You might think that hiring Daft Punk is enough to make a film sound futuristic and "computery." But the makers of Tron Legacy actually faced the same tricky problem that the creators of the original film did: how do you decide what an entirely virtual universe set "inside" silicon computer chips should sound like? Go too natural, and it won't immerse viewers in a unique world; skew too synthetic, and the audience will laugh their way to the exits.
Luckily, Disney had enough sense to trust the film's sound design to the alpha geeks at Skywalker Sound, who spent two years sampling everything from vintage synthesizers to real-world motorcycles to create Tron's signature audio effects. (They also got pretty tight with Daft Punk while they were at it.) The brain trust spoke to DVICE to give an inside look at how they updated the soundscape of Tron for 21st century audiences.
Chris Boyes, sound designer of Tron Legacy, says it all began with the light cycles. "That sound is a huge signature of the Tron universe, and we wanted to nail it as early as possible," he says during a break from the mixing studio at Skywalker Sound, where he and a brain trust of other audio ubergeeks have been sculpting Tron Legacy's sonic universe for the past two years. Boyes paid homage to the original Tron light cycle by recreating its engine noise with vintage Moog and ARP synthesizers, then adding "throaty, powerful elements" from a real Ducati motorcycle. "It had to sound like intensity and pure speed, but also razor sharp and synthetic," Boyes explains, "so the audience says, 'OK, that's clearly a cycle of sorts, but unlike any I've ever heard before."
Creating unheard-of soundscapes has been Skywalker Sound's Oscar-winning specialty ever since George Lucas founded the company three decades ago. To immerse themselves in Tron Legacy's ominous vision of electronically distorted thunderstorms and disc-battles to the death (or "deresolution", in Tron parlance), Boyes and co-designer Steve Boeddeker watched a complete digital pre-visualization of the film before shooting even started. They even took aural inspiration from Moore's Law. "Computer science has grown exponentially since the first movie, so there's a lot of heavy atmosphere and strange sound-reflections in Tron Legacy that make you feel as if it has no boundaries — that those thunderclaps could be echoing away for thousands of miles," Boyes says.
Then there's Daft Punk's pulsating score, which bandmember Thomas Bangalter integrated into Tron's sound with nanoscopic precision — working closely with Boyes to dissect hundreds of layered tracks, often rearranging individual beats and tones frame by frame to perfectly syncopate with background sound effects. "I've never had this almost surgical amount of involvement with a composer before," Boyes says.
Of course, no geek tentpole film would be complete without an easter egg or two — which is how Boyes, Bangalter, and director Joseph Kosinski found themselves at ComiCon 2010 this past July recording a roomful of Tron fans worked up into a preview-screening frenzy. "Joe had them chanting 'De-rez! De-rez!' in time to his cues, and I actually used it while mixing the big disc-game battle scene," says Boyes. "It fits with our desire to make Tron Legacy so immersive that it literally feels interactive. And the ComiCon audience is definitely going to feel that when they hear their own voices in the movie."