Interview with Steve Preeg - Head of Animation of Tron Legacy

By The Editor
April 5, 2011 - 00:18

This interview is the transcript part of a live online interview with Steve Preeg that The Comic Book Bin was invited to cover.

Steve Preeg is an Academy Award®-winning animation director who recently completed work on the film “TRON: Legacy” from Walt Disney Pictures. He previously received an Oscar® for achievement in visual effects on “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” and his earlier credits include “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End,” “Flags of Our Fathers” and I, Robot,” among other films. Prior to Digital Domain, Steve created digital characters for movies including “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within,” “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,” “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” and “King Kong.” Steve is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and holds a BS degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

CBB: What was the hardest part of the  animation in Tron: Legacy?

Steve Preeg: For sure the hardest part was Clu, bringing a human being to the  screen has long been considered impossible in CGI, as humans are very used to  looking at other humans faces. Avoiding what is known as the uncanny valley is  what we all face in this industry in regards to this type of work.

CBB: What was it like working with a  first-time director like Joe Kosinski contrasted with working with a veteran  like David Fincher?
  Steve Preeg: They are both great filmmakers. With David you expect him to give  great direction and explain exactly what he wants, and he does. As a first time  director, I was amazed at how similar Joe was to David. Joe is very clear on  what he wants; he had everything in his head of what he wanted. This was a  really tough movie to direct for even a seasoned film veteran and Joe took it  in stride more than I think anyone thought possible, plus he had a baby right  in the middle of production. He is an amazing guy; I would love to work with  him again.

CBB: Will there be a sequel and if  there is will you be involved in it?
  Steve Preeg: I haven't heard for sure one way or another if there will be a  sequel, but it would be a great opportunity to work on it if they do make one.

CBB: Was the process similar in Tron:  Legacy working on de-aging Jeff Bridges as Clu 2 to the aging effects applied  to Brad Pitt in Benjamin Button?
  Steve Preeg: There was a lot of similarities as far as the work at Digital  Domain itself, the main difference was on the acquisition of the data. With  Button we captured Brad Pitt months after principal photography, but Jeff  Bridges wanted to be captured on set in the moment which required us to come up  with some new hardware as well as software to deal with the difference in the  data we were receiving here at Digital Domain.

CBB: Will you be involved with the  animated series "Tron: Uprising" at all?
  Steve Preeg: At this time I haven't heard anything about being involved.

CBB: What was the biggest challenge in  making Tron: Legacy?
  Steve Preeg: For me personally it was just trying to live up to the legacy of  the original Tron. That film started the industry in which I work and is kind  of considered holy ground by many of my peers, there was a lot of pressure to  not screw it up :)

CBB: What in particular are you the  most proud of in terms of pushing the envelope of effects?
  Steve Preeg: I think we are all proud to have made a film that paid appropriate  homage to the original film. It was a daunting task and for the most part our  work was well received, which was a great relief for us.

CBB: Having worked on the third  "Pirates" film, were you a part of the 4th film in the series at all?
  Steve Preeg: No, the third film in the series is the only one I was involved  with.

CBB: Aside from the biggies of IMAX  and 3D, what else was different about working on Tron: Legacy than other  projects, At World’s End, for example?
  Steve Preeg: One of the big differences for us was that it was shot in 3D. This  presented a whole new set of challenges and workflows to work with footage from  two cameras. We had to be far more accurate and aware of how everything we did  would affect the depth of the scene.

CBB: What would you do different now  when you look back at the movie?
  Steve Preeg: After every film we examine what we did right and wrong and make a  list of what could be done better. There is always room for improvement on  technique and execution. I think for myself, there are a number of advancements  on how we approach human faces that will change our process, had we known then  what we know now, we probably would have tried to implement some of that on  Clu. I think we will be learning new things about how to create humans for a  very long time to come.

CBB: Have fans of the original ‘Tron’  been supportive of the visual effects that you included in ‘Tron: Legacy?’
  Steve Preeg: From the responses I have gotten, it seems that fans of the  original were quite happy with our work.

CBB: Considering the intricately  detailed effects work you put together, what’s your take on people watching  movies on small mobile devices like iPhones? Do you feel like your work gets  lost in that kind of portable compression compared to what people could  experience in a theater?
  Steve Preeg: There is no question that this film was meant to be seen on an  IMAX screen. Joe designed a lot of the film specifically to be seen that way. I  strongly feel that people watching this on a mobile device are missing a huge  part of the thrill that is Tron: Legacy.

CBB: What's your favorite aspect of  the work you do?
  Steve Preeg: With this industry being both an artistic and technical field, we  get to work with a wide variety of people from all over the world. I think for  me it is interacting with all of those people, directors, software engineers,  animators, etc.

CBB: What was your favorite sequence  in Tron: Legacy, as a fan and as an animator?
  Steve Preeg: I personally really enjoyed the light bike sequence. It has a bit  of the original Tron in it but got to be updated for a whole new generation of  audience members. It was a real thrill to work on that sequence.

CBB: Do you think that digital actors  could replace human actors? What about recreating digital personalities for a  movie, like Elvis, Humphrey Bogart or Marilyn Monroe?
  Steve Preeg: That's a tough question. In general we rely heavily on the  performance of the actor to give us a character. We aren't really out to  replace human actors since they are the ones that breathe life into our digital  characters. As for bringing someone back from the dead, you can never really get  a dead persons take on a role, all you can try to do is mimic what you think  they might have done. It may be believable to an audience, but in the end it is  not really that persons performance, it’s just a copy.

CBB: How did you move from mechanical  engineering to Hollywood special effects?
Steve  Preeg: I was using some of the available visualization software used in film to  visualize some engineering work when a friend needed some help on a film and  knew that I knew the software. After working on a couple projects, I realized  it was a lot more fun working on films than as an engineer, at least for me.

CBB: How much pressure did you feel in  not only making a sequel to Tron but also in creating the world of Tron now?
  Steve Preeg: This is the most pressure I have felt on any film I have worked  on. Trying to live up to Tron, the grandfather of the industry I work in, was  always in the back of our minds and often in the front of our minds, too.

CBB: Can you differentiate between  your responsibilities as Head of Animation and, for example, VFX Supervisor, as  far as it pertains to Tron Legacy?
  Steve Preeg: As head of animation, I was responsible for the movement of  everything. From Clu to lightbikes, if it moved that was my responsibility. The  VFX is responsible for the look of the film and making sure it matches the  director's vision. So the VFX is dealing with a lot of lighting, modeling,  textures, etc. That said, Eric (the VFX) and I collaborate on just about  everything. We have a great working relationship and I have no problem hearing  his comments on animation just as he listens to my suggestions about lighting,  etc.

CBB: Were you a fan of the original  Tron?
  Steve Preeg: Of course. I don't see how anybody wouldn't be. It was so far  ahead of its time and so groundbreaking. Plus after conversations with Steve  Lisberger (the director of the original Tron) there is so much more to it than  people think. He has amazing insight on our world and I think Tron had a lot of  additional meaning that Steve was trying to make.

CBB: You received an Academy Award for  achievement in visual effects for your work on ‘Benjamin Button.’ Has this win  given you more creative freedom on the films you have worked on since then?
  Steve Preeg: The creative freedom on a film is largely dependent on the  director you are working with. Joe was great about hearing ideas and he  collaborated with us in a way that made it a real treat to work on his film.  However, in the end our goal is to make the directors vision come to life.

CBB: Do you have any words of wisdom  for aspiring film makers who want to get into animation?
  Steve Preeg: Make sure you love the craft. Don't try to get into this industry  because you think you will get rich or meet famous people. We work really hard  in this industry and without a true passion for film and the work you do, you  will burn out quickly. I think maybe that's true for a lot of industries, work  on what you love to do.

CBB: Did you have to create any new  tools and use anything unique to generate the effects?
  Steve Preeg: Most films we work on require some new tools to be created, we  never get a director that comes and says, "just make what you did  before." They always want to push it to the next level. On Tron we had to  write new tools for the 3D part of it, as well as a new facial solver for the  type of data we were receiving from set. There were a whole host of additional  smaller tools written for the different departments, and we are continuing to  develop those tools for our current and upcoming shows.

CBB: Can you talk about which films  have influenced you?
  Steve Preeg: The most inspirational film to me is Baraka. It is sort of a film  about everything. Every time I watch that film I can take something else out of  it. There is something for every mood and every aspect of life in there, so I  watch it about once every 6 months, just to see how amazing our lives and  planet really are.

CBB: Have you worked on the original  Tron conversion for HD? How was that? How was it for you to work on a classic  movie?
  Steve Preeg: We were not involved in the conversion, but I can't wait to see  it.

CBB: Can you explain the uncanny valley?  How did your experience on Benjamin Button help you?
  Steve Preeg: The uncanny valley basically suggests that as a character gets  closer and closer to real looking, people respond better and better to it,  until you get ALMOST real, and then people become disgusted by it. I think  signs like skin that’s off color; eyes that stare off to infinity, etc. are some  of the things that throw characters into the uncanny valley. There are many  theories about why this is true, but the best one I have heard is that over the  generations we have learned to avoid dead bodies to avoid disease, and many of  the signs of a dead body are exactly what the uncanny valley seems to be about.  Our work on Button certainly helped us learn more about what humans accept and  don't accept about another humans face, but there is still a lot to learn.

CBB: How did you first get involved in  this project?
Steve  Preeg: Just as Button was wrapping, Eric (the VFX supervisor) was approached by  Joe Kosinski and Disney about doing Tron. Having worked with him for a few  years prior, he asked me to be involved, which of course I had to say yes. It's  Tron after all.

CBB: Were there any moments where you  just geeked out when thinking that you are working on a TRON movie?
  Steve Preeg: Some of us were on Tron Legacy for 27 months, and I think we were  in that geek out phase the entire time. It was a real honor to be allowed to  continue Tron for a new generation.

CBB: What is the advantage of your  E-motion capture technology compared to the performance capturing system James  Cameron used in AVATAR?
  Steve Preeg: They are really different tasks. On Avatar, the capture was  happening with the body and face at the same time. We needed to make one  person’s facial performance on another person’s body movement. They are both  very difficult tasks, but require different methods.

CBB: Can you explain the additional  difficulties that you had to solve, because the film was shot in 3-D? Did you  play with 3-D effects to enhance some visual effects?
  Steve Preeg: Well first off there are two cameras to track and they have to be  far more accurate tracks than traditional VFX tracks, because the two together  define the depth of an object. It also makes it harder for the end of the  pipeline where traditionally you can always paint or nudge things in the final  composite, but with 3D that paint work has to be the same in both eyes and that  presents a problem, as well. There are quite a few other issues, like polarized  light (such as reflections) showing up different in the two cameras, vertical  disparity, using elements from two takes that had different 3D settings, the  list goes on and on.
  CBB: Can you tell us something about “Tron  3 " yet?
  Steve Preeg: If I knew anything I probably couldn't tell you anyway, but  honestly I don't know anything more than you about it. I hope they make one  though, and I hope they ask me to work on it.

CBB: The opening sequence was shown in  2D- was this an artistic or a technical decision? (the real life-scenes seemed  perfect in 3D for me....)
  Steve Preeg: That was the director's decision. He wanted the Tron world to feel  different, sort of like how the Wizard of Oz was black and white in the real  world and in color in Oz. It was a similar effect he was going for.

CBB: How does additional filming or  reshoots affect your process?
  Steve Preeg: It doesn't really affect it other than it is just plate delivery  that is later and we would have less time to work on it. It is pretty typical  to get additional filming on projects, so it was no big deal on Tron Legacy.

CBB: Can you tell us what you've got  going on next?
  Steve Preeg: I would be happy to tell you if I knew. We are looking at a number  of projects, but honestly after more than 2 years on Tron, I am okay with it  taking a couple months for something else to pop up.

CBB: Do you think 3D is here to stay  or will it move out of fashion again?
  Steve Preeg: That's a tough call. I think it will depend a lot on the home  market and if the box office difference stays as high as it is. I know there  are some indications that it is dying down, so maybe it is on its way out, but  I don't think anyone really knows.

CBB: Was there any thought to redoing  any effects for the Blu-ray release? It must be tempting to go back and redo  Clu with what you've learned since then.
  Steve Preeg: I think in this industry we would always like more time or a shot  at redoing things. We never really finish a shot; it just gets taken away at  some point. The option for redoing any FX for the Blu-ray would not have been  up to us, but it sure would have been fun.

CBB: How much experience did you have  with 3D prior to this film?
  Steve Preeg: Very little, our company had done one 3D conversion, but I didn't  work on it. It was certainly a learning process for me.

CBB: When “Tron Legacy” was released,  some people talked about the Clu 2 recreation. It`s completely digital?
  Steve Preeg: Clu's head is always 100% digital. His body is sometimes a body  double and sometimes all digital.

CBB: Digital characters are more and  more perfect like Neytiri in "Avatar". Actors in digital roles in the  eyes of critics are not real, but we all see their fantastic performances - do  you think in future actors will receive awards for their digital roles?
  Steve Preeg: I hope so. It is just as valid of an acting job to be a digital  character and in some ways even harder as there is not always something to  react to. Someday I hope the recognition is there.

CBB: Have you watched a movie you've  worked on and caught a "bug"? A little glitch or quirk that was  missed, probably something nobody else would even notice, that made you cringe  in your seat?
  Steve Preeg: I really have a hard time watching movies I have worked on because  that's all I see. There is never a finished shot, I always feel like we could  do more, but at some point it has to get out to theaters.

CBB: Did the look of the original  movie limit you in your creativity or was there still room for new ideas?
  Steve Preeg: I think it helped spur creativity. How do you take that original  look and update it for a new generation? That was one of the most challenging  and fun parts about working on this film.

CBB: Any word on Tron 3?
  Steve Preeg: Nothing but rumors.

CBB: Percentage wise how much of the  film is live action compared to CG would you say?
  Steve Preeg: In the Tron world every shot had some digital work done, even if  it was just suit enhancement. Probably about half of the real world footage had  work done to it. I am not sure how much of the film was completely CG but I  would guess about 20% maybe, all of the lightbike and lightjet sequences were all  CG and a large portion of the disc game, as well as the big cityscapes.

CBB: This massive 5-disc set may be  the biggest 3D Blu-ray release to come out yet. Do you think this could be the  title that really spurs growth in the 3D Blu-ray market?
  Steve Preeg: I hadn't really thought of that, but wouldn't that be awesome? I  haven't seen it in 3D on Blu-ray yet, but Joe says it looks amazing, so I can't  wait.

CBB: Where do you see the advantages  of 3D for telling stories like TRON: LEGACY?
  Steve Preeg: I think in a film where you create a whole new world for people to  see is a great place for 3D to be used. You can really use it to give a feeling  of actually being in this new place, that's where I would like to see it used  more. I don't think we need to start seeing romantic comedies in 3D, but that's  just me.

CBB: Did you participate in the  creation of the Blu-ray’s featurettes? How do you choose these bonuses?
  Steve Preeg: I was not part of it, which for me is great because I want to see  it with fresh eyes. I am really looking forward to seeing what Disney did with  it.

CBB: Did the first Tron film in any  way inspire you have a career in special effects?
  Steve Preeg: Not only was it an inspiration but it started the work that is my  career, it has been great meeting some of the original crew of the first Tron  and to see how hard it was to make the first Tron, they were true pioneers.

CBB: Steve, any final thoughts on Tron  Legacy as we close this virtual roundtable?
  Steve Preeg: Well I just hope people enjoyed our work and the film itself. It  was a real pleasure working on it as well as sharing some insight with all you  guys. Thanks for reading all my ramblings; I hope you enjoyed it too.

Last Updated: August 31, 2023 - 08:12

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