Joseph Kosinski makes Tron: Legacy 10.08.11


The 1982 sci-fi film Tron didn't shine at the box office, but it left bright, lasting light-trails across popular culture. Written and directed by Steven Lisberger, it was the first film to visualise the inner workings of computer software as an environment to be inhabited, and made then-unprecedented use of computers to create the luminous wireframe landscapes that were the stage for its story. The sterile, dark, neon-lit worlds it conjured up shaped the imagination of a generation who went on to create the virtual worlds and digital architecture we know today.

It's also the only film to be Icon of the Month in this magazine (Icon 053, November 2007) – an unscientific accolade, but one reflecting the importance of the film to the visual culture of technology. Back then, a sequel had just been announced, and we didn't have high hopes for it. The inner world of computers was virgin territory in 1982, but now we increasingly live and work there. And Disney had placed Tron, a property precious to the memory of tens of thousands of people, in the hands of a relative unknown: Joseph Kosinski.

Kosinski didn't have any other movies to his name. Instead, he was a trained architect with a masters from Columbia standing at the crux of a fascinating professional convergence – a digital intersection that combines design, architecture, engineering, advertising, graphics, computer games and filmmaking, and could have a transformative effect on all of those fields. "When I first graduated from architecture school I started a little design boutique called KD Lab with a friend," says Kosinski when we meet in London some days ahead of the release of Tron: Legacy. "Our first mission statement said that we were interested in the blurring boundaries between architecture, film and graphics – this was in 1999. And when we first put that statement out there on our website, a lot of people kinda snickered: 'Architect, filmmaker, graphic designer; architects can't do all this.' And now, you know, a decade later we see that architects are doing all kinds of crazy stuff."

In 2004 Kosinski won an award for an immersive, photo-real digital recreation of the Colorado Lounge from Stanley Kubrick's 1980 film The Shining, created for electronics manufacturer Apple. Before Tron: Legacy, he was best known as a director of high-end commercials – work that included using technology to map real people and environments to create cinema-quality trailers for the computer games Halo and Gears of War.

With no experience of Hollywood, Kosinski approached Tron: Legacy in an architectural way – by sketching and designing. Almost a year and a half was spent on design before any filming took place – cities were planned out and the physical environments of the film were shaped down to the smallest detail. The visual effects teams who would ultimately realise these designs were involved from the beginning. It's a uniquely architectural approach to filmmaking, perhaps appropriate when updating a film more remembered for its look and technology than for its characters or plot. So could Tron: Legacy be called architecture? And what does it say about the future of architecture in culture?

Tron: Legacy is set in a virtual world built by Kevin Flynn, the hacker-protagonist of the first film and father to Sam Flynn, Legacy's hero. Flynn senior, played by Jeff Bridges in both films, developed the world, called the Grid, in an effort to design a perfect system, and it has been evolving quietly on a server ever since. Hence the need for a coherent aesthetic – the distinctive, gloomy, neon-lit cityscapes of the Grid, something like the spruced-up Tyrell Corporation headquarters from Blade Runner or Studio Pei-Zhu's Digital Beijing building masterplanned into a city 
by Zaha Hadid. Because it draws its power from the underlying Grid, and there's no sun in the "sky", everything is lit from below.

"It all had to come from the hand of one man," says Kosinski. "Kevin Flynn is the creator of everything in the Grid so the opportunity to create a city, city plans, buildings, costumes, vehicles that all felt like it came from the same design aesthetic to me was a really exciting challenge. You just don't get the opportunity in many movies." And architectural influences abound in the resulting city. Its underlying reliance on simple platonic shapes and volumes draws on the sculptural brutalism of Louis Kahn, named by Kosinski as a particular favourite; the styling draws on the flashy techno-modernism of Neil Denari. Flynn's desire to create the "perfect system" has, by the time of Tron: Legacy, turned the Grid into a fascistic dystopia, so naturally Kosinski turned to Albert Speer, planner of Hitler's Berlin, for pointers – the symmetry of the layout and radiating axes stemmed from there. Daniel Simon, who designed the vehicles for Tron: Legacy, cites Hadid's "sophisticated weirdness" as an "iconic" influence for the design team.

But for Kosinski, the guiding architectural light of Tron: Legacy was the doyen of minimalism, Mies van der Rohe. "I think in a lot of these big movies it seems like they just throw so much in the frame," says Kosinski. "There is no sense of restraint. [The original Tron's] minimalism was a result of the fact that they just couldn't render a lot in 1982, they had to be minimal. But I liked the idea of embracing it as an aesthetic choice." "Everything took a long time to ... reduce," says Simon. "Leaving things out was the hardest part. And that comes from architecture; architecture can be so beautiful because of its simplicity, yet totally overwhelming."

Mies makes a small cameo appearance in Tron: Legacy – four Barcelona chairs furnish Flynn's off-Grid safe house, which also sports an Eames recliner. "The safe house had to be different because it was the home of a user, a real human being," says Kosinski. "It was fun to create touches of the real world but make everything out of materials that are very Tron-like."


These tiny "Tron-atised" details are some of the most satisfying pieces of design in Tron: Legacy's virtual world: "fireworks" burst like the generative patterns of a screensaver; "ice cubes" resemble pixels. "Even the lightning in the clouds has this certain pattern to it," says Kosinski, revelling in the design of his Tron world. His enthusiasm reflects that of Bridges' Flynn, taking a fatherly interest in the tiniest aspects of his creation.

From Disney's point of view, a lot of this close attention to design is of course driven by commercial concerns. Simon happily admits that the huge variety of vehicles seen in Tron: Legacy is to increase the film's toy merchandising opportunities. This eye on toy manufacturing is hardly a surprise – what's more interesting is its connection to high-end design. Tron: Legacy is perhaps the first Disney film with a tie-in armchair. The Tron armchair, designed by Dror Benshetrit for Italian manufacturer Cappellini, is a blocky plastic creation inspired by the "digital rock" of the "Outlands" in the film.

This intimate interest in design and architecture on a corporate level is demonstrated by a document Icon saw ahead of meeting Kosinski, the "Tron Style Lifestyle Portfolio". Detailing the cultural connections of every part of 
the film – for instance, comparing the film's extraordinary figure-hugging luminescent costumes to the work of fashion designers Louise Goldin, Hussein Chalayan and Gareth Pugh, and tying the architecture to recent homes by Norman Foster and installations by Antony Gormley – the document gives a sense of the cultural and professional nexus represented by Kosinski. A seamless integration between digital culture, graphics, advertising, movies and architecture and product design clearly presents an enticing commercial prospect. But what can it offer to architecture?

Kosinski is most excited about architects learning to use film and advertising techniques to communicate architectural ideas, just as he did: "No longer do you have to sit down with a client, throw down a mess of blueprints and try to explain to them what they are going to get." Instead, they can use filmmaking, commercial techniques and advanced 3D rendering to sell themselves. He also has high regard for architectural education and the problem-solving and self-criticism that it instils, and urges architects to think outside their professional niche: "There are many 
other fields out there – branding or product design, graphic design, interactive work – where architects' skills can be applied, which is pretty exciting."

But most importantly he believes that filmmaking can have a serious influence for the better on architecture in the real world. "I'm curious to see if movies like this can influence the architecture world back. Clearly, I drew a lot of inspiration from the world of architecture. It would be great to see, if not influencing the world of architecture directly, whether at least some kid out there, some eight-year-old kid, could see this movie and be inspired to do something creative with his life the way I was inspired by the first Tron."



© Disney



William Wiles

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Kosinski approached Tron: Legacy in an architectural way: by sketching and designing

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