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Lives of a Cell, the 3-D Version

Kim Zetter Email 03.14.07

WN: What was the reaction to it there?

Bolinsky: We started receiving tens of thousands of e-mails and phone calls, the hits on our website went from 200 a week to 650,000 a week and it was picked up by ABC News. We were getting e-mails from major universities all over the world asking if they could use this for their students (and) calls from high school teachers wanting it for advanced biology classes ... and museums that want us to work on museum exhibits because they want to modernize how they teach science.

This is what I hoped when I started this company -- that it could change how people saw things. We (thought) this great academic animation would be shown at Harvard and would disappear forever under the Ivy dome of silence.... We didn't really anticipate that it would go anywhere and when it did it took us all by surprise.

WN: How long did it take to produce the Inner Life of the Cell?

Bolinsky: It's an 8.5-minute piece and that took us 14 months. Nobody at the outset knew how complicated we needed to make each scene to make it really work. We had to figure out how to take a cell that is so packed with molecules and to edit out visually about 90 to 95 percent of those molecules and still keep in all the kinds of structure that would indicate to the student what's going on.

WN: How did you get started using computers in your animation?

Bolinsky: After I started my own company (in 1983), I found out what was available and ended up buying an 8-bit computer. You could get only 256 colors on screen -- not the millions you get now. And it was really slow and really expensive and I had to mortgage my house. My fiancé at the time, who is now my wife, was totally freaked out. But I knew what I wanted to do and knew that I only had one way to do it.

So I started to do animation and figured out how to do programming and write scripts.... Then about a year after I started I heard about a new company called Wavefront Technologies -- a bunch of hippie surfers in Santa Barbara. With Wavefront I was able to do 3-D animation. I had to learn Unix. There was no GUI so if I needed to change a color I had to go into a special text editor and edit all the colors numerically with text, and then save that and get back into the program and render to see if the color was right, and back and forth. The frames took an hour apiece to render. It was a chore. I put about 100 hours a week for a decade into that to figure out how to make it work.

WN: Are you still writing any of your software?

Bolinsky: Some of it we write but we use two off-the-shelf film packages -- Lightwave and XSI. They both do modeling and motion. We also have internal software writing so when we need it to do something that it doesn't do we just write it.

WN: What got you interested in medical animation?

Bolinsky: When I was four years old some friends of my family took me to see Fantasia and I was totally blown away. From that minute on I wanted to be an animator. My father (a sculptor and art historian who taught at New York University) taught me how to animate using serial drawings in a flipbook. Then when 8-mm movie cameras came around you could do a single shot (with them). I learned how to do stop-frame animation and I experimented with that a lot and pretty much that was my mode of animating through high school.

I had always really loved sciences as well.... And I was fortunate enough when I was in junior high school that my pediatrician introduced me to Frank Netter's artwork. I guess you could call him the father of modern medical illustration. He had an MD but he was also a painter.... Anyone having to do with medicine will have looked at Frank Netter's art work.... I decided I would make him my model ... getting my degree in medical illustration and then going on to medical school.

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