When Joel LeLievre first saw the Disney movie “Tron” in 1982, he didn’t know he was witnessing the beginning of a cinematic revolution in computer-generated imagery that would affect his life in later years.
Then again, he was only eight at the time, a bit too young to know what his career path would be.
“I remember watching the movie, but I also remember Shreddies had this campaign where you could get little ‘Tron’ discs inside. For months we just ate box after box of Shreddies to get those discs,” grins the Annapolis Valley native, who now has his own Halifax-based computer graphics and visual effects studio, Delicate Machines.
He can also see some of his latest work on the big screen in digital and Imax 3D in the long-awaited sequel “Tron: Legacy,” which opened earlier this month.
“I don’t think I really realized what filmmaking was about, but I knew I was seeing something different,” says LeLievre of that fateful trip to the theatre 28 years ago. “Like these people covered with glowing lines, which I hadn’t seen before, in these environments that had crazy backgrounds with real people in front of them. I was blown away by it.”
At the time of the first “Tron,” LeLievre’s computer experience was limited to the family’s Commodore VIC-20, copying code from a book into the computer and watching the pixels dance around.
“It was so simple, it never crashed and you never lost anything,” he says of his first digital experience.
Now LeLievre works in terabytes instead of kilobytes, as part of the team that reinvented the “Tron” universe. The new film updates the story of computer genius Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), who’s been trapped in the digital realm for two decades and finally attempts to escape with the help of his abandoned son Sam (Garrett Hedlund), who must take part in the same kind of cyber contests his father survived in the original.
Last year, LeLievre spent eight months at the Vancouver studio of CG producer Prime Focus, supervising the creation of an eight-minute clip of the solar sailer, a memorable airborne vehicle featured in the first “Tron.”
“I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s a sequence where we’re heading into Tron City, and it focuses on the dialogue between Sam and his father, and we worked on the actual vehicle and the environment around them,” he explains.
“I don’t think I really realized what filmmaking was about, but I knew I was seeing something different.” - Joel LeLievre
With a resume that includes work on films like “Hellboy,” “Sin City,” “Grindhouse,” “The Chronicles of Narnia” and “Twilight: New Moon,” as well as Madonna videos and Coors ads, LeLievre was hoping to be involved in the saga that started it all ever since he saw the first teaser trailer shown at the San Diego Comic Convention five years ago.
After the initial excitement died down, he began getting news of the film’s progress through the grapevine and kept crossing his fingers.
“I started to hear that certain studios were doing tests for the light cycle and the ‘Tron’ suits and stuff like that. Once I heard that, I started to hear more and more, until a couple of years ago I was presented with the possibility of working on it, and I just thought, ‘Oh man, I have to do that. I have to.’
“And by the luck of the cards, it happened.”
Calling a job on “Tron: Legacy” “the holy grail for visual effects artists,” LeLievre says everyone who was called to work on the film was bug-eyed with excitement when they were told what they would be working on (after signing a non-disclosure agreement with secretive and litigious Disney).
Although the nature of their work was dictated from on high, the animators relished the chance to combine the vintage high-tech “Tron” look with new technology and style.
“The designs are more fleshed out, there’s more depth to it, it looks a lot prettier and the lines are so smooth and glossy. ... You can trace the basic designs back to the first ‘Tron.’ It all looks new, but that original foundation is still there.”
After living on the West Coast, LeLievre is back in Halifax with Delicate Machines, a company he co-founded with friend and fellow Nova Scotian John Mitchell. Citing recent locally shot genre films like “Hobo With a Shotgun” and “The Corridor,” he’s hopeful that there will be more work in his field closer to home.
“My goal is to do a heavy effects movie here in Halifax and build a team of awesome people to work on it. You can totally do it. It’s all being done in the clouds and online now anyways, so why not do it here?”