Sciencemotionology: Could you describe how Cortical Studios came to life?
Martijn: After studying Biology at the University of Amsterdam, I started to explore 3D animation. I liked the creative aspect of it, and joined animation company Cyberfish in 2001. Shortly after that, I founded Cortical Studios, to focus on scientific industry and primarily creating mode of action animations. I knew of Hurd Studios and Hybrid Medical animation in the US, and I really liked their work. In Europe there were no Mode of Action animation companies to my knowledge yet, so it was a new territory. I did got acquainted at the time with the animations for the documentary Body Story, made in the UK. Not a Mode of Action animation but one of the first mind blowing scientific 3D animations. I still think it is a masterpiece, after all these years. A big inspiration.
So we started with a team of four animators, where I quickly took more a role of scientific director and less as animator. A couple of years later, we have also teamed with animation partner, Glow Studio. Sometimes, when a project is really large, we hire some freelancers or work with other companies. However, we prefer to work with a specific team of people. Sound design is done primarily by Studio TAKT and we work with one voice-over artist, Lisa Sove.
Founder & Director
Martijn, biologist, tells us how Cortical Studios appeared on the map of scientific animations. And shares his experience, challenges and prizes received by his team.
Sciencemotionology: I noticed Cortical Studios recently won a gold medal at the New York Festivals with a scientific information film on probiotics. What does this prize represent to you?
Martijn: We are very happy with it. Our CLOSTAT film about a novel probiotic was honoured with the Gold Medal in the Instruction & Education category at the 2014 New York Festivals, the equivalent of the Oscars for commissioned films, along with a Bronze Medal in the same festival’s Animation category. It was also listed as finalist in the 2013 Global Awards, which focuses on science and healthcare.
We have won quite some international awards for our work, for example a Silver Medal and two Bronze Medals at the 2011 New York Festivals for our film “Our Immune System”, commissioned by Pfizer.
And we were responsible for the scientific part and the animations of the film From Molecule to Medicine, which was awarded with two Gold Medals in the 2008 New York Festivals, among others. That was the first major recognition, although Norvell Jefferson, the film company hired by Johnson & Johnson was the direct winner.
So, receiving a Gold Medal for the CLOSTAT film was wonderful. Competing at the New York Festivals with players such as HBO, Disney and National Geographic is a real encouragement to us in our scientific and creative work.
Sciencemotionology: Do you miss a tool that would allow you to do your animations much faster? Like a digital sculptor tool that allows you to use of your hands instead of your mouse and pads?
Martijn: Maybe such a tool would be interesting in the future. Tools like ZBrush are great at the moment.
Sciencemotionology: What are your tools of the trade? Are paper and pencil still accurately fit for the job? Or is everything done digitally?
Martijn: Almost everything is done digitally. However, at the first phase of a project, paper and pencil are still used intensively. To make rough sketches in order to get in line with a client sometimes needs to be done before making a detailed storyboard. And of course, communicating with the animators just paper and pencil works best. After that, we use Lightwave, SoftImage (maybe MAYA as SoftImage is discontinued) and other software such a ZBrush.
Sciencemotionology: Which are the common steps to make a scientific animation at Cortical Studios?
Martijn: Research, mind-maps, stylesheets, script, 2D storyboard, animatic, modelling, animation, sound-design, coloring, final animation. The amount of steps depends on the size of the project. I don't think it differs much from other animation companies.
Sciencemotionology: Which are the biggest challenges Cortical Studios faced, from birth until today?
Martijn: At the beginning, there was not really a market for Mode of Action animations in Europe. It took a while for us to get some good assignments. I think it might be easier if we started a couple of years later. Then again, we had the possibility to get more expertise in the development of these type of animations.
At the moment, an interesting challenge is to combine more real footage with animation. This combination can really be an addition to the quality of the product. So, we are doing a lot of research in that area. We also wish to do more science-based projects. In the end, most scientific animations are a way to communicate, and it is nice to have some solid scientific elements in them. For example, it would be great to make a brain animation with actual neuronal pathways, from real scientific model data, instead of rough explanatory pathways.
Sciencemotionology: How would you describe the market for scientific animations? Would you say it's saturated or people are yet to see the true potential of this form of communication?
Martijn: That is difficult to say. There are some periods of time with lots of work, and some with much less work. It fluctuates in such way that I can not give a clear answer about the market. The demand has increased a lot since 2001, but that is probably due to the growing awareness of the product. A mode of action animation of a drug or therapy is a great way to communicate the complexity in a simple and beautiful manner. In that sense, I think scientific animations will always be interesting for companies. It would be interesting to see how the demand will evolve. I can imagine that the decreased novelty of a Mode of Action animation will have pharmaceutical companies look for new methods of communication in order for them to differentiate. Maybe, they will still primarily use mode of action animations, but possibly in new forms.
As for academic use, we will have to see how that evolves. It might be too expensive for many purposes. Then again, there are somewhat new tools to simply make scientific animations. So, that might make the bridge to commercial animations smaller. However, if you want the animation to look cinematographic and have a clear story, it will take a lot of work and subsequently high costs.
Sciencemotionology: Some clients set their expectations at Pixar's latest animation or to XVIVO and Random42's scientific animations. Do you think it's possible for a small animation studio to stand up to those high expectations?
Martijn: I think it is impossible to stand up to the expectations of Pixar's animations as a scientific animation company, whether large or small. Just for texturing, an enormous group of people is working on that specific aspect of the animation process. I don't think a scientific animation company will be able to work on that scale anytime soon, if ever.
I love the animations of Random42 and XVIVO. Still, I do think you can compete with them as a small animation company. I have been a big fan of Hybrid Medical Animation, already when they just started with, as I can imagine, a small team. The quality was already beautiful back then. Also, when you take Drew Berry as example, who makes beautiful complex animations, it seems that dedication and high ambition are more important than the size of your company. You can check the beauty in his Björk music video ‘Hollow’.
The advantage of a large animation company is that there might be more people dedicated to one aspect of the animation. So, there could be a small similarity with the working method of Pixar. Also budgets might be larger, which can be quite positive for the end result. However, if the budget and time is there, and your team is dedicated (and you can expand your team with skilled freelancers if necessary) you can make a truly beautiful animation.
Sciencemotionology: How do you envision scientific visualization integrated with technology advances, such as holograms and augmented reality?
Martijn: I think this will be used intensively. As a new way for a company to differentiate itself, on a convention for example. And more as a deeper purpose, for drug development and education.