Knoll on CGI, Tron and 25 years of change

Visual effects supervisor at Industrial Light and Magic, John Knoll, speaks about CG and its future

In 1982, Disney studios released Tron, one of the first films from a major studio to feature extensive computer graphics. The movie is about a programmer (Jeff Bridges) who gets "digitized" and finds himself inside a computer where he is forced to play the gladiatorial games he wrote. (Bridges' character eventually escapes and sets out to topple the despotic Master Control Program, or MCP.) Even though Tron was something of a milestone for computer-generated imagery, it met with little success at the box office and failed to garner a special effects nomination from the Motion Picture Academy. At the time, the Academy considered the use of computers in films as "cheating."

Monday marked the 25th anniversary of of the release of Tron, whose computer graphics were seen as revolutionary at the time. With that anniversary in mind, Computerworld spoke with John Knoll, a visual effects supervisor at Industrial Light and Magic (ILM). Knoll, who served as visual effects supervisor for such films as Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith; Pirates of the Caribbean; Star Trek: First Contact, and Mission: Impossible, weighed in on the limitations of CG back then and how far it's come in the last quarter century. (Knoll may also be known in the IT world for his role in the creation of Photoshop, which he developed with his brother Thomas.)

Excerpts from that interview follow:

Tell me about your first encounter with Tron.

I saw Tron when it came out and thought it was really cool -- something unique and different that hadn't been seen in the cinema before. I was really captivated by the imagery. I was working in visual effects at the time as a model maker, and then as a cameraman, and computer graphics was something I thought was really fascinating. But Tron and The Last Starfighter were two things that definitely got me thinking in those lines.

When did you become involved in computer graphics?

I was hired at ILM as a motion control camera assistant, working as a camera operator for awhile before I moved over to the computer graphics department. Part of it was just convenience: ILM was the first place I'd ever worked at that had a computer graphics department, so there was the opportunity to go over and visit.

Was ILM cutting-edge at the time, by having such a department?

None of the other big visual effects places like Apogee or Boss or Dreamquest, 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.

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Ken Gagne

Computerworld

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