Drew Berry is a biomedical animator at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research. His stunning, scientifically accurate animations illustrate how the molecules in our cells move and interact. His work, featured in the RMIT Gallery exhibition Morbis Artis: Diseases of the Arts (until 18 February) is a perfect merging of art and science – as well as being beautiful, it helps researchers see the ‘unseeable processes’ within our own cells.
Drew’s animations have been exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum, Museum of Modern Art (New York), the Royal Institute of Great Britain and the University of Geneva. He has done two TEDX talks, worked with Bjork, created special effects for a Doctor Who episode, won major awards including a BAFTA, an EMMY, and a MacArthur Fellowship Genius Award. Not surprisingly, Drew has a very impressive Wikipedia entry!
He spoke at RMIT Gallery on Friday 18 November 2016 – here is an edited version of that talk.
MY FIRST INSPIRATIONS IN ANIMATION WERE MESSING AROUND WITH COMPUTER GAMES
I was born in 1970, in the late 70’s I was really inspired by the documentaries of Jacques Cousteau, and his travelling lab on a ship and being co-inventor of the scuba tank. He was doing these amazing adventures but also science all around the world and I just knew as a young kid that that was exactly what I was going to do. So I did everything I could do at school to get into marine science. I was a rescue diver by the age of 18, I had hair back then and I was really tanned so I was really into it and got to go to university into their marine science program.
I was the first generation to grow up with access to a personal computer, the most pivotal machine for me was the Omega. It was a powerhouse well designed for graphics and sound. These are a couple of games that I just found mind blowing and inspirational. I’ve always been into games, not so much the game play but just the graphics. I remember someone saying ‘it just can’t get better, they’ve solved it all! These giant, colourful characters with a 3D effect.’ I couldn’t believe it and then Xenon II came out and had all these organic forms and I just thought, how are they doing this? With the Omega for years I ‘wasted’ many summers stuffing around with computer graphics and just playing around with games.
AT UNIVERSITY MY FOCUS SWITCHED TO CELL BIOLOGY
I discovered that if you just sample a little bit of the water even from muddy gutters, and put it under a microscope, it’s teeming with life. Even the most green and scungy water is guaranteed to be full of beautiful creatures.
I COMBINED MY SCIENCE DEGREE WITH GRAPHICS AND A SHORT EXPERIENCE IN MARKETING, WHERE I LEARNT PHOTOSHOP
I’m using the tools of cinematography, the same things they use in Hollywood for special effects so it is extremely powerful, you can deal with pretty much anything nowadays, it’s very mature and very powerful. But what I’m doing is applying it with real scientific data.
The principle of how I work is I don’t make anything up. I am just responding to the data, the measurements, what is being described in scientific literature. I build models based on that and the animations come out after, so I never know what the animation is going to look like. I go into data and it becomes clear once I am playing around.
I USE SOUND AND COLOR IN MY ANIMATIONS VERY MUCH AS AN INFORMATION TOOLS
Color in my animations provides contrast and emotes a feeling, and helps viewers look at different aspects of what is happening inside the body. It is very much a storytelling devise I use. This is my visual communication about these cells, which are are all smaller than the wavelength of light, so there is no actual color.
I also use sound for a similar reason. Sound designers like my friend, composer Frank Tétaz, who won a Grammy of the year for his work with musician Gotye, provide the sound tracks.
If you play the animation without sound in a classroom the kids will scream ‘yeah!’ you put sound in and they go, ‘whoa!’ they start leaning in, and that’s a really critical thing and they’re sucked in and they ask great questions like ‘is there really sound?’ and it’s a great question, or colour? And so on. Sound and color are really important tools in my animations.
MY ANIMATIONS ARE AN ARTISTIC INTERPRETATION OF WHAT IS HAPPENING INSIDE THE HUMAN BODY
The models, the shapes, the scale, and wherever possible the speed, are all accurate. The colours and motion, I am telling you a story, this world you wouldn’t be able to watch if I hadn’t slowed it down and stripped away all the stuff. I go into depth about what the actual molecule looks like and it’s like putting your head in a thick soup and you can’t see anything. So I stripped away everything except the things that I’m just showing you.
ONE OF MY HEROES IS NEUROBIOLOGIST RAMON CAJAL AND HIS ARTISTIC DRAWINGS OF CELLS
Cajal (A Spanish Nobel laureate) did these exquisite watercolours and ink-based paintings and these are still used in education class textbooks today. They’re beautifully accurate; you can’t really improve on what he’s done in such detail. This is very much what I do, using technology to look at data and do measurements and paintings as accurately as I can.
Cajal had worked out a hundred years ago the wiring of our brain that we are still barely working out today. What it turns out he was doing was adding dye to the neurons up here and he was seeing the dye flow and that’s actually the flow of information; it’s a stream inside the cells. With the dye he was mapping out where the flow was and as it turns out that’s where the signal goes.
MY SECOND MOST FUN PROJECT WAS WORKING WITH BJORK ON HOLLOW FOR HER ALBUM BIOPHILIA
I am very excited to have worked with Bjork! Hollow is a beautiful piece of work, you can actually use her interface and you dive into the stars in one of the songs. I did a 3D face scan of Bjork and I represented her proteins as an ancestral spirit creature to show the flow of genes going from one generation to the next.
What we built was a drum machine made out of the DNA because it broke the mechanism so that we achieved what she wanted and then we also did this feature video.
The song itself, the instrumentation is the world’s largest acoustic instrument, which is the pipe organ, which Bjork played in a lighthouse. It’s a very spooky Gothic song. She specifically asked for bling DNA, it was ‘blinged’ up with the colours and everything else.
So this was a fun project and we did some crazy stuff and it was fantastic.