Scientific Animation Spurs Artistic Creation

“Artists and scientists find each other very exotic—they idealize each other,” says Professor Ruth Lingford. “Artists are in awe of scientists, and scientists find art mystifying and wonderful.” It was with the aim of encouraging collaboration between these two disciplines that Lingford and Professor Alain Viel joined forces to craft VES 54: Animating Science, offered for the first time this spring.

In this new course, students explore the intersection between art and science—both how artistic representations elucidate scientific concepts, and how those concepts can inspire and complicate art. As science becomes increasingly nanoscopic and the representation of that data more difficult to visualize, animation has begun to serve as a new visual language—one that can communicate concepts too abstract to verbalize. “The class is very experimental,” Lingford says. “There is no set body of knowledge which we are imparting to students. Instead, we hope students leave with an idea of how animation can communicate abstract concepts.” While students learn to use animation software such as Adobe Painter and Final Cut Pro, the class primarily emphasizes interdisciplinary exchange. “We want artists to take science-based ideas as a basis for art-making, as a basis for beautiful, lateral thinking,” Lingford says.

In recent years, Lingford has taught many science concentrators who were inspired to try animation after seeing “The Inner Life of the Cell,” an animated film by Harvard biology professors Viel and Robert Lue. The 8-minute clip, which illustrates a cell’s inner workings, received international attention and showcased the didactic possibilities of digital animation. Lingford contacted Viel, and together they designed Animating Science.

The class is evenly split between science and VES concentrators who share their expertise with one another. “Even though we work individually the class feels collaborative,” says Yi Liu ’10, a Chemical and Physical Biology concentrator enrolled in the class. “We view each others’ animations, and people with different backgrounds help each other out.” In the introductory meeting, Lingford and Viel led a game of Pictionary in which students were asked to draw basic scientific words, such as gravity and dilution. They found that while some concepts could be easily represented using identifiable symbols—such as an apple falling that illustrated gravity—others, like dilution, were difficult to express in one drawing. Students have since been introduced to basic software, as well as sound recording and mixing techniques. For the most part, however, work is self-directed. For the first half of the term, students will assist neurobiologist Stephen McDonough in animating concepts central to his work. Then each will tackle an independent project.

Recent advances in animation have made the medium a useful instructive tool. Before becoming an animator, Lingford studied anatomy and physiology in order to work as an occupational therapist. When she was later asked to animate medical diagrams, she found she did not fully understand the mechanisms she’d once committed to memory. “We have that kind of experience all the time,” Lue says. “When you are asked to storyboard something, you find the gaps in your understanding. Any kind of visual representation—exercises in which students have to diagram, draw, and visualize—are very powerful, because they have to unpack what they understand about something.” Lingford explains how animation focuses viewers’ attention on the process or concept at hand: “When you have a person holding up a test tube, viewers hone in on distractions. With an animation you can hone in on what’s important.” Motion is also a key component of animation. “Animation combines both motion and the passage of time, which is true of biological processes,” Lue says. “Being able to put together an animation sequence allows you to interrogate what is really happening.”


However, scientific animation can be more than just a visual aid. With regard to “The Inner Life of the Cell,” Lue says, “It’s about communicating ideas that have never been visualized, infusing the piece with the wonder and excitement of understanding those things. It’s about communicating why science is exciting... including the wonderment of exploration and discovery that is crucial to creating such a powerful reaction.” Lue hopes to see future collaboration between scientists and artists at Harvard, as he believes both fields of thought are compatible. He points out that he and Viel storyboarded “The Inner Life of the Cell,” and then hired professional animators to bring it to life, in the same way that a conceptual artist designs a piece and brings in workmen to execute it.

“There are a lot of talented visual artists in the sciences,” says Liu. “There’s not a divide between arts and sciences, there’s a continuum. So much of science is beautiful. It is so elegant that biology has turned everything into a network of atoms and neurons that create life.”