Interviews

By Jeff Mottle

Interview with Joe Kosinski (Director of TRON Legacy)

Interview with Joe Kosinski (Director of TRON Legacy)
By Jeff Mottle

CGarchitect caught up with Joe Kosinski for a phone interview about his directorial debut on TRON: Legacy. Below is a transcript of that interview.

CGA: Now that you’ve directed your first major motion picture and you look back at the path that you’ve taken from architecture to commercials and game cinematics – is this where you always thought you’d end up?  And is this where you’re going to be for a while now?

Joe Kosinski:
Yeah, I guess I would say I didn’t necessarily always think I would end up here.  I grew up loving movies as a kid, but grew up in an area where no one I knew actually worked in the entertainment business.  So as a career it never really seemed like a real possibility.  So it has been a very organic path for me – obviously starting with these parallel interests in music and engineering, which eventually for me I felt architecture might be that ultimate combination of the creative and technical sides of things that I was interested in.

And then going to an architecture school, Columbia, where they gave us all these digital tools and filmmaking tools to learn design, and using those tools; realizing that I could make my own films on my own; leveraging these tools in a really powerful way.  It’s been a very kind of organic path, but I do feel like in the end I’ve ended up in the right place.  And it’s obviously a job that I love and is challenging, and I love to continue working.


Joseph Kosinski
Photo: Douglas Curran ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

CGA: Were you able to learn most of what you needed to know on-set for this film along the way, or did you really get thrown into the deep end?

Joe Kosinski: Well you know, certainly I had a lot of (experience) in making my own shorts, starting with making my own shorts and doing various different sizes of commercials.  But I’ve always been interested in this blurring of the line between what is real and what is virtual – that’s always been present in the stuff I’ve done.  So a movie like Tron from a technical point of view, I always felt very comfortable because the techniques are generally the same just you’re working at a different scale. 


Film Frame
©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.


So from a nuts & bolts point of view I felt like I came in kind of knowing how I was going to make the movie.  The biggest challenges I think are what they are in any movie, regardless if it’s a big summer thriller or a small indie film – the challenges are always in making sure (you’re) getting the script in the best shape you can and making sure that the characters are coming across and that you’re creating compelling characters on the screen.  And that has nothing to do with the technology whatsoever.


"TRON: LEGACY"
(L-R front) Olivia Wilde, Garrett Hedlund Photo: Douglas Curran ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

CGA:  Gotcha.  In architecture there’s always a lot of compromises that are made with the client during the design process and especially with the budget.  Did the same hold true in making this movie, and did you get the film you wanted in the end?  Or did you end up having to make compromises as well?

Joe Kosinski: Yeah, certainly – you’re always making compromises.  I don’t necessarily like that word; I mean you’re making choices.  Even though it is a big movie there are choices you need to make and things you need to give up and decide what’s really important.  You’re making those choices every day.  You only have so much time, you only have a certain number of shots you can afford and you’re always making those tradeoffs every single day.

So in the end I’m very happy with the film we made.  Given the resources I think we created a very ambitious (film) and we were very ambitious in all of our choices – everything from shooting a true 3D movie to making one of the main characters in our film a completely digital human being.  All those choices were ambitious which we knew we had to be in the Tron movie.  If nothing else we had to push the envelope, and when you do that you’re going to run into some difficulties. 

So it was a very challenging movie to make but we felt like we owed that to the audience.  We wanted the audience to know that we were going to push the envelope in every aspect of making this movie.


Concept Art
©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

CGA: Having come from a production background yourself, were you still able to get your hands dirty in any of the production or editing, or did you only get to direct?  “Only directing” is a pretty big task.

Joe Kosinski:
Do you mean actually getting on the box?

CGA: 
Yeah, I mean get on the box and start messing around with stuff to get it the way you wanted, or point somebody in the right direction?

Joe Kosinski: Yeah, I mean you try not to do that.  You don’t want to do people’s jobs for them so it all comes down to communication.  Obviously with my background and the way I came up it’s helpful in communicating to people because you have an idea of how to accomplish things.  You don’t want to tell people how to do their jobs but you want to be able to communicate the idea of what you want through them, and sometimes you can throw out ideas of different ways to approach things.


Safe House Set
©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

So I certainly was very intimately involved in all aspects of the design of the movie, from the beginning in the Art Department stage and obviously in Post, going through every single shot; a lot of times sitting down with the artists, next to them in front of their workstation going through and setting up the movement of the camera, the framing of a shot, or talking about physics, simulations of derezz or explosions.  That background helps in making a movie like this because you really need to know how every aspect of your film is actually made in order to be able to communicate your idea or your vision for what you want.


©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

CGA:  Last time we exchanged emails I think you had mentioned you were just starting shooting in Vancouver.  How much of the film ended up being shot in Canada?

Joe Kosinski: 
I think we shot 67 days of principal photography up in Vancouver, both downtown Vancouver, some locations around downtown Vancouver; and then a lot of the stage work was done in a suburb of Vancouver called Burnaby at a new stage facility out there.  So 95% of the movie was shot in Canada, and a lot of the post was finished in Canada as well – DD Vancouver, Prime Focus, Mr. X, lots of our post (production) vendors were up there as well.


Set construction
Photo: Douglas Curran ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

CGA: So much of this film could have been done entirely in 3D, but there were actually a lot of physical sets as well is my understanding.  What did it feel like to put your design hat back on again?  I know when I spoke to Chris Nichols a couple years ago he said in doing visual effects, he did more real design work in visual effects than he ever did in architecture.

Joe Kosinski: 
Yeah, I mean I got to build 12 or 15 big sets in this movie.  I wanted to build as much as possible.  It was important to me that this world feel real, and anytime I could build something I did.  So I hired guys that I went to architecture school with to work on the sets for this film, and hopefully people who watch the film feel like there’s a certain physicality to this world that hopefully they appreciate, knowing that real architects actually put this whole thing together.

So it was pretty amazing.  That safe house set, that Kevin Flynn safe house was something I had sketched on a napkin a few years ago for the VFX test that we did first.  And then the day that I actually got to walk on the fully-built set was pretty surreal – it was like really stepping into one of your digital models.  It’s a pretty cool experience and it was probably my favorite set for the movie.


Film Frame
(L-R) Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.


CGA:  Did you rapid prototype or build scale models of any of the sets in advance?

Joe Kosinski: Yeah, we had 1/8” or 1/4” models of all the big sets, which I still have those from the movie.  They’re beautiful, intricate little tiny models that were done by this Swiss model maker.  They’re amazing; they’re some of my favorite things I took from the movie.

CGA: 
You said that you were fairly heavily involved with the set design and overall feel of the film.  Were you involved with the story at all as well?

Joe Kosinski: 
Yeah, I did that VFX test, that three-minute piece before the script was written, so there was no script for the movie when we showed that at Comic-Con.  So then the script had to be written, and I kind of hinted at the narrative of the story I was interested in in that VFX test piece.  But then the script had to be written to it. 

So the script was written by two writers from this television show Lost named Adam Horowitz and Eddie Kitsis.  They’re the screenwriters, but just because of the nature of this movie and them needing to understand the world and these set pieces it was a collaborative process to get this script written.  Because you can’t just send them off and say “Write a script for Tron.”  It had to be done in conjunction with the Art Department. 

So while I was building sequences like the disc games or the light cycle races and all that stuff that had to be built upfront, the script was being written in parallel to that.  But I am not a writer myself so I can’t take any credit for actually writing any part of the script.

CGA: 
 So this film’s obviously really heavy in design, from the sets and the costumes and the vehicles.  What was the background of the people you brought on board to help you with that?

Joe Kosinski:  
Well you know, I like the idea of bringing in people from outside the film industry. So like I said, I had set designers that were people from the world of architecture; I had vehicle designers that came from the world of automotive design rather than concept art.  So our lead vehicle designer on the movie, I swiped him from Bugatti; he was working at Bugatti at the time.  I have illustrators that came from the world of video games; I had a makeup artist who came from the fashion world. 

So for me, I was interested in pulling people from outside the film industry in order to get kind of a fresh take.  I wanted this film to look different than any other movie out there, and pulling people from outside the film business felt like a great way to start. 


Concept Art
©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

At the same time it’s a unique film in that the whole world – the vehicles, the costumes, the architecture – everything had to feel like it came from the mind of one person, Kevin Flynn.  That’s a rare opportunity in a science fiction film, to have the whole world feel like it was designed by one man.  So it was fun for me to kind of get this group of 40 or 50 ultra-talented designers together and to get them all kind of thinking like one mind; and within a few weeks it was fun to see sketches and designs coming back and you couldn’t tell who had done what because they were all understanding the aesthetic I was going for.

CGA: 
So all of these guys, have they gone back to their day jobs?

Joe Kosinski: 
No, a lot of them have stayed, they’ve stayed in the film business.  A lot of them are now sought after to work on other movies.  So a lot of them are here to stay, which is great.


Film Frame CLU ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

CGA:
How did you approach the design and the visual treatments of the film to support the story?  What was your underlying theme there and approach?

Joe Kosinski: Well, I started with looking at the aesthetic of the first film and looked at a lot of the original sketches done by Syd Mead and Moebius, a lot of work they’d done that just never made it into the first movie.  So that kind of started the inspirational touch point, looking at the original stuff, and then in my own mind just kind of extrapolating it forward 28 years to imagine how this world of the first film would look like today – the materiality and the photorealism of the world. 

I just wanted it to feel more real.  I wanted it to feel like we took motion picture cameras and went into the world of Tron and shot it from the inside, and I wanted it to be a world where the materials felt like materials we would recognize – glass and steel and concrete.  But at the same time the design had to clearly be Tron, so you needed those minimalistic surfaces and those ribbons of light that kind of wrapped everything together. So it started with the first film but then I got to extrapolate forward just based on my own interests. 



Concept Art/ Environmental Design ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

And one of the themes of the film is this notion of perfection, you know?  Kevin Flynn was trying to create the kind of perfect system, and a lesson he learns in the film is that perfection isn’t found inside the world of computers at all; it’s found in the real world, in the people that are family and friends and the people who we surround ourselves with, and that’s where he needs to focus. 

But in his pursuit of perfection in the world of Tron you can see this idea of symmetry and perfect angles – everything’s on a 300 or 600 angle, there’s a lot of symmetrical sets and city blocks.  And it was in that sense, the design of the world reflects his intentions as a 35-year-old man trying to create this perfect, controllable world in the computer and ultimately that kind of comes around to haunt him in his creation of Clu.

CGA: 
I noticed there was a lot of symmetry in the design.  I mean that definitely was intentional I assume.

Joe Kosinski: 
Yeah, that just goes into this idea of trying to create this perfect system, trying to take all sense of order and chaos out of the world.  And you know, you look at the kind of fascist architecture of the 1930s and ‘40s, the city planning of Albert Speer and you see that same kind of obsession with symmetry and perfection in the planning.  And I wanted this city to somehow reflect that as well, at least in Kevin Flynn’s original intent.


Film Frame
(L-R) Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

CGA: What sort of tools did you use during the production, what software and hardware?  And did you get to pioneer any new technologies or techniques in the filming?

Joe Kosinski:
Oh yeah.  We built a whole new 3D camera rig for this film.  We based it on the technology that James Cameron did for Avatar and then took his camera rig forward another generation with these new Sony F35 cameras.  So it was a new generation 3D camera.

It was important to me that in this idea of making everything in the movie as physical as possible that the suits actually illuminate light, so we developed a new type of (suit).  These illuminated suits were completely built from scratch using a new type of illuminated fabric, so they were all powered suits which I don’t think has ever been done before and that was definitely one of the biggest challenges in the movie. 


Concept Art
©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

CGA: I think I remember seeing a photo of one of these suits and they were sitting behind some sort of a ventilation system.  I gather those suits must have been fairly hot.

Joe Kosinski: 
Yeah, they got warm.  I think that was more due just to the material, the neoprene fabric just being insulating like a wetsuit.  The lamps themselves I don’t think were very hot.  But yeah, they were fully powered with batteried inverters and remote controls all built into them, very sophisticated.


Garrett Hedlund
Phone: Douglas Curran ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

And then finally, this digital thespian – this idea of Clu, a digital version of Jeopardy that’s 35 years old is probably one of the hardest things you can do in visual effects.  And that was probably our most ambitious challenge – trying to create this kind of digital character in this film. 

And for that we kind of stood on the shoulders of the technology that DD developed for Benjamin Button and took it to the next level by creating this helmet-mounted, four camera system that Jeff Bridges wore so he could play those scenes on set with other actors rather than recording them at a later time.

CGA: 
Yeah, I guess you guys came really close to crossing that uncanny valley, that’s sure.

Joe Kosinski: 
Yeah, I think we pushed the bar, hopefully pushed the bar further.  And it’s going to be exciting to see who kind of takes it and runs with it.

CGA: 
Cool.  So what’s next?

Joe Kosinski: 
Well, I’m developing a project at Disney right now called “Oblivion”, which is based on a story that I wrote, and it’s currently being written by William Monahan who won the Oscar a few years ago for The Departed.  So he’s writing the script as we speak, I’m working with him and we’re just assembling a design team made up of a lot of the same people that worked on Tron.  And we’re just in the very early stages of getting this movie up off the ground.

CGA:
Wow, right back into the fire again.

Joe Kosinski: Yeah, it’s like I get antsy if I’m not working on something.

CGA: 
Did you get any downtime or does it just go straight to promotion and right back into another project?

Joe Kosinski: 
I did a lot of publicity, I got a week off after Christmas and then back in the office and straight to work.  That’s the way it works.  I like to work so yeah, just keeping busy.

 

 

 

 

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Studios are reluctant to talk about what software they use as their business is not to promote CG software companies. He spoke to me about some of the software, but we removed some of the conversation by request.
Why didn't he answer the question of what softwares they used? Did he forget to answer? or meant to ignore it?

About this article

CGarchitect caught up with Joe Kosinski for a phone interview about his directorial debut on TRON: Legacy.

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About the author

Jeff Mottle

Founder at CGarchitect

placeCalgary, CA