Guest Blog from Tiago Duarte (Founder Sciencemotionology) - Mercury betrayed by Venus - Should we compromise accuracy in scientific animations for the sake of beauty?

Mercury betrayed by Venus

Should we compromise accuracy in scientific animations for the sake of beauty?

A particular group of people including bioinformaticians, data visualizers, graphic designers, medical illustrators, artists, biologists, and engineers, from both academia and industry gather for an unconventional conference. We are sitting at the Klaus Tschira Stiftung (KTS) Auditorium at the heart of the EMBL Advanced Training Centre, in Heidelberg, for the 3rd EMBO Conference on Visualizing Biological Data (VIZBI 2016). We are about to start our discussion on scientific animation and the level of accuracy that they should have, while achieving their main objective – transmitting a clear message to their target audience.

Our discussion starts.

“Natural beauty is universal” says Monica Zoppè, from the Scivis group at the CNR in Pisa (Italy).

Perhaps we should start by defining beauty? Beauty can be defined as a quality of an object, place or concept that should provide us with an experience of pleasure or satisfaction (at least according to Wikipedia). We do not discuss whether a flower is beautiful or not. It just is. Even those that are carnivorous... Well, beauty in different contexts may be a question of taste.

When we look at the work of David Goodsell, Professor of Molecular Biology at the Scripps Research Institute, his watercolours seem to represent entire compendia of biological information on bacteria, cellular walls, and structures of proteins and so on. These beautiful compendia are, by definition, the result of a great effort in their compilation and translation into something that aims at pleasing the eye.

But, how accurate should scientific visualization be? “There are always compromises in the process of scientific visualization”, said David in a recent interview.

How we obtain the information used to build these visualizations has to be taken into consideration. For instance, protein structures used in scientific animations are usually taken from the Protein Data Bank (PDB). In PDB, more than 85% of the structures were collected using techniques such as X-ray crystallography. However, this method gives us very rigid representations of proteins, taken out of their natural environments. According to McGill (2008), proteins are quite dynamic. Among all possible dimensions, including time, proteins may show several “personalities” in their path to explore the thermodynamic world (Henzler-Wildman and Kern 2007). They could jump, run, or even “scream”, depending on how excited they might feel in their natural environment. Or, they could stay sitting “in a corner” (folded state). Thus, the dynamic side of proteins has been frequently left out of the animation. Often, only a static protein is represented.

“I hope I wasn’t the only one reading my recent paper,” sighs Stuart Jantzen, amongst the audience. Stuart, from ScienceVis Jenkinson Research Lab at the University of Toronto (Canada), was referring to the Transparency in film featured on Nature Methods (Jantzen et al. 2015). There is a lack of a reference system informing the audience about the context in which an animation is produced and whether it truly reflects scientific knowledge.

Another question raised was whether we should have minimum standards to be used by the community of scientific animators and artists. Minimum standards, like the ones scientific publishers have when researchers submit a manuscript to be published in Nature or Science, for instance. Instead of font style, size and number of pages permitted, we could define that in scientific animations  color would be used in a certain way to distinguish certain structures. Using a common set of rules could, in principle, set a standard of quality that is usually associated to any scientific publication or work.

Meanwhile, Vincent Bos, from Demcon/Nymus 3D was helping to lead the discussion. We cannot forget that scientific animations are usually a product – ordered by clients - who usually have a clear idea of what they want to get. And animations are subject to a budget that dictates the precision and quality of the final product.

The animation usually starts in the storyboard, on a piece of paper. The story of how the animation goes is a process discussed between the company making the animation and the client – in an iterative manner. Well, not too iterative, because if the client changes his, or her, mind too many times, the budget will suffer. However, it is during this iterative process that a clarification of the message also takes place. This simplification of the animation, leaving some details aside, is done for the sake of conveying the right message – the message the client wants to pass to his audience.

David Goodsell has his own style: to some, it resembles comic book style,, very colorful with some black outlines here and there, although he tries to avoid a very pronounced line. His watercolors make me think of Alphonse Mucha, the Czech art nouveau artist. Beautiful – to many, that is. And every artist or studio will have their own interpretation of the information on which they base their animation. In the end, the quality of the final product will be assessed by one simple question: has the audience understood the message?



Henzler-Wildman K., Kern D. (2007) Dynamic personalities of proteins. Nature 450(7172):964-72.

Jantzen S. G., Jenkinson J. McGill G. (2015) Transparency in film: increasing credibility of scientific animation using citation. Nat Methods 12(4):293-7.

McGill G. (2008) Molecular movies... coming to a lecture near you. Cell 133(7):1127-32.

How to become a rock star scientist - 10 ways ANIMATION can help you.

Are YOU the best kept secret in your field? Fed up of never getting noticed at conferences? It’s time to step out of the shadows and into the spotlight! Read on to find out how animation can make you the envy of all your colleagues.


1.     Reputation and Career Building - Building a reputation in your field comes from hard work and getting noticed on the International conference circuit.  One way to get that recognition is to include some sophisticated visuals in your talk.  Even a short animated sequence to introduce your area of expertise or to sum up at the end of your presentation, is enough to get folk sitting up in their seats and draw your colleagues’ attention to your wonderful research.  Believe me, your talk will be the one that stands out and the one that people are chatting about at the conference dinner.


2.     Awareness of you and your work – Using memorable visuals in your presentations leaves a lasting impression in your audience’s minds, raising awareness of your research.


3.    Impact section of grants applications – One strand of Impact is public engagement, but competing pressures on time is one of the biggest barriers to researchers undertaking public engagement.  Animation can be used to scratch that itch, and many group leaders are now including a budget for animation production in their grants when they submit their funding applications, so funding is set a side for this when the grant is successfully awarded.


4.     Attracting vibrant people to your lab – The next generation of PhD students and Postdocs will see you as someone who is dynamic and up to date with the latest technology.  They know they will be going to a cutting edge lab, where care is taken in the way the research findings are presented. This can only be a great thing for their future in your lab.


5.     Collaborations – Coming back to the fact that people will remember your talk and as they will have been immersed in your presentation they will be looking for opportunities to work with you, not least as they will start to see future projects being disseminated in an attractive way.


6.     Invitations to speak / keynote - As you have given a memorable talk at one conference, you will be inundated with offers to give the same talk at other conferences worldwide.  Better get your suitcase ready for some travelling.


7.    Book deals / editorials Nice visuals can extend out to be included in book chapters and editorials.  Your phone is going to be ringing off the hook!


8.    Podcast interviews - If you are adept at using one form of media for communication, such as animation, chances are you will be interested in getting your fabulous research findings across in another form – enter The Podcast.


9.    Press & TV – See number 8 above.


10. Get your students attention in a lecture – Teachers do this with their school pupils, only they use cartoons.  Animated characters are one of the greatest patterns interrupts of modern societyAll you have to do is characterise your protein of interest.  Not hard really, when you already spend every hour of every day thinking about it.  Be the lecturer they remember in years to come.



So that’s it - easy really…  What are you waiting for?  Take a look at our website for examples of how we have brought other scientists work to life using animation and sign up for our quarterly newsletter


Through to semi-finals of Investing Womens Accelerate HER competition!

Mhairi has been selected as one of sixteen female entrepreneurs to go through to the semi-finals of the Accelerate HER competition run by Investing Women.  The semi-finals will take place on the 24th of Feb, 2016 at Napier University with the finals being held at The Investing Women Ambition & Growth conference at Dynamic Earth in March.  Read all about the competition here.

Finding Funding to Produce Animations - From Grants to Crowdfunding.


One thing I have noticed time and again when speaking to scientists about using animation to communicate their research is that although we start off with an excited conversation about how they would visualise their concepts, when it comes to funding it, they suddenly go luke warm.  If that sounds like you and you have some wonderful ideas for animations but don’t know where to source the funding for them, then this article is for you.  Below I will discuss a few avenues open to you to fund your animations and let you get your creative juices flowing to bring your visions to life! YOU can be the stand out talk at the next conference you are presenting at, or the person who has the most engaging visuals, at the next public engagement event.  Read on…

The first pot of money that can be used to fund production of scientific animations is grant funding.  Recently one of our customers, Professor of Molecular Genetics at The University of Dundee, Gordon Simpson, and his colleagues, were awarded 2 grants from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) to investigate part of the process in which DNA is copied and modified.  When writing the grant application Prof. Simpson contacted me and asked for a formal quote to be included in the impact section of his grant application.  This would allow production of a couple of animations at the beginning of the project with a revised version to be made at the end of the project, based on their scientific discoveries.  I was happy to provide the quote and now that the funding has been awarded we can begin the production process with budget in hand.  Read more about the project on the BioDundee website here. 

Secondly, you might want to consider collaboration.  Perhaps you have a colleague at another University who works on a similar research area that might want to club together in order to come up with enough money to work with us. This is exactly what Dr. Nicola Stanley-Wall from the University of Dundee and Prof. Cait MacPhee from the University of Edinburgh did.  With two great minds contributing to the production process a terrific animation resulted.  See their collaborative work here.

Finally, crowdfunding.  Although none of our clients have tried this so far, there may be a maverick out there willing to give it a go, especially if your research area is one that is of interest to many people.  It does take a bit of an investment in time to get your crowdfunding campaign off the ground.  Nesta give a brief overview on how to crowdfund a project here.  If you are interested in this and want to be the first to try it with us, please get in touch. 

For further information on any of the funding strategies outlined in this article don’t hesitate to drop us an e-mail at or give us a call to discuss your ideas on 07709 939557.  We look forward to hearing from you.

International Partnership for Growth - Linking Californian and Scottish businesses together through QB3

We were invited to pitch at an event organised by Elizabeth Fairley at The Royal Society in Edinburgh.  Elizabeth was hosting Regis Kelly, PhD, OBE current Director of QB3.  QB3 is an incubator for science innovation coming out of the Universities in California.  However, Elizabeth wanted to showcase some of the start ups in the Life Science sector in Scotland and foster links with this sector in San Francisco. It was a very enjoyable evening and the cartoon below was what the artist took away from our pitch.  Yes, our animations can help investors understand new technology!