all over the world. I think for me it is interacting with all of those people, directors, software engineers, animators, etc.

You received an Academy Award for achievement in visual effects for your work on Benjamin Button. Has this win given you more creative freedom on the films you have worked on since then?

The creative freedom on a film is largely dependent on the director you are working with. Joe was great about hearing ideas and he collaborated with us in a way that made it a real treat to work on his film. However, in the end our goal is to make the directors vision come to life.

Can you talk about which films have influenced you?

The most inspirational film to me is Baraka. It is sort of a film about everything. Every time I watch that film I can take something else out of it. There is something for every mood and every aspect of life in there, so I watch it about once every 6 months, just to see how amazing our lives and planet really are.

How does addtional filming or reshoots effects your process?

It doesn’t really affect it other than it is just plate delivery that is later and we would have less time to work on it. It is pretty typical to get additional filming on projects, so it was no big deal on Tron Legacy

Have you watched a movie you’ve worked on and caught a “bug”? A little glitch or quirk that was missed, probably something nobody else would even notice, that made you cringe in your seat?

I really have a hard time watching movies I have worked on because that’s all I see. There is never a finished shot, I always feel like we could do more, but at some point it has to get out to theaters.

Was there any thought to redoing any effects for the Blu-ray release? It must be tempting to go back and redo Clu with what you’ve learned since then.

I think in this industry we would always like more time or a shot at redoing things. We never really finish a shot, it just gets taken away at some point. The option for redoing any FX for the Blu-ray would not have been up to us, but it sure would have been fun.

How did you move from mechanical engineering to Hollywood special effects?

I was using some of the available visualization software used in film to visualize some engineering work when a friend needed some help on a film and knew that I knew the software. After working on a couple projects, I realized it was a lot more fun working on films than as an engineer, at least for me.

Do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring filmmakers who want to get into animation?

Make sure you love the craft. Don’t try to get into this industry because you think you will get rich or meet famous people. We work really hard in this industry and without a true passion for film and the work you do, you will burn out quickly. I think maybe that’s true for a lot of industries, work on what you love to do.

Can you tell us what you’ve got going on next?

I would be happy to tell you if I knew. We are looking at a number of projects, but honestly after more than 2 years on Tron, I am okay with it taking a couple months for something else to pop up.

Steve, any final thoughts on Tron: Legacy as we close this virtual roundtable?

Well, I just hope people enjoyed our work and the film itself. It was a real pleasure working on it as well as sharing some insight with all you guys. Thanks for reading all my ramblings, I hope you enjoyed it too.