Interview with Medical Illustrator, Nobles Green II

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Nobles Green II is a Medical Illustrator and a Senior Animator with Nucleus Medical Media. With his advanced education in science and illustration, he creates stunning 3D animation visualizing anatomical and cellular processes and phenomena for the vast healthcare market. Passionate about his work, he also strives to raise awareness of medical illustration and find ways to further diversify the field. Helping others is of great importance to Nobles, and it was my great pleasure to interview him about his work and share with others who may consider a career in medical illustration.

Tell us a bit about yourself, your background and education.

So, basically, I create 3D animations that visualize the anatomical and cellular phenomena of the human body. My work is used for various purposes in the healthcare market, including patient education, as well as pharmaceutical, biotech, and medical device advertising. All of our animators at Nucleus Medical Media have a graduate degree in this field. For instance, I have a Masters of Science in Medical Illustration from Augusta University. There are only four accredited schools that offer these programs in the U.S. Those were some fun years. I drew more than I ever did in my life: from cadavers, animal dissections, live surgeries, you name it.

As for my college background, I have a Bachelor of Art and a biology minor from Oglethorpe University. Being in a liberal arts school, I was exposed to so many diverse and profound ideas that I learned a great deal more about myself. But, I was always as fascinated about science as I was with art, and medical illustration has allowed me to enjoy both of those interests.

When did you realize your passion for art, and what originally sparked your interest in the field of medical illustration?

I knew that I wanted to be an artist since my childhood, and I'm surprised to this day that my parents never tried to nudge me towards a "safe job." Growing up, I was mostly into comics and cartoons, but during my science classes, I had a growing fascination with the awesome drawings in my textbooks. My parents had one of those huge collections of World Book Encyclopedias that I would reference before the internet was a thing. In those books, my favorite part was the anatomy section where you could overlay film sheets of bones, organs, and arteries on the figure. I always wondered who made drawings like that.

During high school, my art teacher brought medical illustration to my attention. I had no idea that was a particular job, much less an industry. When I researched medical illustration on the internet, I came across the Association of Medical Illustrators (AMI) website. I was blown away by how established this field was and the member artwork was incredible.

But, here's the exact moment that I decided to pursue this career. I was taking AP Biology, and we had that classic assignment on fruit fly genetics. As part of my project, I decided to illustrate the different permutations of fruit fly eye colors using sharpies and colored pencils. My teacher gave me the highest A in that project and praised my work in front of my classmates. I rarely ever made an A in that class. So, from there, I was sold! I'm going to be a medical illustrator. And, I was relieved, because I was even beginning to consider medical school. Thank God I dodged that bullet.

As Senior Medical Animator at Nucleus Medical Media, what does your job entail?

I've been animating at Nucleus for ten years and counting, but I also have some additional responsibilities. Not only do we take on client projects, but we've established an "encyclopedia of animations" of our own that we license to hospitals and healthcare providers. It's our Nucleus Animation Library (NAL), and it currently has over 250 animations that cover a multitude of medical conditions and procedures. I'm in charge of coordinating the steady production and distribution of this in-house content. Our collection is also offered in different languages. We strive to improve health literacy by offering reliable and accessible educational content for patients. Ultimately, we want to help people make better decisions with doctors about their health. I'm excited that I'm dedicating myself to this important goal, and I'm somehow getting a paycheck for it.

Is there a particular area of the production process you most enjoy?

Materials and textures are always fun, and I love the challenge of creating an interesting or realistic look that doesn't crash my computer. I don't draw much anymore, but everything I've learned in Art 101 applies to the animation world. 3-point lighting, greyscale variations, and color theory are all important in creating a good, professional looking animation. Looking back, I wish I was even more appreciative of the still lifes and portraiture assignments I had to do in my art classes. Ironically, as a 3D animator, I have to be more cognizant of the fundamentals of art principles now than I ever had before.

How many people are involved in a particular project at one time at Nucleus?

One or two people are usually involved with a project. At Nucleus, all of our animators work as generalists. So, when a project is assigned to someone, he or she will produce everything from the storyboard to the final movie. We typically each juggle 2-4 animations at a time, and they're usually about 2-5 minutes long. On rare occasions, the scope of a project is so large that our whole team is involved. But, we generally tackle a significant amount of work individually. A major reason why we can work this way is because we all have medical illustration graduate degrees. So, we're comfortable with directly collaborating with our assigned clients from beginning to end. Several of our customers are relieved that they can "talk science" with any of us throughout their project.

Are there any particular artists/animators whose work inspires you, whether or not they are in the same field?

There's this artist named Max Brödel, who is highly credited for pioneering medical illustration in America during the early 1900s. His work is stunningly detailed and his techniques are taught in medical illustration graduate schools to this day. I also love the surreal works of Dali and Picasso. The way that they manipulate form in incredible. As far as animation is concerned, Pixar and Disney are great, but I also enjoy classic works from Tex Avery and Chuck Jones. They push the classic principles of animation to the fullest. I'm still in awe of how well done "How the Grinch Stole Christmas!" cartoon is. The Grinch's facial and finger movements alone are absolutely nuts.

What tools or software do you use in your work?

We mainly use Maxon Cinema 4D for animation and occasionally use ZBrush for detailed modeling. Plugins, like X-particles, help us create fascinating fluid and gaseous effects. For rendering, we use Qube, which allows us to efficiently export frames of our footage through multiple nodes. For post-production, we use the Adobe Creative Cloud, particularly After Effects.

Do you have any tips or advice on tools/software?

I was taught most of these programs during graduate school, so I've always gravitated towards them. The ease and intuitiveness of Cinema 4D has been great for me, but many of my peers also use Maya and 3ds Max. It's worth keeping in mind that there's a multi-step process behind 3D animation and compatibility is important. So, research which combination of animating, rendering, VFX and post-production programs will work best together. Make sure the software you choose is regularly updated and that they have a reliable support team or community that will help you during dire times!

What do you feel is your favorite, or most important work?

Our Fertilization animation was our strongest team effort and my favorite piece from our department. My personal favorite animation was Robotic Myomectomy because I created some fun laparoscopic shots of uterine fibroids. In this field, we tend to love the gory stuff.

What do you consider to be highlights of your career thus far?

My contributions to our Nucleus Animation Library have mostly defined my career, and I'm excited about how this product is being distributed to improve healthcare. Outreach and raising awareness about our profession is very important to me as well. I've participated in career panels at my alma mater and have helped some students find work here at Nucleus and get their careers started.

If any random person contacts me for advice, I want to help them out. I know what it's like to get the cold shoulder from time to time when asking for help, and I've promised myself to be above that. Also, in the AMI, I'm now in a task force that is finding ways to increase diversity in our field. We're having great ideas and conversations that can change our field for the better, and I'm grateful to be a part of that. The younger members in our organization are so proactive, and I love their passion and creative energy.

What do you like most about what you do?

My job is a lot of fun, but knowing that my work can educate people about science and medicine is a meaningful endeavor for me. The "high school me" would have never thought of himself in that capacity.

What do you find most challenging?

It took me a while to get my feet on the ground after graduation. Medical illustration is a relatively small and specialized profession that not a lot of people know about, so finding employment can be a little tricky. Most jobs are usually in some of the major cities in the US. So, graduates are generally encouraged to keep an open mind about where they want to live in order to find employment.

And, it's difficult to find a lot of job postings that directly ask for a medical illustrator. There's some out there that look for a graphic designer or a general animator to do medical related work because the employer isn't aware of our field. So, you have to be creative in how you present yourself to a company and educate them on the perks of having a qualified medical illustrator or animator on board.

That being said, if you do have an open mind about where you want to live, you can find a nice job fairly soon. I'm seeing more articles being written about medical illustration as a promising career, so it looks like we're becoming more popular. Also, a significant percentage of my peers are independent contractors. I can't vouch for that experience myself, but I would imagine that has plenty of its own challenges.

Do you have any tips or advice you would offer someone considering medical illustration/animation as a career?

Go to www.ami.org, learn about the industry and the medical illustration graduate programs, and see which path you need to take to get there. The course load required to be eligible for these programs is immense. There's a plethora of upper level science and art college classes you'll need to complete, and there's usually some prerequisites that you'll have to finish first before taking those classes.

For example, before I took Comparative Vertebrae Anatomy, I had to complete General Biology and Chemistry. At Oglethorpe, all of my classes were four credit hours each and I also had to complete their Core curriculum on top of that in order to graduate. Therefore, my schedule was completely full and I took summer school courses each year so I could finish in four years. But, it's not unusual to consider taking a fifth year. Some people are so invested in their studies, that they had to take a year off after college to work on their portfolio before applying for graduate school.

If you wait until your junior or senior year in college to seriously pursue medical illustration, there's a very rough (and expensive) journey ahead for you. So, plan early and thoroughly. As far as grades are concerned, you should aim on having a biology GPA of B or better. Any school that teaches all of these courses is fine, but there are pre-scientific illustration programs offered at some places. I know of University of Georgia and Iowa State off the top of my head. They're definitely worth considering, and they help you acquire everything you need to be eligible for the master programs.

As for the portfolio, you should draw and paint as many portraits, still lifes, and figure observations as possible until they make you sick. Then, draw and paint some more! Having some computer graphic knowledge will help, but your ability to create realistic forms and compositions will matter the most. This probably wouldn't be the best time to whip out your abstract or esoteric protest art. It's all about the fundamentals. As I mentioned before, there's only four accredited programs in the US, and each of these programs usually accept 5-10 people a year. So, it's very competitive, and you should make your work as realistic and technically proficient as possible in order to stand out.

Is there a particular example of where you most felt the impact of the work you do?

A long time ago, we did an animation on Aortic Valve Replacement and eventually uploaded it on YouTube. I didn't think much of it until we learned of someone who decided to move forward with surgery after watching it. We have animations that have been shown on TV, festivals, and trade shows, but I never considered the direct impact of what I did until I read a personal testimony like that. By the way, most of our NAL animations are on www.youtube.com/nucleusanimation, and I'm inspired by the emotional responses we get from patients who are looking for some medical knowledge, and most importantly, reassurance.

Do you have any goals for the future, or a dream project you'd love to take on?

Plenty of fascinating cellular and molecular work is being done in pharma, so we would like to take on more of those kind of projects. We've also considered expanding our work on early fetal development. We've covered Ovulation and Fertilization, but ultimately, we would like to explore implantation, zygote development, etc.

What do you feel makes a good medical illustrator/animator?

I look up to anyone who can tell an accurate and sophisticated story with their art. I've gone on and on about knowing how to draw, which is important, but a good illustrator/animator can also distill complex scientific information into a clear and interesting narrative. Good medical art should be easy to follow and make logical sense.

When not hard at work, what do you enjoy doing?

I spend most of my time chasing my son around. Before he came along, I was a bit of a video game nut, but now I've stayed away from those. I'd rather play catch a million times with my son than unlock some levels. Otherwise, I enjoy some reading and we have little gardening areas around our house that I like to tend to: mint, some herbs and flowers, asparagus, a small apple tree and peach tree.... basically stuff that's hard to kill.

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