3 Dart on Making Medical Animation Accurate, But Inviting

When BabyCenter went looking to bolster its video offerings with a vivid recreation of life in the womb, it reached out to Michael Zurcher and Chris Ferriola at 3 Dart, a four-year-old animation company with a portfolio ranging from medical animation and visual effects for film to virtual backdrops, broadcast TV spots, and viral campaigns for the web. Zurcher and Ferriola broke down the human gestation period into seven animated segments, each covering between two and four weeks in the process, starting from about a week after conception and finishing off with labor and delivery. BabyCenter’s plan was to add newly expectant mothers to a mailing list so they would be able to view each new piece of video at the corresponding stage in their own pregnancy.

“There were so many things we had to cut out just to keep the time down,” recalls Zurcher. “There’s so much going on in development, even just during the first nine weeks – the first segment ranges from a week after conception all the way to week nine, which is a huge developmental stage.” Film & Video asked Zurcher and Ferriola about striking that delicate balance between physical accuracy and aesthetic appeal.

F&V: Where does your background information, and your model for the images, come from? Is that your own research?

Michael Zurcher: I have a degree in science and medical illustration, so I’m familiar [with the process]. I didn’t study primarily fetal development, although it was part of my courseload, so I did have to do a lot of research. But we used a lot of research material from medical textbooks, and a lot of our imagery came from online searches as we figured out the key aspects of development.

Chris Ferriola: We had a variety of Robert Wood Johnson Medical College textbooks. I had done a five-year project with one of the doctors there – almost the same project, about eight years ago – so I had excellent research material.

MZ: We would build out our assets and pass them through Doctor Natan Haratz-Rubinstein, one of BabyCenter’s medical advisers. He would go through the 3D models and images and give us the OK to go forward rigging the baby and setting up the rest of the environment. He was heavily involved in the process.

F&V: What software were you using?

MZ: : It’s a mixture of 3ds max, XSI, and Zbrush. XSI was used for setting up the weighting and skinning, and all the animation was done in 3ds max. A few times we used XSI to do the umbilical cord and some dynamic simulations. We actually used XSI to render out for one of the animations.

CF: Most of the animation was done in a combination of max and XSI.

F&V: Medical imagery can be a little weird and unsettling. But this has bright, soft colors and a well-lit, welcoming look. How did that look development take place?

MZ: BabyCenter came to us and said, “We know it’s kind of dark in there, but can we lighten it up?” We took a lot of the color palette from BabyCenter’s web site. It was a real challenge for us to come up with something mothers would be inclined to watch, rather than saying, “This is crazy – I don’t want to see that.” We did a test animation at the very beginning, with a variety of different styles and color palettes. BabyCenter looked at about 10 different samples and chose this one. We just went from there and kept the same color palette for each one. It does have an almost ethereal, soft palette. That was definitely intended.

F&V: Is it a different palette from what you would typically use for medical imaging?

MZ: It depends on the client, but we try not to go with ultra-realistic blood and guts. We try to soften it to get a warm, inviting feel. We go as realistic as we can and then slightly touch it back with an artistic flair.

F&V: Were there any unusual challenges from a design or execution standpoint?

CF: Every one of the animations had its own challenges. The umbilical cord was a huge challenge. It needed to be as realistic and accurate as possible. We went through a variety of techniques trying to work that out using 3ds max’s reactor. We tried cloth, we tried different types of bone chains and rigs, and we tried XSI, just trying to find the best solution. What it came down to was a couple of them. We used a bone chain in one and cloth in another. It depended on how much the baby was moving.

MZ: XSI cloth we sued for a couple of the animations. It gave us pretty quick feedback, whereas max’s cloth you have to wait for it to sim for hours and hours. Given the length of these animations, it’s one long camera move, so there was nowhere we could cut to a different angle.

That was another thing we talked about: do we want to make these short clips with a cut here and there? We could get away with a little more, but they thought it would be cool to stay in the environment. We had to come up with a lot of creative transitions, getting from conception. You’re starting out as a blastocyst, then moving to a ball of cells and getting into a five-week development and then a nine-week development, all in the same camera move. We had to come up with creative camera treatments to transition each of those. Labor and delivery was a tough one. We had to rig the mother’s uterus ‘ as the baby’s moving through, the cervix molds tight around the baby’s head, and we had to come up with a creative rig for that using 3ds max. There was a lot of hand-keyframing going on.

CF: Everything was hand-keyframed.

F&V: You know what this looks like in nature, so you can’t take a huge amount of creative license. It has to be accurate physiologically.

CF: For the birth, it was two solid minutes of looking at that baby without the camera ever cutting away – contractions, pushing down and up with the umbilical cord attached, two solid minutes with no cutaways – so it was definitely a challenge.

F&V: Was there anything that was tough to reproduce from an accuracy standpoint?

MZ: There was a shot talking about the vernix, a mucousy layer over the entire baby, and they really wanted to show that. It was tough because we didn’t want to cover the baby in this. It was getting back to that gross look. We were going to spend about a minute of time with the baby covered in vernix. We compromised and came up with a solution to have a little bit of vernix on the baby’s hand, and as the camera passes by the hand you see little flakes of it sloughing off. We shift focus from the hand to the baby’s face and we don’t see the vernix anymore.

F&V: Is there narration?

MZ: Yes. There is narration and music in the background, and we added sound effects. We actually purchased some inside-the-womb sound effects: the mother’s heartbeat, the baby’s heartbeat.

F&V: How was the script written?

MZ: I worked closely with the writer. I would give her a visual description of what I saw happening throughout each animation segment, and she would write a first pass and hand it to me. I would read over it and think about ways to make it work better. It was a constant back and forth, and it was finally sent to BabyCenter for their writers and Dr. Harats to look at.

F&V: Since this was for the web, what were your deliverables?

MZ: We delivered NTSC. We gave them a bugged version and an unbugged version, compressed FLV files and uncompressed QuickTime files, and one without narration. BabyCenter is an international web portal for expecting mothers. They’re all over the world, so they wanted to have voiceovers recorded in different languages for their other sites. We gave them a WMV for previewing, an FLV for their development team, and uncompressed QuickTimes for their editors to edit in the narrations.

F&V: And how did they find you for the job in the first place?

MZ: The writer is also an indie producer, and we had worked with her in the past. She was writing for Ikana and when this animation came up, she said, “I know these guys who would be perfect.” We showed them our reel, then actually flew out to SF and met with BabyCenter and gave them a capabilities presentation. It was a great job – really fun to do.

To see more of 3 Dart’s work for BabyCenter, visit the 3 Dart web site.