Zoek in de site...

Report “Animating Science”

InScience Big Ideas: Biomedical animator Drew Berry
Imagining Science
Vrijdag 4 november 2016 | 19.30 - 21.00 uur | LUX, Mariënburg 38-39, Nijmegen

Drew Berry studied cell biology but also light microscopy and electron microscopy at University of Melbourne, Australia.


Cell biology studies a world beyond our immediate grasp. Our DNA is too small to be seen even through a microscope. Chromosomes and other components of our cells which form the hidden fibres of our body are “invisible”. The further science moves into the deep texture of the universe, the smaller the elements are, the less can be seen. Scientists use models, diagrams and drawings, in order to illustrate their discoveries. In this way they create a bi-dimensional representation of the atomic and molecular world. Drew Berry took these representations to a new level; he made them dynamic and three dimensional, they became animations!

Drew Berry studied cell biology but also light microscopy and electron microscopy at University of Melbourne, Australia. His big idea was to translate scientific data into biomedical animations. He spoke passionately, during the lecture, about the importance of animations for understanding science. Everyone can watch them and discover their body in a new way. In the profound strata of our body there is life which makes our own lives possible. At the same time the sheer beauty of his videos reveal the artistic side of his work.

The world beyond light

Cells are composed of molecules so miniscule that it is impossible to film or photograph them. They are so small that even light is too big to make them visible. Berry’s pioneering idea was to use the new video graphics in order to create dynamic scientific models and representations of these cells. As he confessed, it requires a lot of hard work and time to translate the arid scientific data into scientifically accurate animations. It can take up to six months of research to make a few minutes long animation.

The result, however, is spectacular. One of the animations Drew presented was about the lifecycle of malaria. We could see how the malaria virus enters the human body through a mosquito bite, infesting the liver cells. Drew’s explanation of the process, combined with graphic representations, turned the animation into a story. The virus is like a spy looking to infect the organism, while remaining undetected by our immune system.

The purpose of biomedical animations is mainly educational. Drew’s intention is to translate scientific knowledge in video animations that can be understood without having a solid scientific background. Thus, scientific accuracy is at the core of his work. Nevertheless, there is an irreducible artistic aspect in his animations. The colours of cells, viruses, chromosomes, are based not on their “real” colour since they are too small to have one, but on a code which Drew Berry uses like a painter who chooses the nuances that best reflect the world. Red and pink are for healthy cells, yellow for diseases, and cold colours, like blue, for dead cells.  As a result, he manages to transcribe in watchable forms a world that cannot be seen directly. A world beyond light is brought to light.

When art meets science…

We discover our ancestors in our genes. This is actually how Björk, in her song Hollow, interprets the DNA. The video clip of this song, presented by Drew Berry during the lecture, resulted from the collaboration between the two, the artist and the scientist. Its opening scene illustrates a blood tissue, when magnified it reveals a deeper level, the cells. At the last level, buried in the core of our being we are shown our biological “essence” -  DNA. Although the scientific accuracy of the animation is preserved, the scientific interpretation becomes intertwined with artistic meaning. The narrative of the song describes the artist’s attempt to discover a connection with her ancestors, a relation that is both spiritual and organic. This dual meaning shows that art and science are not mutually exclusive. How could they be since both make us aware that the world we live in is both complex and beautiful?

Asked if he considers himself more of an artist or a scientist, Drew answered without hesitation that he is interested more in the scientific character of his work. Although his animations were exhibited in some of the most important museums of the world, like MoMa in New York, for him the contact with the artistic world it is beneficial because it makes possible to reach a wider audience. In the end, he said, aesthetics are relevant, but more important is to make science accessible to everyone. Without doubt he succeeded given that the public has a huge appetite for his animations.

The wisdom of our bodies

Watching Drew’s animations, we are watching ourselves. Through his animations we come to see our bodies in a new way. Miniscule enemies trying to assault us are fought back by our immune system. The self-duplication of DNA makes, in the end, our lives possible. Seeing how each component of our cells interacts with each other in the interest of our well-being, without our intervention, makes us admire the wisdom of our bodies.

Asked if these biological processes should be understood mechanically or not, Drew left the question open. On the one hand he said that the molecular world is mechanical, but at the same time different metaphors can be used to make animations comprehensible.  The important thing is to understand what science can teach us about our bodies. Since they are free to access on the Internet, everyone can watch them. However, the scientist will not stop here. He has plans to transpose his animations in virtual reality and also to project them on buildings.

Report by Alex Deaconu