Inside the Career of the Man Who Gave Us 'The Inner Life of a Cell'

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For David Bolinsky - the co-creator, with his talented team, of the highly-acclaimed computer animated science film, The Inner Life of a Cell - the plunge into the wonders of medical animation began at age four when he went to see the movie Fantasia.
From that moment, he was hooked.

"That did it for me," says David. "From that minute on I wanted to be an animator." Now a widely-known medical illustrator and animator, David has devoted his career, and his artistic gift, to displaying complex medical concepts in a fresh, clear light.

The son of a sculptor and art history professor, David completed his undergraduate degree in Medical Illustration, followed by two years of medical school before joining Yale University's School of Medicine where he became senior medical illustrator.

He then ventured out on his own to begin his own company, Advanced Imaging, a first-of-its-kind digital medical animation firm. And in 2001, he co-founded his current enterprise, XVIVO Scientific Animation, where he serves as medical director. At XVIVO, he and his team work to depict and demonstrate complex concepts in medicine and science through lucid, cinematically aesthetic and compelling films - such as The Inner Life of the Cell, an 8.5 minute animated gem that takes a fascinating journey inside the workings of a white blood cell.

Harvard University commissioned The Inner Life of a Cell as part of the university's Bio Visions at Harvard initiative to help explain cellular processes to undergraduate students in Harvard's Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology.

David and his colleagues entered The Inner Life of a Cell in Siggraph's well-known computer animation competition. That's when the "buzz" about the film really began, generating interest from news media, educators - even Hollywood, recalls David.

"We started receiving tens of thousands of e-mails and phone calls, the hits on our website went from 200 a week to hundreds of thousands a week, for a while, and it was picked up by ABC News," he says. "We were getting contacted by major universities all over the world asking if they could use the film for their students (and) calls from high school teachers wanting it for advanced biology classes ... and museums that wanted us to work on museum exhibits because they wanted to modernize how they teach science."

Read more about David here.

What about the human cell fascinates you? If you could animate one function within the cell what would it be?

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I really want to animate inducible gene regulation. The kind that starts with chromatin remodeling, and then recruitment of a wide variety of transcription factors.

This work is so cool. I wonder how impossible starting a career in this would be.

Becca,
I design biomedical animations, and I also coordinate the science video contest for the festival. It is not impossible to start a career in medical animation. But it does take a lot of time, effort, training, and willingness and ability to do huge amounts of research and design development for each project. Technology is advancing so rapidly that scientists can now visualize and study many processes in live cells. However for each animation you will need to make dozens of decisions as to how best to show what you need to communicate, what to emphasize, what to simplify, etc. so that viewers can clearly understand what is happening inside the cell. Each cellular event can be viewed as a clue, as either a star or bit player in the story, especially when you are tasked with explaining pathology within the context of normal cellular functions. Often there is much that may not be well understood, or even agreed on, so careful choices need to be made on how best to convey scientific understanding with accuracy. One of the biggest hurdles is learning the graphics software, which takes years to master. You also need a good design eye, writing and editing skills to tell the story, combined with a knowledge of complex cellular functions (our understanding of which is always evolving!) Basically you are aiming at a steadily moving target but that is also the big part of what makes this work so rewarding.

Often there is much that may not be well understood, or even agreed on, so careful choices need to be made on how best to convey scientific understanding with accuracy. One of the biggest hurdles is learning the graphics software, which takes years to master. You also need a good design eye, writing and editing skills to tell the story, combined with a knowledge of complex cellular functions (our understanding of which is always evolving!) Basically you are aiming at a steadily moving target but that is also the big part of what makes this work so rewardin