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All images and movies presented here are fully protected by copyright and registry, and reproduction for purposes other than private & personal use - i.e. modification, distribution, republication, transmission, re-transmission, or public showing - without the prior written permission of, is strictly prohibited. © 2002 The Jackals Forge, BBC2

CGI Magazine article

this article appeared in the February 2002 issue of CGI magazine


In this new 21st Century, a remarkable revolution in Biology is taking place. Since the unlocking of the human genetic code of life, possibilities at the very cutting edge of science are beginning to emerge and it is certain that what will unfold will change the human race forever. Man has discovered the power to predict and shape his own biological life, to comprehend and even reverse the ageing process and to build and manipulate new life, new human parts and ultimately new human beings.

"How to build a Human" is a suitably lavish and expansive landmark series to convey this revolution to the public. To describe and augment the power of this new science, computer graphics were from the outset a chief ingredient and my story began in February 2001 when I arrived at BBC White City to design and supervise that CG content for the rest of the year. My first task was to design and mechanize a complete human cell over a 2 month period. This would serve as the basis for the the key signature graphics of the series.

My first reaction was to set about creating the most accurate 3d cell I could possibly achieve. Here was a task that I will probably never repeat and to my knowledge had never been done before outside the bounds of very simplistic, almost diagrammatic representational 3d graphics. I wanted to build a universe that not only would appeal to the science community and but also advance significantly from my work on Body Story in terms of visual richness, stylisation and pure aesthetic pleasure. My aim was to make pictures of such incomprehensible detail in terms of the sheer complexity and huge numbers of cellular components involved, that looking at slices of a real cell would not in any way highlight the limitations of CG as a medium for portraying these fascinating building blocks of human life.

As I began designing and stockpiling the elements of a typical human cell it soon became apparent that my desires were not going to be achieved. To fill computer space you always seem to require a lot more material than you think you do but going completely overboard and adding vast amounts of material robbed the pictures of a sense of balance and space. In addition some of the structures I had prepared were starting to fill the images up like a junkyard; scientific accuracy was beginning to outweigh theatre and drama and what would match the flavour and function of the series.

This is an obvious dilemma but nevertheless a prominent and important one. Certainly, it has existed in a very powerful way in all the science based productions I have worked on, and I have supervised a fair few ! Television requires a very singular balance of science over aesthetic. It is something that can rarely be decided by the animators and artists alone and as with How to Build, the production team and film makers from the very beginning need to carefully decide the role of the cgi. How to Build is a BBC2 series, it has fair degree of informative content but not so much to exclude all but the postgraduate geneticists from its viewing figures. What it does have in spades is emotional content, visual drama that is science related but principally there to excite the viewer's senses (as opposed to his intellectual mind) and take him on a emotional and aesthetic rollercoaster.

My cell world then started to reflect this blueprint. I had to bury my ideal of the scientifically perfect CG cell, delete unnecessary polygons, render others less real but more characterised and iconic and generally make way for a stage where high drama could unfold in a scientifically related fashion. Central to some of the thinking behind the series, the Cell is a universe within a universe. In a poetic sense and also with respect to higher physics, when you do explore the mystery of life and the very building blocks of mankind you find not small things but large, endless and infinite properties. The directors wanted to see a vast expanse of space that mirrored the known universe. Chromosomes, although only just viewable with modern imaging techniques, should somehow also appear incongruously gigantic, like huge all-knowing monoliths out there in deep space, and DNA - mere sequences of molecules - would be far more effective portrayed as a boundless helical landscape.

Later on in the production, In an extension to the conflict of what is correct and what looks correct, the rules of science were not only bent but also ignored or removed altogether. For example, when the DNA in each of our cells coils around proteins to make chains, then these chains coil themselves and the remaining strands then coil over eachother again and again you have a chromosome. The How to Build series is supposed to function at providing fundamental explanations to the genetic headlines that we read in the newspapers so to explain that a chromosome is wrapped up DNA was important but the overcomplicated details of all the coiling and the proteins were omitted.

Some of the completed cell shots possessed more of an explanatory role and in such instances, the protagonists, the heroes of the graphics - whether it be a copy of a DNA gene leaving the nucleus or a damaging free radical running amok in the cell - had to be hyper-stylised or "highlighted" so that they stood out and functioned as unambiguous storytellers. In addition, their scale had to be cheated and again this is something that cropped up more than once in Body Story. Everytime we breathe we create free radicals which eventually help to destroy our cells and our bodies. It is a fascinating subject which obviously requires a sinister hero that people at home watching can actually see but the truth is that a free radical is just an unpaired electron many many times smaller than even the smallest organelle or visible component of a cell. DNA is at the molecular level but with the DNA shots we were able to effect a scale change to another distinct level, the free radicals had to be seen amidst the main cell environment so in short, I made them thousands of times bigger !

From very early on, I wanted my cell to be very dynamic in look and feel. As well as a lot of global aqueous movement, I intended that shader properties such as hue and brightness to be somewhat arbitrary and governed in part by properties of the camera. This thinking derives from the fact that many of the real cellular images we can see today are either very strikingly hand tinted or colourless and that if you could fly through a cell the technology used to image this would quite possibly add its own colour as an artefact of the imaging process; when you are at the level of microfilaments, DNA strands and single genes, colour kind of becomes meaningless and takes on a different role. Some of this "dynamic" design was still in place at the finish and structures can be seen colour changing or being relit on the fly with respect to the speed and orientation of the camera. But again my aspirations for the cell had to be compromised for the sake of visual clarity and to agree with the way in which the cell was being conveyed conceptually in the series. The heart of the cell, the nucleus and the chromosomes containing the code of life, had to take on a more fixed and warmer palette halfway through development to convey its life-giving character and some of my dynamic shading tricks were omitted for consistency and intelligibility.

In conclusion though, I was very pleased with the way the cell turned out. Nearly all of my ambitions were carried through and a fair degree of scientific accuracy was achieved. The fact that the high resolution, 4000 line images you see on this page were created by simply hitting the render button without any shader adjustment or addition of detail is testament to the richness and volume of work that went into the initial design. Happily, the science community have been expressing interest and there is a good chance that some of the work will be exhibited at the TwoTen gallery at the Wellcome trust in London and other such establishments around the world.

Richard Morris Dec 2001 (vfx designer & supervisor)


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All images and movies presented here are fully protected by copyright and registry, and reproduction for purposes other than private & personal use - i.e. modification, distribution, republication, transmission, re-transmission, or public showing - without the prior written permission of, is strictly prohibited. © 2002 The Jackals Forge, BBC2