When tech guru Elon Musk presented his latest ambitious project a couple of weeks ago at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, a Connecticut animation company’s graphics helped illuminate it.
XVIVO Scientific Animation, founded and run by Hamden-raised Michael Astrachan, worked on visuals showing the neurons and electrical signals that make up brain activity at the cellular level. Musk’s company Neuralink is working on a “direct cortical interface” to help human reach higher levels of cognition (as in telepathy, for one).
OK, for now we’ll suspend concerns about the potential dark side of that man-machine fusion (see many sci-fi films). XVIVO operates not in the “Twilight Zone’s” middle ground between science and superstition but in the digital studio spanning the worlds of science and art.
On another hot summer day this past week, in a boxy, brick building at the busy corner of the Silas Deane Highway and Route 3 in Wethersfield, Astrachan and XVIVO are rendering complex science for the young and not-so-young. Powerful computers have replaced pencils, brushes and paint.
“Oftentimes, we’re developing work for scientists and for physicians so that they can learn about new research about how a disease progress.” Astrachan said.
“What systems are involved, what’s the new thinking behind the disease?”
While it’s easy to find animation studios in New York and Los Angeles, often working on movies and cartoons, XVIVO is one of just a few animation houses in New England and one of just a handful of scientific animation studios in the world. XVIVO’s animations are generally used as scientific communications from scientist to scientist, drug company to doctor or upper-level bio class to student. But the Neuralink animation goes beyond that.
“We’ve been huge fans of Elon and his vision to change the world and help humanity for a long time, so it was an incredible honor to work on this project,” Astrachan said in a press release.
Musk, of Tesla and SpaceX fame, brings a whole other level of exposure.
“This one was cool because we were originally doing it for the website,” Astrachan said, “(which) is not up yet. And then halfway through the project, they said ‘we’re going to do this reveal at the planetarium.’” Neuralink decided to show the central part of the animation on the dome above Musk preceding his PowerPoint presentation on Aug. 16.
That was seen by folks in attendance, but for the webcast, XVIVO’s minute-long animation — showing neurons talking to each other inside the brain — was shown on a flat screen. “And Elon said it was so good he had to show it twice,” said Astrachan, who studied fine arts at UConn and originally worked as a T-shirt airbrush guy at malls and also fine-arts painter.
Then computers became powerful enough to do animation almost two decades ago, and now the work is plentiful, particularly in the medical area, Astrachan said.
He has Ph.D.-level writers and master’s-level medical illustrators on staff, along with animators. The dimly lit animation room (you don’t want glare on your double screens) features artists fluent in computer graphics and animators who help explain mostly unseen molecular processes. They use software such as XSI, Maya and Unity, the latter wielded by interactive expert Trent DeWitt to produce programs viewed on headsets in biology classes.
“... It’s a game engine,” said DeWitt of the software as we try on a VR headset. “Any interactive thing; it doesn’t have to be a game. It could just be an experience ... a tablet experience, interactive apps for a variety of platforms.”
At this point, the talk turns to protein database files of molecular structures, a glucose molecule of sugar, neurons, color conventions for atoms and “real-time engines.” And a reporter’s brain starts to freeze like an early PC without enough RAM.
Another animator/artist is working on “pre-rendering” virtual reality scenes, placing a VR camera in the scene to help render a 360-degree sphere. At that stage, it’s more like a 3D movie but not interactive.
Not far away, Katherine “KC” Knack, creative director, describes her on-screen project to convey the story of a client’s high-res technology to see chains inside cells. “So they wanted to tell their story, one that builds on increasing complexity... From the cell, to the nucleus, then chromosomes. We describe the chromosomes in further detail, how they are made of super-coils, nucleosomes and histones.”
Adds Astrachan, “It’s a real marriage of art and science.”
The company president, who grew up in Hamden’s Spring Glen and now lives in West Hartford, humanizes the idea of teaching tools by noting that the company also did an interactive project for Johnson & Johnson on oral health care.
“And actually, my teeth have never been better after viewing that,” said Astrachan. “I mean, literally you’re inside the biofilm of the mouth and you realize, ‘Yeah, I should brush longer.’”
The studio is best known for its 2006 short film, “The Inner Life of a Cell,” commissioned by Harvard University’s Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology.
“It was one of the first animations to accurately show molecular (processes). ... That one really caught on; it really struck a nerve and went viral,” said Astrachan. “It’s shown at most high school bio classes now. ... My daughter, they showed it in her class and she was like, ‘My dad’s company did that.’”
It’s not art for art’s sake, of course, but do some people consider this animation as visual art?
“Yeah, definitely, people who are geeks. I’ve had people contact us and they’re like, ‘I’d love to get that. ... I’d like to print that and hang it over my couch.’ Our ‘Inner Life of a Cell’ was picked up by all these museums, actually, it was at MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) years ago.”