USA Science and Engineering Festival: The Blog

Caves of Ideas

DB-portrait

Guest Blog By David Bolinsky
Founder and Creative Director of e*mersion Studio

In 1962, when I was ten, my family and I had the rare privilege of exploring the ancient caves of Lascaux in southern France to see 17,000 year-old Paleolithic paintings close up. Though sadly no longer open for public viewing, these iconic works changed me forever. In his film ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’, Werner Herzog documented limestone galleries of astonishing thirty-thousand-year-old artwork in the French Chauvet Pont d’Arc.

Having practiced the visualization of science for nearly forty years, I resonate with those ancient talismans to creativity and wonder. Our prehistoric cousins were not frolicking through the glacial tundra scraping meaningless graffiti on rocks. Intelligent humans like us, these clans conceived sophisticated panoramas celebrating a vast variety of creatures. In an age of hand-split obsidian tools, women and men invented the concept of visual storytelling through mimicking, in line and tone, the subjects of their ardent observations. They concocted their palette from hearth ash, charcoal and a rainbow of metallic clay oxides. These hunter-gatherers invented the blending of contour, composition, and color into accurate animal images. Scientists recently proved that a real species of spotted horse was the model for its portrait, once thought to be imaginary.

With incredible insight, the Chauvet artisans even depicted motion. A charging rhinoceros and an eight-legged bison, were posed in overlapping frames of sequential action. These cave walls could only have been lit by fire, and obscured by smoke. Dancing flames provided, and gathered herbs may well have influenced, the view. It is amazing to think that after thirty thousand years, these aesthetic-utilitarian depictions excite the same neurons in our brains as in their creators’. An age removed, and modern yet. In a nod to Herzog, I call these “proto- animations”. They are very powerful.

I was changed by Lascaux. Inspired partly by the work of my ancient cousins, I studied both science and drawing before completing a degree in Medical Illustration. I intended to create a personal visual vocabulary to accompany my own ardent observations.

A more modern piece of art, Disney’s ‘Fantasia’, captured my four year-old imagination. I wanted to animate! My dad Joseph, a sculptor and art professor, taught me flip card animation. I soon graduated to stop-motion. As a sixteen-year-old in 1968, I discovered Robert Heinlein’s science fiction classic, “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”. The ‘virtual’ main character inspired me to imagine using computers to animate. Since Nolan Bushnell did not introduce ‘Pong’ until 1972, I had a long time to wait for the technology to catch up. My last hand-made animated film, “Hey, What’s a Heart? -with Dr. LubDup”, was arduously made with hand-inked, back-painted cells, in 1974.

As the Senior Medical Illustrator at the Yale School of Medicine thirty-three years ago, I drew on paper with blue-steel pen nibs dipped in carbon-black ink, akin to linear charcoal inscriptions on a limestone cave wall. As did my illustrative forbears, I mimicked frozen motion to better convey my mental picture, but was not satisfied. I longed to depict the salvage of a damaged heart with realistic motion. When Wavefront Technologies introduced their Advanced Visualizer computer animation tools in 1984, I knew it was time to jump.

The “Powers that Be’, though, declared “there is no room in medicine for cartoons.” Friends and colleagues, some skeptical and some just wishing to protect me from myself, gave me a litany of reasons to not pursue my dream: too expensive; too strange; no market; has never been done; lack of technical qualification (truth be told, I had not yet touched a computer), and many more. Determined, passionate and naïve, I left Yale in 1984 to start Advanced Imaging, the world’s first digital medical animation company. Defying skeptics, I eventually found there was indeed room for ‘cartoons’ in medicine. Ironically, my move from quill pens to computer animation referenced my ancient muses. My cave was my darkened office, my hearth — a monitor. My tools were invented and borrowed from other disciplines. I built a team of artisans, together blending science and aesthetics to create a visual language of science in motion.

In 2005 Dr. Rob Lue, Director of Harvard’s Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology asked if together we could fundamentally change how biology is taught by blending cinematic aesthetics with scientific sophistication. ­Though vision, with the greatest sensory bandwidth, is central to my work, there is no wider bandwidth than a fertile imagination. We imagined a molecularly realistic intracellular environment more complex than any created before. Immersed in a warm salt-water cytoplasm, intracellular structures are smaller than the wavelengths of light that convey colors, so we imbued our vista with the colors of a coral reef. We challenged our viewers with an environment richer than the voice over and labels could cover, compelling interested students to dig deeper on their own.

Our resulting animated film, ‘The Inner Life of the Cell’, has been seen millions of times and discussed extensively the world over. I am grateful to Rob for including my team, notably John Liebler, in such a visionary experiment. Globally this movie has stimulated students’ interest in learning cell biology to an unprecedented extent.

That’s why I’m talking about my work at the USA Science & Engineering Festival in hopes of getting kids excited about science and technology. I urge students to steadfastly make your passions a reality, as I did. Every one of us has the imagination to envision some novel twist on the substance or process of our civilization. Your particular insight may seem odd, unsettling or unimaginable to your peers and your mentors. Being told that what you imagine is not valid, by someone who cannot envision that which is so clear to you, is every excuse for you to persevere. Invite them along. It will be your hardest, most rewarding adventure.

A broad spectrum of viewers shares our animations, broadly and with gusto, reflecting a fellowship-in-common that I cherish when gazing upon the galloping creatures of the Chauvet Pont d’Arc, recognizing the passions of our timeless kin.

David Bolinsky is Founder and Creative Director of e*mersion studio, LLC, 2012, e*mersion studio is dedicated to creating high quality interactive science tools for students, publishers and medical schools.

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