How Microverse Studios used C4D, Redshift, and other tools to visualize how a new gene therapy kills cancer
A virus that kills cancer: It may sound like science fiction, but gene therapy developer Curigin has recently found a way to turn a harmful virus into an effective destroyer of cancer cells. To help tell the story of this cutting-edge research, Curigin hired Microverse Studios to make a short animated film to educate potential investors and healthcare providers.
We talked with Microverse Studio’s CEO and Creative Director Cameron Slayden about the film, which was made using Cinema 4D, Redshift, X-Particles, ePMV, and Avogadro. The film has received numerous honors, including a platinum Muse award, a platinum Hermes award, an Award of Excellence from Communicators Awards, and a gold Nyx award.
YOU WORK ON SO MANY GROUNDBREAKING MEDICAL PROJECTS. TELL US ABOUT THIS ONE.
Slayden: This is really interesting because technologies like this are paving the way for cancer to be treated by injection a couple of times a week until it goes away. This particular therapy won’t work for leukemia, but it does target solid tumors both by viral cell lysis (exploding) and by shutting down some of the mutations that make them able to hide from the immune system. In a hundred years, when historians look back, they’ll say this was the time when things really started to change in medicine.
I’ve been doing biomedical animation for pharma and biotech since 2005, and that has exposed me to a ton of cutting-edge science, so I’ve really developed a sense for how things are changing. Many of our clients are biotech start-ups, and many of them, including Curigin, need to reach investors and healthcare providers, which means we had to be scientifically accurate but also engaging enough for nonscientific audiences.
Inaccuracies can undermine an educated viewer’s faith in the whole story, so we work very hard to get all of the details right. You’ll never see a molecule that’s the wrong size, a cell that’s the wrong shape or DNA spinning the wrong way. Curigin gave us a lot of information about how their new gene therapy operates on a technical level, and then we went and did our own research to accurately portray the cellular and molecular structures involved.
MICROVERSE’S WORK ALWAYS HAS AN ARTISTIC FEEL. TELL US ABOUT THE STYLE OF THIS VIDEO.
Slayden: We wanted this to have a sci-fi element to it because this is somewhat like science fiction made real. Bladerunner-esque color themes combined with Red Giant’s hacker text treatments helped establish a cyberpunk feel.
Additionally, we knew from the start that we wanted to draw on bioluminescence as a stylistic element, like something you’d find around a thermal vent on the ocean floor. We love discovering styles that haven’t been explored before in medical animation, and people are often surprised by how much concept development work we do from the start.
For this project, we walked them through the mood board, explaining that we used jellyfish tentacles as inspiration for RNA (ribonucleic acid). They didn’t tell us about how the first kind of RNA broke down other RNA, so we had to do our own research, knowing we needed to show some specific molecular dynamics for the story to stand up to scrutiny. We showed them pictures of what we were thinking, and they were a little bit dazzled. They said it was all very beautiful and that they trusted us, which is generally the response that we get. It’s certainly the once we hope for.
It was great because from the beginning I was thinking, "This is my chance! I’ve had that idea of RNA as bioluminescent jellyfish tentacles rattling around for so long." We like the biological structures to be recognizable and accurate, while at the same time being completely different stylistically from how they’ve been portrayed in the past. Sometimes, a great idea strikes you and you have to wait until you get the opportunity to implement it.
HOW DO YOU VISUALLY REACH SCIENTIFIC AND NON-SCIENTIFIC VIEWERS?
Slayden: This comes up a lot in our industry. About 50 percent of our projects need to speak to scientifically literate investors who are not scientists, as well as PhD-level investigators that they hire to do due diligence. We do that by carefully tailoring the script to speak to the knowledge level of the primary target audience, but then we create rich and nuanced environments, geometry and accurate details to appeal to the higher-level audience.
They’re hearing words that, while accurate, they know are not at the level of journal publication, but then they look at the animation and recognize rigorously researched science. There’s a moment in this film where this little twist of RNA gets snipped by a protein called DICER and loaded onto a protein called RISC complex, which degrades RNA before it can be used to build cancer-associated proteins. Neither RISC nor DICER are mentioned in the script but including them makes the experts perk up and say, ‘These guys really know their stuff.’
Two of the biggest tools we use to ensure accuracy are a plug-in called ePMV, as well as a standalone app called Avogadro. ePMV allows us to bring in the atomic coordinates of a protein as a protein databank file and Avagodro lets us access small molecule files that you can get from other scientific repositories. Both can generate a string of DNA or RNA, and if we use ePMV, we normally output atomic point cloud files because those can be easily manipulated in volume builders to get unique surface effects or rendered as particles for very large structures.
DESCRIBE ONE OF THE TECHNICAL CHALLENGES YOU FACED WITH THIS PROJECT.
Slayden: One of the greatest technical challenges was creating the spline dynamics for RNA, especially in the wide shots because the atoms are all visible as particles, as well as instanced within a volume builder. We created a spline with dynamics, ran our point cloud of the RNA sequence along it using a spline deformer and then threw that into a volume generator. It was very computationally intensive in the editor, and that combination had an unwieldy file size, so tweaking was quite time consuming.
To get objects along the spine to swivel correctly, we created an instance of the spline and used that as a rail for the spline deformer. That way, the rail always had the same conformation as the spline, and we wouldn’t get twisting artifacts. Also, RNA is not a neat little twisted ladder like DNA. It’s a mess, like a terribly tangled telephone cord and scientists will be disappointed if they don’t see at least some hint of that.
So we used shader effectors set to UV space to rotate the nucleotides that we wanted to. The sheer number of polygons generated to make the strands of RNA was unwieldy, so we had to manipulate the level of detail, depending on the distance from the camera.
TELL US ABOUT A COUPLE OF YOUR FAVORITE PARTS OF THE FILM.
Slayden: My favorite part is where we show the nuclear pore. The scene captures a pivotal moment in the story, so it had to be a real punch in the eye. You don’t see nuclear pores very often in medical animation, partially because they’re so big and partially because they just don’t tend to come up.
But we strive to be as accurate as possible, so we built the nuclear pores from the scientific data available, including the little tentacle arms on the pore and the individual components of the virus itself. They’re all very polygon-dense things, and dynamics govern how the tentacles are waving in the background.
We rigged the tentacles so they grab the virus capsid when it gets close, and we had to bake it all to alembic for rendering in the cloud. Because the shot is ten seconds long, we only made one pore. Then we baked it for 15 seconds and placed copies of the same alembic with the time offsets staggered, so it looks like they’re doing their own thing, but we only had to store and upload a single alembic file.
I also really like the scene where the virus binds to the surface of the cancer cell. You see this spiky, hexagon thing reach the surface of the cancer cell and binding to glowing, magenta flowers on the surface. The camera dives through the surface of the cell—giving a momentary glimpse of the lipid bilayer for the scientists—to the inside where you see how the virus particle sheds its antennae and makes its way to where it needs to be.
I like to greeble up the inside of the cells with biological junk because in reality they are absolutely crammed with all kinds of proteins and other molecules. Biology is equal measures of order and sloppiness, and I feel like it’s important to capture that.
I think it helped that we used Redshift for this. Redshift makes things look gorgeous right out of the box, and our animators were able to seamlessly transition to Redshift and immediately start creating amazing imagery with very little learning curve.
MICROVERSE HAS WON MANY AWARDS LATELY. WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU?
Slayden: We’ve been around for a long time, but over the last year we’ve entered a whole new phase in our maturity as an animation studio. Since we started using Redshift in 2020, every project feels like our best project yet. It’s an exciting and artistically fulfilling experience.
We grew a lot last year and, in the process, we decided to start entering our work for awards. So far, we’ve won top awards in every competition we’ve entered, which has been kind of mind-blowing considering we didn’t know what to expect. I think that kind of formalized recognition for how far we’ve come has been very encouraging to all of us, and it’s also good for our clients to see that we’ve got the chops to do top-level work.
Right now, we’re focusing on pushing boundaries and developing new styles, as well as on bringing a whole new dimension of polish and accuracy to medical animation. It’s a great time to be in this field because we get front row seats to the medical singularity. We’ve already done two animations for clients that use AI to discover medicines that were impossible to create before now, and I know there will be a ton more of the same in the future.
Scientists are reprogramming bionic cells, creating artificial proteins from amino acids that aren’t used by terrestrial life, even building completely alien DNA to create drugs that treat previously untreatable illnesses and have little or no side effects. It’s a wild ride for those who are paying attention.
Meleah Maynard is a writer and editor in Minneapolis, Minnesota.