Medical animation is levelling up – and it’s all down to flashy new tech.
So what’s generating the biggest buzz, and how can it help us create blockbuster scientific stories for our clients?
Every animator we know was blown away by Disney+ hit The Mandalorian. Okay, so an ingenious fusion of Star Wars lore and the classic spaghetti western (oh, and the cute-factor of ‘Baby Yoda’) may have had something to do with that.
But the main reason? Besides the fun and exciting return to a Galaxy Far, Far, Away, they were floored by the quality of the CGI. Those gritty, dust-blown landscapes. That burst of sunrise bouncing off ‘Mando’s’ helmet. CGI had finally jumped into hyperspace.
While The Mandalorian is the current poster child for incredible technological breakthroughs, the fact is they’re coming thick and fast – and not just via Hollywood. As one of our own medical art directors says, ‘It really is a golden age for the CGI artist.’
We asked five team members to reveal the innovations worth getting excited about.
As you’ll see, this is about more than insiders geeking out on technology or techniques (although
we are definitely guilty of that). It’s about delivering next-gen product that has a real impact on the stunning stories we create for clients…
1 / Alan Smith, Animation Director
We love to include a high level of detail in our work because it brings a sense of epic scale and wonder. It’s fascinating to imagine the inside of a cell to every last detail: all the nano mechanisms and molecular interactions working alongside each other.
Cinema4D, 3D software developed by Maxon, is helping drive our quest to create even more dramatic levels of detail. Over the last two or three years, Maxon has been busy rewriting its 3D engine to be at the very forefront of the industry and one particularly exciting development is the new Scene Nodes Workflow. Using the latest Cinema4D advances, intracellular environments can be filled with mitochondria, liposomes, microtubules, filaments etc. This not only looks more interesting, but the recognizable physiology quickly orientates the viewer.
The upcoming releases will continue to unleash a multi-core processing capability. Our early tests suggest we may be looking at a two-to-five-fold performance boost in building more detail into our shots. This will be a game-changer for medical animation with huge potential to further impress our clients. It really is a golden age for the CGI artist.’
2 / Eric Small, Senior Medical Animator
‘Magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, is one of the valuable tools at our disposal to ensure accuracy and physiological understanding, offering a jumpstart in production.
MRI data sets are created by taking many cross-sectional images of a body. This technology has been around for decades, but the rise of high-speed communication, cloud computing, and artificial intelligence has unleashed a new level of visualization. Now, image sequences, or data sets, can be viewed in 3D: this means they can be rotated, zoomed in on, or traveled through.
General anatomy is well documented, while anatomical anomalies are not. Therefore finding visual references is more difficult. This is where MRIs help. To give just one example: detailed MRI data of hypoplastic left-heart syndrome provides visual references of the disparity in the size of the heart chambers, ensuring accuracy from the start.
MRI will not replace animation for the same reason that photography has not replaced illustration: there is a level of intention and deftness in animation that is not achievable with MRI. However, it provides accurate references for content creation, and speeds up production time by offering a starting point that is more than a blank screen.’
3 / Gary Welch, Medical Art Director
‘I’m very excited about the increases in graphic processing unit (GPU) rendering power. The detail and realism of what is possible visually has been improving at an incredibly fast pace.
With more graphic display power, creative professionals can interact with 3D models in real-time, which means they can deliver concepts and, ultimately, finished content more quickly. Consumers, meanwhile, can view our work on a wider and wider range of devices.
3D render speeds have increased up to x100 times in some cases. The increased speed means the overall quality of 3D images has improved dramatically. Features that were previously faked or approximated are now available in 3D animation production pipelines – think 3D depth of field, accurate reflections, blurry transparency, 3D motion blur, and 3D shadows. For a medical animation, tricky depictions such as subsurface scattering of translucent materials like wax and human skin are now increasingly realistic.
This increase in processing power also means that immersive technology such as VR headsets and AR provide truly engaging and emotional experiences.’
4 / Mitch Wishart, Partner / Executive Producer
‘What interests me is the increasing role of one of the unsung heroes of the medical animation world: the writer. Traditionally, the writer works independently of the studio’s animation team; in fact, for most medical animations, the animation team will never see the script until it is past final approval.
This has changed recently, following the big push to bring in more Hollywood effects into science animations. Studios are upping their game and investing in film and commercial artists to join their teams, combining them with their medical animator talent and merging cinema and science.
This spirit of collaboration has extended to getting the writer to join the party. Bringing them to the table early has brought remarkable improvements in work; both the writer and the animators have time to brainstorm new and exciting ways to approach the more complicated scientific stories. Not only are we eliminating potential problems during the draft writing phase but we are also getting the animators into the content space early.
A cinematic vision from a writer can inspire an animation studio to take a medical video to a higher level of educational entertainment. A close collaborative approach, in my view, can take it to a higher level still. I think this approach will become an industry standard.’
5 / Alex Sheludchenko, Associate 3D Asset and Realtime Artist
’Unreal Engine is an engine developed by Epic Games. It is traditionally used for game design but is also used for feature film and TV visual effects.
Last year Epic announced the launch of UE5 with Nanite Virtualized Geometry. In theory (time will tell), this technology could make it quicker and easier to create as much geometric detail in animation as the eye can see. This along with Epic Games’ product Lumen, which is an infinitely more sophisticated way to render light, would allow us to create images of unparalleled quality and iterate on them in insanely fast turnaround times.
We are very excited to see the technology grow and develop in areas other than the traditional game development – for instance, in the Disney+ show The Mandalorian. It’s an unprecedented level of quality and immersion that we, artists at Madmicrobe, very much aspire to.
To frame the developments in client-focused terms, it could mean we can put far more focus on creating exceptional products and less on jumping through technical hurdles to get the job done. Also, potentially speeding up the process this way will make animations more cost-effective, incentivizing more clients to unleash the potential of medical animations. The new technology would also mean clients would be able to preview an animation in much higher fidelity, reducing potential feedback wait times.