On Talks and Slides

Some history of style.

Once upon a time, Ed Tufte called me a “sanctimonious assohole”. I suggested that he up the dosage of his medications and stopped recommending his books to my students and colleagues1. But — The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint remains a pretty good essay (sometimes excessive) on some of its ills.

I grew up in a Kodak Slide Carousel era of presentations. Every ‘big’ talk I went to as an undergrad was formatted that way – Ektachrome 35mm slides. Usually of images — text was actually difficult to put on them, you needed a copy stand or a slide printing rig2. Now you just type words and, boom, you’re done. Add some clip art of puppies or maybe some insane typographical effects and you get the sort of talk everyone loves to hate.

At Pixar, we had a text generating system for the Image Computer. It was based on the fonts that Don Knuth had put together (Metafont) and a version of roff/nroff/troff by Tom Porter, if I’m remembering right. Here’s one from a talk I gave in London in 1989 —

Why that title? We sat around and decided to call ourselves, the animation group, “Studio Pixar” to identify as a different group than was making hardware and software. It sounds a little silly in retrospect, but hey, we weren’t in branding, just goofiness. That image rendered on the Pixar Image Computer and was then transferred to Ektachrome or 5247 using the Pixar Laser Scanner3, processed and mounted.

In those early days, a subset of Eben, Pete, Andrew and I used to go to places (usually colleges, usually Berkeley and Stanford) to show our films and talk about how we did things. This was all new stuff then, people wanted to know how we did it. Before one adventure, Pete decided to make some title and word slides that were more visually interesting to go with our more visually interesting content. I drew a few too, but Pete’s were the majority of the talk —

I found them a while back. I love them so much —

This was a nice vacation from these —

Anyway, someone was asking why I use so few words on my talk slides. I use a lot of (simplified) graphs and a lot of photos. I personally think it helps with the storytelling — to not have people reading lists of words, tables of numbers, &c. I loved the beamer LaTeX class back in my dissertation days — my slides were literally part of the document I created. Knuth’s Literate Programming, from which the Mathematica Notebook4 took inspiration, was also an important of my presentation upbringing. One document, code, paper and talk slides, all in one. It all comes back to Knuth somehow, which I personally think is a good thing. A very thoughtful guy who facilitated a lot of what we use today.

Finally — if you’re looking for a tool to create more thoughtful presentations, have a look at iA Presenter. Markdown driven slide presentation — like Markdown, TeX, and roff, thinking about your *content* rather than which awesome transition and bullet point animation you’re going to use. Highly recommended process.

  1. At a particular institution I was associated with, I put the kibosh on a plan to retain him as a consultant on visual literacy. I showed the committee the correspondence between him and me and they decided that they didn’t want such a fragile personality involved in the project. It’s the little sanctimonious revenge that warms the cockles of the heart in the wintertime. There was also possibly a bit of pot-kettle going on here I think. Regardless, I hope he’s feeling better these days. ↩︎
  2. Does anyone else remember the SIGGRAPH where, somehow, Larry Yeager (I think?) didn’t have his slides and made a set of hand-written bullet points, photographed them in his hotel and had them rush processed before his talk? Maybe I’m hallucinating that but I don’t think so. ↩︎
  3. Another interesting piece of IO hardware, built by David DiFrancisco. ↩︎
  4. Don’t get me started on some takes on the ‘innovation’ that are Python notebooks. I’m super happy they exist, but they’re not the new crazy thing everyone thinks. ↩︎

The PICS 2000

The Philips PICS 2000 imaging workstation. Developed at Pixar in 1987.

A medical imaging workstation – the beginning of volume imaging

When I got my interview at Pixar, I was at Ohio State working on volumetric rendering of CT and MR images. There are a few callbacks to that on here, OSU MRI Flashback – 1984 for example. We were at the leading edge of that stuff back then. Pixar was looking for commercial sales of its Pixar Image Computer and volume imaging was a perfect use for a gigantic frame buffer + computer like the Pixar. This used the Pixar II, the second generation, designed to be a little more affordable. (It also implemented what was to be the future of high-res TV standards and other little fun tidbits.) It used a consumer-grade VHS recorder and a modified version of Steve Wozniak’s CL-9 CORE universal remote control. I learned how to write 6502 code for that thing, and wrote a nice little controller library. Bruce Young of our hardware group and I made a few trips down to CL-9 in Los Gatos, learned about this revolutionary-at-the-time device to control multiple devices with a single remote control!

The PICS had a SUN, Pixar II, and a 9-track tape drive + two monitors (one for the Pixar, one for the UI). I was tasked to design the UI. Back then, there wasn’t really much well-established UI/UX practice, so I mainly looked at the Macintosh and MacOS for inspiration. We used a spatial layout, moving ‘tasks’ like reading tape, processing images, outputting renders, from left to right in an inverted-U shape.

We built all sorts of neat tools for segmenting the images (my introduction to Bayesian statistics via Pat Hanrahan) selecting ROIs, etc. It was a really cool device and _way_ ahead of its time alas. I made two trips to RSNA (more good stories there about taxis, young Stephen Colbert @ Scuzi restaurant, a dead man’s Model Railroader, and more!) to help try to get radiologists to think they needed this beast, and, indeed I think we sold a total of six. The industry wasn’t ready for volume rendering. Now, when you pick up a CD from your radiology center, it’s got a volume renderer baked-into the viewer already on the disk.

There was not much in the way of agreed-upon medical imaging networking (for history fans, PACS was just being discussed at various imaging meetings, and wasn’t near being settled work) so you’d take the scan of the patient on 9-track tape and load it into our machine, read, and decode it. I had been doing this at OSU with the GE hardware we had there, and even for my Father-in-law’s pharmacy business, to read 9-track tapes which were the currency of exchange for medical (and, of course, other) data at the time.

I was digging through my archives, moving from house to house, and found the original literature / flier for it. And now, it is yours to enjoy too –

If you ever got to see one of these, or the CL-9 (Cloud-9 alias) CORE or anything else fun like this, let me know.

Listerine Hack

Boxing listerine bottle from Pixar commercial circa 1990

How to drink a few bottles of Listerine, scare your clients, and ultimately see your clients repeat your prank.

I told this story to Penn years ago and he decided it was worthy of a place in their book. There are some great stories in there and I’m proud to have been part of it.

TL;DR – We were making commercials for Listerine, Pete Docter and I gaffed up a ‘hero’ bottle before a client visit. I drank it on a bet, during the meeting, egged on by Pete, JL, Andrew and Craig. I run out of room, feigning I’m about to throw up. Client rep follows and actually gets sick. Client goes back to Listerine and pulls same prank on assembly line to colleagues there.

Note that Pete’s role was minimized in Penn’s writeup and we didn’t really catch it. He was quite instrumental. The film is also “Luxo Jr.” not “Luxor” – a pretty common mistake. Finally, Pixar president Ed Catmull wandered into the restroom where we were mixing up the special bottle, just gave us a nod to say “I didn’t see this.” Copy editing is boring. A lesson for the future.

If you want the book https://amzn.to/3SxU9DX. Here’s a PDF of the story.

You know that thing where you go back and read something really fun from your past, and all those great feelings, memories, and stuff come rushing back making you really happy for a few minutes? Yeah – this is that.

Highland Aire

I just finished a row. It’s about 99% humidity this morning, which, to credit Chris Wedge, reminds me of having just rowed inside someone’s mouth.

Chris and I used to ride our bikes together when we were at CGRG. That was back in my racing days, I was decidedly a mediocre racer1 but I had a lot of fun. That was right when Greg Lemond became the great hope, 7–11 flew the US flag, I met Norman Alvis from that team, Motorola, Postal, and Saturn, who, at 60, is about to try to regain the hour record, which he held for years.

Chris referred to Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays as “Dentist office jazz”. I suppose I respect his opinion and can understand. After all, he lived next door to Kathleen Brenan for a while.

Highland Aire from Lyle Mays just came on random. It reminded me2 of one day back in the late 80’s, I had to go to San Francisco for some reason and, on my way back up to Fairfax, there was a traffic jam on 101 that started at the bridge3. Since I used to ride over Mt. Tam I decided to just take the long, scenic way home.

Right when I hit the Panoramic Highway4 that tune came on. It was, in context, perfect. Pretty much a theme song for that stretch of road.

Which further reminded me — another old friend I miss from those days, Rich McKay, was working on a crew on the Panoramic as AC on a (newly introduced!) Miata commercial. Wilson Burrows, also CGRG / Marin alumni, once told me that, if you watch car commercials, every 3rd or 4th one is shot on that road. I remember having to ride through a shoot once, to the chagrin of the PAs because it was closed for the shoot.

Sorry man, if I was in a car, I’d turn around. But I’m on a bike and I’ve got places to be.

Anyway, the shot was of a wedding party celebrating. There was to be the release of birds and the Miata was to drive through the flock, forced perspective in depth, to give the birds safe clearance, etc. On the first take, apparently one of the birds wasn’t feeling very well and, when released, just sort of flew ‘down and toward’ the car as opposed to ‘up and away’. A greatly unintended collision occurred between the ill bird and the car.

The crew and actors were stunned and depressed. The grill was damaged. Shooting was called off for the day.

And that’s what I think about when I hear Highland Aire.


  1. I was never going to get out of Cat 3. Ever. ↩︎
  2. It also reminded me of when I had just discovered Bill Frisell w/ Jan Garbarek, and Stephen Spencer, also CGRG, who I told about. And how we bonded over it ever since. ↩︎
  3. I realize that is common now, and it happened frequently back then, but not always, like now. ↩︎
  4. Panoramic, but hardly a highway. ↩︎

Cat Came Back Jeans

Sometime in the late 80’s, I was a guest at a Spike n’ Mike animation festival, Santa Cruz I think. A bunch of us from Pixar went down, JL was probably the only ‘true’ special guest, but somehow I ended up at the autograph table, signing posters and stuff.

The Cat Came Back, Cordell Barker et al.

I was sitting next to Cordell Barker who had just done the amazing Cat Came Back which was Oscar nominated along with one of our shorts. I loved it, loved the snake scene in the pit in particular. The visual style is beautiful, semi Squigglevision, catchy tune, all that good stuff.

Somehow, we were at the table and just started signing all sorts of stuff, John, my favorite instigator of chaos, said “Hey Cordell, sign Flip’s pants!” So, he did. I think I signed some kid’s Levis, JL signed someone’s arm. Man, we were rock n’ roll stars baby.

I just unboxed some Pixar clothing that now has holes in it, but found the jeans –

I remember staying at the Cliff Crest Inn, which we stayed in dozens of times after. I remember a high speed car ride to an afterparty with JL and Bill Plimpton and Beth and Nancy in the car. Jaron Lanier had set up some media setup at the party. It was a weird scene. John, Nancy, Beth and I went and grabbed some wine somewhere instead.

Anyway – I loved The Cat Came Back. All hail the National Film Board of Canada. If you see Cordell ask him if he still has my signature on whatever I signed.

IMSAI 8080

Back and forth in time…

IMSAI 8080 replica built by the author.

The IMSAI 8080 was the first “clone” microcomputer, introduced in 1975 – a lower cost version of the MITS Altair 8800, introduced a year earlier in 1974. I first saw the Altair on the cover of Popular Electronics. Dad got me a subscription to PE because of my insane interest in taking apart phones and other electronics that he brought home. I was very good at taking things apart, not always putting them back together again, but that didn’t matter.

I was fascinated by pocket calculators, especially the Bowmar Brain and early Hewlett Packard and Texas Instruments models. I can probably attribute almost all of this to magazines like Popular Electronics and hanging out at Wholesale Electronics in Portsmouth. I bought my first Sony Walkman there in 1980, using newspaper route savings. Dad was friends with the manager then owner, Pete Saltzman, and Pete used to give me old broken parts, and copies of Consumer Electronics magazine – a trade rag for people who sold, um, consumer electronics.

My first calculator was a hand-me-down from Dad, a four-function thing from National Semiconductor called a “Mathbox“. It was RPN, which I found exotic but loved once I figured out what it did. I bought my first scientific calculator, another National Semiconductor, from Harts Department Store, some time in middle school.

Then I learned about programmable calculators and my brain melted.

My friend, Jim Troutman, had an older brother in engineering school at Ohio State. He gave him a hand-me-down HP-35 non-programmable model, but it led me to learn about the whole HP line, where I discovered that craziness of programming. I became hooked and, my senior year of high school, bought an HP-41that I used all through college (I still have it!). I learned how to program with it, and also the craziness of “synthetic programming” from some fellow geeks at the OSU Interactive Graphics Laboratory.

I really wanted a programmable computer though. Back then, the IMSAI and Altair were just way too expensive, easily $5-10,000 in today money. Even the TRS-80 was out of our family’s budget. My high school got a single TRS-80 my senior year and they let me play with it a little. I got in trouble for naming a file FUCK.BAS but luckily Mr. Smith had a good sense of humor. Still, no IMSAI for me.

My folks bought me a TRS-80 Pocket Computer as a graduation gift and I started to learn BASIC. It was relatively affordable and super cool to have a whole ‘actual’ computer in your pocket. I programmed a baccarat game and polished up on my James Bond skills for a while. Later, while I was in college, Jim’s brother bought an Apple II and it came with a free Timex-Sinclair which I convinced him to give me, since, well, he had an Apple II.

I did my first computer graphics on that. I drew a sine wave and was so proud I took a photo.

My first computer graphics, a sine wave made with my Timex Sinclair 1000. Ruby the cat is impressed.

Soon after, I bought a Macintosh, within the first ‘100 days’ of its release that Jobs said would make-or-break it. I used it to invite my now wife back to my place to ‘show her my etchings’ and the rest is history I suppose.

That brings us back to the IMSAI. I saw a replica model that runs a beautiful z80 / 8080 emulator from an Australian company The High Nibble. It uses an ESP32-PICO-KIT running the z80pack emulation suite. It took a few days of procrastinating soldering, and I got it running. It sits peacefully on a table in my living room and has a beautifully cool web interface that lets me run things like Zork, Rogue, WordStar, the works. It is so fun to write bits in manually (but yes, tedious… bleh, who cares) and toggle the run/stop switch to see blinkenlights. I brought it in for my students to see. They have spent the semester using the Raspberry Pi Pico to make vehicles and were a little concerned that this thing uses a Pico to go back in time many decades. But, now I have a beautiful box that I lusted after as a kid, just in time to play Global Thermonuclear War.

AR Air Hockey

Freshman Imaging Project ‘sports ball tracking’ project demo for RIT Undergraduate Research presentation.

Puck Tracking and Prediction. NVIDIA Jetson Nano.

And the poster

Chuck Csuri – 1922-2022

Research is just an excuse to have fun and make some crazy art. — Chuck, early 1980s

I showed up in Columbus in 1982, a first-generation college student, intent on getting something out of the opportunity to get away from my hometown.1The three Rs were “Readin’, Writin’, and Route 23” I wasn’t top of my class, I had music scholarship offers from a few colleges, but my Mom and Dad insisted that I get a ‘real degree’ in something that wouldn’t fail me over time.2Honestly, they probably didn’t want me to experience the pain and suffering for low pay of the life of a musician. Dad knew… So, architecture school it was.

Chuck in his lair. His Dad, on the left.

I was in a gigantic proseminar class3UVC, University College. Memories anyone? where different groups from the architecture school presented their research and practice — usually a good time to catch up on my insane amount of calc and physics homework or filling out lettering guide grids to get that perfect Frank Ching looking ‘R’ embedded in my spine. This particular day, Chris Yessios‘ students were showing work of the ‘computer graphics’ group. Remember, this was the early 1980s so the Atari console was about as advanced as that stuff got.4We had a Magnavox Odyssey and Odyssey II. Because, well, those Ataris were ‘spensiver. They showed a vector graphics fly-through of Chicago, produced by Skidmore, Owings & Merril, and my brain melted. This was what I wanted to do.

Beth had an OSU ‘Chuck Jersey’ made for me a few years back.

I talked to my advisor, Jim Portman, who told me about a guy named Chuck Csuri over in Art 5Actually — Art Education, because computers were, like photography before it, only the domain of scoundrels and teachers. and that I should go talk to him. Through a coincidence, a local architect I was introduced to via a family friend, George Acock, had a connection there, and introduced me to a graduate student6 I think it was Michael Collery – We met at the Rax Roast Beef on Neil. Why do I remember these things? who agreed to give me a tour of the Computer Graphics Research Group, aka CGRG, on Neil Avenue.7They had just moved there from Kinnear Road so that Chuck could have a place for his new company – Cranston/Csuri Productions, aka CCP. I was just a freshman, CGRG was for graduate students, so it was more of a ‘wow’ aspirational trip for me. I told my advisor about it and I suppose I was pretty convincing — he told me to take some classes in Engineering Graphics8I ended up having my first OSU job the following year as a Student Assistant to Bob LaRue. I met a ton of great people at the IGL – Interactive Graphics Lab, many friends to this day. to get some experience. There, I met Bill Kolomyjec9Aka “Kolo”. We remained friends for a long time. He went to NIU to start the MeAT Lab, Media and Technology. He took my friend and fellow DJ Greg Pruden with him as a grad student. Greg introduced me to the idea of “convertible haircuts”., an assistant professor and computer artist himself. He knew Chuck and set up a meeting. Amazing.

Outside Easy Living
Outside Easy Living, Chuck’s ‘other office’.

At that meeting Chuck told me to take classes and stay in touch. He volunteered to be my ‘subject advisor’ and he and Bill helped me pick out a big stack of classes that would get me ready to be a computer graphics nerd — CIS 78x series, taught by Ed Tripp; Art classes taught by Tom Linehan, Bob Schwartz, Mihai Nadin, and a historian who taught about color; some Industrial Design, Cartography, Photography, Cinema, and other foundational art classes. He wanted me to know about computers but wanted me to know more about art. Fair.

Fast forward a year and change — a job at Stilson and Associates writing CAD tools, and stint at Graphics Concepts writing DI-3000 compatible charting software, some visits and lots of loitering at CGRG, talks by Syd Mead, folks from George Lucas’ little place in Marin County, and meeting my eventual-and-now partner. Each of these events are worth an few thousand words themselves.

Chuck during peak suaveness.

Chuck asked if I wanted to work on a project at CGRG with some doctors from the OSU Hospitals. They had this new thing called a “Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Scanner” — renamed for public consumption to just “MRI” for Magnetic Resonance Imaging — the Cold War being very much a thing then. They wanted to make pictures. A Radiologist, Dr. Bill Hunter, showed up at a meeting that served as a sort of quick and dirty interview and I was hired on as a Research Assistant. I was the only undergraduate there in a pool of graduate students. I felt overwhelmed but it was the best learning experience ever.

I worked on this project in earnest for the next three years — innovating some volume rendering techniques, functional imaging, and polishing my golf game. The CGRG environment was electric — Computer graphics was such a ‘young’ thing10Though Chuck had been doing it for twenty-plus years already, of course. and the people weren’t specialized, the software wasn’t specialized. Artists learned how to program, programmers learned how to draw and animate, painters learned imaging, photographers complained about people not understanding film. I learned more diverse things from more diverse folks than at any other time in my life. Everything was new.

One of my favorite things was that Chuck encouraged the artists to use the technical tools to make art. My office-mate, Tony Lupidi, used the medical image processing software I wrote to produce a vast amount of crazy stuff, pushing it beyond its limits, making the software better to make better art.

This wasn’t unique to my work — it was the ‘vibe’ of CGRG as created by Chuck.

Because of my experiences and friendships made there I ended up at another little startup that spun off of George Lucas’ efforts — Pixar. The early environment at Pixar was about as CGRG-like as anything could be — artists, architecture students (two of us!), programmers. It was insane.

Chuck was rightly proud of his diaspora students at that time — some earliest employees of Adobe, Electronic Arts, Pixar, the Sun and AT&T imaging processing groups and countless CG production companies. We were in great demand because of the reputation of excellence of Chuck’s students.

I stayed in touch with Chuck over the intervening 40 years, sometimes more frequently than others. Chuck gave me my first opportunity to teach which led to me becoming a professor so I could do just that. He was always interested in what I was doing, especially when I made my multi-decade foray in to visual neuroscience. He always wanted to know what was going on, wanted to know how the brain works, 11Still working on this. and shared tons of thoughts on what art tells us about all of this. I have to say, his curiosity was and remains a strong motivation for me — understanding our perception via the artifacts we create, especially artistic ones. He inspired so much of the way I approach everything perceptual.

Chuck sent me this when I turned 50. I plan on it, he served as the best inspiration and example possible.

When RIT came calling a few years back — they wanted to hire me in Motion Picture Science program — I called Chuck first. When I described the environment I couldn’t help but think about how CGRG like the programs are here. I pressed for some information about ‘how’ and quickly realized that Chuck didn’t do any of it with rigid intentionality, CGRG and its progeny exist because of who Chuck was. It was his personality and love for teaching and exploring in a collaborative way that made everything he touched what it was.

I will forever appreciate and remember Chuck for his inspiration and friendship. He created art but he also created an environment that yielded some of the most creative people in the universe.

NB that I’ll update this page over the next few days. I wanted to get some thoughts ‘on paper’ while I was still thinking about a lot of it. Send me email with any thoughts, corrections, amplifications, etc you might have.

Other coverage: OSU, Chuck’s Instagram, Chuck’s Website, WCMH, The Csuri Project, Chuck’s Twitter

Folklore

This is what I had on my desk when I arrived at Pixar.

A Sun-2 (the CPU cabinet is ‘desk side’) and a Barco monitor. 640 x 480. That optical mouse was great, so much better than the mechanical mice of the time. I have one with a Philips or Picker logo on it in the archives somewhere.

Years ago, I became fascinated with Andy Hertzfeld’s folklore.org site. It features his takes on the history of the Macintosh and the team behind it. I bought an original Macintosh in 1984, taking out a loan that I am probably still paying off. I eventually ended up working for Steve Jobs at Pixar, right after it was founded. I had/have intense personal interest.

So, I thought, hey, why not put together some of my old Pixar stuff?

If you want an exhaustive history of Pixar from one of the founders you can’t do any better than Alvy Ray Smith’s documentation. It’s spectacular, thorough, and complete. I was one of the earlier employees of the company who started with designing the user interface (this wasn’t really a commonly used term in the mid 1980s, for what that’s worth) and software for a volume rendering workstation we developed for Picker (we started the pitch for Philips but the deal fell through).

I’ll post things here that come from my archives. Let me know if there’s anything you’re interested in specifically at folklore at flipphillips.com.

In the future, you’ll just download the STL and fix it yourself

Well, not quite.

Back when I started doing 3D printing (around 2002 or so, very expensive, very cool) one piece of sales hype was –

Soon, when your dishwasher breaks, you’ll just buy the STL for the part and print it at home! Plumbing supply closed and you need that J-trap, boom!.

Some 3D printer hardware salesman I had to deal with back in the 2000s

Yeah — not quite yet, still. And as long as certain big-box stores are sourcing J-Traps at $0.05 each wholesale I don’t see this happening any time soon.

However, if you have some skills and something strange breaks, well, you stand a chance. My Xerox (nee Tektronix, RIP, sniff, memories) Color Printer decided to stop feeding paper. Turns out, an integral little lifty-springy-part broke in half. Cyanoacrylate wasn’t going to fix it.

Part of the broken part.

A replacement paper drawer was going to be a few hundred dollars (‽) so, yeah, let’s get fixing.

Some measuring and openSCAD, and an hour or two of printing on my Formlabs with the tough and durable resin, trimming, cleaning, curing, and running around the department, boasting and, it’s fixed.