Tron: Legacy and the Viability of 3-D in a 2-D Medium

By Jason Haggstrom, December 18, 2010

I went into Tron: Legacy not with the hope that it’d be great, but that it would give me a reason to believe in 3-D as a viable technology for the medium of film. Avatar came with the promise to revolutionize 3-D which it failed to do. With Tron: Legacy, I was hoping for something really psychedelic, like having the film’s many glowing lights pop out into 3-D space, completely ignoring their physical attachment to the objects in the frame. In actuality, the film didn’t go that far (though its use of yellow often disturbs the eye like blue LED Christmas lights), but what it did do is worthy of both acknowledgment and praise.

In a typical 3-D film, the technology is used to separate objects closer to camera from everything behind them. We’ve likely all experienced stereoscopic rendering of an image much like what you’d see in a View-Master where the 3-D objects are cut-out of the image like paper dolls. Avatar didn’t do anything different (regardless of hyperbole of the Cameron campaign that tried to convince people otherwise). Its greatest innovation in 3-D was its employment of a shallow depth of field for much of the film which softened the division of 3-D planes, rendering the effect a bit more convincing. Still, even that method brought out critical discourse and even a discussion of the morality of 3-D in shallow focus. Tron: Legacy goes in the opposite direction and renders its images in deep focus, allowing your eyes to wander and explore the beautiful design work that fills the frame. The film only employs a shallow depth of field in scenes of talking heads (the backgrounds are comprised of simple, morphing patterns) and, even then, the filmmakers chose to not render the scenes in stereoscopic 3-D. Instead, the shallow depth of field is allowed to do it’s job in creating a three-dimensional effect through variations in focus.

Click any image to enlarge

Tron: Legacy doesn’t reinvent 3-D—nothing is going to truly change until the technology is overhauled into something other than stereoscopy and glasses. But what the film does do is manipulate the mise-en-scène to include visual noise that reduces the overly-noticeable effect of layered planes that we normally see in 3-D films. The effect is subtle, as it’s not intended to draw attention to itself but to change the way the way we see the entire image. Sometimes this third plane of dimension is created by lens flares, sometimes by smoke, but more often—rather than being created from an on-screen object—this added layer of visual information simply is. It’s streaks of light, translucency, pixelized dots layered over faces, or some variable of non-matter. The film can get away with this variation because its world is not the one we know, but a virtual one called "The Grid" that exists inside of a computer. As such, the filmmakers can get away with virtually any aesthetic choices they want. In fact, this design choice doesn’t just improve upon the 3-D presentation, it enhances the design of the digital world that is "The Grid." Even Roger Ebert, who typically goes out of his way to rip on the use of 3-D in films, notices the difference here. He calls it "useful, and not just a promiscuous use of the ping-pong effect" which, coming from a person so critical of the technology, is an enormous compliment. If you haven’t already, I recommend reading his article “Why I Hate 3-D (and You Should Too)” where he very eloquently—and convincingly—tears 3-D to shreds.

I’ve tried my best to capture some moments with screen grabs that illustrate the aesthetic of the translucent third plane, but the effect is lost when rendered motionless. I’ve also included the trailer below where you can (briefly) see some of these moments in motion and look for the aesthetic I’ve described. In the trailer, they are most prominent in the moment where Sam jumps at 2:00-2:04 and in the the light-cycle sequence from 1:42 to 1:48. Pay attention not to the focal point of the action, but to the moving streaks of light and other non-matter that are layered upon the image. In the 3-D presentation, these non-matter elements are typically placed between the foreground and background planes which gives the sequences in "The Grid" an aesthetic that I can’t say I’ve ever experienced before. The effect is not terribly obvious in the trailer (because the images go by so fast), but on the big screen these design choices impact the film for the better.

As much as I enjoyed the way the film used 3-D and the inspired production design, let me be clear about the movie on the whole: Tron: Legacy is not a great film. But if you’re looking for a two hour light show, you’d have a hard time finding a better experience. As a 3-D experience, the film gets it right by employing it in a way that is unique (it also helps that they don’t constantly throw or point things out into the audience). I’ve been long suspect about the viability of 3-D in the 2-D medium that is cinema, but Tron: Legacy proves that 3-D can be used effectively as an aesthetic choice. Not even Avatar can lay claim to that.

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By Glenn on December 18, 2010 at 10:49 PM


I just saw Tron, sans 3D since no theater within an hour of me was offering it (Yogi Bear apparently taking precedence). The whole time I kept thinking, ‘well this looks cool, but how much cooler could it look in 3D?’ The last 3D movie I did see was Step Up 3D (wife pulled rank, I swear), where I felt it was used crudely and actually did more to distract than anything else.

After reading this however, I’m definitely interested in seeing what 3D can add to Tron.

By Robert Gatley on December 18, 2010 at 11:21 PM

Nicely written, Jason! I saw a preview of this a week ago and was dazzled by the look of it. Thanks for telling me why!

By Jason Haggstrom on December 18, 2010 at 11:39 PM

@Glenn: Is now a good time to admit that I’m somewhat curious to see “Step Up 3”? I considered taking my (then) six-year daughter old to it, but wasn’t completely sure about the content. Dance always has the opportunity to be really compelling when filmed. Here’s my current favorite in the short film category (which I intend to write about one day): Turf Feinz Dancing in the Rain

@Rob: Thanks, buddy! Glad you enjoyed the film!

By Anna on December 30, 2010 at 6:43 AM

Cool, enjoyed this post a lot! Plan on seeing this this week, hopefully in 3D. (Which I don’t really care much for, but in this it might actually bring something to the film)

By Jason Haggstrom on January 5, 2011 at 9:18 PM

Thanks, Anna. I obviously haven’t found much reason to care about 3-D either. Zemeckis’ 3-D films have been the only other cases where I found the technology to be of benefit to the film. As a fellow non-believer in 3-D, I’d be curious to hear what you thought of Tron and its use of 3-D. Any chance you’ll be writing about it over on your blog?

By Matt Shorr on March 18, 2011 at 2:54 PM

Hey Jason,

I too believe that 3-D technology is viable for the medium, but I don’t think Tron: Legacy was a film that effectively used it. Although what you point out about the “visual noise” is fascinating, more often than not, the 3-D was a detriment to the film. Don’t get me wrong, the implementation made sense (i.e. using 3-D only in “The Grid”), but the visual aesthetic left me disappointed overall. I was mostly frustrated by the darkness of the image, especially in the scenes sans 3-D where we follow Sam in reality. As a working cinematographer I noticed, like Walter Murch pointed out, that the glasses cause the image to be “about a camera stop darker”. So I took them off during these scenes – even though Disney told me not to at the beginning of the film. I could not understand why a cinematographer, the guy who does post color correction, and the director would spend all this time and energy to perfect an image when it is only going to be degraded without payoff – there is just no logic to it. I hate a muddy image as much as the next guy, but even those less involved in filmmaking could tell the image was poor – just ask my parents who are both retired teachers.

I have high hopes for 3-D. I am a 3-D photographer – I use mostly vintage 35mm equipment – and am a member of the National Stereoscopic Association, which is based out of my hometown of Portland, Oregon. I believe in the technology and, from what I have seen in photographs, the images are astounding; they give me the physical sensation of actually being “there”. Perhaps 3-D will go in the direction Herzog is taking it, where the technology, as Ebert puts it, “will allow us the illusion of being able to occupy the space with the paintings and look into them, experiencing them as a prehistoric artist standing in the cavern might have.” This would be fine with me, although unlike Ebert I think 3-D can also accentuate the internal psychology of a serious drama. Imagine a film like “There Will Be Blood” in 3-D, where the environment is practically a reflection of the Daniel Day Lewis character. I know it is a little silly to think of a Paul Thomas Anderson film in 3-D, but this character study could be utterly more haunting if we were “there” in the desert. Additionally, PTA’s depth of field and long takes are another reason why I believe something like “There Will Be Blood” would bode well with 3-D. Just imagine how much information a masterful director could pack in a single shot if they were given another plane of depth. This would be Bazin’s fantasy world – and directors could do some serious damage through blocking and mise en scene.

All it takes is a new concept of what should comprise a shot, how the actors should be staged, and where the eye should travel. I think the only reason why there is such resistance from the great film artists of our time is that they too accustomed to the tradition of how an image should work (read: old fashioned). I am glad that Scorsese and Herzog are tackling the technology but I am hesitant to put my hopes in them. I think 3-D needs its Welles/Toland combo – two young people who see the potential of technology, are willing to take risks, and have the right material to pair it with. Oh yeah, and 3-D needs to get rid of the glasses. I know glasses-less 3-D is still in its testing phase, but once we eliminate these pesky shades we will be seeing a brighter image and giving the filmmakers more control over the medium.

By Jason Haggstrom on March 19, 2011 at 10:51 AM

Thanks for taking the time to contribute such a thoughtful response, Matt. The dimness of the picture has been one of the biggest complaints of the 3-D medium. Like you, I’ve noticed it in just about every 3-D film I’ve seen. However, I had a different experience with Tron. The image was surprisingly bright in the theater where I saw it (possibly Belmar in Lakewood? I can’t recall for sure.) and I assumed–perhaps falsely–that the filmmakers had brightened it up to compensate for 3-D dimness. It looked pretty much like it does in the trailer I posted (as you’d expect, there was a slight blurriness as with all 3-D movies, but it was MUCH less than what I’ve come to expect). It’s a shame that theaters haven’t done a better job at making sure their 3-D movies are as brightly lit as they need to be.

I am also really intrigued about Herzog’s film, Caves of Forgotten Dreams (and to a lesser extent, Scorcese’s). I understand what you mean about the silliness of a PT Anderson film being in 3-D, but perhaps that really is just brought on by the fact that it’s not what we expect a 3-D film to be. Herzog and Scorcese might change that perception. After all, Anderson’s long, mobile takes are straight out of Scorcese’s play book and I think it’s safe to expect one in Hugo Cabret. As you inferred, quick editing has also worked against 3-D. It’ll be interesting to see what filmmakers such as Herzog and Scorcese do with the technology. We also have Spielberg’s venture into 3-D late in the year with his Tintin adaptation. For the most part, I’ve found 3-D to be pointless and obtrusive. But I’m still holding out hope that these great filmmakers will convince me otherwise.

By Tiel Lundy on March 21, 2011 at 9:14 AM

An excellent article, Jason. Like Matt, I appreciate your analysis of Tron’s “visual noise.” And Matt, your claim that what 3D really needs is a modern-day Welles-Toland team is perfect. I’m wondering who that might be . . . Stuart Dryburgh and Roger Deacons are two of my favorite working cinematographers. And PT Anderson does have a keen sense of scene space. (I recently re-watched Boogie Nights, which demonstrates the power of the long take and rich mise-en-scene.) Maybe the three of them could put their heads together. Other ideas?

By Jonathan Holmes on March 27, 2011 at 3:48 PM

This is a great discussion, and I think that some great points have been made. Despite that, I still can’t find it in myself to really get enthusiastic about 3-D, and a big part of that has to do with Ebert’s claims about 3-D. For instance: 3-D is neat, but….it makes a lot of people nauseous. Or: 3-D is neat, but….it really darkens up the color on screen. 3-D is neat, but….it’s too expensive.

This last point is the one that actually gets me the most. Don’t get me wrong; if a Welles/Toland team takes on 3-D and nails it then you can bet that I’ll be in line at the box office. But until then I’m going to pass. I’ll pass because 3-D looks like a pathetic attempt to compete with the dollar’s being raked in by other modern media, most notably video games.

As Ebert points out, Avatar has grossed well over 2.7 billion. But how much of that is the result of an expensive 3-D ticket? Yes theaters have to cover the cost of 3-D projectors and glasses and so on, but it’s tough not to notice that James Cameron has made a boatload of money off of the tag “in 3-D!” And that’s fine, because if you couldn’t make any money in the movie business then we wouldn’t have some of the amazing films that have come out in recent history. But when it comes to making money film is starting to lose its edge, and what’s worse is that it’s starting to worry too much about the money.

In 2009 box office revenues topped ten billion dollars in the U.S. The video game industry generated 19.66 billion in revenue for 2009. One cannot help but notice the differences between the two. We can offer a lot of reasons for differences, but at the end of the day it’s hard to ignore the fact that video games seem to be edging out movies in the competition for consumers dollars.

These days, I can’t help but notice that as the film industry loses more ground to media like video games, that we see more of this gimmicky 3-D. I think it’s great that filmmakers are working to push the limits of the technology and to make a more interesting movie going experience. But there is a fine line between trying something new and trying to force a new technology on the public purely for the sake of more money, and I’m afraid film may be treading awfully close to that line.

By Jason Haggstrom on March 31, 2011 at 10:53 PM

I love that you made the connection back to the film industry’s competition with the video game industry. That’s such a huge factor in the studio’s attempts to push 3-D on all of us (and, of course, our children). Instead of focusing on the films, the studios (and now some filmmakers) are focusing on the technology that is 3-D. Sure, there’s always been a focus on the technology of the industry, but 3-D is one of the few instances where filmmakers are concerning themselves with the technology of presentation in the theatre rather than the technology that creates the film itself.

Have you seen Sucker Punch or at least the reviews of it? I haven’t seen it yet, but the common thread in the reviews is referring to it’s aesthetic as being like a video game. Andrew O’Hehir wrote a really entertaining review of the film where he called it “an unzipped geek-boy fantasy about a posse of scantily clad hookers engaged in video-game style throwdowns with a villainous array of robots, monsters and dragons.” And he didn’t necessarily mean that as a criticism.

I also think you’ll really get a kick out of reading about Maxivision, which Roger Ebert recently blogged about (he’s been advocating for it for years). Ebert argues that Maxivision is technology that the studios should really be paying attention to if they want to provide a product that can compete with the home theaters. The technology is such a vast improvement in film quality that it would allow films to be films (rather than being 90-minute video game cut scenes as some say Sucker Punch is) and to be amazing without the need for additional bells and whistles such as 3-D.

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