|The Photoshop guy|
Drew Berry very much enjoyed his post-grad science research, filming cells under time-lapse microscopy. But he hated the recurring battles for obtaining funding to keep the work going. He heard that an advertising agency was looking for a copywriter to write magazine ads selling computer chips to engineers. “I took that job on but they soon found I was lousy at writing copy that sells,” admits Berry, “so they shifted me into Photoshop work. The salary was as low as legally possible and deadline pressure was stressful, but I learned a lot about design and my Photoshop chops were soon very good. I stuck with that job for a year because it was like being at uni learning new skills but being paid for it… well almost.” Berry missed his ‘science’ and jumped at the ad for a Photoshop guy at WEHI.
Features and TV
Berry talks of the boom for feature films and TV crime dramas to have VFX of amazing and colorful 'medical visualizations' playing on screens in high tech labs. “Sometimes the truth is stretched to make it look better,” he notes. “This meets the ultimate goal of entertainment and storytelling, but is a missed opportunity to give the audience a true insight into what's going on.”
“There are a number of notable exceptions,” Berry continues, “I'm very much enjoying ‘House MD’ at the moment (primarily because of Hugh Laurie). I haven't yet found out who was behind the microscopic-graphics, but they've done great job of showing how diseases work in our bodies. In feature films, the stand out for me is the opening sequence from Fight Club where the camera starts by looking at a neuron firing, then gradually pulls back to reveal the guy with a gun in his mouth. Beautiful work.”
Drew Berry’s primary Maya box is a dual AMD PC with 4GB RAM and a nVidia Quadro card. “I have three other PCs which were built as a software renderfarm, but they don't get used much now that I've discovered the speed efficiencies of Maya's hardware renderer,” he says. “I spend most of my time compositing on my Mac (Dual G5, 4GB RAM, xRAID) that has After Effects, Photoshop, Final Cut Pro and another copy of Maya. I've installed an xServe as a hub and hooked it all together with a gigabit switch. I have a tiny office that allegedly has industrial air-conditioning blowing flat out, but with the rack I share the room, it's always warm.”
Drew Berry has just finished working on a National Geographic documentary on Bioterrorism, where he was called upon to animate the four horsemen of the apocalypse: Ebola, Anthrax, Botulinum toxin and Smallpox. “Smallpox is the one you should worry about,” Berry knowingly adds. “Looking further ahead, I'm soon to start work on a museum exhibition presenting various biological themes, which I can't wait to get stuck into. Next year I have secured a budget to navel gaze about diabetes for about four months, which should be productive.
Scientific illustration has a historical tradition going back centuries, with major contributions from many well-known scientific illustrators such as Galileo. Galileo was interesting because he used technology in the form of a telescope, to look beyond normal vision, and then used illustration to present what he saw. Drew Berry tells me of his inspirations from this tradition and is honestly trying to emulate Galileo’s approach. “The advantage of using digital animation tools over a paintbrush is that you can present active behaviors, which are a fundamental feature of biology,” Berry says.
Berry starts every animation by importing real raw data whenever possible. For the DNA project, he downloaded accurate scientific models of molecules from the Protein Data Bank a repository of all published biological molecular models. Berry’s animation technique holds a very strong kinship with painting, albeit one that moves, presenting a picture of what scientists think the world is actually like at a very small scale.
“My job is actually a lot easier than that of fantasy artists as I don't have to make anything up. All you have to do is just really look at the science - it is a smorgasbord of utterly amazing concepts and ideas that are far more incredible than anything I could ever come up with.” Berry doesn’t think about the software when developing a workflow for an animation. “I focus entirely on the subject and work at developing a clear mental picture of the science,” he says. “Maya then provides the toolset for creating the visualisation I want to build.”
Drew Berry begins his concepts by reading scientific journals online. His first stop is PubMed which is the search engine for biomedical scientific literature. He reads 'review' papers, which are overviews of where science is at on a particular subject. “A big advantage I have is my years of post-graduate scientific research, which taught me how to read and comprehend the scientific jargon in the journals.
The DNA replication animation arose from a week or two of gathering lots of information about this remarkable molecular machine, and holistically reconstructing it from dozens of little tidbits of data. There are many labs around the world that are studying the DNA replication mechanism found in each one of your living cells, but each lab focuses on a very specific facet of how it works. This is because the only way to understand something as intricate as the replication machine is to break it down to it's parts. When Berry put all these bits of information together, the replication animation emerged.
The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI)