It all started with a… computer. Computer animation goes hand-in-hand with hardware development and computational capabilities. One of the earliest examples of computer animations in cinema goes back to 1976, with Futureworld, the sequel of the 1973 Westworld, a science fiction thriller directed by Richard Heffron, starring Peter Fonda and Blythe Danner in a world where leaders are being replaced by robot clones.
It was in the 1980s that we witnessed a boom in the development of the home computer and commercial software sophisticated enough for animation production. It was the time of the ZX Spectrum, IBM 5150, Macintosh 128k, the Commodore 64, cassette tapes, floppy disks.
The term “medical animation” has been used to describe the field of computer animations that simulates mechanisms, or procedures, concerning the human body or drug interaction with it. So, animation goes from simulations of the workings of the human heart through surgical interventions to the mechanisms of action of specific drugs.
I prefer to use the term “scientific animation” as I consider it much more comprehensive. This way we can include in this category any animation made with the purpose of describing the many dimensions of science, well beyond the realms of medicine alone.
Scientific animations are used to describe the dreams of chemists, biologists, physicists, and many more who are curious about the world that surrounds us. We use these animations to demonstrate complex phenomena, develop a concept, or test an hypothesis, which would be almost impossible to illustrate in any other way.
A good example of such animations continuing to amaze viewers from all around the globe is “The inner life of the cell”, animated by John Liebler and the XVIVO in 2006. While the complexity of the cell and “mechanisms of action” of certain drugs are more commonly found in scientific animations, we can go much further - and much smaller in scale - to represent interactions between atoms, such as in the beautiful chemistry of Yan Liang from L2 Molecule.
Animations like those are being made with software packages like Maya or Blender, which are not specifically aimed for scientists and researchers to explore, but are being used to give life to scientific theories.
We are now in a time where augmented reality and immersive virtual reality experiences are starting to take shape. Diving in where image, sound and intuitive interactions meet to induce us into a true immersive experience. Already, we can have a glimpse of this through VR-headsets in products such as the Cellscape VR Experience from XVIVO, the 360° animation of the bacterium Streptococcus pneumoniae from Hybrid or a 3D ride inside the human body from Random42.
While our imagination tries to fill in the gaps in information given to us by technology and powerful microscopes, we are creating worlds of wonder inside cells, full of colour and sound. So, are we ready to see what the rest of the world is imagining?
At the Molecular Level: Silver Chloride Precipitation Reaction. The Beauty of Science.
A human heart made for the project Heartworks, by Glassworks.
Futureworld, a sci-fi thriller directed by Richard Heffron. From 1976, when the world was expected to take quite a different turn by 2002.
A 3D ride through the human body, by Random42.