Interview with Drew Berry, 2010 MacArthur Fellow

By: Graham Johnson


As a medical illustrator specializing in molecular biology, I have admired Drew’s work since it first came to my attention in 2002. As a friend and colleague, I find his momentum positively inspirational. Drew’s scientific animations simultaneously represent the most accurate and beautiful depictions of complex cellular processes that I’ve seen to date. Whether working with Nobel laureates or on his own time, he consistently generates engaging productions simply because he loves the work. I can’t imagine a better use of MacArthur Fellowship money than to support and further Drew’s efforts and I’m thrilled that the AMI has invited me to interview him.


Graham Johnson (GJ): Many of us in the medical illustration field studied both science and art as undergraduates with specific intentions to apply a post-graduate medical art program. You come from a growing breed of practicing researchers who started working with animation after receiving a higher biology degree: a trend that likely reflects changes in research funding, research project scope, and grant outreach requirements. Did you express an artistic drive as a child or notice this later in life?

Drew Berry (DB): The classes I loved in school were graphic design and biology. In my final year of school I enjoyed playing with airbrush and getting into the zone of creating art. However, because I was just ok and not great, my art teacher recommended I do something else at University. Most of my art sensibility was shaped by watching way too many science fiction and horror films from the 60's and 70's and being fascinated by the graphics of computer games over the last twenty years or so. I was about 8 when I encountered my first fondly remembered computer at school: a TRS-80 with an audiocassette drive and a monochrome monitor. The first game I played was a text-only adventure called Haunted House, which was extremely simple but got me hooked on the imaginative worlds that games can create. Then I went through a typical upgrade path of a Commodore 64, an Apple II, and the most pivotal machine in my life, an Amiga 500. I have mucked around with loads of programs since I was a kid including games, graphics and paint programs, just enjoying the ability to create colour and movement on screen.


Drew Berry

The Amiga games that really rocked my world included Xenon 2 by The Bitmap Bros, Shadow of the Beast by Reflections Interactive, and Another World by Eric Chahi. Footage from all of these games can be found on YouTube. Xenon 2 was memorable for it's organic, biology inspired sprite animation of little alien creatures flying around in 2.5D and an awesome 8-bit soundtrack. I vividly recall when I first saw this game and thought "graphics can't get better than this!" Shadow of the Beast then took the next step with huge detailed creature sprites with layered backgrounds that created a strong pseudo-3D parallax effect as your character ran around the screen. But then came Another World, which had flat, toon-shaded artwork, but was truly cinematic in it's visual storytelling. It remains a high-water mark in video game art design in my opinion.

As a kid I was also inspired by Jacques Cousteau’s documentaries and wanted to become a marine scientist to study sharks. I followed that passion through to university, doing the requisite courses to get into marine biology. One of my lecturers, Prof Jeremy Pickett-Heaps, gave engaging and memorable classes where he showed lots of microscopy video and time-lapse footage of living cells. His lab at the University of Melbourne was full of interesting video technology, microscopes and filming gear that piqued my love of gadgets. I ended up doing research in his lab, keeping cultures of microscopic organisms healthy and happy, and I was taught how to film them with a variety of microscope techniques. I really loved doing the lab work, even though it was often tedious and repetitive, (which turns out to be great training for animation work) but what really disappointed me was watching the great scientists around me spending so much of their time applying for grants and often failing to secure funding for basic research. I decided that although I loved science, the career demands for a scientist were not for me. I wrapped up my research as a Masters in Cell Biology and decided to move on, first as a medical product sales representative (I was let go after 6 months because I hated cold-calling people), then as a science copywriter for magazine ads selling computer chips to engineers, then as a Photoshop guy in a marketing company, which was boring work but I used the time to develop my chops in image manipulation. After these few years of unhappy labor I landed myself a job as the Photoshop guy at The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI) of Medical Research, Melbourne. Because of my background with Photoshop scripting automation, I finished my work before lunch on most days and then used the rest of my time to experiment with 3D graphics programs: Infini-D, then 3D Studio Max for about 5 years, then Maya for the last 10.


The Apoptosome 'Wheel of Death', from animation Apoptosis, 2005, © Drew Berry, The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI)

GJ: Have you ever received formal or informal training in the arts?

DB: I’ve had no formal training apart from graphic design in high school, but I have long played about with digital paint programs. As a science artist what I am doing is nothing new: I follow in the long tradition of science artists, such as Ernst Haeckel, James Sowerby, and most importantly for me, David Goodsell.

Contained within Haeckel's 'Artforms of Nature' publications from a century ago are exquisite and remarkably accurate drawings of the single-celled organisms I was studying in the lab. His illustrations revealed for me structures in these tiny creatures that I had overlooked with modern imaging techniques.

Sowerby spent his career creating meticulously detailed pictures of mosses, liverworts and fungi in Britain around 1790-1810. He created thousands of these images that were published in compendiums of British botany at that time. What particularly inspires me about Sowerby is his long-term persistence and the romantic notion of a naturalist working quietly ‘in the zone,' drawing pictures of his observation of living things for years.

Goodsell's artworks illuminated the beauty and wonder of biology at the molecular scale. I had studied biochemistry and attended numerous lectures by molecular biologists but had always glazed over with all the jargon and abbreviations they would use in describing their work. Goodsell's drawings revealed for me the connections of molecules inside our living cells and made me appreciate why scientists are so excited about what was being discovered. Inspired by his work, I set out to create my first cell membrane animation with receptors and other molecules on the surface of a stem cell. This resulted in the animation that can be seen in my Colony Stimulating Factor animation, which I made around 1999.

GJ: Do you have any recommendations for medical illustrators looking to specialize in molecular and cellular biology?

DB: I think that that there are two steps to becoming a good artist: first you must have a keen interest and experience with something (anything), and then second, you must practice art. Both are vital for any worthwhile depiction of biology whether it is anatomy, botany, insects, cells or molecules. Having a solid foundation of knowledge about the topic you are working on provides context, intuition and depth to your exploration, and imbues a richness of detail that cannot be made up.


The DNA Replisome, from the DNA project, 2002, © Drew Berry, WEHI

On the software side, I owe much of my understanding and techniques with Maya to thirty or forty training videos from The Gnomon Workshop. Many of my videos are on VHS tape, which reveals how long I've been learning this stuff.

I have long admired the extraordinary work that comes out of medical illustration/animation programs in North America. What I particularly enjoy are all the novel story devices and visual styles that the students creatively come up with each year. This really broadens the visual possibilities for all of us in conveying biology to a wide audience.

GJ: Do you have any recommendations for scientists who may be looking into the animation business?

DB: Depending on what you are already into (computers?) and what you intend to achieve with moving graphics, it can be a short or long road to being able to create animation. To give it a go, download one of the free or trial version animation packages and play with it (Blender, Maya, Houdini, Softimage, Cinema 4D, etc).

Visit and look at all the work in the gallery for examples of biological animations, do some of the technique tutorials and download the free Molecular Maya plugin. This plugin provides an essential toolset for molecular modeling in Maya.

If you enjoy problem solving, colour and movement, I think you will have fun.

GJ: Do you have any particular insights as to where the field of biomedical animation may be heading? Likewise, do you predict any vast unexplored markets that a young illustrator should consider tapping into while formulating a career path?

DB: Driven by extraordinary advances in technology, biology is booming with giant leaps in our understanding. There is an ever-growing need to explain what is going on in biology to the public, particularly because of the impact that scientific discoveries can have on our lives.

I think that the field of science visualization (in a broad sense) is at a very exciting but still early period with a large development still to come. There is already demand for this work in all scientific fields including biology, physics, chemistry, astronomy, geology, and so on. It is a wild frontier that needs motivated people to go out and explore the possibilities for making and using these visualizations to explain what science is about.

As the power of animation and other visualizations becomes familiar to the public, I think that there will be a growing expectation for lots more of these strong communication tools. However, I am not sure if the demand for science animators will come from universities as they are already under pressure for funding. I think the most immediate growth will come from bio-medical marketing, public education projects, and many genre of entertainment.

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