LOS ANGELES (Back Stage) - Disney entrusted the reins of its "Tron" reboot to a first-time feature filmmaker who worked less than a year as a commercials director.
Joseph Kosinski, 36, studied mechanical engineering at Stanford and received his master's degree in architecture at Columbia. His brief stint in commercials earned him awards from the Association of Independent Commercial Producers for his campaigns for the Xbox 360 games Gears of War and Halo 3.
He was already well versed in all the latest special effects techniques -- he got to use the 3-D fusion camera system James Cameron developed -- and he assembled people from the automotive industry and the world of architecture to collaborate on "Tron: Legacy," which opens December 17.
The sequel to 1982's "Tron" marks a lot of firsts in cinematic history. It's the first film to integrate a fully digital head and body based upon an existing actor, creating the younger version of Kevin Flynn, Jeff Bridges' character; the digital representation also serves as his avatar, CLU. Bridges had 52 facial markers and a helmet with four lipstick cameras capturing his every move.
Kosinski wants to reassure the acting community that even though filmmakers now have the ability to create photo-realistic digital characters, such technology will never replace living, breathing actors.
"The actor will never be replaced because a computer can never create a performance like an actor can," says Kosinski. "The performance of CLU is completely driven by Jeff Bridges. That's his performance. We just mapped it on to another creature, so I think Jeff saw the CLU character as an amazing opportunity as an actor to try to do something completely different and play himself at 35 years old. If we had made this movie 10 years ago, we would've had to cast another actor to play him, and that just wouldn't have felt right. So I think there are some really exciting opportunities there for actors."
Hundreds of people read for the part of Sam, Flynn's son, but Garrett Hedlund ("Four Brothers") possessed a look, charisma, quiet confidence, and sense of humor comparable to Bridges.
"It's important that you actually believe he could be his son," says Kosinski, who set out to make a father-son story. "If you cast someone who looks completely different (than Bridges) you would never buy that scene where they're standing across from each other in the safe house."
Hedlund and Olivia Wilde ("House") both spent months getting themselves physically ready for their parts.
"I think (Wilde) blew her own mind when she saw herself doing some of those martial arts moves," Kosinski explains. "It's a lot of hard work. It's a lot of long hours. You need that kind of dedication from your actors because it's tough. It's not easy making these kinds of movies."
The director was especially impressed with the performance of Michael Sheen ("Frost/Nixon") as the white-haired, dandified club owner Castor.
"To me, the thing I find most fascinating about Michael Sheen is he's different in every role he does. He's kind of like a chameleon, and I wanted Castor to be the kind of guy you never know what his angle is; you don't know if you can trust him. He's different at every turn. He showed up for a one-week shoot and just blew us all away. Talk about the perfect guy for that role. Sometimes you just luck into it. The guy is really phenomenal," he says.
Another first for "Tron: Legacy" is the self-illuminated costumes. Each one, costing $60,000, was molded to the actors' bodies using computer numeric cutting technology. It took three hours for the actors to get into their fragile suits, and they were not allowed to sit down. Kosinski provided his cast with bicycle seats and "special inversion boards" to rest against between takes.
"Sometimes the actors get ready for a scene. You get the cameras. You get the lighting. You get the makeup. You get everything in," says Kosinski. "You're just about to roll and one of the suits' battery runs out and you have to stop. It's tough for an actor to then have to wait 10 minutes while they fix your suit before you can roll again. It's a very complicated way to work, but I feel like I cast the movie with the right people with the right attitude. They knew we were doing something innovative and that this kind of stuff is going to happen and to just stay focused on their character and stay in the scene was really important."
Big-budget action fantasies always have a lot of postproduction. "Tron: Legacy," for instance, was shot in 64 days, but postproduction lasted 68 weeks. For an actor, that means less set and more suspension of disbelief. The bulk of the story takes place in the Tron universe, so Kosinski built two city blocks of the Grid -- the film's version of the inner computer world -- as well as 15 other, smaller sets.
"I did want the actors to be surrounded by the world and get a sense of what it felt like to be on the Grid, to be in costume, to be on the set. There's no replacement for that," he explains. "But for a movie like this there are places you can't ever build. You can't build a light-cycle stadium. You can't build a disc-war grid. So in instances like those when you're working on a blue screen, I had to pull as much imagery, concept art, pre-vis animatecs, as much stuff as I could to sit down with the actors beforehand and say, 'Here's the scene. Here's what it looks like. Here's the music that's going to be playing,' and you try to build in their mind the idea so that when Garrett walked out there, in his own mind he saw it."
In one scene, Bridges is operating on Quorr, Wilde's character, by manipulating holograms that are projecting out of her disc. "On set, there's nothing there. It's all air. Jeff saw it. In his mind, he was there and he was doing everything specific. So it's fun to watch actors who have really strong imaginations and are able to kind of perform in that environment."
After "Tron," Kosinski is making two more films for Disney. "Oblivion" is a character-based story set in the near future. Kosinski is thrilled that he got his first choice of writer to adapt his graphic novel into a screenplay -- Oscar winner William Monahan ("The Departed"). Meanwhile, Travis Beecham is writing the reimagining of the 1979 film "The Black Hole" for Kosinski to direct. "That's another one I'm really excited about -- just the opportunity to go visit a black hole on an interstellar journey, to me, seems like it was made for 3-D." His other sci-fi project, "Archangels," is still searching for a writer. Looking at what's ahead for Kosinski, it's safe to say that he has no plans to make any low-budget, kitchen-sink dramas anytime soon.
"Probably not, no," he smiles.