A Day in the Life of a Virus

November 2012 Power Artist Brett Murrah creates stunning scientific vis with LightWave

Posted: Mon 19 Nov 2012

Before a new drug, medical device, or other scientific breakthrough finds its way to market, the manufacturer could spend millions, even billions, in research and development. Clinical trials, legal reviews, and FDA approvals are among the critical hurdles a new drug must clear before it can reach and help consumers in need.

Along the way, executives from healthcare companies, such as pharmaceutical giants, biotech firms, and medical device makers, must tell their story in a clear and compelling way to sell others on the efficacy and benefit of their new products. Visual storytelling in the form of 3D animations, illustrations, even iPad apps or games can be a highly effective way to describe extremely complex concepts that are not easy to see or understand.

XVIVO Scientific Animation, in Rocky Hill, Connecticut, is an award-winning company that specializes in creating 3D animations, medical illustrations, and interactive media content—to educate and inform people about new medical and scientific breakthroughs in a way that is compelling and memorable. Their script-to-screen services range from painstakingly accurate, detailed animations to lighthearted cartoons, depending on the style or format that best satisfies the intended objective or application.

“Our goal is to tell a very complex story as simply and effectively as possible so that viewers can easily absorb and comprehend it,” said Brett Murrah, lead animator, XVIVO. “While our 3D animations and visualizations often involve intricate scientific or medical content, we strive to make each presentation aesthetically appealing works of art in their own right.”

Enter LightWave

Murrah depends on LightWave 3D to accomplish virtually any artistic/technical task at hand within the tight deadlines customary for this industry. The mission might be to dramatize a day in the life of a virus, how it enters the respiratory system, travels to healthy cells, and infects them in order to demonstrate how an anti-viral drug would inhibit its ability to replicate. The 3D animations might take viewers on a journey along with a drug entering the bloodstream where it delivers therapeutic benefits, or watch how a medical device is used in surgery.

“After all the research, client conferences, and consultations with medical experts and scriptwriters, I turn to LightWave to translate my creative vision for the project onto the screen,” Murrah said. He often begins by reviewing medical illustrations, storyboards, and animatics to get a clear idea of the storyline and rough timings for the animation.

“After 15 years of working with LightWave, I know the ins and outs of the software and how to get things done quickly without hurdles or bottlenecks. Compared to other 3D animation systems I’ve used, LightWave is a very stable program, with improved workflow tools and super fast rendering, so I’m never stuck pulling all-nighters to make a deadline.”

The Making of a Virus

Each still frame within XVIVO’s 3D animations is a stunning work of art in its own right. While these frames may depict molecular structures like bacteria or DNA, the artist’s strategic use of colors, textures, shapes, lighting, and effects bring the subjects to life in extraordinary, exotic environments resembling the deep sea or outer space.

Image courtesy and © XVIVO Scientific Animation.

To create an ultra-high resolution frame called “Virus,” Murrah began by modeling the 3D spherical surfaces of a cluster of viruses. Subdued pastel colors, volumetric lighting, highlights and shadows create a sense of drama. On the surface, each virus is completely covered with thousands of smooth bumps and protruding, greenish growths that form a very symmetrical pattern.

“I basically start with one small shape and then use it to populate the surface of the spheres in whatever pattern I want,” said Murrah. “LightWave’s Instancing feature clones the objects and places them onto the surface according to whatever parameters I set. I use this tool a lot and it’s a tremendous time-saver.” Instancing, which is part of a new, improved toolset in LightWave version 11, allows infinite duplication of objects in a scene with very little overhead despite the huge virtual polygon counts.

“If we wanted to animate that scene, we could move LightWave’s virtual cameras between objects or fly over the scene to get different, three-dimensional perspectives of the viruses,” Murrah said. All of the tools necessary for 3D animation can be found in LightWave’s Layout module.

Image courtesy and © XVIVO Scientific Animation.

“We set-up the scene as if it were a TV set or stage, positioning the cameras, arranging 3D objects, designing the 3D lighting, and choreographing the action,” said Murrah. “To animate the ‘Virus’ still frame into a full motion 3D animation, we might show the viruses rising up and moving away from the camera, or going into a cell to infect it, and even following it into the middle of the cell to show what happens there. Then, just like a movie production, we’d cut to the next scene. In just a few minutes, we’d have a couple hundred frames of the 3D animation completely finished.”

“Virus” is one of several portfolio pieces that Murrah uses to show the quality and capabilities his studio can produce. Pharmaceutical giants and other large corporations typically restrict how their images can be shown or used and everyone must comply with strict legal and regulatory restrictions. But a gallery of animations can be viewed at the company’s website www.xvivo.net.

The inner world of bone

For another portfolio piece called “Bone Cells,” Murrah leveraged another go-to LightWave 11 tool, hypervoxels. While hypervoxels lets animators create smoke, flames, liquids, explosions, clouds and nebulas, among other visual effects, Murrah used it to give the floor of the scene a very gritty, sandy surface. He could also alter and manipulate the look and shape of the sandy particles so they wouldn’t be uniform in appearance.

Image courtesy and © XVIVO Scientific Animation.

Situated on that sandy surface are a variety of objects, including a blue sphere representing a cell. “The blue cell has a lot of detail on it, including bumps that I created using displacement mapping,” said Murrah. “While many 3D animation tools require you to render out effects like displacements maps to see how they look, LightWave shows you how it looks without requiring you to render it first. So, as you manipulate the deformation and add detail, you’re seeing the impact of your changes while you work. This means that I can spend more time being creative without having to continually re-render the image.”

The same instant gratification applies to other complex enhancements like volumetric lighting (like light shining through fog), radiosity (where light bounces off objects in the scenes), and caustic (intense white-hot lighting) effects. “I’m more willing to experiment with lighting and strive for realism, even when I’m pressed for time, because I feel I have more creative control,” Murrah said. “With the Viewport Preview Renderer (VPR) feature, I can practically work in real-time to perfect scenes to exactly how I want them to look. I use VPR extensively in my workflow process.”

Image courtesy and © XVIVO Scientific Animation.

VPR provides an interactive view of scenes making it more efficient to hone instancing, nodal shading, lighting, fibers, volumetrics, and other effects, and the results closely approximate the final rendered image. LightWave 3D also includes 999 free cross-platform render nodes, which make rendering very efficient.

“Our render farm consists of about 25 PCs so we never need all 999 rendering nodes, but LightWave’s rendering is extremely fast and this is extremely advantageous in the work we do,” said Murrah. Some 3D still frames can reach or exceed 5000 x 3000 pixels, which exceeds film resolution.

Led by President/Creative Director Michael Astrachan, XVIVO is a very creative studio environment where animators, art directors, and others often collaborate on projects. Their talent and versatility enables them to do award-winning work not only for the medical/scientific community, but for television broadcast networks, universities, and museums, as part of its diverse clientele. The team has a variety of 3D animation packages and 2D visual effects compositing software at its disposal.

“Other 3D animation packages I’ve used have crashed causing me to lose my work and then I had to spend valuable time trying to figure out what happened and recover from the set-back. But LightWave’s very solid and it just works,” Murrah said. “With LightWave, I’m extremely productive and have never missed a deadline. I’d have to say that I’m genuinely one of the least stressed animators at my company.”

 Image courtesy and © XVIVO Scientific Animation.