Making Scientific 3D Computer Animation that Pays Off

The three rules for when to use 3D computer animation in MoA and MoD videos

When it comes to mechanism of action and mechanism of disease videos, 3D computer animation is the gold standard. 3D animation can help an audience fully understand how a drug blocks a receptor or how a virus infects a cell. By using three dimensional space and dynamic cinematography, an audience will get a better appreciation for the proportion and appearance of key cell types, proteins, or microbes and their role in your story. But as with any gold standard, 3D computer animation should be chosen carefully. Just like you wouldn’t build an entire house out of gold, a production company shouldn’t build a scene in 3D CGI if live-action footage, 2D motion graphics, or another method would be more effective.

There are three basic rules for using 3D computer animation in scientific communication:

1. Use 3D computer animation to show what live-action footage can’t show.

Computer animation can take an audience to places a video camera could never go. Whether floating in the cytoplasm of a T cell or crash zooming deep into the airway epithelium, computer animation is the best solution when live-action footage is impossible or impractical. Even when footage from electron microscopy is available, it can be hard to understand for most viewers.  Specialists who regularly concern themselves with histology and cell biology might fare better, but some clinicians may not have seen these kinds of images since studying textbooks for their exams.

Computer animation can also make a biological process come to life in a way that microscopy can’t. Real human cells make for difficult actors. And the rules of cinematography and visual storytelling aren’t so easy to follow when your set is only 100 micrometers wide. Computer animation can move seamlessly from a shot of an organ, to the organ’s tissue, into a cell, inside one of the cell’s organelles, and even down into the atomic structure of a single protein. This makes computer animation a powerful tool for portraying the microcosmos of the human body.

2. Use 3D computer animation when shape, size, and depth are beneficial to the story.

A good doctor will typically have two questions about any treatment:

Does it work?

Is it safe?

This is why a good MoA video doesn’t just show how a drug works. It shows how it is different from other drugs. It demonstrates how potential safety concerns in the therapeutic area may be addressed by the specific pathway targeted. In short, a good MoA video gives the context needed for a physician to understand how the MoA may relate to their questions about efficacy and safety.

3D computer animation can accurately and clearly show the shapes of cells, receptors, and enzymes. This helps forge a visual link for the audience between the drug and the key elements in its MoA. The audience can more easily understand how a treatment may overcome the efficacy or safety limitations of other treatments.

3. Don’t use 3D computer animation where another approach will work better.

In your video, do you want to show a woman open her medicine cabinet, take out a pill bottle, and swallow a capsule with a glass of water? How about a middle-aged man jogging down a city street?

3D animation is probably not the best choice for those sequences. An animator would have to individually build each element in the scene—every building, person, car, dog, squirrel, and fire hydrant. Do you want to dedicate 20-30 days of working time just to build a scene that may only appear for five seconds in your video?

Live-action video footage could easily show both sequences. You could shoot these scenes with a cast and crew, although this has its own expenses and a host of logistical complications. Or you could simply purchase royalty-free stock footage, which would be the fastest, easiest, and least costly solution. A more exciting solution is to use 2D illustrated characters for these scenes. With some creative transitions, you can then save the 3D animation for the micro-level where it works best.

At its worst, 3D animation can even hinder the emotional impact of such scenes. For one, an image of a real human being is usually more affecting for an audience than a 3D model. And two, there is the dreaded uncanny valley effect. This effect means that the more realistic a 3D person looks, the creepier the animation will appear to the audience. The solution is to make the 3D person look less “real.” If the 3D model is more cartoonish, the viewer firmly registers it as something artificial. But isn’t this the exact opposite of what physicians want to see? They want reliable medical information they can trust, not the latest Pixar film.

On that point, keep in mind that Pixar needs years to produce a feature-length computer animated film, and their production budgets are in the tens of millions of dollars. Having a fully animated cast of characters (whether humans, animals, or toys) means loads of work, time, and money. With the budget you have for a 3-minute MoA video, it makes much more sense to use 3D animation where the effort, time, and costs are worth it.

In economic terms, choosing where to use 3D computer animation is about allocating resources for the highest return on investment. Use computer animation where it has the highest payoff for your message and your audience. This will make your final video easy to understand, emotionally captivating, and memorable.

Do you have any questions about 3D animation or would you like to see some more examples of 3D animation that pays off?

If you work in pharma or biotech, and you’re looking to use 3D animation to support your communication objectives, we would love to hear from you. Whether you have a specific project in mind or you’re just looking for guidance, click below to get in touch and learn how the power of visual storytelling can work for you.

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