• Drew Berry - Biomedical Animator
    Drew Berry Pic
    Chromosome Coil

    This visualization presents the various levels of
    DNA organization (coiling) within a chromosome.
    Copyright ©2005 HHMI
    8 Stem Cell Surface

    A molecular view close up of the surface of a stem cell.
    The blue rod-shaped molecule acts like an antenna,
    'listening' for the yellow hormone molecular message.
    Copyright ©2005 WEHI
    Samples Require CGNetworks Membership & QuickTime 6
    CGSociety :: Artist Profile
    Drew Berry - Biomedical Animator
    By Paul Hellard, 24 October 2005

    Drew Berry, biomedical animator for The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI), is a key member of an international team that recently won an Emmy Award in the category of Outstanding Science, Technology and Nature Programming for the episode, ‘The Human Race.’

    “My main role at WEHI is to help explain the discoveries of the Institute to the general public by creating the most vivid and accurate visualizations possible,” says Berry. The international DNA project was a natural extension of this, as so much of WEHI's research is DNA-based and the public has such a great fascination with DNA.

    “As far as the Emmy is concerned,” Berry continues, “I'm just overwhelmed by the fact that we can come out on top of the world when we are competing against gigantic animation studios in the United States and the rest of the world.”

    “The DNA project was one of those golden opportunities where I had the great fortune and pleasure to work for the amazingly talented, experienced and motivated team at Windfall Films in London, who led the project with ambitious goals, good funding and most importantly, enough time and freedom for us all to give it our best. My biggest hope is that I get another chance to sink my teeth deep into something as big and chewy as that again.“

    Berry’s biomedical animations have been applauded globally and exhibited in prestigious venues, including the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York and the Pompidou Centre in Paris. In 2004, Drew's animations were also honored with a BAFTA Award.

    “My approach is the opposite tack to simplifying the science,” says Berry. “Rather than dumbing it down, I set out to show the audience exactly what the scientists are talking about. By building accurate visualizations founded on real scientific data, the animations come alive of their own accord, engage the audience, and go a long way towards explaining what the science is about. The science is rich, detailed and fascinating, and if you can watch it in action you will intuitively get to know how it works.” This is perhaps also what enthralled Berry at the outset of his foray into 3D.

    Berry was given a copy of Infini-D by a friend in 1995. “I only started playing with it because it was fun,” he says. Over the next couple of years he began to do animations for biology education videos, primarily for the creative pleasure and technical challenge. During the day he was working as the Photoshop guy at WEHI. Around that time, several important discoveries were made about Malaria by the scientists he worked with, so in his spare time he created some animations to help visually explain the parasite's lifecycle, using an education copy of 3ds Max.

    The Malaria animations proved pivotal in Drew Berry’s career as they became popular with TV news bulletins, current affairs and science programs. To this day they remain amongst his most successful sequences, gauged by how often they are called upon for many sorts of programs. Off the back of the Malaria animations, he pitched to the Institute's director, Suzanne Cory, for equipment and the freedom to explore the possibilities of scientific animation, which is a role he’s been doing full time now for about seven years.

    While at SIGGRAPH in 2000 he watched a demo by Duncan Brinsmead of Maya's PaintFX and dynamics capabilities. “Learning from tutorials on the Internet and Gnomon Workshop DVDs,” says Berry, “it took me about six months to make the transition from 3ds Max and become productive with Maya. It was difficult at first, but overwhelmingly worth it.”
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  • Drew Berry - Biomedical Animator
    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.”

    The Gear

    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.”

    The Future

    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.
    Related links:

    The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI)
    Windfall Films
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