I know what animation is. We all do. I’ve enjoyed it in movies and TV my whole life. A week ago, if you had asked me what medical animation was, I probably would have said something like, “I guess it’s when doctors show a video to patients” or something like that.
The Hidden World of Medical Animation:
But it’s so much more. I managed to come across Microverse Studios, a 3D animation company that specializes in molecular and cellular subjects. Their artwork is a glorious riot of color and light, and most people will never see what they create.
The Growing Artistic Niche:
You see, there is a big technological boom going on in life sciences right now, and simply communicating the tidal wave of discoveries has created a growing artistic niche. The target audiences for this messaging don’t include the general public. Biotech companies with strange and new technologies need to explain them to their investors. Pharmaceutical companies with freshly discovered drugs need to explain them to prescribing physicians. These are big markets with a critical need for good communications tools, and medical animation is increasingly the go-to solution. It’s an art form that is entirely hidden from the world unless you know where to look, and it’s amazing.
The Skills Behind Medical Animation:
It sounds like every animator would want to jump in and join the party, but it’s not that simple. Medical animation requires a very specific set of skills. Cameron Slayden, CEO of Microverse Studios, had this to say about what it takes to be a medical animator:
Understanding the Science:
“We didn’t evolve to have to know what molecules are, or cells, anything like that. The frontier of science is in these very tiny subjects that are all inherently abstract. Molecules creating a cascade of signals to control cell behavior, cells that dial up or down the immune system, even how DNA is translated into proteins are all strange subjects with even stranger visuals. Our job as scientific animators is first to completely understand this science and then create something compelling that will make the audience pay attention and then understand. You can’t convey a message that you don’t understand yourself.”
Excellence in Scientific Animation:
The animators at Microverse Studios all have masters’ degrees from one of the four accredited biomedical visualization graduate programs in the United States. Their scientific animations have won actual film awards, such as the Tellies, Communicator Awards, Muse, Nyx, and many others.
The Art of Engaging Communication:
“It’s critical to know the science, but even then that’s not enough,” says Slayden. “People’s eyes glaze over when you’re trying to tell them about how cells and molecules work. You have to make them want to know what’s going on, what’s going to happen next. To do that, you have to draw them in with amazing imagery, then keep their attention with story structure. You have to make promises at the beginning of a story and then make good on those promises by the end. It’s a tough job and it takes a lot of understanding of how humans think and perceive the world around them. We have to tell our stories in a way that fits into that informational framework. It’s like a file format for the brain.”
The Role of Cognitive Science:
Slayden is an avid follower of cognitive science as well. He gave a talk at the Association of Medical Illustrators’ annual conference last year about the cognitive underpinnings of what gets attention and what makes us perceive beauty in the world around us.
“Maintaining visual attention all boils down to incorporating signals that what we’re looking at is important. If you’re walking around on the serengeti in the pleistocene, it’s existentially important that you notice the presence of other humans, or eyes in the underbrush, or what have you. We naturally take advantage of those neural circuits to capture our audience’s interest with our art. The hard part is doing it intentionally, to carefully craft a human experience.”
So… understanding the science of scientific animation is as important as understanding the science in scientific animation if you want to make a career out of it. That may not be for everyone, but if you want to have your mind blown, check out what these guys are doing. It’s worth it for the artistic value of the imagery alone.