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User Preferences: Tech Q&A With Bio-animator Drew Berry

The DNA replication machine

Each week we chat about the tools of the trade with one outstanding creative to find out exactly how they do what they do. The questions are always the same, the answers, not so much. This week: Drew Berry, the bio-animator behind Björk’s Biophillia.

The Creators Project: Who are you and what do you do?
Drew Berry: My name is Drew Berry, I was born in New York but have lived almost all of my life in Australia and other parts of Asia. I went to university and came out a cell biologist, trained in how to observe living things through various types of microscopes. For the last 15+ years I have worked as a “biomedical animator” creating visualizations of the microscopic world inside your flesh and blood, as accurately as possible. My work ends up in science documentaries, museum exhibitions, or biology education materials. I occasionally have my work exhibited as [fine] art, which has had a concerning inflationary effect on my ego.

What kind of hardware do you use?
I do all of my work on a single Mac Pro. Up until 2003 I maintained a ‘render farm’ of PCs to do the intensive computational number crunching to create (render) the imagery. Back in those ancient times it took days or weeks for the computer to calculate the frames of the animation for even short sequences.

I now use whatever technological cheat I can find to generate the frames of animation as fast as possible, which usually means adopting current real-time game engines and other rapid calculation techniques. All of my effort and time is better spent reading the scientific literature and gathering published data from current biology research. I then manipulate this data to make it watchable and engaging to the general public.

The mitotic spindle inside a living cell, magnified x80,000.

What kind of software do you use?
For 3D animation I use Autodesk’s Maya and for compositing I use an old copy of Adobe’s After Effects (CS3). The reason I have not upgraded After Effects for years is that the Adobe updates have not offered me anything significant to entice me to change and I have three essential plugins that are no longer supported in newer versions of After Effects. I have been planning for the last couple of years to upgrade my compositing system from After Effects but need time to make the switch, which is difficult with the pressure of deadlines. I have tried The Foundry’s Nuke and I am looking at Avid’s DS system as possible ways forward. Hopefully one day soon …but I have been saying that for years.

What piece of equipment can you simply not live without?
My HP 3-button optical mouse without any scroll wheel (model M-U0013-O). Everything else in my setup is disposable or can be swapped for other options.

If money were no object, how would you change your current set up?
I would buy a studio with a view of the ocean, adjacent to a national park for very long walks.

Björk’s skin tissue, magnified x1,000.

Is there any piece of technology that inspired you to take the path you did?
Amiga 500 without a doubt. I cannot estimate how much time I ‘wasted’ just playing around and studying the graphics of games such as the Bitmap Bros Xenon 2 (organic sprites), Eric Chahi’s Another World (cinematic storytelling), and Shadow of the Beast (scrolling parallax backgrounds). Then there were the early multimedia authoring software programs such as Deluxe Paint and Scala, which I just mucked around with just to get a sense of what they could do. I also was hugely inspired and entertained by the Amiga Demoscene in the 90s.

What is your favorite piece of technology from your childhood?
Maybe the Tandy TRS-80 which was the first computer I had access to, with the first video game I played: the text-only adventure called Haunted House. But then the Apple II blew it out of the water with the visual quality of the games, displayed on an amber monochrome monitor. If I can include my post-puberty years, my favorite piece of technology ever would have to be one of the pinballs, which would come down to Bally’s Twilight Zone, Williams’ Fish Tales or the classic EarthShaker.

What fantasy piece of technology would you like to see invented?
Mr. Fusion Home Energy Reactor.

DNA packaged up into Nucleosomes, maginfied x10,000,000.

Björk’s ancestral spirit residing amongst her genes, magnified x1,000,000.

Images from the music video for “Hollow” by Drew Berry, for Björk’s Biophilia project.

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