Joseph Kosinki’s Tron: Legacy Builds a Groundbreaking Architecture of Light

Joseph Kosinski went to school to draw buildings, and ended up making a technologically sophisticated 3-D sequel to a legendary sci-fi film.

Joseph Kosinki’s Tron: Legacy Builds a Groundbreaking Architecture of Light
Tron: Legacy


In architecture school, Joseph Kosinski had to post his work in class for professor critiques before returning to the drawing board to fix his mistakes. Years later, he used the same approach to codify the look of Disney’s Tron: Legacy, which opens Dec. 17.

“I’d gather all the designers, and we’d go from cubicle to cubicle discussing each other’s ideas,“ Kosinski says of the feature film directorial debut that consumed his life from the summer of 2007 to the afternoon of Nov. 17. “It not only made everyone feel involved, but the film began to have a cohesive aesthetic. The look had to feel like it came from one hand. There was a giant art team of around 50 people, and after a while you couldn’t tell which drawing came from which person.”

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Tron: Legacy — a follow-up to the 1982 film Tron — chronicles a son’s (Garrett Hedlund) search for his father (Jeff Bridges) who disappeared into a video game 20 years earlier. With the design and visual effects integral to the story, Kosinski and Tron: Legacy are a synchronistic match. Kosinski drew from his mechanical engineering training at Stanford University; architecture degree from Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation; and years directing commercials utilizing cutting-edge technology for clients like Hummer, Halo3, Nike and Apple.

“This is a world that had to be designed from scratch,” says Kosinski. “I don’t know how you can direct a movie like this if you’re not interested in design and architecture. It became the guiding philosophy.”

For the Tron: Legacy world, Kosinski built upon the original Tron designs of legendary concept artist Syd Mead. He also borrowed the clean, stark, geometrical lines of modern architecture pioneers
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

and Louis Kahn, and pulled in real-world auto designers for the vehicles.


“For awhile, I thought I wanted to be a car designer,” he says. “There are a lot of cool vehicles in this world and I wanted them to feel like they actually worked.“

One of those professional car designers is Daniel Simon, who re-imagined the film’s iconic Light Cycle — a man-machine hybrid motorbike –- and tweaked some of the other vehicles. Kosinski called him after seeing Cosmic Motors, his book on futuristic car designs.

”I went for scientific, geometrical beauty, and simple glossy surfaces,” says Simon, who has designed concept cars for Volkswagen, Lamborghini, and Bugatti. “I was inspired by calligraphy and Japanese art, but also mindful of the fact that we had to sell this at toy stores–-so I needed to impress two-year-old kids.” (He actually got a few inquiries from manufacturers.)

Kosinski’s commercial background created a comfort level with state-of-the-art technology. “The nice thing about commercials is that because they have such short production schedules –- six to eight weeks compared to 80-day film shoots — they can be a playground to try new things,” he says.


The movie also broke new ground in 3-D technology. The Fusion Camera System developed by James Cameron (which simultaneously shoots through dual lenses representing each eye) was upgraded with Sony F35 cameras, which offer 35-mm sized CCD sensors that create the same feeling of depth as film. Kosinski paired that with master prime lenses, which pull in a lot of light. That was necessary, because of the limited light from the costumes–mainly dark suits with thin lines of luminescence. “The F35 paired with the Master Primes has a film-camera like image that works well for 3D,” adds Kosinski. “Objects that aren’t in focus fall away into a soft background.”

Kosinski also revised a 71-year-old conceit for high-tech audiences. He shot the real world in 2-D, and the Tron world in 3-D, in a homage to the Wizard of Oz scene where a sepia-toned Dorothy first encounters a Technicolor Munchkinland. “I liked idea of using 3-D as dramatic device,” says Kosinski. “It allowed that switch to happen.“

Four separate software rendering programs were used in the making of the film: Mental Ray (for Clu, an anthropomorphized computer program that looks like a youthful Jeff Bridges), V-Ray (for the Tron world), RenderMan (for various technical elements) and proprietary code developed at visual effects studio Digital Domain to connect the disparate programs.

Even with the experience of their Academy Award-winning reverse-aging work on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the effects team required six-months preparation time before working on the film. “The hair rendering for Clu was probably the most difficult thing to do, especially the scene where his hair is blowing in the wind,“ says Tron visual effects supervisor Eric Barba. ”With this kind of groundbreaking work, if we didn’t have the Benjamin Button experience, we couldn’t have taken on the challenge of Clu.”

The effects team also had to adjust the technology for the different the acting styles of Benjamin Button star Brad Pitt and Tron’s Jeff Bridges. ”Brad did a lot of work in front of a green screen, which gave the effects team more control, but Jeff wanted to be onstage interacting with the other actors,“ says Tron animation supervisor Steve Preeg. “We had to change the data acquisition at the front end, in the helmets and cameras, so that we could capture the data we needed in a smaller footprint on set that easily synched with other technologies. It involved writing a whole new suite of software that redesigned how we dealt with the data on facial animation.“

[Photo by Robin Parker]

About the author

Susan Karlin is an award-winning journalist in Los Angeles, covering the nexus of science, technology, and arts, with a fondness for sci-fi and comics. She's a regular contributor to Fast Company, NPR, and IEEE Spectrum, and has written for Newsweek, Forbes, Wired, Scientific American, Discover, NY and London Times, and BBC Radio.