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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.