Body Works

September 3, 2012 11:55 am

Tags: 3D, animation, C4D, Cinema 4D, Maxon, Meleah Maynard, Mograph

How An Artist Who Once Dreamed of Being a Bodybuilder Became a Successful Medical Animator Thanks to C4D and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Apoptosis: Chances are you aren’t familiar with this word. But your body is no stranger to the process. Apoptosis, also known as programmed cell death, is a normal system for getting rid of unneeded, aged or damaged cells. And it is estimated that up to about 70 billion cells die each day through apoptosis in the average adult. Cancer researchers are currently studying apoptosis in the hopes of finding ways to turn this natural process loose on cancer cells to target and kill them.


It’s groundbreaking work that’s getting a lot of attention these days. So, when medical animator Nick Shotwell was hired by Indiana-based DWA Healthcare Communications Group to increase the company’s capabilities and help them move from illustration into animation, he opted to create an apoptosis animation that could potentially attract new clients. The first hurdle? Convincing the company to buy a copy of Cinema 4D, and then learning to use it in ways he’d never attempted to before. And he needed to learn fast.

“When I bought Cinema through work, we got an upgrade that included access to Cineversity’s tutorials and one-on-one training,” Shotwell recalls. “I contacted Maxon and they told me one of their lead trainers lives here in town and could help me.” That trainer was digital game artist and designer Darrin Frankovitz who, as it turned out, lived very close to Shotwell. The two met and over the next two years did web-based training every few months.


“Darrin was a big help in a lot of ways, but one of the things I liked most was that he helped me figure things out for myself. He didn’t just tell me how to do things,” says Shotwell, adding that he uses something he learned from Frankovitz on every project he works on. “We covered a wide range of Cinema 4D capabilities, and I got a much better understanding of the tools.”

MoGraph was the main tool Shotwell needed to learn for the apoptosis animation. In particular, MoGraph came in handy when he was attempting to depict a cell’s surface. “There are all of these little balls on the surface of a cell and that’s a tricky thing to do for all medical animators, so you have to fake it somehow or you’ll crash your machine,” he explains. Frankovitz showed him how to use clones more densely up by the camera while making the most of depth of field. (Watch the animation here:


Like other medical animators, Shotwell turned to the open-source plug-in ePMV (embedded Python Molecular Viewer) when building and animating molecules in C4D. Created by Graham Johnson and Ludovic Autin of Scripps Research Institute, ePMV ( allows users to run molecular modeling software inside 3D animation applications. “I get the models I need with ePMV and bring them into Cinema so I can just start animating,” he says.

Rigging 101

After finishing the apoptosis animation, Shotwell moved on to another challenging project that is still in progress—rigging a complex model of the human anatomy. Again, he turned to Frankovitz for help. “Darrin has given me tips that you just can’t get from a video,” he says. “And I needed a lot of help because I had no idea what I was doing with rigging when I started this.”


Shotwell’s model, which his company bought from Zygote (, is commonly used by medical animators, and he figured he’d better learn how to rig it so they could make the most of their purchase. He soon found out that he was one of many artists trying to accomplish that task. “I talked with the people at Zygote and they told me people have attempted to rig the model before and it takes a long time and it’s very painstaking work,” Shotwell says.

So far, the skeleton is rigged and the skin is rigged and weighted. The nervous system will likely be next. And, yes, the others were right about the work being time consuming. “I was just trying to turn the head and it was taking forever and I saw what happened to the geometry when it turned, so Darrin helped me figure that out,” Shotwell continues. Worried that he must be doing something wrong, he was relieved when Frankovitz assured him that rigging is tedious and just getting the head to turn was probably going to take eight hours. “That was good to know, because sometimes you doubt yourself and think: ‘Am I doing this in the most efficient way?’”



Shotwell’s decision to take on the challenge of rigging such a difficult model of the human anatomy was not just motivated by work. Before becoming a medical animator, he had considered a career in bodybuilding, having been inspired in part by Arnold Schwarzenegger. As fate would have it, though, Schwarzenegger turned out to be the guiding force behind Shotwell’s medical animation career.


The story reads like a fairytale, but it’s true, and it goes like this. Schwarzenegger was at a prominent bodybuilding and sports event in Columbus, Ohio. Shotwell attended the event and brought along a montage of portraits he had drawn of his idol, hoping Schwarzenegger would autograph it. Somehow, he managed to get backstage, and he stationed himself beside Schwarzenegger’s waiting limousine.

Not only did he get an autograph, but he got a call from Schwarzenegger’s secretary a week later asking if he could create some more artwork for him. “It was amazing,” recalls Shotwell. “He was my number-one idol and it meant a lot to me that he thought I was a talented artist. Had I not met him, I don’t know if I would have had the confidence to believe I could do art for a living and become a medical animator.”

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



September 4, 2012

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