The digital edge of Tron

Harrison Ellenshaw comes from a legendary visual effects legacy, as his father Peter Ellenshaw created the special effects for many Disney classics.

We recently discussed Harrison’s recollections of working on Star Wars, and as noted, Harrison also worked on Tron, which like ANH and Peter’s work at Disney, was state of the art for the time, and served as an early precursor for the CGI effects of today.

Initially, however, Tron was a box office flop, which was a bitter pill for Harrison, and Tron creator Steve Lisberger to stomach. Ellenshaw was convinced, as were many others, that Tron was going to be a huge hit. When Star Wars hit theaters in May of 1977, George Lucas took off to Hawaii while the film took over the country. Ellenshaw also decided to head off to Hawaii, because he thought that’s what successful filmmakers do, and bask in the glory of Tron’s impending success.

“By the time Tron came along, I had devoted about eighteen months of my life to it,” says Ellenshaw. “I was thinkin’ this is gonna really set me up for life. I can remember going to dinner with Donald Kushner the producer, Steve Lisberger, Richard Taylor the other visual effects supervisor, and the four of us were  having dinner with our wives. We ordered champagne, and we made a pact right then. I said, ‘Okay, this is gonna be a huge hit. They’ll want to do a sequel, let’s make sure they don’t try to divide and conquer. So when they come and ask us to do the sequel we can get a good salary and insist that the other three come along.'”


Ellenshaw was sitting on the beach when he called the head of Disney, Dick Cook, expecting great news.

“Well Dick, how’d we do?”

 There was a long silence on the other end of the line. Finally, Cook said, “Wellll, ahhhh…$3.8 million.”

“Yeah, in L.A. How’d we do in the whole country?”

“That is the whole country.”

As to why he felt it didn’t take off in its time, Ellenshaw offers, “In retrospect, the effects overwhelmed the story. We’ll never know how that could have been changed and been more effective. Once you got inside the computer, you never got back out to the outside until the very end. You never saw what the real world was doing while these guys were inside the computer trying to save the world. I think that was the thing that made the film less relatable to a lot of people. If you were young and you were hip and you played video games for hours on end, that was fine. You wanted to lose yourself. But I think for many moviegoers, there wasn’t the humanity to it that needed to be.”


Still, the cult of the movie grew to the point where there was finally a sequel in 2010, and the effects that Tron pioneered proved the film was well ahead of its time.

Ellenshaw continues, “When Tron came out, most of Hollywood ran away and said, ‘Oh my gosh, that computer stuff, the film was a box office flop. We don’t want anything to do with that. That’s craziness.’ George Lucas saw the wisdom and kept the digital flame alive the whole time. Eventually it paid off. The turning point was 1993 when Jurassic Park came out. And what made it so incredible, so absolutely mind blowing was you now had computer generated images that now looked like real things. Nobody’s seen a dinosaur, but I’m convinced that’s what they looked like, and there they were electronically composited with real live action backgrounds. You can basically say the rest is history.”