How emacs got into Tron: Legacy

Here's a great account of the good, nerdy thoughtfulness that went into generating the command-line screenshots for Tron: Legacy; JT Nimoy decided that he'd go for a mix of l33t and realistic, and landed on emacs eshell and posix kill:
In addition to visual effects, I was asked to record myself using a unix terminal doing technologically feasible things. I took extra care in babysitting the elements through to final composite to ensure that the content would not be artistically altered beyond that feasibility. I take representing digital culture in film very seriously in lieu of having grown up in a world of very badly researched user interface greeble. I cringed during the part in Hackers (1995) when a screen saver with extruded "equations" is used to signify that the hacker has reached some sort of neural flow or ambiguous destination. I cringed for Swordfish and Jurassic Park as well. I cheered when Trinity in The Matrix used nmap and ssh (and so did you). Then I cringed again when I saw that inevitably, Hollywood had decided that nmap was the thing to use for all its hacker scenes (see Bourne Ultimatum, Die Hard 4, Girl with Dragon Tattoo, The Listening, 13: Game of Death, Battle Royale, Broken Saints, and on and on). In Tron, the hacker was not supposed to be snooping around on a network; he was supposed to kill a process. So we went with posix kill and also had him pipe ps into grep. I also ended up using emacs eshell to make the terminal more l33t. The team was delighted to see my emacs performance -- splitting the editor into nested panes and running different modes. I was tickled that I got emacs into a block buster movie. I actually do use emacs irl, and although I do not subscribe to alt.religion.emacs, I think that's all incredibly relevant to the world of Tron.
jtnimoy - Tron Legacy (2010) (via JWZ)


  1. It’s funny that the word “Quora” is in the bottom left screenshot, particularly given that “Quorra” is a character in the movie.

      1. that’d be some really weird kerning (on a fixed-width font :-/); also it doesn’t match the “t” in “*Tetris*” on the emacs-frame below it.

        i’d say it’s for the quorra code (designers often misspell things or use first drafts) he was working on, except that it seems to be surrounded by asterisks, which usually denotes a process buffer (i.e., running code or an interpreter, shell, &c.) in emacs.

  2. i was so disappointed that none of the fireworks played a Conway’s Life pattern, that i totally missed the homage to Bit.

  3. Yes. Because when you’re talking about a movie wherein a person’s consciousness is getting sucked into a computer simulation by a laser, realism is something you want to maintain at every level of the production.

  4. The Jurassic Park UNIX interface wasn’t a result of poor Hollywood research — that was an actual interface (FSN) on SGI workstations. Granted, maybe saying “I know this; this is the slow FSN interface that I always get out of when I use IRIX” would have been a more accurate line

    1. Very true about Jurassic Park. The file navigator application (FSN, like you said) that she uses was commonly bundled with SGI workstations to show off their “power.” SGI supplied all of the workstations for the movie, so it’s not surprising that the file system would show up.

      It is possible to compile FSN on modern Linux systems (FSN was written for UNIX.) but it’s a pain in the butt and requires many hours of hunting down deprecated libraries. Still, an interesting challenge.

  5. emacs is *the* ideal tool for coding and programming in LISP and its variants, the former being the programming language for AI (A_rtificial I_nitelligence).

  6. I wonder if somebody could do a revival of FSN using modern features and libraries that aren’t older than I am… then again I’d still probably stick with my Awesome Yet Practical KDE install for day to day work because FSN looks horribly inefficient….

  7. The computer screens in The Social Network were real too. Linux and emacs and perl all up on the big screen. My proto-nerd daughter and I stepped through the blu-ray disk frame by frame so I could explain it in detail.

  8. It’s good to have some sort of reality on tech movies especially if they are portraying some really tech stuff. It’s all in the details, and geeks appreciate it when the makers go through all the trouble just to not destroy the movie experience with cringe worthy errors.

  9. I initially used vi back in the day because I found it was better suited to maintaining UNIX servers over the slow serial connections that were common at the time.

    I’ve played around with Xemacs and like it alot, but vim is still my go to editor on my servers and Mac desktops.

  10. I was very disappointed to see “reindeer flotilla” not typed anywhere on screen in the new movie. I don’t know why, but I just loved that character string in the 1982 flick. Somehow those word just go together, like nuclear launch codes, or one of the military scenario titles rapidly flashing by on screen in War Games.

    Repeat after me,… reindeer flotilla, reindeer flotilla, reindeer flotilla, reindeer flotilla, reindeer flotilla, reindeer flotilla, reindeer flotilla, reindeer flotilla, reindeer flotilla, reindeer flotilla, reindeer flotilla, reindeer flotilla, reindeer flotilla, help me.

  11. lol – what year was this supposed to take place?

    Sysads I know would rather use Nano than something huge like emacs. Considering that vim is typically installed as a default editor for Linux systems, it seems that emacs is more a nod to developers than hackers, who frequently need to use whatever is natively on the system they have hacked into.

    1. leaving your controversial definition of “hacker” aside, the character who used emacs was primarily a developer or development manager.

  12. It should be noted that this specific guy is both a freaking genius and one of the very few artist programmers I actually have ever heard of.

    Anon, does Stallman qualify as a hacker for you?

  13. Am I the only geek that noticed the CAPS key where the Control key goes for a proper Emacs keyboard? How does he even control (ha!) Emacs without a Control key?

  14. @RobertBigelow

    And of course Emacs fundamentally /is/ a Lisp variant and that’s where it gets its extraordinary magical powers from. Blub¹ programmers and system administrators can go to hell with their petty squabbles: Emacs is for *everyone*. Org mode² alone is worth the investment in learning to use the magnificent… thing that is Emacs. ;-)


  15. I didn’t cheer when I saw nmap in “The Matrix.” I thought it was dumb. Everything else is so far-fetched, absurd and even nonsensical; why try to inject a little realism at that point? Conversely, I had no issue with the representations inn “Hackers”; who cares if the on-screen stuff isn’t really representative of hacking? It was the concept that was interesting. Jeez, if you’re going for realism, the entire fucking movie could’ve been shot in some teenage kid’s basement.

  16. “I take representing digital culture in film very seriously in lieu of having grown up in a world of very badly researched user interface greeble”

    Lol, did he see the rest of the film, its scienceless fantasy world were programs have faces and personalities and can up and decide to go ride a motorcycle around “town”.

    but at least the early 80’s touch pad technology seemed feasable…

  17. I was asked, in the interview for my current job, whether I use emacs. I said no, I don’t have enough thumbs.

  18. The Hollywood set designers couldn’t manage something as simple as a radio station so being unable to do anything realistic with computers is no surprise. To his credit George Lucas used a real radio station for a scene with Wolfman Jack.
    On the other hand some real scientists supplied input for the film Buckaroo Banzai, one of the worst groaners of all time.

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