Animating Bacteriophages

Start with an idea. Use simulation to animate the bacteriophages’ motion to make it look like they are not being powered by themselves but by the environment around them. They react to the environment forces in a way that gives them anthropomorphism, makes them dance, an organic motion that cannot be captured by key framing or hand animating the models. 3D dynamic bacteriophages are built with articulating joints so they collide with themselves and each other. The entire method of constructing and rigging the bacteriophages is like building a clever Swiss toy.

Once the models are functioning correctly, forces like turbulence and gravity are applied to see how they react. All parameters–friction, angles, articulation–are adjusted until the models’ actions are pleasing. The environment is built, the models are positioned at their starting points, and forces are applied to create a specific action, flowing from the upper right to the lower left and then off screen. Dozens of simulations are run with varying forces until the bacteriophages move realistically–drifting, colliding, clumping, stampeding. Getting the feel of specific motion is what makes the scene different: I could do and quick-and-dirty hand animation of bacteriophages landing and get the point across, but spending the initial time creating kinetic sculptures–I think of them more as puppets, having characters–gives me the ability to toss these things into the wind and let irregularity have its way.

Regarding style, characters have a strong silhouette, so the scene is backlit to focus on their shape. It is an almost colorless scene; there is almost no information. Gray mist, stark black, and glowing orange. I pull inspiration from silent film, chiarascuro painting, and the look of lights through the trees at night night.

The final touch is animating the RNA insert into the cell. I bake simulations and go back to traditional key framing to add a surprising accuracy to the scene. The scene is reviewed to make sure there’s nothing extra needed and, more importantly, nothing distracting. A subtle animated displacement on the cell surface and specks of particulate add to the irregularity, which makes it more believable and fun. The end result is a shot that feels timeless and endlessly watchable


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