Behind the Image
“...the real power of biomedical animation is the ability to make the unseen, molecular world visible and tangible. It gives access to new discoveries that might otherwise be very difficult to explain, making science accessible through visual, rather than abstract concepts.”
– Maja Divjak
Bordetella pertussis and Whooping cough
Maja Divjak, PhD
Please describe your primary line of work.
I am primarily a biomedical animator, that is, I make 3D animations illustrating cell and molecular biology for educational purposes. The idea is to make the invisible world real and tangible and to communicate the breath taking beauty of biology.
Do you have formal training in 3D animation?
Yes. I first did a one year multimedia course to get a solid grounding in basic design, including 2D and 3D animation, web design, sound design, life drawing etc. I then followed this with an intense 6 month 3D animation course at the Australian Film Television and Radio School. After this, I spent quite some time working on my own projects and doing small freelance projects before being offered a fellowship with world renowned biomedical animator Dr. Drew Berry, at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research. I also come from a science background and have a PhD in molecular biology.
What parts of your job do you like best?
Making the invisible world visible. Being able to make the inaccessible world of medical research available to the general public, that is being a conduit from the lab to the person on the street and in so doing, taking the fear away from science. Problem solving; working out ways of bending the computer to your will in order to replicate a biological process.
Tell us something about the subject of this video and why this subject was selected.
Whooping cough and other diseases such as mumps and measles are on the rise in Australia, primarily due to the fact that a small segment of the community is refusing to immunize their children. We wanted to create this video so that people might understand how severe and debilitating whooping cough is and the importance of vaccination not only for themselves, but for all sectors of the community. We focused on illustrating in 3D how our ciliated epithelium functions, to keep our airways free of foreign bodies such as pollen, dust and bacteria and then contrasted this with the ravages caused by the pertussis bacterium. We hope that actually visualising how our airways work and contrasting this with the severity of disease might help people make informed decisions to protect their health, the health of their children and the whole community.
Was this project a collaborative team effort? Can you describe your role?
The project was a collaborative effort. I primarily work by myself and oversee the project from start to finish, including all research, story boards, script, animation, compositing and narration. I collaborate with a couple of fantastic sound designers whom I’ve worked with for some years now, Dead On Sound. They do all the wonderful squeaks and whistles and whooshing sounds that punctuate the visual action, the voice over recording and final mixing.
I was also incredibly lucky to work with Emmy award-winning science documentary creators Genepool Productions. They very kindly allowed me to use footage from their brilliant documentary about the vaccination debate. I think the footage of the tiny baby with whooping cough certainly lends this production weight and serves to make the message very clear.
Can you elaborate on any special techniques and/or challenges you faced in creating this video?
It was quite challenging to replicate the cilia motion, as I wanted it to reflect the actual wave form of the movement. I used Maya nHair for this and spent quite a long time tweaking myriad parameters to get it to match. Of course, the movement is incredibly slowed down in order to make it visible. Having so many hair systems in the scene also made the render times very long, but I think it was worth it in the end.
Tell us about the tools you used, what’s your preference?
I use Autodesk Maya as my animation programme of choice. It has an incredible dynamics menu that I find myself returning to time and again, including nParticles, nHair and nCloth. I find these tools very useful for creating biological movement and interactions. I also favour Adobe After Effects for compositing and editing and adding special effects with plugins such as Red Giant Magic Bullet Looks and Universe. As the names suggest, these add that something extra, that take your productions to the next level.
How do you stay up-to-date with new methods?
I stay up to date by subscribing to Autodesk and Red Giant and the CG Society. I find that Autodesk Maya is developing and changing so much at the moment that I have to learn how to use each new iteration, so I’m kind of forced to learn new ways of doing things. There is a plethora of information on the web to help in this regard. One particularly wonderful site is Clarafi, which is a community for those interested in scientific visualisation. It offers high quality tutorials, lists of software, an incredible showcase and of course the wonderful plugin ‘Molecular Maya’ that allows you to import structures from the protein databank. Highly recommended.
What was your targeted audience for this video? How helpful would you say this has been for caretakers and the general public?
My target audience was senior secondary school students. The video was created whilst I was resident Science Animator at GTAC, which is a specialist science and maths centre that aims to instill a love for and connection with the sciences in young people. Education Officers on site at GTAC routinely use this animation as part of their teaching programmes, to illustrate important concepts of immunity and disease and the vital necessity of vaccination to protect the health of our community. School teachers also have access to my animations to use in their own teaching practice and have commented on their usefulness in explaining the importance of vaccination and the abstract processes of cell and molecular biology. I’ve also placed the video on my YouTube channel, which has generated many questions relating to the vaccination debate. It seems the public are crying out for information based on empirical research, so that they can make informed decisions about their health.
Why is 3D biological animation an affective tool for educational videos?
In an increasingly digitally focused society, the real power of biomedical animation is the ability to make the unseen, molecular world visible and tangible. It gives access to new discoveries that might otherwise be very difficult to explain, making science accessible through visual, rather than abstract concepts. Ultimately, biomedical animation illustrates the breath taking beauty of biology and helps people appreciate the beauty and drama going on in their own bodies.
For all the aspiring animators out there what would you say are the top 5 skills that should honed to become a professional animator?
To become a successful biomedical animator you need to have some kind of background in science, to enable you conduct scientific research into the subject at hand. That is unless you are lucky enough to secure a position at a studio where the research is done for you! You need to be proficient with molecular modeling software such as Chimera or VMD, so you can build molecular assemblies before animating them. When it comes time to animate, you need some knowledge of rigging so that you can make your molecules move around and interact with others convincingly. It will also help to have some knowledge of dynamics systems for example, nParticles, nHair and nCloth in Maya. Finally, you will need a developed sense of aesthetic in terms of composition, colour and style in order to direct the viewer’s attention appropriately and facilitate understanding.
Why did you enter BioImages competition and what do you think of the competition?
I entered the competition because the BCA consists of an incredibly diverse group of individuals using visuals to inform and educate about biology. The BCA is dedicated to developing its members’ talents and advancing the field and in the process, becoming the foremost resource for biological communication. It has been an incredibly interesting and gratifying experience being part of the competition, being exposed to a wide variety of work of such high calibre and learning so much that I can apply to my own work in future. I think the competition is a unique chance to challenge yourself and also be exposed to other artists and their individual practice.