Kelly Izlar

An Interview with Biomedical Animator, Drew Berry

Scientists, science communicators, bloggers, public outreach officials and others incorporate computer graphics into their work, hoping to cast scientific knowledge out to a broader audience.

Among them is Drew Berry, a biomedical animator for The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research. In 2010, Erik Olsen from The New York Times claimed, “If there is a Steven Spielberg of molecular animation, it is probably Drew Berry.” Berry’s work visualizing molecular biology has gained international recognition, including an Emmy in 2005. Among other projects, he recently collaborated with Icelandic singer Bjork on music videos for her new album, Biophilia.


Here’s an interview I conducted with him during my thesis research.

How did you get into the business of scientific illustration?

The classes I loved in school were graphic design and biology. Most of my art sensibility was shaped by watching way too many science fiction and horror films from the 60’s and 70’s and being fascinated by the graphics of computer games over the last twenty years or so. As a kid I was also inspired by Jacques Cousteau’s documentaries and wanted to become a marine scientist to study sharks. I followed that passion through to university, doing the requisite courses to get into marine biology.

Although I loved science, the career demands for a scientist were not for me. I wrapped up my research as a Masters in Cell Biology and decided to move on. I landed myself a job as the Photoshop guy at The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI) of Medical Research, Melbourne. Because of my background with Photoshop scripting automation, I finished my work before lunch on most days and then used the rest of my time to experiment with 3D graphics programs.

What’s the process of creating a biomedical animation?

Ideally I will first spend the first third of my time researching the topic I am working on. This involves reading the published literature via, contacting and talking with the scientists who are doing the research, and gathering raw scientific data such as molecular models from Everything I have ever created that resonated with audiences and whose appeal had longevity, came from projects with plenty of time for research and consequently were as accurate as I could reasonably make them with lots of scientific detail

Technique development
I spend the next third of my time playing around in the 3D animation software Maya, trying to work out the best way for building the shots I am after. Whenever possible I try to get my hands on real scientific data and spend the time trying to work out a way to get the details of that data into Maya. It is often difficult and time consuming to do this, but the animations end up being much more visually rich and interesting to watch. The real world of our bodies, as revealed by science, is far more incredible than any person could make up.

Create animations
With the remaining third of my time, I create models and rigs in Maya, render out lots of layers and then composite them in Adobe After Effects.

How do you convey complicated information to viewers who may not be interested or literate in science?

My approach is to create animation that depicts the science as accurately and detailed as possible, with visual editing and refinement to avoid being distracting/confusing to watch. It is the verbal narrative that surrounds the animation that determines the level that is appropriate to each audience. There is nothing wrong with showing an audience the ‘hard-core’ edge of science, as long as you avoid use of any jargon or technical language that will make the whole experience meaningless to them. It is up to the media producers, presenters and teachers who are using the animations to verbally describe the action to the audience they are trying to reach.

What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of your field?

One of the biggest and most fun challenges of biology animation is working out how to present the dynamics and density of molecules accurately. The problem is that the physics at that scale is so vastly different from our common experience, and the speed of interactions is unimaginably fast. This must be translated into a visual story that conveys this world and retains some of this character, such as Brownian motion and randomness, with crowded, densely packed scenes of thousands of molecular actors.

In your opinion, how do simulations, animations and images of scientific processes change the way we understand science? Why is it important?

I haven’t had formal training apart from graphic design in high school, but I have long played about with digital paint programs. As a science artist what I am doing is nothing new: I follow in the long tradition of science artists, such as Ernst Haeckel, James Sowerby, and most importantly for me, David Goodsell.

Contained within Haeckel’s ‘Art Forms of Nature’ publications from a century ago are exquisite and remarkably accurate drawings of the single-celled organisms I was studying in the lab. His illustrations revealed for me structures in these tiny creatures that I had overlooked with modern imaging techniques. Sowerby spent his career creating meticulously detailed pictures of mosses, liverworts and fungi in Britain around 1790-1810. He created thousands of these images that were published in compendiums of British botany at that time. What particularly inspires me about Sowerby is his long-term persistence and the romantic notion of a naturalist working quietly ‘in the zone,’ drawing pictures of his observation of living things for years.

Illustration by David S. Goodsell, the Scripps Research Institute.

Goodsell’s artworks illuminated the beauty and wonder of biology at the molecular scale. I had studied biochemistry and attended numerous lectures by molecular biologists but had always glazed over with all the jargon and abbreviations they would use in describing their work. Goodsell’s drawings revealed for me the connections of molecules inside our living cells and made me appreciate why scientists are so excited about what was being discovered. Inspired by his work, I set out to create my first cell membrane animation with receptors and other molecules on the surface of a stem cell. This resulted in the animation that can be seen in my Colony Stimulating Factor animation, which I made around 1999.

Thank you, Drew!