Here’s a pretty little visualization by Hybrid Medical Animation: a demo reel of clips portraying various physiological processes and medical devices in action, in various styles of animation:

hybrid 2010 reel from hybrid medical animation on Vimeo.

One of my frustrations with medical animations is that they’re a Disneyfied look at the body. Real biology is dirty, sticky, unpredictable, and a little dangerous – kind of like Times Square used to be. But in medical animations the body is always a minimalist, sterile Kubrickian utopia, usually in Pottery Barn colors, where pretty little molecules do unerring dances to soothing electronica. Boo.

Right at 1:00 there’s a nice clip which, to me, rings much truer to the way molecules really move – that is, like spastic, Brownian stop-motion claymation. It’s interesting that there’s only one brief clip in that style. The rest is very smooth and pretty. And I suppose it has to be this way: no one wants to witness the insertion of a stent (see video ~1:45) through in a jerky churn of thick, cell-crowded blood; if an artist did portray it that way, just on biological principle, you couldn’t see a darn thing, which would completely defeat the purpose! Hybrid is good at what they do, this video successfully gets some complex ideas across, and it doesn’t need to be overcomplicated with unnecessary biological detail. So I try to remind myself that conceptual animations like this should be idealized and simple – even though they’d be so much more awesome steampunked. (I mean, come on. That beating heart. . . with rivets and stuff? Mmmmmmm.)

Via Coilhouse.


  1. #1 RM
    April 4, 2010

    Most scientific movies (even the impressively done The Inner Life of a Cell – if you haven’t seen it yet, go watch it now. I’ll wait … back? Worth it, huh?) and renderings present protein structures as smooth, glossy billiard balls. The problem with that is, due to quantum mechanical uncertainty, general dynamicism, etc, etc, there isn’t a well defined surface of molecules to be glossy and billiard like.

    As a biochemist, one of the most thought provoking molecular animations I’ve seen was the DNA replication/transcription/translation animations from HHMI. In these videos, the proteins are furry. It blew me out of the water. I think “muppet molecules” are a much more accurate representation than the standard billiard ball ones.

  2. #2 Jessica Palmer
    April 4, 2010

    RM, I largely agree with you – in fact, I started writing a VERY long post about the differences between different practical and artistic aspects of molecular visualizations about a year ago, with the HHMI films embedded in it. (I blogged about the Inner Life of a Cell back in 2006). Unfortunately, haven’t had time to finish that post. . . probably never will, unfortunately.

  3. #3 Mike Olson
    April 4, 2010

    Cool stuff…my computer shut down on the second of RM’s links…the problem was with this sorry piece of….not the link…but this is all very, very cool. Thanks for posting!

  4. #4 Elissa
    April 4, 2010

    The calm relaxing music doesn’t really fit with the incipient-stroke theme 😛 (Is that what’s happening? I haven’t done biology since Year 10)

    I just want to know what that jellyfish thing at the end is…

  5. #5 Murfomurf
    April 5, 2010

    Hmm- that octopus thing gathering the blobs was a bit ambiguous- was it scavenging nasty stuff away from the blood vessel wall or was it sitting on the wall gathering ammunition for a big blockage?? I went on to look at the animations of DNA/RNA etc and learnt a lot (since my biology is circa 1970). Loved the fuzzy enzyme thingies splitting the DNA. Then the 3 different sites where the amino acids came in on the whatsits, got read off against what was needed to make the correct sequence on the DNA strand, then got deposited at the next site, the DNA ratcheted along and the used up transfer thing got turfed off at the 3rd site. I’d have to watch a few times to get the names right though!

  6. #6 Grant
    April 5, 2010

    I recently nicked a cover illustration from PLoS Computational Biology and put it up as a blog post: it illustrates a molecular simulation of the interior of a cell. (It’s linked on my name if you want to check it out.) It’s a very pretty picture, but it’s static and shows the atoms as solid (and shiny!) spheres.

    While static it does nicely illustrate the crowdedness of the cytoplasm. I like it, but then I can mentally visualise them moving. (I’m an independent computational molecular biologist & have done molecular simulations, etc.)

    I agree with your & RM’s points about how to represent proteins. They’re not static and they don’t move in a “smooth” way. (I’d slightly quibble with QM uncertainty aspect, as that’s another level & time-frame I believe (you’re welcome to correct me), but they are dynamic in complex ways rather than act “smoothly”.)

    Make you wonder why some of these visualisation efforts can’t use actual molecular simulations. (Hmm. Maybe I should blog about that, too!)

  7. #7 Glendon Mellow
    April 6, 2010

    That’s an excellent point Jessica. As I complete my undergrad Fine Arts degree and I am casting about for what to jump into next, the sanitary look of 3D medical animations is one of the fields I respect but am not drawn to for these reasons.

    The cleanliness of these illustrations does a wonderful job, of making the mucky clear. But in artwork, I like playing in muck and fragments.

  8. #8 Kermit
    April 6, 2010
  9. #9 Jessica Palmer
    April 6, 2010

    Isn’t Lisa Black awesome? I blogged about her last year.

  10. #10 Benjamin Golder
    April 17, 2010

    This topic is a bit undervalued, and I would love to read more about it. It brings up a lot of highly relevant issues about information visualization and the way scientific knowledge is processed into imagery and popular understanding.

    The question of how to visualize something that is too small to see is such a neat design problem (I study design, and have a strong interest in information visualization). In what way could these biological phenomena be most appropriately represented to reflect current scientific knowledge about them? Is fuzzy better? Is blurry better? Is messy better? Is shaky better? Should it have an ephemeral, transparent edge, like the thin atmosphere of a planet?

    What are biological phenomena “like”? What metaphors best describe them? I notice that the metaphor of a machine is commonly used, and was used to explain the creation of DNA when I took a basic biology course in college. But how machine-like are these things? Is a machine really an appropriate metaphor, or does it obscure some important concepts about biological molecules? After watching the hhmi video (awesome!), and without a background in molecular biology, I might think that helicase spins at 10,00 rpm, like a motor. I might think (as i often have, but realize it might just be a metaphor) that such systems operate like clockwork, with impeccable automated movements which rarely make mistakes. Is computer programming a good metaphor for the construction of DNA?

    It’s ironic that machines are metaphors for something so important to organic materials.

    This gets at the larger question of how we conceptualize and imagine things as we learn about them. How do we fit new phenomena into our knowledge of existing phenomena, and how carefully do we choose our metaphors for these processes and motions? I’d love to hear more thoughts on this.

  11. #11 Benjamin Golder
    April 17, 2010

    And here is a really beautiful video relating to the visualization of invisible phenomena. The real audio recordings have a huge effect. Would sources of visual, audio, or spatial data could be used for a proximate project relating to molecular biology?

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