TORONTO — The first thing that jumps out about Tron: Legacy is its sleek design, with glow-in-the-dark discs and neon-accented bikes and bodysuits providing rare sparks of colour over a stylishly dark backdrop.
For Canadian prop master Jimmy Chow, all that minimalist elegance provided quite a challenge.
“It was a very narrow channel of design that we had to work within,” Chow said ahead of the film’s opening on Friday.
“I would say that I was kind of exposed naked on every prop I did. A lot of times, when we do something, we layer it in with the set dressing, or it’s part of the costume. This particular movie, the design element is very specific and very clean and very linear, so if you’re making a mistake, it’s really going to show — it’s like you’re playing out of time or you’re out of tune.”
The original version of Tron — released in 1982 — fizzled at the box office upon its release but soon found a cult following. The film, about a computer programmer (Jeff Bridges) who gets digitized and becomes immersed in the game he’s crafting, featured leading-edge effects and a distinctive visual esthetic maintained in the new sequel.
Of course, Tron: Legacy — which casts Garrett Hedlund as Bridges’ son, who re-enters the digital world in search of his missing father — also features leading-edge technology, with lush 3D environments and a primary villain rendered entirely in CGI.
But viewers might be surprised at how many of the film’s whiz-bang visual touches were actually based in practical effects, not computer-generated graphics.
For instance, those glowing discs being hurled about the grid? Chow says each one was composed of 140 LED lights. Since they really were being flung around the set, some were made of rubber — though Chow notes the crew still had to be careful to duck once in a while.
The glowing liquid consumed at the grid’s sleek watering hole, meanwhile, was another example of old-fashioned prop design. First, they tried experimenting with a Cyalume solution (which, by the way, isn’t safe to drink) to get that cool-blue look, but it was washed-out on camera.
So, instead, Chow and his team decided to painstakingly light every drink in the crowded nightclub individually — 140 colourful cocktails in total.
And the fact that the film was shot in 3D offered its own unique hurdles.
“The whole show was challenging,” Chow said. “It was my first 3D movie and . . . basically, it came down to the actual details could be seen.”
“It’s a very interesting process, it’s very expensive, it’s very slow . . . . I was very happy after seeing the movie that our work actually integrated well, ’cause a lot of times we work at things and we don’t see it. But a lot of the stuff in Tron we do see and I was very happy with it.”’
Parts of the film were actually shot in Vancouver, Chow’s hometown.
The 62-year-old has been in show business for nearly four decades. He put together an impressive resume in the ’90s working on period pieces, including Legends of the Fall, Little Women, Seven Years in Tibet and Shanghai Noon.
But he and his wife felt he was travelling too much for work, so he decided to begin seeking jobs closer to home. He was then hired to work on the 2003 X-Men sequel X2, despite his initial protestations about his lack of experience working on comic-book films.
Since? He’s been prop master on Catwoman, Fantastic Four, X-Men: The Last Stand, 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Watchmen and the upcoming Zack Snyder thriller Sucker Punch. And he says that Snyder’s upcoming Superman reboot is one of three projects he’s currently considering.
“I woke up 10 years later and I’m Mr. Comic Book, right?” he said, noting that he might be approaching retirement age.
“I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s been a really good learning experience, but this is my 38th year in the movie business, and it’s time for me to pass the torch on to someone else. I’ve really enjoyed it.”