“Computers Are People Too!”: The 1982 TV doc used to promote Disney’s “Tron”

By on June 15, 2015

In 1982, the marketing of the movie Tron was proving difficult for the people behind the scenes in the feature division at Walt Disney Studios. They weren’t sure who their target audience was supposed to be, so to help develop interest in computers, and to offset the fact that they’d spent a lot of money on making Tron, they made this TV documentary, Computers Are People, Too! — the title, selected by an intern named Jim Fanning at Disney (now a Disney historian) was an homage to the kids TV show “Kids are People Too” which was big on TV at the time — airing it nationally on May 23, just months before Tron‘s release in early July.

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This was all happening in the years immediately following the open and nastily public defection of a top animator at Disney, Don Bluth (he left in September 1979, declaring that Disney’s output had become “stale”). In 1982, it was learned that Bluth had been working on The Secret of NIMH, the first fully-animated Disney-quality movie not done at Disney; it was produced by Aurora Pictures, it would be theatrically distributed by United Artists on July 2, 1982). Disney Studios weren’t in the habit of letting any of their competitors be successful in animation (or any other area that they felt they were superior), and so they moved up the release of Tron from Christmas to just after the Fourth of July, hoping that their film would hurt Bluth’s chances for success with his first non-Disney film. 

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What this meant was that Tron would be removed from the holiday season, where its competition would have been smaller, adult dramas vying for Oscars, and be placed instead amid the ferocious competition of mid-summer effects-heavy blockbusters. It also meant that they had much less time to work on a marketing and advertising plan for Tron, and the company was scrambling to come up with ideas for promotion. Playboy magazine had even offered to do a photo spread called “The Girls of Tron,” featuring nude Playboy models cavorting around with circuit boards covering them up, but Disney being Disney, they passed on the idea. Too bad, that would have been fun.

At the time, computers weren’t in every home in America, and there was some concern — as there is today, even more so — that people were going to eventually be replaced by computers and robots, so producer/writer Mike Bonifer and writer L.G. Weaver wrote a story that they thought would demonstrate how humans would be able to work together with machines in the future, peacefully. 

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Their storyline involves actress Elaine Joyce, a familiar face on TV (she made regular appearances on “Love Boat,” “Fantasy Island” and lots of TV game shows, like “Chain Reaction,” “Password Plus” and “Match Game 73″, to name just a few), who was billed only as “Hostess,” who, apparently has no clue whatsoever about computers, and it’s fairly easy to see that the actress herself was pretty clueless about them too.  She asks if she’s going to be replaced by machines, when an artificially intelligent supercomputer from the future — voiced by veteran Hollywood actor Joseph Campanella (billed as “Narrator”) — tells her not to worry: “We are on the verge of a beautiful partnership.”

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By today’s standards, of course, what the computer shows her isn’t very cutting-edge anymore. The various scenarios presented — how dancers, artists and composers use computers to create or enhance their own craft — are pretty crude compared with what we know computers are capable of, and it seems that the Disney company could have used some additional help from computers themselves in how to make their documentary more appealing to the folks at home.

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Some of the documentary was shot at the Mayfair Theater in Santa Monica, but the production was halted by the City of Santa Monica who came in and shut them down (we presume it had something to do with permits or safety concerns, something like that), and everything was put on pause until the issues were cleared up. Back on track, the production continued.

The show itself ended up being kind of a hodgepodge of ideas. There were clips included from Tron, of course, which were considered groundbreaking for the time, combining computer-synthesized animation and real-life object photography. These were mixed in with examples of early computer art from analog pioneers like Lee Harrison and John Whitney, and a screenplay promised that digital technology in the future would take us to new and exciting places, bridging the gap and showing the possibilities between man and machine.

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One of our favorite sequences shows how a digital sampling synthesizer called the Fairlight CMI (for computer musical instrument) could be used to create new and exciting types of sounds. It had only been invented a few years before, in 1979, by the founders of Fairlight, Peter Vogel and Kim Ryrie, and designed by Tony Furse, in Sydney, Australia, and at the time was considered the newest thing on the market, appealing to both early computer enthusiasts and musicians, and had been used by musicians like Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, Thomas Dolby, Prince, Keith Emerson, Alan Holdsworth, Herbie, Stevie, Todd Rundgren and Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran.

It’s closest competition at the time was the Synclavier (from New England Digital). The Fairlight CMI’s success, in fact, had caused other firms to go back to the computer drawing board, so to speak, and develop ways to introduce sampling to their keyboards. One of those instruments, a less costly sampling computer called the Emulator (or E-mu), arrived in 1981, followed by Ensoniq’s Ensoniq Mirage in 1985, which ultimately cut into the sales for the Fairlight CMI and other sampling keyboards.

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Overall, the Fairlight stayed in the market with occasional product updates up until 2009 when a 30th Anniversary Fairlight CMI Series 30A was rolled out with a retro feel of the original keyboard. Another segment, a montage of the CG of the era, became so popular after the show aired that it was shown on video screens at gay clubs in Hollywood (and now we’re trying to imagine how the execs at Disney Studios felt about that!)

In the end, Tron had a disappointing first theatrical run, competing with movies like ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Porky’s and Poltergeist. It opened on July 9th to lukewarm reviews and lackluster box office. It had been made for $17 million, and eventually did make back its money, earning $33 million worldwide, but Disney declared it a disappointment.  Plans were shelves for a Tron sequel and for the first all-CG feature cartoon The Brave Little Toaster, because Disney feared that there was not enough of an audience out there for feature-length animated movies — Bluth’s The Secret of NIMH had also opened, a week earlier, to disappointing number, and it had also been crushed by the other summer blockbusters.

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What Tron did do, however, was introduce the world to the idea of cyberspace and raster graphics, which are digital images created or captured (for example, by scanning in a photo) as a set of samples of a given space. There were movies that had preceded Tron, like Futureworld and Looker, but Tron actually helped to popularize the idea of mixing CG and cyberspace. It ended up becoming legendary in the sci-fi world and inspired lots of budding filmmakers interested in both animation and science fiction stories, acquiring a cult status for years.

Decades later there would be a Tron sequel — 2010’s Tron: Legacy — which was produced and released by, who else?, Walt Disney Pictures, but it also proved to be disappointing at the box office and plans for another sequel, which would have been Tron 3, were scuttled.

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We found a pretty interesting oral history about Computers Are People, Too! right here, if you’d like to read more.

Watch Computers Are People Too! right here:

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.