Scientific Animation: Surgeon or Witch Doctor?

Nov 21st, 2016

Let’s say (hypothetically) that your company is looking for a vendor to produce scientific animation to describe the details of an important technology. How do you choose the right animation firm? I might get myself in trouble for saying this, but considering how important the message you’re conveying is, you’ll do well to separate the Surgeons from the Witch Doctors.

Your message is part of your brand—animation is one of the fastest ways to get a technically detailed message across clearly, which is why it’s such a popular medium within the medical device, pharma and biotech industries. On a subliminal level, it is also a qualitative representation of the value of your product.

More Than a Demo Reel

Scientific animation companies come in all shapes and sizes, and in addition to Microverse Studios, there are several well-respected animation companies that will deliver an accurate, high-quality product every time and take good care of their customers. There are others that can be hit-or-miss, and still more that can be miss-or-miss. The best litmus test is a combination of two things: animation samples and education.

Samples of previous animations are an important gauge of what your animation would look like if you hire a given vendor. Most animation firms will have a demo reel available on their website, but these clips are hand selected to put the best face on their work. You’ll want to look deeper and ask for case studies and references. If their work is to your satisfaction across multiple projects, then it’s a good bet that the work they do for you will be just as good (or better—remember artists can improve with time).

A witch doctor will rely on flashy theatrics to hide the fact that they don't know what they're doing.

Scientific Animation Requires Scientist Animators

This next statement is one that will probably make a few people angry, but it comes from two decades of experience in science visualization and it needs to be said. With schools in every state churning out animation students, it seems reasonable to think that an individual or a studio with a stunning non-medical portfolio will be able to leverage that talent on your own biomedical project. However, this is where the surgeon and witch doctor comparison comes in: a surgeon will treat a patient knowing exactly what’s wrong and how to fix it, while a witch doctor will rely on flashy theatrics to hide the fact that they don’t know what they’re doing.

Non-medical animators might work their hardest to understand the subjects, but a molecular or cellular animation (or anatomical for that matter) deals with systems of fractal complexity. Building a foundational knowledge on these topics takes years of hard study and experience. A lack of understanding of core scientific principles (molecular biology, cell biology, histology, and gross anatomy to name a few) will lead to hand-holding, forced micromanagement, timeline dilation and ultimately a substandard product.

Hand-Holding, Micromanaging and Timeline Dilation

Some firms go half-way, using less expensive non-medical animators supervised by a medical officer. In these cases, there is always the risk that they are simply bringing the hand-holding, micromanaging and timeline dilation in-house. It’s also possible they’ve been doing it long enough that they’ve got a solid system in place, or that their animators have been working in the field so long that they’ve built up the knowledge base they need in order to do it right (in which case refer to their samples and look for the ABC’s: accuracy, beauty and clarity). Just bear in mind that, without a deep understanding of the science, it’s impossible for an animator’s true creative capacity to be reached without making errors that undermine the validity of the animation’s message. In addition, a talented animator with the right scientific background can bring nuance and detail that can make a scientific animation truly magical.

And let’s not forget that it’s the message that really counts—this is your company’s brand we’re talking about, the imagery that helps to guide the world’s opinion of your company and its products.  Make sure you choose people you can trust to represent it.

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