TRON Legacy…from IMAX Digital 3D to Blu-ray: is there even a difference?


One of the hottest Blu-rays around right now is Disney’s TRON Legacy. And for good reason…this 1080p, 7.1-channel version of the film offers viewers mind-blowing animated visuals and a soundtrack capable of rattling windows. For fans of the genre, the continuation of a story involving the virtual reality of living programs inside a computer network along with the ability to revisit The Grid almost 30 years after Disney’s first TRON story hit theaters adds to the excitement. I admit I’m a fan. I still own the Special Edition Laserdisc Box Set of the original TRON movie and I purchased the 4-disc 3D Blu-ray edition of TRON Legacy the morning of its release. Being produced three decades apart, there are naturally some differences in the technology used in creating 1982’s TRON and 2010’s TRON Legacy; however, in some ways, we’ve not come as far as you might imagine.

TRON Laserdisc Box Set

The original TRON was shot primarily using Super Panavision 65mm film cameras. In fact, at least one of the cameras used in the filming of TRON was previously used to film Lawrence of Arabia in the early 1960s. Most film-based movie cameras shoot on 35mm film. Because 65mm film offers over two and a half times as much picture area as 35mm film, the format can provide significantly higher resolution and picture detail over the more traditional format. Of course, it’s not just the size of the film and the type of cameras used on a production that determine the overall look of a movie. The lighting design, shooting conditions, technical and creative capabilities of the crew, post-production process, etc. all play a role in how a film looks. And the amount of processing and optical compositing a film goes through during editing plays a role in how clean the final version of the release print looks. TRON went through a heavy post-production process with lots of optical compositing and colorization of film frame blow-ups.

An amusing report by Walter Cronkite about the making of TRON provides some detail:

Because of the unique hand-animated processes and early computer graphic imagery used on TRON, it’s a wonder it ever looked as good as it did. The new Blu-ray release of TRON – which was released the same day as TRON Legacy – looks amazing considering its age and production style.

Blu-ray screenshot from TRON (1982)

Today, most films are shot digitally. But some directors still prefer to shoot on 35mm film and occasionally, as with a few scenes in the recent film Inception, 65mm film cameras are brought out of the storage closets to shoot special effects scenes. 35mm film has been the quality standard since the late 1800s. It’s a very high quality format. Even though digital cameras offer several advantages over film cameras, they’re still in their infancy when compared to the 35mm film format. It’s somewhat difficult to compare the quality of film camera images to digital camera images. Film systems use an optical process that captures pictures by exposing light to a fine silver grain embedded in a chemical emulsion. Digital systems use an electronic process that records pictures by exposing light to a sensor of a fixed resolution which saves images as pixels. In attempting to equate film grain to pixels, most cinematographers would agree that 65mm film has a minimum resolution of 8,000 vertical lines of pixels, commonly referred to as 8K. 35mm film has a minimum resolution of 4K. Most digital projectors in modern theaters, including the IMAX 3D projectors, utilize 2K projectors to present movies.

Dual 2K IMAX Digital projectors

So, if the original TRON was shot on 65mm film cameras which can provide a minimum 8K resolution, how does that compare with the latest digital cameras used to shoot TRON Legacy almost 30 years later? Well, the latest TRON film was shot using Sony F35 digital cinema cameras. These cameras are very good. They represent the latest mainstream technology for filming movies digitally. Their resolution? Less than 2K. Yes, the Sony F35, and several other competing systems, captures images using a 1920 x 1080 pixel resolution imager; that’s the same number of pixels on the 1080p HDTV in your living room. Not that resolution alone, by any means, determines the quality of a digital video camera but I have a $2,000 professional Panasonic camera that shoots at the same resolution as the $200,000 Sony F35! When it comes to movie-making and the transition from film to digital, does it seem like we’re stepping backwards rather than forwards?

Sony F35 CineAlta cinema camera

Wait, there’s one more point…most of the scenes in TRON Legacy were composed and projected in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The Sony F35 cameras shoot in a native 1.78:1 aspect ratio and digital projectors display a native 1.9:1 aspect ratio. So, to present a 2.35:1 film digitally, black matte bars have to be added to the film to create the wider aspect ratio, just like when a letterboxed movie is presented on your TV using black bars on the top and bottom. This means that some of the pixels of the digital camera and the digital projection are being wasted on black bars rather than picture information. To be fair, when the original TRON was released in theaters on 35mm film, a bit of the top and bottom of the 65mm picture image had to be cropped off to fit on the anamorphic 35mm film print. But there were no black bars wasting a portion of the film frame; the entire 35mm film area was used.

Matted 2.35:1 TRON Legacy frame in a 1.78:1 (16x9) HDTV format

So, it sounds like shooting on 65mm film is way better than shooting on modern digital 1080p cameras. Well, there’s more to the story. In a film-only workflow, special effects have to be composited together. A cinematographer might shoot a background scene on one reel of film and then shoot the actors in front of a blue screen on another reel of film. The special effects department might create explosions, animations or other effects as separate elements each on their own reels of film. To create the final scene, all of these separate film elements have to be optically combined by layering them on top of one another and taking a composite photograph on yet another reel of film. Once a master edit of the completed film is ready, an additional set of film reels is produced from the master for distribution to theaters. All of this compositing and creating of new film reels over and over leads to a build-up of film grain and a loss of clarity. This is why special effects-heavy film producers often use 65mm or VistaVision film cameras for shooting their special effects scenes even when the final release prints will be down-sized to 35mm or even digital formats; it gives them more initial resolution to work with knowing that they’ll lose some of that during the post production process.

Consider digital filmmaking, on the other hand. A background scene is shot on a digital camera and is loaded into the computer as an identical, pixel-for-pixel copy with no loss of resolution or clarity. The blue and green screen elements are treated the same way. Then all of the special effects, animations, color corrections and compositing are performed digitally using the computer. This means that there is no film grain build-up, no loss of picture quality or, in the case of elements that are created inside the computer and never shot by a camera, no video noise or other anomalies to deal with. So, while shooting TRON digitally doesn’t offer viewers the resolution of 65mm film, the filmmakers have eliminated many of the problems that the traditional film post production process presents and can actually create a cleaner, higher-quality picture for special effects films. Compared to a straight 65mm film negative that doesn’t undergo compositing and other post production special effects processes, as in Lawrence of Arabia, The Sound of Music or even Baraka, the 1080p resolution still has a way to go.

Blu-ray screenshot from The Sound of Music

But we’re making progress. Red Digital Cinema Camera Company manufactures the Red One professional filmmaking camera that shoots at 4K with a Scarlet model in the works that shoots at 5K. And just this week, Sony announced a new F65 CineAlta camera said to mimic the look of 65mm film using an 8K sensor that shoots at resolutions of 4K and above. We already have 4K digital cinema projectors that bring out the detail of 35mm film; now those 4K projectors can be used to their full advantage by digital filmmakers as well.

So, back to the TRON Legacy Blu-ray. It’s getting 4.5/5 and 5/5 reviews for both picture and sound quality on just about every Blu-ray site that has reviewed it. Heck, even the sound engineers at Skywalker Sound, who managed the sound editing and mixing for the film, are stating that TRON Legacy is their new reference film for movie sound quality. Is it all that it’s cracked up to be? Why, yes it is! I saw TRON Legacy in a theater with one of the new IMAX Digital 3D projection systems installed and was blown away by both the picture and sound. (Being a fan of the original film and the sci-fi/action genre in general, I enjoyed the story, as well.) The colors, contrast, clarity and realism of the visuals was more than impressive. And the soundtrack, including all of the original sound design and the Daft Punk original score, was lifelike and room-shaking. Does this experience translate to the home theater Blu-ray version? Well, that depends on the quality of your home system, of course. I have a 65″ 3D HDTV calibrated to SMPTE standards and a THX-certified home theater sound system at my disposal so I can generally enjoy the most the Blu-ray format has to offer. I can honestly say that, after 3 complete viewings over the past couple of weeks, I’m still mesmerized by the TRON Legacy Blu-ray. It’s that good.

TRON Legacy Blu-ray set

The movie-making process has changed quite a bit in the past 10 years with the advent of digital cameras, computer animation and editing and 4K 3D digital projection. Home theater technology has also come a long way from the 640 x 480 resolution of the laserdisc and 3-channel Dolby Stereo. And it will all continue to advance at a rapid pace. Televisions with 2K and eventually 4K resolutions will become a reality and 8K and even 16K cameras will be developed. And there will likely always be those who prefer to shoot on film, which is the original high definition format.

While there may not be much of a technical difference between the IMAX Digital 3D version of TRON Legacy and its Blu-ray counterpart, seeing TRON and other films in a modern theater with digital projection and a high-end sound system can be an exhilarating experience. And the ability to closely reproduce that experience with a dedicated home theater allows film fans to enjoy those experiences for years to come. The TRON Legacy Blu-ray allows you to push your home theater system to its limits; I say you owe it to yourself to own TRON Legacy on Blu-ray, even if it’s just to show off your system to your neighbors!

End of line.

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10 Responses to “TRON Legacy…from IMAX Digital 3D to Blu-ray: is there even a difference?”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Great review! This is exactly the type of information that should be shared around the web. Sad on the search engines for not ranking this article higher!

  2. TRON Legacy Update « Digital Media Services Blog Says:

    […] received several messages since posting TRON Legacy…from IMAX Digital 3D to Blu-ray: is there even a difference? requesting more information about the varying aspect ratio of the TRON Legacy IMAX theatrical […]

  3. digitalmediaservices Says:

    An update to this post about TRON Legacy has been published. Please see:

    https://digitalmediaservices.wordpress.com/2011/04/24/tron-legacy-update/

  4. Van Alstyne Says:

    GREAT REVIEW! I pretty much agree with all you said in your post, especially at the middle of your article. Thank you, this info is very useful as always. Keep up the good work! You’ve got +1 more reader of your great blog:) Isabella S.

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    Great post! Keep up the blogging! You should start a free forum for the blog too.

  6. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides…which 3D version is better? « Digital Media Services Blog Says:

    […] in conclusion, be aware that not all 3D is created equal. I’ve mentioned before how impressed I’ve been with the IMAX [Digital] 3D system and this recent direct comparison […]

  7. Jake Says:

    Great review but could someone PLEASE explain why cinemas don’t use blu ray disc then? What is the difference between the 300Gb copy on a hard drive and Blu ray? Thanks!

    • digitalmediaservices Says:

      Valid question, Jake. If a director or cinematographer is shooting a film on a 1080p camera, it seems that they could present the film with any 1080p playback format such as Blu-ray. And, from a pure achievability standpoint, they could.

      However, digital film projection follows a completely different set of technical standards than the Blu-ray format. The Digital Cinema Initiatives (DCI) organization, which is made up of representatives from the major motion picture companies, develops the standards for digital film distribution. Just as there are consumer-grade cameras and professional-grade cameras, you can think of the Blu-ray format as a consumer-grade playback system and the DCI format as a professional-grade playback system.

      What are the differences? Well, for starters, the DCI standards require all films be encoded in the JPEG 2000 image compression format. Blu-ray uses MPEG-2, H.264 (MPEG-4) or VC-1 (MPEG-4). DCI video data rates can be up to 250 Mbps while Blu-ray image data rates max out at 40 Mbps. As good as the Blu-ray format is, it doesn’t offer the image quality of the DCI format.

      Then there’s the image resolution specifications. While TRON was shot at the limited 1080p format, the DCI specifications allow for image resolutions up to 4096×1716 for the Scope format (2.39:1) and 3996×2160 for the Flat format (1.85:1); both considered 4K resolutions. Movies shot on film or with 4K (or greater) digital cameras can take advantage of the 4K DCI capabilities that offer far greater image resolution than Blu-ray. Of note, however, is that 3D presentations are limited to 2K resolutions with the current DCI specifications. I’m sure we’ll see that updated soon.

      Finally, the DCI format offers much more in terms of encryption, forensics, playback tally and other metadata that the studios like to have.

      So, while the digital cinema version of TRON may not have offered much higher resolution than the Blu-ray version, it still offered a more robust and somewhat higher-quality image suitable for large screen presentation.

      As stated before, digital cinema is in its infancy. It won’t be long until most films are shot and projected at 4K resolutions with 8K and 16K probably not too far off. At least this better be the case or the consumer formats might not take much of a back seat to the professional formats!

      Thanks for your comments, Jake.

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  9. Reviewing the 2011 Summer Movie Season « Digital Media Services Blog Says:

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