Biomedicine and Film VFX: a richly visualised world

20 Mar 2019 • Design & VFX

Samia Hoque

What does Avengers: Age of Ultron have in common with biomedicine? On the face of it, nothing. But pay close attention to the screens in Bruce Banner and Dr Cho’s labs and a richly visualised world of biomedicine reveals itself.

The juxtaposition of Hollywood blockbusters with the healthcare sector may seem far fetched, but it’s the creative 3D toolset used to visualise and animate complex structures that bridge these industries.

Dr Bruce Banner lab screens in Avengers: Age of Ultron, courtesy of Marvel.

Since Egyptian and Greek times, medical illustration has been used to map and teach the structures of the human body. And, the legacy of 2D illustrations – from seminal 16th century works like Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Anatomical Manuscripts’, and Andreas Vesalius ‘On the Fabric of the Human Body’, to Henry Gray’s anatomical drawings, first published as ‘Gray’s Anantomy’ in 1858 – have been instrumental in promoting an understanding and appreciation of the complexities of human biology to medical professionals and laypersons alike.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and advances in medical visualisation technology have further clarified the invisible structures within us. Today, x-ray, ultrasound, CT (computer tomography), MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), nuclear MRI, and and PET (positron emission tomography) scans bring extraordinary depth and detail to medical imaging.

But, advances in imaging technology is not enough to communicate concepts and complex information effectively. Writing in ‘The mind’s eye: Biomedical Visualization: The most powerful tool in science’, author Linda S Nye argues that “It takes an artist using traditional techniques of art and illustration or computer graphics to lift the visuals from simple datasets to effective communications’. Nye champions the role of artists and modern CG visualisation techniques to provide drama and excitement to effectively engage audiences in otherwise inaccessible clinical material.

In the hands of narrative motion graphic designers, state of the art visual effects 3D tools like Cinema 4D and Maya, can in combination with medical imaging create extraordinarily compelling visualisations about the dynamics of health in the human body. As described by Mary Ann Skweres, the Visible Human Project and 3D Embryo are two projects that have harnessed this approach to create incredibly detailed clinic resources, and there are many more. As technology has evolved, a thriving industry of medical 3D visualisation has emerged that combines scientific accuracy, imaging technologies and visual effects software.

Yet, the narrative and detail requirements needed to support surgical training can vary from the communication assets needed to support pharmaceutical and biomedical marketing. A broader audience benefits from dramatic storytelling techniques and exciting visuals to bring complex scientific principles and processes to life.

Dr Cho lab screens in Avengers: Age of Ultron, courtesy of Marvel.

In the same way that our visual effects team created biomedically inspired animations to support the fictional R&D in Avengers: Age of Ultron, we worked with Barclays Private Bank to visualise three key storytelling moments in the film ‘Beyond 100‘, part of a wider report into the impact of longer lifespans.

Briefed to help tell the story of how innovations in technology are accelerating the future of human regeneration in years to come, we developed a stylised CG aesthetic that clearly illustrates cell splitting, chromosomes, the manipulation of DNA to combat disease and AI selection. Together with interviews and a voice over narration, these 3D visualisations help to make complex research and information accessible and engaging.

Visualisation for Barclays ‘Beyond 100’ film

Speculative biomedical concepts also benefit from the ‘imagineering’ that underpins our visualisation approach to far future science fiction projects. When National Geographic commissioned the Year Million TV series to explore how humans may evolve over millennia, we worked with some speculative biomedical and cybernetic concepts and ideas that had never been visualised before.

Visualising epigenetic changes in Year Million, courtesy of National Geographic.

The challenge was similar to the brief for Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel, that asked us to envisage alien life forms in the context of futuristic biomedical technology. Both projects relied on distilling complex information and ideas into vivid visuals that helped to make sense of the narrative. Our approach had the same start point; to ground speculative concepts in visual references that audiences could relate to and build on.

MedScan screen in Prometheus, courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film

Another benefit of bringing cinematic 3D artists and designers to biomedical visualisations is to apply the storytelling techniques and high production values seen in film to concepts presented in public service campaigns, to scientific and commercial stakeholders, and wider audiences.

Our work for the AdCouncil is a case in point. Briefed to dramatise visualisations for their ‘Childhood Trauma: Changing Minds‘ campaign, we created a series of stylised narrative sequences that helped to explain the underpinning research.  Embedded with campaign iconography, our 3D visualisations reinforced the message that the negative impact on children from witnessing trauma and violence can be overcome with positive action.

Ad Council Changing Minds campaign.
Ad Council Changing Minds campaign.

Our contribution to Rachael Donalds’ TEDx presentation also demonstrates the value of applying entertainment techniques to clinical research. With a brief to bring the richness and depth seen in our work for Marvel films to her presentation media, we used 3D tools to illustrate research concepts. Choreographed to sync with key ideas in her presentation, these richly detailed animations helped to explain the impact of ‘digital determinants’ on health, wellbeing and clinical research.

From presentation stage to online, biomedically inspired visuals are most effective when tailored to the audience.   When BBC Knowledge approached us for an ‘Explainer DNA‘ animation, we gave a lot of consideration to the most effective visual style for this education and learning channel. With the aim to communicate to as broad an audience as possible, we chose a highly stylised 1970’s graphic aesthetic reminiscent of classroom science books. By developing our storyboard from the tightly scripted voice over narration, we blended playful animation with factual information to make learning about the role of DNA accessible and enjoyable for BBC’s audience.

DNA Explainer for BBC Knowledge

As CG tools become more sophisticated, the biomedical sector can benefit from the rich 3D detail, narrative approach and high production values that make Hollywood films so visually compelling. When developed in collaboration with biomedical scientists, clinical specialists, and marketers, creative teams can craft engaging and inspiring visual stories. Looking to the future, advances in Augmented and Virtual Reality will open a new frontier of opportunities that will transform the way that stakeholders and audiences engage with biomedical research and innovations.



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