“This isn’t gonna be easy. If those Grid Bugs get us, we’ve had it.”

As the heroes of TRON ride in their Solar Sailer toward the film’s final act, they sail over a herd of “Grid Bugs.” The warning from Yori (Cindy Morgan) delivered via voiceover sounds like foreshadowing for the climax, but the enemies are never seen again.

The “Grid Bug” scene in TRON (1982).

Unless you count the arcade game by Bally/Midway, where Grid Bugs are the “I/O Tower” level’s featured enemy. The story goes that when the game’s developers learned that the enemy had been cut from the film, they lobbied to have them put back in.

Recently, gaming historian Kim Justice retold this anecdote on an episode of Insert Credits — the podcast of the Video Game History Foundation’s Frank Cifaldi, Action Button’s Tim Rogers, and Necrosoft Games’ Brandon Sheffield, hosted by DC.com columnist Alex Jaffe. That’s when Violet Field asked in my Patreon-exclusive Discord if anyone knew the source of this story.

In the end, I cheated and simply asked Kim where she saw it. But before I did that, I wanted to see what I could dig up on my own. Here’s what I found.

Quotes From The Film Makers

When TRON was released in 1982, film critics such as Sheila Benson of the Los Angeles Times felt the too-brief appearance of the Grid Bugs — as well as a cute sidekick named Bit — was a missed opportunity.

“Tron” has a few whimsical critters. The green grid bug, which looks like a daddy-longlegs crossed with a drafting tool, has great possibilities, but the bugs skitter off and are never seen again. The “bit” a tiny, flying electrical unit which changes shape as it signals its two words — yes and no — is another lost chance. 

Three or four months after the TRON’s debut, VFX supervisor Harrison Ellenshaw explained to Space Voyager magazine what happened:

Well, originally, the Byte [sic] was intended to be, once it was introduced, with Flynn (Jeff Bridges) for the rest of the film. But we couldn’t do it because of the time factors involved. Obviously, the technology is there, you see the Byte … That becomes very frustrating because it’s not a matter of art, or a matter of not being able to do it, but a matter of not having the time to do it! That, I would say, in all cases, was the biggest problem. A matter of time!

The grid bugs, which look like they are computer generated are, in fact, hand animation. We were lucky to get those two in there. We wanted more. There was a nice little story point that goes on about grid bugs, but there was no time.

No mention of a request from Bally/Midway, but I keep looking.

Grid Bugs in the “I/O Tower” level of TRON.

In BYTE magazine, concept artist John Norton revealed the origin of the Grid Bugs:

Computer people talk about ‘bugs’ in computer systems, and I always felt that we should do something with bugs for the film. So I came up with this grid creature that lives inside the computer and eats things. 

Bill [Kroyer] worked them into the storyboards, and at first we decided to do them with computer simulation at Triple-I; but it came back to me to do, because they were too busy. So I did about 15 feet of film [about 10 seconds] that was shot back-lit on the animation stand to try to make it look as much like CGI as possible.

The idea was that these creatures camouflage themselves as part of the electronic grid; and then they appear, sort of rising up out of the grid to menace you. First there’s just one who appears, looks around and runs off. Then we cut to a longer shot of a whole herd of these bugs galloping off and out of the scene.

This is starting to sound like the Bally/Midway story isn’t true at all. But hold up. Sometimes stories get abbreviated in strange ways during interviews, and that might be what was happening here.

Let’s Look At The Script

I was curious about this unused “nice little story point” involving the grid bugs, so I decided to go searching for drafts of the script.

A first draft script dated January 21, 1981 is available for sale, but unfortunately is inaccessible to us due to its cost. However, a fourth draft script from April 6, 1981 has been transcribed, so let’s see what it says about Grid Bugs:

                         (shakes his head,
                          indicates disk)
                    Not with this disk. I'm going to
                    check on the beam connection, Yori.
                    You two can keep a watch out for
                    grid bugs.

And that’s it, the only mention of Grid Bugs in the entire script. Flynn — and by extension, the audience, never even get to see one. (The Bit, incidentally, gets quite a bit more screen time in this draft.)

Next I looked up the novelization, since novelizations back in the day were usually written from the shooting script. A lot can change on set and in the editing room, which is why novelizations frequently contain deleted or altered scenes. But the fourth draft was likely the shooting draft, because it appears the novelization based on the same draft:

Tron looked to his mate and pilot. ‘I’m going to check on the beam connection, Yori. You two can keep a watch out for grid bugs.’

Tron paced forward along the slender catwalk that still seemed awfully insubstantial to Flynn, though he knew it to be amazingly sturdy. He gazed after Tron, asking himself what in the world a grid bug was, and hoping that the beam connection — to which he’d given no thought whatsoever until this moment — was healthy and sound.

This indicates that the Grid Bugs subplot was either removed before shooting even started, or that the subplot wasn’t invented until after shoot began and had to be cut down for time due to Triple-I being too busy working through the existing shot list. 

Either way, I believe the 13-second sequence wasn’t written or storyboarded until after shooting wrapped, or else they would’ve filmed an establishing shot of the actors looking over the edge instead of relying on a voiceover. 

But then I read something that cast doubt on the entire narrative.

Quotes From The Game Makers

The Tron coin-op project was led by George Gomez and Bill Adams at Bally subsidiary Midway. You can read their original pitch document at The Arcade Blogger, and view some early concept art at The Pinball Chick.

The pitch included a level called “Paranonia” that would’ve involved using Grid Bugs to build a bridge.

In 2018, Old School Gamer Magazine #6 included an interview with Bill Adams. But not only did he not recall any interactions with Disney, he also had this to say:

When we saw the final movie, we noticed that some of the game elements such as grid bugs and the Solar Sailer, were only briefly shown or verbally mentioned in the movie. My guess is they were cut from the movie but later added for the game tie in.

His guess? Was this entire story the result of mere speculation?

Thankfully, Kim Justice got back to me right about then. Turns out she heard it on an episode of the Retronauts podcast in which Jeremy Parish interviewed George Gomez, who revealed that he was, in fact, the person who made the case to Disney:

Everyone laughs about the two-second clip of Grid Bugs in the film, and that’s because: The Grid Bugs were a cool visual to us. Because it looked like a spider, right? It looked like a mechanical spider. So we had picked up on that, we built an entire wave in the game around it. 

And I was at Disney, and I was showing them some of our work, and they said, ‘Y’know, we cut the Grid Bugs out of the film.’ And I’m like, guys, we’ve got a whole wave here. And so they ended up, like, ‘Okay, alright, we’ll figure something out.’

So they went and put them back in the film. For, like, two seconds.

So John Norton has George Gomez to thank for his beloved Grid Bugs making it into the film. But was he aware of that fact? Or did he just leave it out of the BYTE interview because “included for the arcade game” might’ve given the wrong impression?

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