Designing ‘Tron’: A Creatures Master Revisits His Industrial Past

HOLLYBLOG: A background in design and fabrication serves “Tron: Legacy” lead concept artist Neville Page well — right down to the hockey helmets

My good friend, Darren Gilford, called me with a simple question, “Do you want to work on 'Tron?'”

I had a simple answer, “Do you have the right number?

As I had been working for the past 4 years on creature films, I sincerely thought that he might have not been aware of what I was doing. Unless "Tron" was taking a very unusual departure, was I a good choice? So, I reminded Darren of my current skill set and he reminded me that I was, at the core, an industrial designer.

With that (and the caveat that he can fire me at any moment he saw fit), I embraced the challenge and started "Tron" on day one of the project.

As I was a trained industrial designer, it was pretty easy getting back in the saddle again. In fact, I had been applying my industrial design methodologies to creature, so it was not too long before I shook off the dust (well, most of it).

My first task was the Sirens. At the beginning, they were a bit more robotic in concept, but as they evolved over time, their complexity was reduced. However, the essence established early on still lived inside the end result. This was a good warm-up character, but the next one was to establish the look and feel of all the characters, beginning with Sam Flynn.

As with all things "Tron," the entire art department was collectively “looking” for the aesthetic. Joe Kosinsky, a trained architect himself, already had a vision and good design sense for what he wanted the new-meets-old world of "TRON: Legacy" to be, so we were in good hands there. Not to mention that Production Designer, Darren Gilford is a trained automotive designer.

My point in bringing that up was that we all had a good foundation to work with developing concepts, but we still had a lot of work to do.

As mentioned, the art department was searching for the cohesive aesthetic and “technology” that would run throughout the film. So, Sam Flynn was a great place for me to start in looking for some of these possibilities.

So, how does one start a design of a costume that is based on such an iconic film and evolve it from a narrative point, instill it with an aesthetic perspective and bring it to life in the “real world” with existing contemporary technologies?

Because, unlike a good majority of the rest of the designs in the film, these costumes had to be “Practical”, i.e., physically wearable with all of the challenges associated with a costume that must be an electrically powered, self contained and fully functioning light-up suit. Honestly, I had no idea at the beginning how complex this challenge was going to be.

But, with the knowledge of the suits ultimately being practical, it is sometimes important to ignore that fact initially and allow you the freedom to pursue a pure aesthetic design. So, the very first concepts were pencil on paper (as old school as it gets) but the process quickly evolved into digital conception in 3-D.

"Tron" is a very “graphic designed” film. It was all about the light lines, how they described graphics on the human form, or, rather, how the human form allowed certain graphics to work as light lines. A simple front view, orthographically, could look cool, but then as the purity of a line moves across the chest and the ribcage is revealed in side-view, it can quickly become a terrain of undulating hills and valleys, not the clean aesthetic we wanted.

So, I quickly realized that the best way to develop the “Lines”of the suits were in 3-D. Yes, you could do it on a physical mannequin, but I have always preferred to establish a process that is as honest and as malleable as possible. With that, I chose to start developing the concept in the computer using a 3-D sculpting tool called Z-Brush. It ended up being a great way to “sketch” in 3-D ideas that could be proven more honestly to work.

For example, I could sketch the graphic lines on a body form that would resemble our actor (Garrett Hedlund, who plays Sam Flynn, had not yet been cast) and assess immediately if it was working in all views. And if not, which was often the case, I could make adjustments immediately and find the solution. I got better at predicting the potential outcome, but this was the most efficient way to develop honest and viable concepts.

So, that was the process of workflow, but what about aesthetic choices? Well, Sam was kind of straightforward as his costume was utilitarian, an outfit design for a sporting event. Now the job was to establish a form language that accommodated all of the above, including some form of graphic design, and begin the very fun challenge of sculpting a suit as if it were a sports car.

It was all about form development, bone lines, plane changes … all the stuff you do when designing a car. The biggest difference being that it needs to work dynamically. Since the body is dynamic, a form choice that works in one position may not in another. For example, having a through line of form on the arm may look great in pronation, but fall apart in supination. Back to the rationale of using 3-D as a sketching medium, you want to figure as much of this out early on before you go through the expense of making a whole suit.

Simultaneous to designing his suit, I was developing his helmet, as it was integral to the complete look of Sam in the “Arena”. Conceptually, this was a relatively simple idea. Since the movie takes place years (cycles) after the first, things have evolved over time. Design has changed. And since the original helmet was an off-the-shelf hockey helmet outfitted to look “Tron"-like, it occurred to me that his current helmet should actually be an evolution in design of a hockey (sports) helmet.

Since I had done similar helmet design in the past, having spearheaded the design and development of hockey helmets for Nike back in ’97 (part of my early industrial design days), I already had a great deal of knowledge about their form, function and aesthetic. Part of that knowledge was the understanding of the need to make the wearer look good on camera and how difficult that is to achieve, given that hockey helmets aren’t generally known for their fashion appeal. 

Once again, I sketched it out in Z-Brush to establish the concept of a future evolved hockey/sports helmet. But the real challenge was the proposed visor. My hope was to not only design something that looked and felt like a high end product, but also actually looked like a real consumer product versus a film prop. With that, the visor was designed with the intention of making it look like it was “injection”molded in the most sophisticated way.

What is important to point out was that I was proposing an aesthetic that we HAD to be able to manufacture. I have experience doing this kind of thing, so it was not unachievable, just really damn hard (not to mention, expensive). Our fabricator, Iron Head Studios, embraced the challenge, went above and beyond, and made some exquisite helmets that at close scrutiny feel and look like real high end consumer products! Just gorgeous, and their skills allowed all of the helmets to come to life in ways that I could have only dreamed. Iron Head was amazing.

Now, Sam’s costume established a basic concept that aided in the direction for the other specialty costumes. So each one went through the same steps of 3-D sketch and concept. But, as they started to cast the film, these concepts had to go through yet another phase: “Tronsformation.”

To accomplish this we had to scan each of our key actors head-to-toe with a laser and put them into the computer! Literally!! It was quite ironic that the very idea of a laser “zapping”Jeff Bridges into the computer world of Tron was similar to how we developed and evolved some of our key costumes. Once scanned, it was then possible to retrofit their laser-scanned bodies and digitally manipulate them into the 3-D costume sketches that I had previously designed and sculpted in Z-Brush. Following that, there was still a massive amount of effort that went into cutting up pieces, fitting for shrinkage, etc., etc., and that credit must be given to the very talented Eddie Yang.

Again, our fabrication process was that of Science Fiction. The very actors, previously scanned and now fitted with a Tron costume, were grown back in the real world using lasers to physically “build” them in full size 3-D. Yes, some were CNC machined, some sintered, but I think that all of the processes used would have even impressed Kevin Flynn.

In regard to fabrication, as high tech as we went, we also went as old school as needed. There was even some traditional clay moved around in the process. Quantum Creation FX did a lot of the heavy lifting on the specialty costumes fabrication, which included the traditional skill set of clay sculpture and foam fabrication. It should be pointed out too that a skill set not often recognized enough, and one that was critical for our costumes was that of “Body Shopping”. Basically, sanding, ‘primering’, filling, and repeat until perfect. As cool and as high tech as the processes mentioned earlier were, they still required the art of refinement from the talented artist, and Quantum housed some amazingly skilled people that also made our designs a reality.

Two individuals that I must mention are Michael Wilkinson and Christine Clark. Michael brought his talents from previous productions, such as "Watchmen." And Christine brought her knowledge of fabrication to the table that, without her involvement, I do wonder if we could have pulled it off.

As you may be gathering, it was a huge amount of people involved in the production. And, although most productions are very collaborative, this was ginormous! Our costume design team was, in itself, a unique and very large (by traditional standards) group of people. I was very fortunate to amass an individual pool of people that I both respect and enjoy working with. Tully Summers, Tex Kadonaga, Fabien Lacey, Robert McKinnon, and Phil Saunders are all super talents that were pivotal to realizing the costume designs.

But, I intentionally have left out 2 designers from this group, as they deserve to be given special credit for populating the “End of Line” club. And that is Steve Jung and Carlos Rosario. Their task was none too small as all of the players had to be distinctively different. I was happy to see that a few of the design concepts made it into the current “Art Of” book.

And, of course it would not be fair to leave out at least the general mention of the rest of the costume department that lent their talents to the world of Tron. There are too many to list independently (wish I could) but you soon realize how little your design means without the support of all of them.

I could write a book just on the challenges of practical lighting for the suits, and a series of books on the development of some of the other characters costumes. But this should give you a sense of the scope of work in developing the specialty costumes. I know I am not alone in saying that it was a true pleasure to be part of the multi-faceted team that helped to realize Joe’s (Kosinski) vision and Sean’s (Bailey) passion to bring the world of Tron back to the big screen.