Nucleus Medical Art Clogs Arteries with Cinema 4D!

Nucleus’ “Atherosclerosis” stars in the SIGGRAPH 2009 Computer Animation Festival.

When Georgia-based Nucleus Medical Art went looking for a new creative challenge last year they decided to visualize atherosclerosis (commonly known as hardening of the arteries). A widespread medical problem, the disease has been visualized many times before but Nucleus planned to take a different approach this time, offering viewers a look at the slow-moving process from inside the body rather than the usual perspective of being on the outside looking in. “This positions the viewer within the artery to experience the action inside the body in an immersive manner,” explains Thomas Brown, Nucleus’ animation director.

Created almost entirely with MAXON’s Cinema 4D, the animation has clearly made an impression on many people who have seen it. “These are meant to be educational but we get so much feedback on this one from people who have watched it and decided to make changes in their lifestyles,” says Ron Collins, Nucleus’ CEO. “People see it on YouTube and say, ‘I’m going to quit smoking’, or ‘I’m going to start running.”

In addition to its healthy message, the visualization has also been an educational opportunity for the artists at Nucleus. From the beginning, Brown’s approach as the project’s director was to come up with something cutting edge, something that pushed the limits of what Nucleus’ entire team of animators knew about Cinema 4D. “Once I saw the script” (written by Nucleus’ medical writer Mary Beth Clough) Brown recalls, “I realized this project was a chain of visual effects and I saw it as a really good opportunity for us to train and get to a whole new level of animation". With one month to complete the work, Brown gave each of Nucleus’ five animators a scene to create, telling them to produce it with tools they’d never used before.

In the shot where smooth muscle cells have migrated to the lumen (the inner lining of the damaged blood vessel), for example, animator and digital effects supervisor Stephen Boyd used Cinema 4D’s Dynamics module to create soft body simulations that gave the cells a realistic look. “With Dynamics we were able to give the cells an organic, squishy look,” says Brown.

Working from visual references, animator Hoc Kho used MAXON’s BodyPaint 3D to create the photo-realistic heart in the opening shot. What makes this heart unique, says Brown, is that most animated hearts don’t look realistic because there is such a clear delineation between fat and muscle or, sometimes, no fat at all. “We chose BodyPaint 3D for this because we wanted to create the most accurate heart material down to the finest detail.”

Though the team works with Cinema 4D’s MoGraph module often, this project was a first for using it to create nearly every shot. Red blood cells, vessel walls, LDL cholesterol and macrophages (white blood cells that take up foreign material in the body) were all cloned using MoGraph “Because it gave us so much control to copy and manipulate,” says Brown. “This animation has really made MoGraph a standard tool for us.” To create the pseudopods (the arm-like extensions of the macrophage), Brown suggested that animator Nobles Green use Cinema 4D’s HAIR module. “Nobles and our Digital Effects Supervisor, Stephen Boyd, came up with a brilliant solution for using the HAIR module at the cellular level.”

To enhance the realistic feel and give viewers a sense of being part of the action, the animation team created camera movements in Cinema 4D that looked hand-held. When a rush of blood, or cells, pass by, the scene pulsates. At one point, a smooth muscle cell is made to look as if it has actually bumped up against the viewer. Typically, an animation on this subject would be shown in cross-section or from a transparent, external perspective.

“Made in HD with lots of Multi-Pass renders, this animation is the most heavily-composited project Nucleus has created to date,” Brown says. Polygon counts ranged from 150,000 to 750,000, with object counts going from 25 to 10,000. Once each animator had finished their shot through the initial compositing using Adobe After Effects, Brown created the project’s final composite and sound design. “Everyone involved with this animation did an astonishing job pushing the boundaries of medical 3D animation and elevating scientific education,” says Brown. “We’re thrilled at the positive reception this animation has received.”

The Atherosclerosis animation was a juried selection in the SIGGRAPH 2009 Computer Animation Festival as part of the Digital Schoolhouse Reel.