Interview with Medical Animator, Joel Dubin
Staff Writer By: Nick Sorbin (nickcharles)
Joel Dubin is a medical animator and co-founder of MadMicrobe Studios, where he holds the title of creative director.
Joel creates stunning 3D animation visualizing anatomical and cellular processes and phenomena for the vast healthcare market.
Together with his team at MadMicrobe, they have worked on some incredible projects, including effects work for the film Morgan, and animation showcasing new 3D bioprinting technology that aims to revolutionize organ transplant. Through all of this, it is apparent Joel is truly enjoying a career doing what he loves.
Tell us a bit about yourself, your background and education.
I may be dating myself here, but I studied at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia back in the late '80s and got a BFA in illustration. I planned on making a living illustrating book covers and magazine articles. This was back before computers had really come of age, and Photoshop and Illustrator were still in their infancy. I got to mess around with those and other graphics packages while in school, but none of us at that time had any idea of what a huge impact software like this would have on the field of what we called "commercial art" in times to come.
After graduating I struggled a bit finding freelance opportunities, but my meager skills and experience with Photoshop and Illustrator were enough to eventually land me a job at a medical illustration studio as a junior illustrator producing artwork for college science and medical textbooks. Although I didn't really have a medical education, I'd always had a strong interest in science. I knew a little about the field of scientific illustration but hadn't really considered it until getting that job. Much of the work I did at the beginning involved tedious tasks like typesetting chemistry formulas or tracing charts and graphs in Illustrator, or taking pen and ink drawings supplied by another artist, scanning them in and then airbrushing them in Photoshop. Baby steps, but over time I really started to get my head around understanding the science and improving my skills in computer graphics.
Image courtesy of MadMicrobe Studios
Eventually, over the course of the 10 years on the job, I ended up becoming an art director. This often involved sitting down with the author of a given textbook, who were either college professors, medical doctors, or scientists, and working with them to create the artwork needed throughout the book. Many of my friends and colleagues on the job were certified medical illustrators, and some had even started their path in medical school.
At first, I was a bit intimidated, having no formal medical education, but looking back I see that job was actually a great learning opportunity. After a decade of intense focus on medical visualization, I felt I had learned so much and became much more confident in my understanding and abilities. It was kind of like an on the job medical illustration school!
Towards the last few years of my tenure there in the late '90s/early 2000s, I began to teach myself After Effects and whatever 3D apps we had access to.
We were Mac-based, so the 3D software options were slim, but I eventually discovered Cinema 4D, and it was really the first 3D app that I clicked with. I jumped in almost immediately, building illustrations directly in Cinema 4D, and learned how to produce animation for CD roms and other forms of media we produced.
Image courtesy of MadMicrobe Studios
When did you realize your passion for art, and what originally sparked your interest in the field of medical illustration/animation?
I'm sure this will come off really nerdy and has little to do with medical animation, but seeing Star Wars for the first time as a kid blew my mind.
From the time I was 10 years old, I had already decided that one day I'd work for ILM creating artwork and special effects for films like that. As a teen, I collected as many film concept art books and sci-fi and VFX-industry magazines that I could get my hands on and each day I looked forward to studying them for hours.
I especially was drawn to the storyboard work of such films and thought that a career as a storyboard artist could also be cool. Little did I know that one day storyboard creation would be a daily aspect of my job...maybe not for movies about alien worlds and spaceships, but for depicting cellular and molecular processes.
I was also drawn to PBS science documentaries since I was a kid. Any show or series that explored the cellular or molecular world fascinated me. The film Inner Space was especially inspiring to me when that was released, and then in the early 2000s, the field of CG medical animation was starting to blossom with trailblazing artists such as Richard Morris (Jackals Forge) who was doing some amazing work for the BBC and Drew Berry whose molecular simulation animations are still quite impressive today.
I wanted to somehow follow in those footsteps to turn medical illustration into an exciting cinematic experience. It's been a long hard road and though I've learned much, I still don't feel like I'm anywhere near where I want to be. So I keep pushing along.
Image courtesy of MadMicrobe Studios
Tell us a bit about MadMicrobe Studios. How did it start and what is the team at MadMicrobe like?
After the medical illustration company I was working for closed up, I had a five-year stint as a freelance artist doing a variety of work, which I enjoyed. But I eventually took a full-time job as a lead medical animator for a medical animation studio nearby. The job and company was great and I enjoyed my time there, but after almost a decade I began to get that itch that it was time to move on and try something new.
I was in my late 40s, and was feeling like I wanted to give it one last shot with my career to do things my way, have more autonomy. I had a vision of working in a studio that was run by creatives...where creativity and the passion for art were at its core and what drove the work. I also wanted to expand the range of work I did into other areas as well, including television and film.
I was introduced by a friend to Mike McIntyre, who had started and ran a few successful businesses in a different industry and, like myself, was looking to try something new. We clicked and the two of us formed MadMicrobe. I was lucky enough via social media to have developed a pretty good reputation and had also established connections in the industry over the years. With that support being in our favor, plus Mike's business experience, we soon found that the work was beginning to flow.
We celebrated our second year anniversary this past April, and in that time we have expanded our team from two to seven, which includes full time animators, project managers, and a scientific director, with Mike as CFO and myself as creative director.
As creative director at MadMicrobe Studios, what does your job entail, specifically?
Half the day seems to be spent either on teleconferences with clients, providing guidance to the animation team or talking business with Mike. But when I'm not dealing with the administrative side of things, I'm right there in the trenches along with the rest of the team, involved in all aspects of animation production, from model building, all the way to compositing, which is all the stuff that I love to be doing.
Is there a particular area of the production process you most enjoy?
The look-dev stage is really enjoyable--building cells molecules and environments and then lighting and texturing to make them look as dramatic and cool as we can, while of course maintaining accuracy. I also enjoy the compositing stage--bringing my rendered passes together and adding additional post effects and finishing touches to really make the shots come alive. So, to answer your question, I enjoy pretty much all of it!
I do get kind of obsessed sometimes when it comes to look and feel. I often see something in my head and get extremely frustrated in the attempt to bring that mental image to the computer screen. I've been known to obsess for days until I get things looking closer to how I want them to look. When I get in that mode it feels more like agony than anything else, like I'm stuck in a loop. But it's really satisfying when I eventually push past the wall and hit the mark.
Are there any particular artists/animators whose work inspires you, whether or not they are in the same field?
There's been a sort of creative revolution over the past 7 years or so of talented artists and designers who also have a great technical proficiency with the many CG tools out there to play with. Some that come to mind would be artists like Ash Thorp, Patrick Clair, as well as studios like Man vs Machine, Aixsponza, and too many others to name, really. It's the merging of cinema, design VFX and animation with great creative direction. I check out my feed on Vimeo daily and each day there seems to be a new masterpiece to be inspired by. These artists definitely provide a spark of inspiration and influence us to make sure we set the bar as high as we can from a creative standpoint in our approach to medical animation.
As far as medical animation goes, there are so many great artists and studios out there who continue to elevate the craft. It's really an exciting time for this field.
I know you make great use of Cinema 4D in your work. What other tools/software do you use?
Cinema 4D is definitely our main go-to tool, but we also use ZBrush for modeling organic surfaces and for retopo, X-Particles for a number of effects, and After Effects for compositing. On the rendering side, we sometimes use Arnold and vRay, but have also been trying to get up and running with the new standard GPU render engine workflow. We've been testing Redshift and we have been very impressed with look and speed. Our goal is to make the switch to Redshift or Cycles by early 2018. In the meantime, we mostly rely on Cinema 4D's physical render. We also see the obvious strength of software like Houdini when applied to the work in this field and are beginning to experiment with that as well.
Do you have any tips or advice on using Cinema 4D in medical animation?
I've found Cinema 4D to be a great tool for medical animation, primarily for its ease of use and how intuitive the process of working with it can be. I feel like it's geared to the way an artist's brain works. If one is more technically inclined, however, it still allows plenty of room to dig deeper into those aspects of the software. The more specific features aiding in medical animation, in my opinion, would include tools like the MoGraph module, which allows one to quickly add detail and complexity to a shot by populating a scene with dozens, or even hundreds, of objects with lots of control.
For instance, a complex blood flow shot with dynamic interaction can be set up in minutes by duplicating many blood cell models along a path using the MoGraph cloner tool, and then effectors can be added to achieve procedural animation to the cells without needing to create a single keyframe.
The arsenal of deformers available allows me to generate organic amorphous forms, which are so common in medical animation, whether they be various cells, tumors, or blobby molecules. The many procedural noise shaders are also a godsend for quickly generating many kinds of organic surfaces, as bump maps or displacement maps. The subsurface scattering shader in Cinema 4D also allows you to get that nice gelatinous quality needed in cellular or tissue surfaces.
I could go on and on...
I love title sequences, and in some cases, they are the best part of a movie. So, I was especially taken by your incredible "Wonders Within" title sequence. I understand the project was a way to make a unique reel for MadMicrobe. How long did it take, and what was most challenging about that project?
Thanks for the kind words! I really enjoyed working on that project and was really happy to see others responding to it positively as well when we first shared it.
We found ourselves with a short window of opportunity between projects last spring, so we made it a challenge to see if we could get a reel cut together in that time. Over the course of about a year or so prior I had accumulated a handful of R&D test shots that were not complete but showed promise. I thought I would try polishing them up quickly and see if I could integrate them into this reel. I made it a goal to build a shot a day and tried to limit myself that way and see how many shots I could get through in a couple of weeks. As I went along, that obsessive tendency that I mentioned earlier began to kick in and I found myself working almost around the clock refining and reworking the shots over and over again. As the number of shots began to pile up, I began to see an opportunity to do something different with the piece.
I am an avid lover of film and would definitely consider the title sequence as a modern art form that I love as well. I check into the Art of the Title often and it's a constant source of inspiration. I've always wanted to try my hand at a film title sequence so I thought this might be a good chance to indulge that interest. I found a music track I really liked, which set the tone and rhythm to the piece, and then I worked out where each cut needed to be and how the shots needed to progress to tell a story. I researched the various key scientists involved in each category of biology and medicine depicted, and they ended up being the "cast and crew" portrayed in the credits.
I'd say the biggest challenge for me was the time constraint I put on myself and also knowing when to finally stop working on a shot and just hit the render button already! We discovered that the Association of Medical Illustrators (AMI) conference was coming up very soon, and being a member I had planned on attending. We had an opportunity to enter Wonders into their annual Salon competition and this gave me the hard cutoff I needed to force me to completion, and I ended up getting it done the day of the deadline! I had no idea how it would be received but was surprised and happy to learn we won an award of excellence in one of the categories.
What do you feel is your favorite, or most important work?
Wonders Within is up there for sure, just because it was so much fun to create and it was something that was self-directed and I got to make on my own. You find often in this industry that a lot of the look and feel of the end product is directed by either the agency or science experts at a pharmaceutical company who may have their own vision of the finished piece. Your clients may not always want all the "bells and whistles" that you would like to include, ie: photorealism, dynamics, organics, stuff like that. But with this project, the sky was the limit in terms of how we wanted it to look and we enjoyed that freedom.
We had the opportunity to work with the team at Fugitive in the UK on a few shots for the sci-fi film Morgan last year, which was a lot of fun.
Our team recently worked on an animation showcasing new bioprinting technology, in which a human heart can be printed using a patient's own cells. This means that the body's immune system is much less likely to reject the heart transplant and those needing heart transplants may have a much brighter future. My mind was blown when the client explained the process. It was one of those moments where you realize you are getting a sneak peek into a medical game changer that will possibly save many lives. So that project felt like an important one for us in terms of feeling like we were able to help in some way to get the word out of this new technology and create some cool animation in the process.
What do you consider to be highlights of your career thus far?
I would say finally striking out on my own to start a studio after so many years of driving my wife crazy about wanting to do so has been the most noteworthy highlight so far! Its challenging, exciting and also a lot of fun. Forming MadMicrobe was one of the best decisions I've made. It's also been really great working with such a wonderful team of cool people who each have their own special talent and expertise. It's great to be able to trust and support each other as teammates and to be aligned to want to create the best work we can as well.
Do you have any tips or advice you would offer someone considering medical illustration/animation as a career?
I'd recommend looking for a good biovisualization or medical illustration program. It's important to have a solid understanding of anatomy, physiology, cellular and molecular biology. To be good you will want to master these subjects, or at least be adept enough to know how to find the info you need or have access to experts more knowledgeable than yourself to support you.
When I first started out, I might look at the brief for an illustration I needed to produce and at first assume that because I didn't have a medical degree that someone would have to explain it all to me--that I didn't have the capacity to understand the information or that it wasn't my job to do so.
Once I started looking at science as being just like any other subject with its own language and sets of rules, I stopped being intimidated and realized I could understand anything I set my mind to learn about. It's that internal barrier that some people have. For instance, the words "endoplasmic reticulum" sound complicated, so someone without the science background might just shut off their brain and assume it's beyond them to understand. Once you see that it's just two funny words with more letters than most you start to see things differently and the barrier comes down and you're on your way.
This is something I try to instill in some of the artists we've worked with who might not have a strong science background. I encourage them to research and understand the subjects they are animating and try to become experts in just that small little bit they are working on, whether it's figuring out how to visually represent something like phosphorylation on a receptor molecule or how to correctly illustrate how a T Cell moves along the surface of tissue. When you understand the subject, you are empowered to start using your own creativity and discover your own way of how to best portray the info.
Do you have any goals for the future or a dream project you'd love to take on?
I'd love for us to do more feature film work. I've always thought it would be cool if there was a remake of the classic sci-fi film Fantastic Voyage, which, much like in the film Inner Space, a medical team is shrunk down to the cellular level and they explore the human body from within. If there's anything like that in the works, whether for film or TV, MadMicrobe would love to be a part of it.
I've also worked on episodic science focused television documentary shows in the past and would love to do more of that.
What do you feel makes a good medical illustrator/animator?
Besides science knowledge, I think having a strong background in the arts is very important. If you've learned to draw and paint, then the odds are you understand form and light and color. If you have a background or natural talent in design, then you will likely know how to position elements in a frame to create a composition that is pleasing to the eye. Studying animation and film is also important. Achieving motion that is fluid and timing that has the right feel can make the difference between a jerky and boring animation to one that is exciting. The more elegant and dynamic the animation is, the more likely the viewer will be drawn into it. If the audience enjoys the visual experience they may better understand and retain whatever scientific process is being presented in the animation. These are the keys to a successful medical animation.
We have actually worked with animators who have no science background at all, but because of their talent, skills and ability to understand the concepts. With our guidance, they are still able to produce beautiful and accurate results.
When not hard at work, what do you enjoy doing?
I've discovered that running a business means that there's not a whole lot of time where we're not hard at work! To be honest, I don't really get out too much and I just really enjoy being with my wife and 2 kids as often as I can. I'm a bit of a homebody, I guess. I do try to walk a few miles every day to keep the blood pumping.
The other thing that might sound a bit odd, is that when I get burned out on a particularly long, challenging animation project, I find that launching Cinema 4D and just playing and experimenting for fun can actually be rejuvenating. I think I posted something along those lines on Twitter recently and a couple of people kind of inferred that maybe there's something wrong with me. Maybe they're right :)
I guess I feel like I'm lucky to have a career that's also my hobby.
Nick C Sorbin (Nick Charles) is a former Managing Editor of 9 years for Renderosity's CG Industry News. By day, he is a mild-mannered Certified Pharmacy Technician working in a hospital, contrasting his creative outlets as a digital artist, sculptor, musician, singer/songwriter, and Staff Writer for Renderosity Magazine. Read his articles