Studio Spotlight: Cortical Studios & Cyberfish
Two studios come together and use LightWave 3D to create a medical animation that is designed to educate consumers
Posted: Wed 27 Aug 2014
AMSTERDAM, The Netherlands
To help people understand the mechanism of action (MoA) of its next-generation probiotic CLOSTAT, the manufacturer Kemin AgriFoods commissioned 3D medical animation company Cortical Studios to create a short film illustrating how this probiotic keeps poultry healthier by maintaining a balanced intestinal microflora. To help them create the 3:44 educational, promotional video, primarily using LightWave 3D animation software, Cortical Studios turned to 3D visualization studio Cyberfish.
With its vivid, cinematic 3D imagery, CLOSTAT: A Next Generation Probiotic presents a captivating explanation of how, when added to poultry feed, this probiotic contributes to healthy gut flora, thereby providing a healthy alternative to antibiotics. The video was honored with the Gold World Medal in the Instruction & Education category at the 2014 New York Festivals, the equivalent of the Oscars for commissioned films, along with a Bronze World Medal in the same festival’s Animation category. It was also a finalist in the 2013 Global Awards, which focuses on science and healthcare.
Since 2001, Cortical Studios and Cyberfish—both Amsterdam based companies—have partnered on many scientific/biomedical visualizations—often involving molecular biology—that convey very complex subject matter in very clear, aesthetic and accurate terms. With a masters degree in biology—with an emphasis on molecular cell biology—from the University of Amsterdam, Cortical Studios Owner Martijn Rijnberg takes the lead on developing the scientific content, such as scripts, storyboards, and animatics, and serves as scientific director and project manager.
While he has some LightWave experience, he prefers to turn the 3D animation over to Cyberfish because their core competency is getting the most out of LightWave 3D to bring these visualizations to life. The Cyberfish team includes: Freddy Peters, who founded the company and now serves as lead 3D artist; Ronald van Vemden, whose skills range from illustrator to character specialist and animator; and Pieter van Lier, interior product designer, surfacing specialist and animator.
In the CLOSTAT video—which targets farmers, veterinarians and others entrusted with the health of animals—viewers first see 3D chickens and chicks pecking at food. With soft mood music in the background, viewers get the perspective of floating through the large intestine of a chicken where they can see the villi, slight bulges that line the intestinal walls, and good and bad bacterial species that populate this ecosystem.
With each 3D animated frame, viewers see a richly detailed and provocative depiction of microbial life, enhanced with different shapes, vivid colors, textures, reflections and shading. Objects link together or move in other gracefully choreographed patterns. For example, Clostridium perfringens, which are hostile bacteria, can be seen as 3D capsule-like objects migrating up to the small intestine where they multiply exponentially, creating an imbalance in the microbial ecosystem.
The animation then shows how the toxins produced by these bacteria cause lesions and other damage in the small intestine. This is followed by a demonstration of how Kemin isolated a patented microbial strain named PB6 (renamed CLOSTAT), fed to the animals as spores, which allow the bacteria to survive the harsh, acidic conditions of the stomach. CLOSTAT germinates into vegetative cells and produces anti-bacterial compounds that look like a cluster of iridescent yellow spheres called surfactins. In another scene, surfactins cause a very large dark pink bacterium to rupture, which then causes clear, viscous bubbles to spill out, ultimately killing the pathogenic host bacteria. CLOSTAT, shown as blue pellets, then binds to the epithelial layer excluding, and ultimately killing, the harmful bacteria.
“If you were to put a real camera inside the body to see these processes, you wouldn’t see these logical, cinematic animations. Visually, it would be complete chaos with no easy way to discern what was happening,” said Rijnberg. “We have to convey the key concepts and tell a compelling story. This means showcasing certain 3D objects while leaving others out of the picture altogether.”
“To show something inside a cell in reality is like looking into a big soup; nothing beautiful actually,” Rijnberg said. “What you see in the animation is far from the reality of the true physiology because it’s an artistic impression; a virtual world.”
Most of the time he begins by creating a database of images captured by microscopes or featured in scientific journals. He then explains the sequence of biological events step-by-step so the Cyberfish team understands what visuals need to be created.
While creating this type of 3D animation is a very time-consuming and painstaking process, LightWave offers tools that enable shortcuts to get the job done faster. For example, instancing plays a big role in the creation of the villi, which appear to stick up out of the intestinal walls like carpet fibers that can softly sway. By using different sub-patch levels for each scene, they only had to create one villi ‘actor’ to fulfill all these rolls.
“For the villi, we wanted to create a really detailed and specific texture that would resemble the electron microscope photos we had for reference, which was quite a challenge,” Peters said. “This is where the variable sub-patch levels came in handy. We had to displace a cellular-like pattern and lesion damage on top of the deeply wrinkled and speckled surface of the villi. We used a combination of nodal procedures, hand-drawn bitmaps and baked displacement maps and normal maps for the final look of the texture.”
“For wide views, the villi were instanced along the undulating surface of the large intestine, and they would have a low sub-patch level. In medium shots, the wrinkles become more prominent and there we used a higher sub-patch level. In close-ups, the cellular structure and lesion damage was displaced on a high sub-division level, and on a micro-level we could place microvilli instances on the displaced cellular surface,” Peters said.
”To get the crisp, detailed final look, we did a lot of further enhancements in Lightwave’s surface editor, f.i., we used a lot of incidence angle gradients within the texture editors of the color, transparency and reflection channels. Lighting the scenes with background lights, spotlights, fill in lights and radiosity.
By the way, incidence angle gradients (on the luminosity and diffuse channels) can also simulate a certain type of microscopic lighting.
Cyberfish uses Lightwave’s hypervoxels to create liquidy effects, such as bubbles spilling out of bacteria. “For creating amorphous shapes,” Peters said, “We occasionally add a displacement map in Layout so that all the points are moving to another direction. That gives you an irregular shape. Then if you want to isolate certain parts of it, so that the displacement only works on certain isolated parts, you need a weight map to isolate it. We use these displacement and weight maps very often in this type of work.”
“Using LightWave’s VPR (Viewport Preview Renderer), you can change something in your scene and see the results on your screen instantly. The VPR can speed up the process of previewing when shading, adjusting lights, moving objects, placing shadows and other creative modifications. Years ago you had to wait for it to render first, and then wait some more for each repeated rendering pass. Also, using a simple background gradient combined with backdrop radiosity rendering is a fast way to get good first impression quality renders,” said Peters.
“Another LightWave must-use is the new tweak tool,” Peters added. “A few years ago, modifying points, polys or edges wasn’t possible with just one tool. You had to select first what you wanted to modify so this took a lot of extra time, constantly switching from one tool to another. Now with the tweak tool you can modify points, polys and edges with just one click, which is much better for your workflow and a big time-saver!”
LightWave also enables very fast final rendering. At Cyberfish, this is always done as an image sequence with alpha channels. When they need f.i., the depth channel for depth of field usage in After Effects, then they use the Extended RPF Export.
Besides the life science giant Kemin AgriFoods, Cortical Studios has produced a wide range of films for such clients as Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer and Shire. They are often called upon to create animated clips that demonstrate the MoA (Mechanism of Action) and other medical scenarios relevant to the marketing of drugs.
For the Kemin marketing team, having an animated video that explains their product’s MoA and how it works is invaluable. The video can be presented on an iPad, viewed on a website, distributed worldwide and subtitled in other languages if necessary.
Creating an MoA animation is almost always linked to a very tight deadline. They are mostly created for a specific convention, so you can’t deliver them a day later than the specified deadline. Time constraints are more common than budget constraints.
As long-time partners, Cortical Studios and Cyberfish share the same goal—to make high-quality animations with a high degree of scientific accuracy. In a joint effort with Cyberfish, Cortical Studios won many prestigious, international awards for its work. About the New York Festival awards, Rijnberg said, “It’s an enormous honor that a relatively small company—competing at world level with players such as HBO, Disney and National Geographic—should not only reach the finals, but also win a gold and bronze medal. This is a real encouragement to us in our scientific and creative work.”