Still from Drew Berry's animation of Bjork's "Hollow" (2011)

Scientific Animation Shortfest: Weighing Bigness and Smallness

Yet another meeting of science and art coalesced in Santa Fe last Wednesday, when the Scientific Animation Shortfest at the Capriccio Foundation, found animator and illustrator Graham Johnson invoking the liveliness of scientific imagery through its relationship with film. (The event was part of the weekly goings-on of Currents: Santa Fe International New Media Festival, but also reflects Capriccio’s longstanding interest in bringing out the art in science.)

Johnson, a PhD scientist and illustrator currently at University of California, San Francisco as a QB3 Faculty Fellow, took audience members on a tour from the beginnings of scientific animation in the late 60’s to cutting-edge works of artists and scientists today. Leading off the show was the famous 9-minute film by American designers Charles and Ray Eames, Powers of Ten (1968) The film zooms out from a view of a couple picnicking in Chicago to the vastness of outer space, and back in again to the inner-space of the picnicker’s hand. The visual journey, which happens by exponents (powers of 10), highlights the striking similarity in structural organization between the formation of the Milky Way, and the electrons and protons inside of a human being.

Still from "Powers of Ten" (1968)

Still from “Powers of Ten” (1968)

Johnson’s familiarity with human biology is itself art-science hybridity: he started out as an art student in undergrad, and went on to earn his graduate degree from Johns Hopkins’ Medical Art program in 1997. He specializes in molecular and cellular biology (the human organism, microscopically). With a strong medical background, Johnson was able to undertake the task of explaining to the audience the exact biochemical events happening in the films, information that proves to be key to fully appreciating the content of the animations.

The shortfest focused on two pioneers of scientific animation in addition to Johnson himself: cell biologist and MacArthur Fellow Drew Berry and Polynoid – a design collaboration that combines bedazzling technology with powerful creative storytelling. Perhaps most inspiring was an animation by Berry designed for Icelandic recording artist Bjork, for her album Biophelia (2011). Berry collaborated with Bjork to make a short film animating DNA and molecular structures for her song Hollow. Berry, who has previously created animations for exhibition in gallery spaces, was able to move further away from the strictures of scientific accuracy and create something with more artistic license, as Johnson pointed out. In Hollow, DNA structures are often sparkly and pink and at one point, a face emerges.

Though to invoke scientific illustration, on the one hand, is to call to mind a range of remembered imagery from LIFE Magazine 1962 to new iPad apps specializing in the human body, the event demonstrated the sense of wonderment people have in seeing our biology animated. What is so striking about biological animations, and perhaps what makes them so successful, is the veritable personality and humanness that the artists endow RNA and amino acids with. When watching the short segments, a person has the feeling of deep gratitude to all the various microbes, cells, and tissue structures working inside us with such precision. Frank Ragano of Parallel Studios and the producer (with Mariannah Amster) behind Currents, remarked on the wonder of the inner landscape. Amster questioned whether her RNA moved in a different way than mine.

Johnson gave a short demonstration of how he makes his animations come to life, using a program called Cinema 4D. Similar to Photoshop, Cinema 4D, per Johnson, “allows artists to focus on what they do best” and not worry so much about animation technology.

And what is it that artists do best? Apparently, the demand today is not only for skills in artistic rendering, but communication and an artist’s ability to relay vastly complex scientific happenings into a visual language that is, in a sense, totally human and relatable. The collaboration of the artists and scientists via the field of scientific animation, bestows an element of the emotional and deeply personal feelings a child might have for say, Finding Nemo, onto the otherwise dry regions of pure science. Art plus science allows highly specialized fields to become accessible to the average person, opening up new avenues for education and appreciation of biology and nature’s doings. Perhaps the message, as embodied in Powers of Ten, is that in seeing through technology what we otherwise cannot possibly see, we somehow are able to perceive a thing, or a reality, as it really is.

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