Just how do you get a job revealing the unseen beauty of science? Here, animator Drew Berry whose stunning visualizations of the inner workings of cells have been displayed everywhere from scientific journals to the MOMA, explains his own path into the field.
Berry joined us to take our questions about his amazingly-detailed biomedical animation visualizations, and told us just how he ended up in the field, with the art room, early graphics videogames, science fiction and horror movies of the late '60s, and the biology lab all featuring along the way:
Ok, you asked...
The classes I loved at school were graphic design and biology. In my final year of school I enjoyed playing with airbrushes and getting into the zone of creating art. However because I was just ok and not great my art teacher recommended I do something else at University.
Most of my art sensibility was shaped by watching way too many science fiction and horror films from the 60's and 70's and being fascinated by the graphics of computer games over the last twenty years or so. I was about 8 when I encountered my first, fondly-remembered computer at school: a TRS-80 with an audio cassette drive and a monochrome monitor. The first game I played was a text-only adventure called "Haunted House" which was extremely simple but got me hooked on the imaginative worlds that games can create. Then I went through a typical upgrade path of a Commodore 64, an Apple II, and the most pivotal machine in my life, an Amiga 500. I have mucked around with loads of programs since I was a kid including games, graphics and paint programs, just enjoying the ability to create colour and movement on screen.
The Amiga games that really rocked my world included Xenon 2 by The Bitmap Bros, Shadow of the Beast by Reflections Interactive, and Another World by Eric Chahi – footage from all of these games can be found on YouTube. Xenon 2 was memorable for it's organic, biology inspired sprite animation of little alien creatures flying around in 2.5D and an awesome 8-bit soundtrack. I vividly recall when I first saw this game and thought "graphics can't get better than this!". Shadow of the Beast then took the next step because it had huge, detailed creature sprites with layered backgrounds that created a strong pseudo-3D parallax effect as your character ran around the screen. But then came Another World, which had flat, toon-shaded artwork, but was truly cinematic in it's visual storytelling. It remains a high-water mark in video game art design in my opinion.
As a kid I was also inspired by documentaries by Jacques Cousteau and wanted to become a marine scientist to study sharks. I followed that passion through to University doing the requisite courses to get into marine biology. One of my lecturers, Prof Jeremy Pickett-Heaps, gave engaging and memorable classes where he showed lots of microscopy video and time-lapse footage of living cells. His lab at the University of Melbourne was full of interesting video technology, microscopes and filming gear which piqued my love of gadgets. I ended up doing research in his lab, keeping cultures of microscopic organisms healthy and happy, and I was taught how to film them with a variety of microscope techniques.
I really loved doing the lab work, even though it was often tedious and repetitive (which turns out to be great training for animation work) but what really disappointed me was watching the great scientists around me spending so much of their time applying for grants and often failing to secure funding for basic research. I decided that although I loved science, the career demands for a scientist was not for me. I wrapped up my research as a Masters in Cell Biology and decided to move on.
In 1995 landed myself a job as the Photoshop guy at The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, Melbourne. Because of my chops with Photoshop and scripting automation, I was able to finish most days work before lunch, and then used the rest of the day to experiment with 3D graphics programs: Infini-D, then 3D Studio Max for about 5 years, then Maya for the last 15.
You can read his whole Q&A — including why he calls the visualization up top of the structure of DNA inside of a chromosome the most beautiful and technically challenging piece of art he's ever made — right here.