Remembering Three Fathers of the CG Revolution

As we embark on the first quarter of 2023, we must note the passing of three pivotal figures in the CGI Revolution over the past year. At a time when most of the public thought of a computer as something only Dr. Strangelove or a James Bond villain used, they blazed a trail for future CGI development. Each one has been referred to as a Father of Computer Animation:

Ken Knowlton
Ken Knowlton

Ken Knowlton (1931-2022). Back when everyone’s phone was made by one company, Ken Knowlton was a director of the research design department at Bell Labs. He became interested in computers at Cornell and joined Bell Labs’ research unit to explore creating sound and image digitally. Knowlton realized he could create detailed images by stringing together dots, letters and numbers. Its brightness and closeness to each other affected the look of the final image, like dots of ink on newsprint.

In the mid 1960s, Ken wrote an early computer graphics program called BEFLIX, for Bell Flicks. In 1967, Dr. Knowlton and another scientist named Harmon created a portrait of a nude made up of thousands of tiny electronic symbols. The Harmon-Knowlton Nude appeared in the New York Times as a portent of things to come. Dr. Knowlton advised and aided several experimental filmmakers Bell Labs brought in to expand the borders of digital art and sound; artists like Mary Ellen Bute, Lillian Schwartz and Stan Vanderbeek.


Charles Csuri
Charles Csuri

Charles Csuri (1922-2022) was a decorated hero of the Battle of the Bulge in WW2 and a college football star. He became an abstract-expressionist artist who associated with Jackson Pollock and Roy Lichtenstein. In George Segal’s seminal 1966 sculpture The Diner, Chuck Csuri was the model for the man at the counter.

Csuri was already a full professor in the Fine Art school of Ohio State University, when he began a dialog with a colleague in the Engineering school about the possibilities of computers. “I was intrigued with the idea of using devices and strategies to create art,” he noted. In 1968, he created Hummingbird, the first film of an organic creature — not an abstract or a geometric shape. “We had one computer for the entire school … as output for the graphics, you received boxes of punch cards,” he said.

Hummingbird looks crude today, but it was a breakthrough in its time. Csuri did some of the earliest digital abstract sculpture using equipment normally used in automobile design (CADAM). However, many of the university’s art faculty felt threatened by computers, so Chuck Csuri resigned his tenured position to start the Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design at Ohio State. (ACCAD). Pupils of his include Wayne Carlson, Joan Stately, Tom DeFanti and Chris Wedge (Ice Age, Bunny). In the 1980s, Chuck Csuri also headed a CGI commercial house, Cranston/Csuri.


Eugene Troubetskoy

Eugene Troubetzkoy (1931-2022). Descended from an ancient Russian family, he was entitled to be called Prince Troubetzkoy. He studied at Columbia University and the Sorbonne to be a nuclear physicist. He became fascinated with exploring the physics of light which had him soon creating simulations on film of nuclear particle behavior. “In nuclear physics you follow neutrons,” he said. “With 3D, you follow the light.”

Troubetzkoy joined the New York-based computer company MAGI/SynthaVision. He was the director of advanced projects when MAGI/SynthaVision created the early digital effect for Walt Disney’s TRON (1982); however, MAGI closed soon after Disney withdrew their funding after the weak initial performance of TRON. Troubetzkoy joined with MAGI vets Chris Wedge, Michael Ferraro, Alison Brown, David Brown and Carl Ludwig to form Blue Sky Studios. At Blue Sky, Troubetzkoy created the game changing ray-tracing program they used in the Oscar winning short Bunny, and later the hit Ice Age. In 2017, Troubetzkoy, Ludwig and Maurice van Swaaij received an Academy’s Sci-Tech Award for their groundbreaking work.


Each from very different backgrounds, the achievements of these three people helped to create the way we all experience media today. They were true digital pathfinders and so deserve to be remembered.


Tom Sito is an animator and professor at the University of Southern California. He is the author of Moving Innovation, A History of Computer Animation (MIT Press, 2013) which is still considered the best overall view of the history of computer animation.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here



Get the DAILY SCOOP on what's going


Most Popular





    Print or Digital - Subscribe!
Already a subscriber? Access your digital edition