Discover your inner biomedical animator

Drew Berry’s biomedical animations have been recognised with awards and accolades worldwide. He is a self-taught animator who has based his work on his knowledge base as a cell biologist. Here, he invites other scientists to explore animating their work.
Discover your inner biomedical animator
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Can you visualise the molecular and cell biology pathways and processes you work on? Would you like to have the skills to create animations that represent them clearly and engagingly? If you have the patience to learn the basics, creating your own animations might be easier than you think. In this post, I explain how.

I am a biomedical animator based in Melbourne, Australia, where I work at WEHI (Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research). I have a Master’s in Cell Biology from the University of Melbourne and a PhD in Technology from Linköping University, Sweden. My science training began with time-lapse filming of single-celled algae undergoing cell division and morphogenesis.

As a teenager in the 1980s, I was of the first generation to grow up with a personal computer. However, my parents became worried about me ‘wasting’ my summer holidays playing video games and goofing around with computer graphics. When I joined the WEHI in 1995 as their ‘Photoshop guy’, I was motivated to animate their research about the malaria lifecycle, mainly as the parasite evolved from an alga, so I was already familiar with its biology. I have since worked on various topics, such as cancer, immunology and apoptosis.

Despite acquiring many technical and visual communication skills, a solid scientific foundation is my key asset as a biomedical animator. It allows me to read, interpret and navigate the scientific literature, and helps me take ideas from an abstract concept to a meaningful and accurate animated representation.

If you are a researcher enthusiastic about your work, learning how to make it come alive through dynamic animation might be a great way to share your research.

For me, biomedical animation has paid back all the effort and hard work I have put into it. My animations have been used to illustrate amazing discoveries as educational resources and to engage the public at exhibitions and festivals.

Some have been used in films and documentaries, from the Emmy-winning “DNA” series to creating the alien DNA of the time-travelling Doctor Who. My animations have even been exhibited as Art in grand establishments such as the Royal Institution, the Guggenheim Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Music and sound design are also crucial to my animations, sometimes in fascinating ways. For example, in 2011, I was approached by the Icelandic singer Björk to create a music video that journeys through her cells and turning the DNA Replisome into a drum machine as part of her Biophilia app album.

Photo of singer Björk performing dressed with a costume represening the DNA structure, with backing singers and a projection of Drew Berry showing on the background wall.
Björk performing dressed as DNA.

Have a go...

I think learning about animation is worth the time even if you don’t plan to become a biomedical animator – a little effort in getting some animation skills might take you a long way to help others understand your research better. It may also make it easier to work with animators in the future by giving you a common language and some basic skills.

So, here are tips and suggestions on how to get started:

What software do you use?

  • Autodesk Maya for 3D animation
  • Adobe After Effects for compositing
  • Adobe Premiere for editing
  • Adobe Photoshop for images
  • Unity and Renderman for rendering

What software should I learn?

  • Photoshop and After Effects for image and video manipulation.
  • Pick a 3D animation program to start learning – most offer a free student or trial version and many online tutorials.  Blender (Free, open-source), Maya (tough to learn but very powerful), Cinema4D (many biomedical animators use this), SideFX Houdini (if I had my life again...), and many others.

I want to try and learn biomedical animation on my own. How do I get started?

  • Download the free Blender.org 3D animation app, then check out Brady Johnston’s molecular Blender tutorials (https://www.youtube.com/@BradyJohnston).
  • Visit clarafi.com and look at all the works in the gallery for examples of animations related to biology. Check out the tutorials on animation production, and if you use Maya, download the free Molecular Maya pluggin – excellent tools for starting molecular modelling with Maya.
  • There are also many other animation training websites available.  I learned Maya from the tutorials on thegnomonworkshop.com. While not explicitly designed for biomedical animation, many of the techniques taught are adaptable for cell biology animation.

Where do I study to become a biomedical animator?

There are excellent diploma and master’s programs in biomedical visualisation, including those below. This is how many people get into the field of biomedical animation.

  • http://www.bmc.med.utoronto.ca/bmc/
  • http://ahs.uic.edu/bhis/academics/bvis/
  • http://medicalart.johnshopkins.edu

    Where did the wehi.tv team study?
  • Drew Berry has an MSc in Cell Biology from the University of Melbourne, Australia and a PhD in Technology (hc) from Linköping University, Sweden.  He first started producing cell biology animations in 1992.
  • Etsuko Uno has an MSc in Biomedical Science from Rockefeller University, USA, and holds a GD in Animation from RMIT, Australia.
  • Justin Muir developed video games professionally in Australia and the United States for twenty years and specialised in biomolecular animation at Northwestern University.
  • Maja Divjak has a PhD in Molecular Biology from Monash University, Australia and a GC in 3D Animation from AFTRS, Australia.
  • Charles Reilly has a PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from the University of Melbourne, Australia.

Do I need to study science to become a biomedical animator?

For what we create, It is essential to have a strong background in cell biology (MSc, PhD)  to navigate, read, and interpret the scientific literature on our current understanding and discoveries in cell biology.

Recommended books

  • The Machinery of Life, David Goodsell
  • Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud
  • Visual Explanations, Edward Tufte
  • In the Blink of an Eye, Walter Murch
  • Molecular Biology of the Cell (3rd edition is my favourite), Alberts et al.

Will I enjoy 3D animation?

Depending on what you are already into (fiddling with computer graphics or paintbrushes?) and what you intend to achieve with moving graphics, it can be a short or long path to creating animation. To find out if you like it, you can give it a go by downloading free student or trial versions of animation packages (Blender, Maya, Houdini, Cinema4D, 3DStudio Max, etc).

What conferences will introduce me to the field?

  • Visit ami.org and consider attending their annual conference to meet students and professionals in biomedical communication.
  • Attend your local SIGGRAPH.org conference to see the latest computer graphics technology and digital art tools.
  • Learn about the frontier of cell biology at ascb.org/meetings.

What are some excellent resources for biomedical animation?

There are tons of free resources online for you to get into this kind of work, such as tutorials on YouTube and clarafi.com.

Other places to explore:


Top image by Drew Berry.

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