Wed 22nd Feb 2012, by Paul Hellard | Production

CGSociety :: Technology Focus

24 February 2012, by Meleah Maynard

Using CINEMA 4D, ePMV and After Effects, Cosmocyte CG medical animation makes the complex understandable.

Cell mitosis: You probably studied it in grade school. Even if you do vaguely recall what cell division is all about, you’ve probably never thought of the process as something elegant, even beautiful. But step into the world of medical and scientific visualization and suddenly, the process of mitosis becomes a work of art.

3D artist Vuk Nikolić made this mitosis animation while participating in Cosmocyte’s Cinema 4D training program. “I tried to achieve a realistic microscopic render of cell division, and I achieved some nice results using Colorizer and Noise,” he explains.

Maryland-based Cosmocyte has been creating stunningly vivid and accurate medical and scientific animations and illustrations since 2005. Using Maxon’s Cinema 4D and Adobe After Effects, they do most of their work for academic and non-academic clients, such as Science magazine and the Stanford University School of Medicine. “I know a lot of big medical animation companies use Max and Maya, but we like Cinema because of its flexibility and easy learning curve and I know a broad cross section of companies are going in that direction, too,” says Cameron Slayden, Cosmocyte’s founder and creative director.

Business has grown steadily over the last few years, making finding skilled scientific illustrators and animators who can use C4D a top priority for Cosmocyte. To help, Slayden started a free, on-site training program last year through which scientific visualization specialists can learn the software. Artists make their own hours, but are expected to commit to a minimum of three days per week. Every training project is treated as if it is a paying job and projects get increasingly difficult over time.

While most medical animations of blood flow only show red blood cells, Nikolić was careful to include white blood cells, as well as platelets. “Blood can be compared with a salad because there’s more than just lettuce, there are tomatoes, onions and other things too,” he says.

Those who do well get hired as contractors. “We used MoGraph from the very first animation because they have to be able to wrap their heads around that to do good biological visualization,” Slayden explains. It’s the tinkerers who stand out, he says. “We look for people who do things like make outrageous cloners within cloners that clone cloners because it’s the creativity of their experimentation that reveals their true genius.

Nikolić used Cinema 4D’s Metaball object for the first time when creating this animation of cell budding.

A Standout In the Crowd

Vuk Nikolić is a 3D artist and experienced Maya user with a master’s degree in biology, and he was producing 'stellar' work from the start. “Vuk has a natural instinct for medical animation and he blazed through our C4D training sequences very quickly,” says Slayden, pointing to Nikolić’s mitosis animation for which he used C4D’s Fresnel, sub-surface scattering and displacement. “I experimented and created an interesting transparency of the nucleus membrane using the spectral shader in the transparency channel of the texture,” Nikolić recalls.

When he couldn’t find certain molecules in the protein data bank, Nikolić built them from scratch. On the left is a messenger RNA molecule.


After completing his Cinema 4D training, Slayden brought Nikolić on board to help Cosmocyte create its own content. Specifically, they are collaborating on a series of educational animations on a variety of topics, such as “What is Cancer?” and “What is DNA?”. “We see these as being deeply immersive educational modules that would be free to the public on YouTube,” says Slayden.

During the initiation phase, small and large ribosomal subunits connect and take shape. This image, seen through Cinema's camera, shows the moment prior the collision of two subunits.

Modules could also be licensed by corporations and others for their own use, and perhaps one day replace some information found in traditional textbooks. These types of animations, for example, might be good tools for oncologists looking for ways to help worried patients and their families understand their diagnoses and available treatments, Slayden points out. “We did some research and found that most of the work out there on cancer has low production value or isn’t very complete, so we decided to do the cancer series first.” Because it helps to have a basic understanding of DNA in order to grasp the complexities of cancer, Slayden first asked Nikolić to create “the most complicated thing” he could think of, a 3D DNA translation, which involves getting from a gene to a protein via RNA (ribonucleic acid). “The process is divided into three stages: initiation, elongation and termination,” explains Nikolić, whose past clients include National Geographic and the History Channel.

In this example different molecular structures are built as distinct layers. The atom surface includes Fresnel transparency, allowing the ribbon and stick elements to be visible.

The Power of ePMV

The biggest challenge was building and animating the molecules in C4D. He credits the open-source plug-in, embedded Python Molecular Viewer (ePMV) with making that daunting task possible. Created by Ludovic Autin and Graham Johnson, friends of Slayden’s and frequent contributors to the annual National Science Foundation Medical Visualization Challenge, ePMV ( allows users to run molecular modeling software inside 3D animation applications. “It’s great because it searches and imports molecule files from free online molecular databases that scientists upload their 3D files to, so we can use real molecules in our work,” says Nikolić.

With ePMV, Nikolić was able to bring the whole molecule into Cinema before animating and lighting it. “I had to put one file with five million polygons in different layers and make a proxy to animate and move through the interface,” he recalls. To make the animation more realistic he also added some water “because everything in our cells is full of molecules,” he adds.

For now, Cosmocyte’s content is still a work in progress that could go in many different directions. Interactive textbooks that would make learning more visual are one idea, Slayden says. “We’re looking at ways to make education the kind of experience you see in sci-fi movies because being able to see what happens in 3D space seems like a much easier way to learn.”



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