Georgia-Based Nucleus Medical Art Dives Deep Into CINEMA 4D to Create an Up-Close-and-Personal Perspective on a Widespread Disease

When Georgia-based Nucleus Medical Art went looking for a new creative challenge last year, they decided to animate atherosclerosis (commonly known as hardening of the arteries). A widespread medical problem, the disease has been animated many times before. But Nucleus planned to take a different approach this time, offering viewers a look at the slow-moving process from inside the body rather than the usual perspective of being outside looking in. “This positions the viewer within the artery to experience the action inside the body in an immersive manner,” explains Thomas Brown, Nucleus’ animation director.

Created almost entirely with MAXON’s CINEMA 4D, the animation has clearly made an impression on many people who have seen it. “These are meant to be educational, but we get so much feedback on this one from people who have watched it and decided to make changes in their lifestyles,” says Ron Collins, Nucleus’ CEO. “People see it on YouTube and say, ‘I’m going to quit smoking, or I’m going to start running.” (See it for yourself here: Pharmaceutical Medical Animations)


Nucleus Medical Art Digital Effect Supervisor, Stephen Boyd, used the Dynamics Module in this shot where smooth muscle cells migrate to the vessel lumen. “I think this is one of the most innovative shots in the animation,” says Thomas Brown, Nucleus’ animation director.

In addition to its healthy message, the animation has also been an educational opportunity for the artists at Nucleus (www.nucleusinc.com). From the beginning, Brown’s approach as the project’s director was to come up with something cutting edge, something that pushed the limits of what Nucleus’ entire team of animators knew about C4D. “Once I saw the script (written by Nucleus’ medical writer Mary Beth Clough) Brown recalls, “I realized this project was a chain of visual effects and I saw it as a really good opportunity for us to train and get to a whole new level of animation. With one month to complete the work, Brown gave each of Nucleus’ five animators a scene to create, telling them to produce it with tools they’d never used before.


C4D’s Thinking Particles module was used to create the red blood cells in the animation. The clot (seen at the center of the image) was made by animator Erin Frederikson using with Dynamics. “This is really the climactic scene,” Brown explains, “so we really pushed the depth of field to emphasize the scale here.”

In the shot where smooth muscle cells have migrated to the lumen (the inner lining of the damaged blood vessel), for example, animator and digital effects supervisor Stephen Boyd used C4D’s Dynamics module to create soft body simulations that gave the cells a realistic look. “This was a new and interesting problem for us because typically medical animators would keyframe the motions and there wouldn’t be as much visual interest,” says Brown, who has been using C4D for seven years. “With Dynamics we were able to give the cells an organic, squishy look.”


Brown used MoGraph’s selection tools and effectors to create a tear in the artery wall in this shot. “It was an amazing process to create one cell and multiply it using MoGraph while keeping a really clean, simple file.”

Working from visual references, animator Hoc Kho used MAXON’s BodyPaint 3D to create the photo-realistic heart in the opening shot. What makes this heart unique, says Brown, is that most animated hearts don’t look realistic because there is such a clear delineation between fat and muscle or, sometimes, no fat at all. “The surface of the heart is moist and contains a mixture of muscle, fat and blood vessels,” he explains. “We chose BodyPaint for this because we wanted to create the most accurate heart material down to the finest detail.”


While Nucleus’ animator, Hoc Kho, had used BodyPaint 3D many times in the past, what he learned while working on this heart opened up a whole new world of creative possibilities for the team.

Though the team works with C4D’s MoGraph module often, this project was a first for using it to make nearly every shot. Red blood cells, vessel walls, LDL cholesterol and macrophages (white blood cells that take up foreign material in the body) were all cloned using MoGraph “because it gave us so much control to copy and manipulate,” says Brown. “This animation has really made MoGraph a standard tool for us.” To create the pseudopods (the arm-like extensions of the macrophage), Brown suggested that animator Nobles Green use C4D’s Hair module. “Nobles and our Digital Effects Supervisor, Stephen Boyd, came up with a brilliant solution for using the Hair module at the cellular level.”


Arms reaching out from this macrophage (white blood cell) to ingest cholesterol that has invaded the arterial wall were made using C4D’s Hair module.

In addition to directing the project with an eye toward continuity of style and composition, Brown also created some scenes himself, including those involving LDL cholesterol and the lumen. The scene where the cholesterol is oxidizing was particularly fun to work on, he says, in part because of the incredible network of fibers on the inner wall of the artery. “It was such a powerful and important shot, it was great that C4D was robust enough to handle all of those objects and integrate them into each other,” he says, adding that he appreciated how easy it was to modify objects by simply changing a few settings.


In this shot, LDL cholesterol appears intact in the lower-left corner while oxidized cholesterol that has broken apart is shown in the background as it infiltrates the damaged arterial wall along with red blood cells.

To enhance the realistic feel and give viewers a sense of being part of the action, the animation team created camera movements in C4D that looked hand-held. When a rush of blood, or cells, pass by, the scene pulsates. At one point, a smooth muscle cell is made to look as if it has actually bumped up against the viewer. Typically, an animation on this subject would be shown in cross-section or from a transparent, external perspective. “But we were going for a total immersion experience,” Brown explains. “So everything, including the cameras, had to react to the environment.”

Made in HD with lots of multi-pass renders, this animation is the most heavily composited project Nucleus has created to date, Brown says. Polygon counts ranged from 150,000 to 750,000 with object counts going from 25 to 10,000. Despite this, file sizes were small because almost everything was created using C4D material shaders, modifiers and generators. (Though some baked files were as large as 600 megabytes.) Rendering was done over the course of two weeks on 8 8-core Macs with some frames taking up to 10 minutes each. Once each animator had finished their shot through the initial compositing using Adobe After Effects, Brown created the project’s final composite and sound design.


Brown used MoGraph’s Cloner Tool and multiple effectors when making the scenes involving the oxidation of cholesterol. “MoGraph’s ability to generate, modify and animate complex systems for cellular and molecular scenes made this potentially overwhelming shot a pleasure to realize,” he says.

While one half of the Nucleus team usually works on custom animations for clients, including pharmaceutical and medical device companies, the other half creates licensed content like this animation, which has quickly become a top-licensed offering from their enormous library of 2D illustrations and animations. For Brown, though, this atherosclerosis animation stands out as a unique example of the team’s level of excellence. And he is not alone. The animation was recently accepted for inclusion at the SIGGRAPH 2009 Computer Animation Festival, which is being held in New Orleans, Louisiana, in August. Making the honor even sweeter was the fact that this was the first time Nucleus has ever submitted anything for SIGGRAPH. “Everyone involved with this animation did an astonishing job pushing the boundaries of medical 3D animation and elevating scientific education,” says Brown. “We’re thrilled at the positive reception this animation has received.”


Editor's note: “Atherosclerosis” will screen as part of the “Digital Schoolhouse” reel, Friday, August 7th from 8:30 AM to 10:15 AM at the LaNouvelle Orleans Ballroom, at SIGGRAPH 2009 in New Orleans, LA USA.

During the SIGGRAPH Exposition, August 4th– 6th, MAXON product demonstrations will take place during exhibit floor hours at Booth # 3219, as follows: Tuesday, August 4th and Wednesday, August 5th – 9:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Thursday, August 6th – 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. For detailed information on MAXON’s exhibitor participation at SIGGRAPH, please click here


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Meleah Maynard is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and editor. Contact her at her website: www.slowdog.com

July 27, 2009

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