Drew Berry is a biomedical animator at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne whose work has transcended the boundaries between science and art. A biomedical animator’s role is to translate real science into a visual story so people can see it in action. These visual stories are to do with what happens inside our bodies and animation is the best way to demonstrate and teach concepts such as the complex mechanics of DNA, cell development or the impact of disease. While Drew’s work is firmly based in the scientific sphere he has also been exhibited as an artist in major national and international institutions. He talks to arts interview about his art and the collaborations in which he has worked.
Interview by Kim Goodwin
You trained as a scientist; at what point did your work begin to be seen in a new way? Or was there always an artistic component to it?
Certainly when you are constructing animations we take on the visual grammar of cinema and film to help the storytelling. My work originally was not aimed at an artistic audience, it was simply an education piece to show people what the science is about. Around 2002-2003 my work was invited to be screened at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) here in Melbourne, and that show travelled a little bit and my work ended up being picked up by the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Pompidou Centre and so on, as art. I found a whole new audience that I would never have expected to reach, an audience that’s not switched on by science or think science is for them, and to be able to show them science can engage them. So my stories are very strong in trying to explain the science, but I do definitely put in artistic elements to make it emotionally engaging, whether it’s making disease repulsive or showing a healthy cell as lively to make it look ‘healthier.’
You’ve mentioned in other interviews how science has always had a relationship with art. Would you say you work in a cross disciplinary environment, or is biomedical animation just an extension of scientific practice?
I think there is definitely a focus on scientific practice, but calling upon whatever techniques you need to help explain that story. I think it is human nature to draw and to draw pictures of what you are observing or thinking about, so being human this is just what we do to try and convey these ideas to other people, or even just to ourselves. So drawing pictures or sketches is really central to scientific development, to map out what you are thinking or observing. So my work is really a more advanced version of that.
Are there challenges in working in a cross disciplinary environment?
I guess so, it’s sort of what I have always done. I have my passion for science and I’ve always fiddled around with computer graphics. I do have to be cautious, as you can be picked on by scientists when you do represent the world in a more interpretative, creative or impressionistic way. But there really isn’t any other way to draw this stuff, to draw in a way that is watchable to a human audience. Scientists are going to challenge it, but I just have to make it as accurate as possible, but still watchable.
You’ve worked on some very high profile projects, such as the Emmy and BAFTA Award winning DNA project and Bjork’s Biophillia, how is this type of collaboration different from your medically focused work?
The DNA project was actually the first major project I worked on, from that everything else led on. The process hasn’t changed whatsoever, I feel that the topics, the science, the reality of the world of our bodies are so mind blowing and fascinating that the problem is trying to find a way to represent it.
The process of creating animations has stayed the same. I spend my time reading the journals, talking to scientists, and then fiddling around with 3D animation software working out how I’m going to build the animation and the final third of the time actually creating imagery. These are the ideal steps I go through given enough time, and every project from raw hard science for scientists communicating to their peers, ones for school kids, or a Bjork video is all the same from pre-concept through to production.
Do you believe that artists and scientists think or conceive in a different way? If yes, how?
Certainly art and science are both very creative ways of working in the world, and I do think artists and scientists think similarly. Scientists have to be much more careful, or they are very, very focused on being careful in how they represent the world because in the world of science everyone else can criticize you or take you down if you take the reality too far. Scientists are very careful or cagey about what they say and do, because it is a game of critiquing everyone else’s work. Where pure art, I would say, is more a self-expression of what you feel or think, in a personal way, where science is a very public and people can critique what it is you are representing. Pure art is more an expression of an individual.
See Drew’s talk for Ted X Sydney, May 2011: