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  Article: Feb 2003 Tron-Sector Q&A with Harrison Ellenshaw  
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Submitted By: tronprogram

February 2003 Q&A with Harrison Ellenshaw : Associate Producer and co-supervisor of special effects.

Which matte paintings of yours may we remember from the Star Wars movies?

STAR WARS {the original} - Matte paintings are in about two dozen shots in the film. There are three shots inside the Death Star you might remember: A wide down shot of Obi Wan turning off the tractor beam. Another interior Death Star wide down shot as Luke and Leia get ready to swing across an 'abyss' while pursued by Imperial Storm Troopers. There is also a shot in the Death Star of the Millenium Falcon docked inside the hangar [only half of the of the Millenium Falcon was constructed, the rest is matte painting as are parts of the hangar]. Another matte painting composite is in the final sequence in the film. The camera is behind Luke, Han and Chewbecca as they go up to Princess Leia to receive their medals [this shot involved crowd multiplication as well as adding to the set in the background].

The EMPIRE STRIKES BACK - There were over 80 matte paintings in this film. I did about half of them and Ralph McQuarrie did about half. Of note: lots of snowscapes including the generator, a set extension of Yoda's swamp and many many paintings of Cloud City exteriors, as well as a few interiors.

Mr. Ellenshaw, what was the most difficult/challenging of the special effects for TRON that you worked on? What was the most fun?

It's hard to say, there were so many challenges that the film presented. The sheer volume of work had never been attempted before. Not just the 15 minutes of CGI but the approximately 40 minutes of backlight compositing. There were over 1200 effects shots - an unheard of amount at that time. There was also the fact that we were attempting to do effects that had never been done in a feature before. In many ways we were not reinventing the wheel, we were inventing a new wheel entirely! I clearly remember when we viewed the first set of CGI shots from a company called Magi. Everyone was just amazed! After the lights came up, there was complete silence; we were stunned. It was as if we all knew we had just glimpsed the future. Twenty years later, I'm still overwhelmed. The fun came in solving the problems and seeing it all come together. A lot of people said it couldn't be done. Now that's the real fun, proving those people wrong!

Is there a certain scene or scenes in TRON that you are most proud of working with?

Well, of course I'm very proud of the whole film. But one of my favourite effects doesn't even take place in the electronic world - it's Dillinger's touch screen desk in his office. Touch screens of that size certainly didn't exist then. We made up all the graphics and related animation ahead of time. Then these images were projected onto the smoked glass desk top via a 45-degree mirror underneath the desk that was on a raised set. David Warner had to perfectly time his finger touching the desktop so that as he touched the image it would change. I still think it looks pretty cool.

What were your first thoughts when you were contacted about making a movie that takes place inside a computer world?

When Steven Lisberger told me about the film, he also told me how he intended to do it. Of course, it seemed incredibly ambitious. I just wondered if we could do it in the time and for a reasonable budget.

What was the funniest thing about working on TRON?

When you work such long hours on any project, you get to the point where you are so tired, that a kind of giddiness takes over and suddenly everything seems hilarious. Fatigue and stress can make anything out of the ordinary funny, especially at 2 or 3 in the morning. I remember when our first set of painted cels arrived from Taiwan where they had been sent to be inked and painted. It was late at night when one of the camera operators called me, rather upset and asked if I could come see what he was doing. I arrived to find him peeling off each 16 x 20 cel as it came out of the box and laying each out on the floor to dry - there were hundreds of cels all over the floor with no place to walk. No one had thought to let them dry before they packed them on top of each other to ship them to Burbank. It looked very strange and very funny, I couldnít help but laugh, which didn't cheer up the operator one bit - he still had to shoot them all.

TRON was not just visionary in the computer effects world but garnered nominations for a few awards and lost them, a process that special effects spectaculars of today win almost regularly. If Possible, do you feel TRON should be compensated? Are there other mentions you would like to see TRON gain?

Sadly one of the things TRON is most noted for is that it did NOT even get an Oscar nomination for visual effects, much less win the Oscar. There have been a lot of theories why -- one being that the nominating committee thought the whole film was done by computers and robots! I don't think that's the reason. You have to remember that the final three nominees that year were: BLADE RUNNER, POLTERGEIST and ET, [with ET winning the Oscar]. ET had wonderful effects but even so I think BLADE RUNNER should have won. Obviously the Academy didn't agree. However TRON did get a BAFTA nomination. And though it didn't win, it proves that the Brits have good taste.

As a viewer of both movie and the documentary interviews from you and others that worked on TRON, one can get a sense that all of the planning of the effects was done purposefully but in an almost seat of the pants fashion, hectic and confusing I am sure, but tell us some of the other emotions you felt.

There was no purposeful intent to do the effects by a 'seat of the pants' fashion. In fact our intent was just the opposite. We worked very hard to plan carefully how we would organize and work on 1200 shots. It was extremely important to make the workflow efficient, especially considering a very tight schedule [12 months from the first production shot until the release date]. We did lots of tests, and we learned a lot of things as we went along, but I don't remember ever feeling like we weren't making progress. I never really felt confused - but a lot of the time I felt scared. I was scared that we wouldn't finish in time.

Did you ever feel a sense of doing something legendary and profound in the effects field when you worked on TRON? So much of what we have now in movie effects was born in TRON, did you know you were creating a trend, a new way of thinking?

We didn't have much time to think about it, but even so we did know we were part of something special. And as we got closer to the release date the anticipation began to build. In fact we were even promised the cover of both TIME and NEWSWEEK until Alexander Haig, President Reagan's Secretary of State abruptly resigned. So he bumped TRON off the cover of both magazines. Still there were big feature articles about the film in most major media outlets. And we did get the cover of LIFE magazine. Richard Taylor even made an appearance on the Merv Griffin Show. Though talking about computer graphics on a late night chat show isn't exactly a ratings grabber.

In a possible, upcoming TRON 2.0, would you choose to operate new FX techniques and styles in portraying what I use to call Electroverse (Tron's world) or just would you update the original visual concept you used 20 years ago through applying' a kind of upgrading technique, just making it more suitable for the new millennium?

To create effects for TRON 2.0 today one would definitely use contemporary effects techniques. Lots more CGI, probably incorporating both motion capture and key frame animation. But keep in mind that the technology is advancing so quickly that it's hard to say what specific techniques would be employed. Suffice to say, I don't think anyone would blow up 70,000 frames of film onto 16 X 20 Kodalith cels make a negative copy of each [another 70,000 Kodalith cels], roto, ink and paint each one and then put them under down shooter [animation] cameras and refilm multiple exposures on different combinations of cels. I assure you that that will never happen again - thank goodness!

Were there any sequences in the film that you wish you had more time to do and were disappointed with?

Not at all. The effects shots in TRON are like your children; you love them all, equally.

As associate producer, other than co-supervising the visuals, what other areas were you responsible for?

An associate producer has responsibilities that can be similar to a line producer, i.e. budgeting, scheduling, hiring personnel and maintaining a good relationship with the studio. This last item [the studio/production relationship] was critical on TRON. The studio was really out on a limb with a very speculative film, so there needed to be constant updates on all aspects of production. Constant reassurance was the name of the game. I always told the executives we definitely knew what we were doing and it was all going to be all right [even if I wasn't totally convinced myself, but then neither were they!].

What kind of things would you like to see in TRON 2.0 should the film be made and assuming you're not working on it?

Today's visual effects are so much better than ever before that there is no limit to what could be done. And like all movies, TRON 2.0's success will all depend on story - not just the effects.

What do you think of the TRON 2.0 game from what you've seen of it?

From what I have seen it's very impressive. Certainly the look of many of today's games is remarkable, especially considering that the effects and animation have to be done in so many variations and they have to play in virtual real time.

Do you wish you had done more matte painting work on TRON other than what you did?

The one matte painting in TRON was Steven's idea. He wanted me to do a 'cameo' matte painting. We all know you can't have a good film if it doesnít have a least one matte shot in it! It probably took me 60 or 70 man-hours to paint this shot and the only time I could really devote to it was late at night. No way I could have done any more than that one.

Was there ever a time during the making of the film where you were certain that TRON was going to be nothing more than an expensive failure?

No matter what film you work on, you are never 'certain' of anything. We all thought TRON would be a big hit, but we were never completely certain. Someone figured that if only half the kids that played video games would come see the film, it would be the biggest grosser of all time. Well, that didn't happen, I think after TRON opened we figured about 1 in 20 of those kids came. [Maybe the other 19 will show up for the sequel!]

TRON was not the box office smash Disney had hoped for. What reasons do you think why this was the case at the time. Did Disney not publicise it enough or something?

TRON was a very different film, and it presented a big challenge to the marketing and distribution people at Disney. But I don't think they should take the blame for the lack of box office success. No one can ever know if a different campaign would have been more successful or not. Perhaps the film was just too different for most people to relate to.

Would you like to see some form of 'Special Edition' done to TRON, possibly like what George did with the Star Wars Trilogy in the future?

I have great respect for George Lucas and I understand his reasons to update and try to improve STAR WARS, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and RETURN OF THE JEDI. But, personally I hope no one touches one frame of TRON - it's fine the way it is - flawed or not.

Is there anything in your career that you haven't achieved yet that you'd still like to do?

I've been very fortunate to work on a number of landmark and spectacular films. I would like to continue to work in visual effects and I look forward to the day when I can be part of creating true holographic images; nothing projected on a screen, just a movie playing out right in front of you in the middle of the theatre. I can hardly wait.

Compared to the other films that you've worked on, where would TRON stand in terms of fun and pleasure in your career?

It's pretty darn close to the top of the list.

What are you doing now and what future plans to you have?

Presently I am producing a documentary on my father, Peter Ellenshaw. It will probably come out at the same time as the publication of his most recent book: 'Ellenshaw Under Glass - Going to the Matte for Disney.' I also have a CGI/live action film in development.

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