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Modern Technology Aids In “Tron” Costume Design


A lot has changed since 1983’s “Tron.”.  Not only have visual effects evolved and 3D camera work been reinvigorated, but costume design has begun incorporating computer technology to fabricate materials.  411 Publishing recently spoke with costume designer Michael Wilkinson to discuss his work on Disney’s 2010 “Tron: Legacy.”

411 Publishing: What made you want to get involved with this project?

Michael Wilkinson:  I was very excited by the prospect of exploring the cutting edge of clothing and costume technology.  The director, Joe Kosinski, wanted to see visuals and costumes for the film that were unlike anything audiences had ever seen before.  So that really wets one’s creative appetite.

411:  In looking at the previews for the film, the costumes are slick and capture the essence of being inside a high-tech game.  What were some of your thoughts when you were creating designs and coming up with the fabrics?

MW:  Well, this project really was amazing, because we were boldly going where custom designers have never been before.  We had months of research and development to do all our concept work, not just between the lighting and the costumes but working with digital manufacturing of textiles and high-tech bonded fabrics that we used.  We wanted to cast the net wide in our research stage.  We looked at high tech sporting wear and gear, we looked at future soldier concepts from the military:  extremely innovative armor and combat gear.  We also looked at Haute Couture and high fashion.  When you take that and throw that into the world of video games, and the original film from 1983, there’s a whole world of wonderful resources that we pulled from for our designs.

411:  Did you tip your hat to what the fashions were in that first film?

MW:  Yes, that was really our starting point, our bible if you will.  When that film came out it blew people away.  The style of shooting, the costuming, and post production effects were really cutting edge for the time it came out.  So we wanted to do the equivalent for 2010.  We took the essence of the first film, but we wanted it to be a much sleeker, streamline world, something more elegant and pleasing to the contemporary eye.  In the first film, the costumes were covered with lit up computer circuitry.  When you get to our film it’s reduced to a few highly considered lines and gestured of light through the costume.

411:  Did you actually incorporate lighting elements into the customs?

MW:  Yes, most people don’t realize that these costumes actually lit up on set.  In the first movie it was a kind of keying effect where you isolate certain colors in post production and you put on a lighting filter and that’s what makes it look like it’s glowing.  In our film, because we were shooting in 3D and for lots of other reasons, the costumes actually had to light up on set in front of the cameras.  It was extremely challenging for us because these costumes had to be very fitting and very flattering to the body.  These actors also had very rigorous stunts and strenuous movements while wearing these costumes. The idea of tethering to a power source was out of the question so we had to have converters and invertors and all these amazing electrical situations inside each costume. That itself took months of research and development.  We had an amazing team of technicians doing research and helping us out with that.

411:  What kind of material and design work went into the creation of the costumes, especially in regards to building the power source right into the outfit?

MW:  It was a very elaborate process.  It started with taking a digital scan of all of our actors: you have a digital laser scanner plot the full geography of their bodies.  Then we produced a mannequin that was a life-size replica of each of the principle actors.  With that as our starting point, we began sculpting the lines of the suit on top of the mannequins.  Then we would use computers to produce digital outputs of each of the specific parts and details of the costumes that we needed to have an absolute procise, digitally formed characteristic to them, such as textures and the channels that the light fits in.  Everything had to be so précise that a human hand could not actually produce it.  Then we created 3D drawings, and sent that information into a machine and it produces for you an actual and precise 3D rendering of that detail.  We would lay all these textures and details into our mannequins, and then we would produce molds and produce multiples of these molded suites using lots of different polymers and resins and high density foams.  Then we worked a lot on what the light source would be.  We found this fantastic light that was a flexible plastic membrane.  It was kind of like when you take an emulsion and you laminate it in between two plastic surfaces.  The finished product has a consistency like a band aid, which has a little stretch and give to it.  And then we laid that through the costume and created a power source for that.  It was all very elaborate and complicated and exciting.

411:  What fabrics are you actually using?  And where they comfortable for the actors?

MW:  I don’t think the actors would say they were the most comfortable of costumes ever worn on screen.  I think when you sign up for a film like “Tron” there’s going to be a little bit of discomfort involved, especially when your costumes have to light up.  But we tried to make them as comfortable as possible.  We had flexible elements and vents and details that would help make them as bearable as possible.  Along with the skin tight costume, there were also flowing fabrics and capes and more traditional tailored pieces that we used high-tech fabrics for, or rubberized fabrics or dimensionally screen printed fabrics we created, that would give a very precise, digital machine produced feel that  allowed us to make tailored shapes with a great high tech look.

411: It must have been such a great challenge for a costume designer to work on a film like this.

MW: A challenge to me was to always come back to the story, to the human level.  You can get very carried away with how high-tech and how innovative your work is.  Whether we’re doing LED lighting and textures that were created in a computer, or whether we’re using more traditional elements like corsets and crinolines and lace,  its really the same process, where we are using texture, silhouette, color, and form to help create these characters and tell the story, and illuminate the themes of the film.

For more information about “Tron: Legacy” please visit: