An animated life

Editorial

Rebecca Pool

Friday, September 30, 2016 - 13:00
Image: Drew Berry's molecular movies have wowed audiences the world over. Meet the the one-time darkroom photographer who became a BAFTA-winning biomedical animator.
 
Jacques Cousteau may not be the obvious role model for a world-leading biomedical animator but as a child, Drew Berry, was 'totally inspired' by the French film-making oceanographer.
 
As Berry - now dubbed the 'Steven Spielberg of molecular animation' - says: "I saw Cousteau's documentaries, his travels in [mobile laboratory] Calypso and diving with sharks and thought 'that's what I want to do'."
 
Pursuing his childhood passion, Berry joined the University of Melbourne in the late-1980s to study Biology, encountered cell biology via world-renowned electron microscopist, Jeremy Pickett-Heaps, and changed his mind.
 
At the time, Pickett-Heaps was using SEM and TEM to study cell division and morphogenesis of algae, which Berry found fascinating.
 
"I shifted gear as I just got really inspired by the way Jeremy was using time-lapse microscopy and film to study dividing cells and diatoms," explains Berry. "This was a real transition-time for this kind of filming and Jeremy taught me how to look down the microscope, use different techniques and interpret what I was seeing."
 
Degree became PhD, but one year in, Berry decided to convert his doctorate to a Masters degree and revisit a second childhood aspiration, computer graphics. While day-dreaming about Cousteau's adventures, Drew had also spent a lot of time, as he says, 'dabbling' in the computers of the day; Apple II, the Amiga, the Commodore 64 and more.
 
"I'd always been into the graphics of computer games so when I got disillusioned with being in a research lab, I moved into advertising, selling computer chips to engineers in technical magazines," he explains.
 
During this time, Berry learned how to use the then, relatively new, Adobe Photoshop and as he adds: "This was all really dreary stuff but I learned how to sell, and importantly, communicate and tell a story through visuals."
 
Breathing life into cell death: Apoptosome, Apoptosis caspase activation.
 
Come 1995, a position for a darkroom photographer came up at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, Melbourne. At the time, the photographic laboratory was using Letraset to transfer letters to photographs for journal articles.
 
Berry joined, introduced Photoshop, massively accelerated image turnaround times, and was left with with a lot of spare time. So as he puts it: "I started making animations on topics of research at the Institute."
 
Crucially, Berry was working with renowned parasitologist, Professor Alan Cowman, who wanted to use animation to explain his ground-breaking research into malaria to possible funders as well as the public and politicians.
 
As Berry highlights: "One of my first animations was about the malaria lifecycle, and this ended up on news bulletins, science programmes and documentaries." His career in biomedical animation had begun.
 
Support from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research continued, then in 2001, Berry created an image of DNA for a local Melbourne museum. Thanks to this, two years later, the animator was invited by Windfall Films and Channel 4 to help create a five-part documentary as well as a museum film and educational DVD to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the double helix.
 
Berry created compelling and vibrant footage of DNA wrapping and replication, drawing on X-ray crystallographic models from the Protein Data Bank and other published scientific data-sets. His striking molecular visualisations stunned viewers the world over, and by 2005, he had won a BAFTA award and Emmy for this work.
 
"I was just so fortunate at the time to be working with wonderful people who were really and genuinely motivated to communicating good science and real science to the public," highlights Berry.
 
"Our videos had reached the Internet and we saw that watching molecular mechanisms such as DNA replication really resonated with the public," he adds. "So that series was the turning point for me, just because I was so surprised by how successful a technical scientific animation could be."
 
Chromosome and Kinetochore: this visualisation is a multi-scale reconstruction of the organisation and structural features of DNA inside a chromosome of a living cell. [WEHImovies]
 
In the years that have followed Berry's animations on cell death, sickle cell anaemia, viruses and more, have reached diverse audiences through myriad outlets including festivals, museums, television documentaries and TEDx Talks.
 
Indeed, captivated by his DNA replication animation, Icelandic singer-songwriter, Björk, approached Berry to work on her interactive album 'Biophilia' and music video 'Hollow'.
 
The recording artist was exploring themes such as the environment, Icelandic past and DNA, and as Berry says: "She was very supportive of all the real science I could bring to this and had been thinking about the rhythmic possibilities of my work."
 
"At the time I was also introduced to the creative industry staging, theatre and multimedia, which she was so connected with," he adds. "The whole project was a total blast and so much fun."
 
Come 2013, Berry released perhaps his most complex animation to date; 'Chromosome and Kinetochore' as part of an interactive textbook of biology, 'E.O.Wilson's Life on Earth'.
 
Amid the chaos of nuclesomes, chromatin, motor proteins and mitotic spindles, Berry logically and systematically revealed the many mechanisms behind cell mitosis in the vivid detail that characterises his animations.
 
"This level of detail and colour has evolved over time, but this and all my visualisations are as accurate as possible," he says. "I have discovered that you don't simplify and dumb things down ever; you show people what's going on, exactly what's possible and the science, by its very nature, is interesting."
 
Chromosome and Kinetochore: Dynein and Kinesin
 
For Berry, background research into 'Chromosome and Kinetochore' -  and many animations - involved trawling crystallography and electron microscopy data to determine 3D structures while using fluorescence microscopy imagery to determine molecule dynamics.
 
But while he would typically refer to around 85 research papers for background information, this complex cell mitosis animation demanded 180 papers.
 
Beyond the visual
Sound and background music has also featured heavily in Berry's visualisations. As the animator puts it: "I use colour to inform the audience but the acoustic aspect very much makes the animations come alive."
 
To this end, Berry has been working with Australian composer, music producer, and lifelong friend, Franc Tétaz, to design atmospheric animation soundtracks. For example, on his cell death animation, Tétaz created sounds inspired by the opening of Stanley Kubrick's 'The Shining' as well as Ridley Scott's 'Alien'.
 
As Berry highlights: "Play animations without sound to school kids and they sit, watch the animations and enjoy them. But play an animation with engaging visceral sound effects and the kids really lean forward and get into the experience."
 
Sound effects aside, Berry's amazing animations would not be possible without 3D computer animation software. The animator has been using Autodesk Maya since 2000, which he describes as 'the big gorilla of Hollywood', used to create graphics for box-office hits including 'The Matrix', Monsters Inc and Frozen.
 
"It's a vast, vast program but I find it very apt for generating biological phenomena," explains Berry. "Whether you want to use fractals or a Fibonacci series to describe [a feature], there are many possibilities to emulate how biology works."
 
And while Berry reckons graphics software has reached maturity in the last five years, easing design, an exciting future challenge is to tackle the explosion in microscopy data.
 
"All the information that is coming in is mind-boggling and wonderful but it brings a relentless tide of new possibilities," he says. "There's a huge need to explain all that is happening to the public but there's only a few dozen of us that can provide a conduit for this kind of storytelling."
 
Just opened: Biomedical Breakthroughs; A New View of You.
 
Still Berry remains unruffled. His latest animations include 'White Night Melbourne 2014', in which viruses, magnified one billion times, were displayed across the ceiling of the State Library of Victoria's domed reading room.
 
Similarly as part of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research 2015 centenary celebrations, Berry created the 'Illuminarium', a revolving LED installation of medical research images and data that span a six-storey facade at the Institute.
 
And in September this year, 'Biomedical Breakthroughs: A New View of You' opened at the Museum of Victoria, Melbourne. This features many of Berry's cellular visualisations from giant inflatable blood cells hanging from ceilings to animations of how anti-venom and antibiotics act within the body.
 
Sticking with large format projections, Berry now hopes to take new visualisations to IMAX venues and Dome-based systems.
 
"Millions of schoolkids go through these projections every year so I'm really interested in targeting them and getting them inspired by my stuff," he says. "This is the century of microscopy and molecular biology, and society really needs to understand what's going on."

 

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