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How to Become a Medical Animator | Everything You Need to Know

Do you love science and medicine? Do you also love creating things on a computer? Medical Animation just might be the thing for you. Here’s everything you need to know about what it takes to become a medical animator.

Why listen to me? I’ve been doing medical animation for 20 years. I’ve had work shown on Oprah, Dateline, and National Geographic. My work is on permanent display in museums, and I’ve created animations for clients ranging from medical marketing firms to medical device companies of all sizes. I’m also a professor at the University of Colorado Denver where I advise students every year about how to get into the field. The info below is the same information and advice I give them.

My YouTube video about how to become a medical illustrator

So, What is a Medical Animator and What Does One Do?

Before learning how to become a medical animator, it’s probably a good idea to get a firm understanding of what a medical animator is and what a typical workday might look like. Here’s a quick breakdown.

Medical animation is really an extension of medical illustration. Medical Illustrators create easily understandable and scientifically accurate images that explain or tell stories about medical information and science. A medical animator is a highly skilled and knowledgeable professional artist who combines art and science to create animated visual stories about science and medicine for a variety of audiences. They know how to use 3D animation and 2D compositing software effectively and efficiently to tell stories, and they have a strong science education background including a mix of the human body, anatomy, surgery, biology, embryology, molecular biology, and other sciences. This knowledge gives them the ability to comfortably speak with medical professionals and understand the work that needs to be done.

Some medical animators work for medical animation companies. In this case, they spend most of their work time actually animating. The benefits of working for a company are a steady paycheck, having health and other benefits, having work provided to you (vs searching for it), working in a team, and having a set work schedule. If these things sound appealing to you, then working for a medical animation company might just be the thing for you.

Other medical animators work for themselves as freelance or contract artists. Freelance medical animators run their own businesses, so on top of having the knowledge and skills to create medical animations, they also need to understand how to run a business, find clients and work directly with them, negotiate fees, understand billing and the financial side of running a business, and understand how to market their services. The benefits of working for yourself as a medical animator include choosing the kind of work you do and which clients you work for, setting your own work schedule, setting your own rates, and working from wherever you want to. If you are a motivated self-starter kind of person with a desire to run your own show, then this might be the path for you. 

Still others, choose to do both – working full-time for a medical animation company while also doing freelance work on the side. This can get tiring quickly and it honestly isn’t sustainable for long if you want to have any kind of life outside of work, but it can be a good way to transition from working for a company to working for yourself. I usually advise people to first get a job at a company so they can learn about the industry and see first-hand what it takes to work with clients before they go off and do their own thing. Its not required, but it can make things a little easier. 

What are the Different Types of Medical Animation Out There?

There are lots of different types of medical animation out there, and it can be categorized in a few different ways. For our purposes, let’s think about it in terms of the industries it serves. We’ll break it down in terms of surgery, medical devices, medical-legal, pharmaceutical, and patient education industries. This isn’t everything, but it’s a good overview. I’ll also provide links to some examples from the interwebs.

Surgical Animation

Surgical animation is a popular category of medical animation where the intent is to show the process of a surgical procedure or how to use specific tools for a specific surgical procedure. Think of it like an animated surgical illustration. For this type of animation, the audience is typically other surgeons (for training purposes) or patients (also see Patient Education Animation below). Surgical animation needs to be incredibly accurate and the steps need to be shown in a way that is easy to understand and learn. As an example, many years ago, I worked with a company to create a surgical training series that educated surgeons on the process of using a specific set of hip replacement devices and all of the tools that go along with them. It requires a detailed understanding of the anatomy of the area to be operated on and the steps involved in the procedure. For this type of work, an animator (or illustrator) will often observe the surgery directly in the operating room and take notes, photographs, and videos of the procedure while it happens. They may also work from pre-recorded videos of the procedure.

Here are a couple of examples of good-quality surgical animations:

Medical Device Animation

Medical device animation might be seen as a subset of surgical animation, but the intent is very specific to a particular device or set of devices. Usually, a medical device company will hire a medical animator or medical animation company to help tell the story of how their device is unique and how it is used. If it’s a surgical device, like a shoulder replacement system, for example, the company will want to show how the replacement shoulder joint is implanted and how their tools are used along with the anatomy of the patient. Unlike a surgical training video, it isn’t usually necessary to show much of the surrounding anatomy so you’ll often see floating bones or detached anatomical features. Sometimes, like in the case of a heart valve replacement, you might just show the device itself, and then a cross-section of the heart with the device in place to show how it affects the flow of blood through the heart. There are all sorts of medical devices that can benefit from good-quality animations. Some examples are heart valve replacements, joint replacements, and specific instrumentation like saws, retractors, or cutting devices. More complex tools like x-ray, CT, and MRI machines or cancer treatment devices like the Cyberknife™ and robotic surgery devices also benefit from high-quality animations. Oftentimes, medical device animations are created to help the sales teams at the companies by providing an animated marketing tool so they can more easily describe the product to potential customers. 

Here are some examples of Medical Device Animation:

Ghost Productions demo reel for medical device work
Here is another demo reel by AXS Studio

Ever heard of medical malpractice? Like it or not, it’s a huge field and demonstrative aids are a large part of communicating a case – regardless of which side it is for, plaintiff or defendant. Animations can go a long way to help convince a jury that something was done correctly or not correctly in a surgical procedure. There are entire businesses built around medical-legal animation and illustration and they tend to have a team of animators working for them. If you’ve ever thought about working with a combination of the legal field, medicine, and animation – this just might be right up your alley. 

Removing a herniated disc by Courtroom Animation
Man Falling into a Cellar Trap Door Animation by Courtroom Animation

Pharmaceutical and Biomolecular Animation

Do you get excited about molecular biology? This might be the thing for you. Pharmaceutical Animation shows how different drugs work within your body. It can be anything from cancer treatment to how a vaccine works. They typically show tiny worlds from the cellular to the molecular level and often involve protein interactions. Pharmaceutical animations called MOAs (method of action) are incredibly popular for showing how drugs work and this type of work tends to pay very well. 

Here are some examples of pharmaceutical animation

Unfortunately, I cannot embed they’re videos, so just follow the links below.

An MOA by XVIVO: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JUQXaVrNewE
Rexin-G MOA by Hybrid Medical Animation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ycDzngYXx20

Cellular and Biomolecular Animation

Biomolecular animation focuses more on the natural ways the cells, proteins, and chemicals within our body do their thing. For example, you might see an animation about cellular division, protein synthesis, or the growth of an embryo. One of my biggest medical animation projects was for a marketing group whose client was Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. It was a great project and I got to work with a molecular biologist named Ken Eward. We created a whole series of animated short films that showcased the research at the Children’s and it covered everything from how neurons work, to embryology, transcription, translation, and protein synthesis. A compilation of the work we did titled “A Window Into Life” won an award with the National Science Foundations Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge. You can check it out here: 

Here are some biomolecular animation examples:

From Random 42 (I love this company’s work!)
The Tumor Microenvironment by Hybrid Medical Animation

Patient Education Animation

Patient Education Animation is a category that crosses the boundaries of some of those listed above, but it also stands on its own. Patient education animation needs to be done with extreme empathy for the patient. Many times, the color choices, speed, amount of information provided, and the way information is provided. Patients need to understand the medical procedures they are about to go through and a well-made animation is a perfect tool to help them understand and feel more at ease.

Here is a patient education animation I created for a group at CU Anschutz Medical Campus

What is an ICD – Created for Dan Matlock at CU Denver Anschutz Medical Campus as part of a patient decision aid study

What is the Typical Workflow for Creating a Medical Animation?

I’m going to approach this from the point of view of a freelance animator – that’s what I have the most experience with and it covers all the bases. This is a (very) simplified overview of a typical project working with a client. 

  1. Initial client meeting – Meet with the client and figure out what the need is, who the audience is, and what type of style they’re aiming for.
  2. Work up a contract – A written agreement between the artist and the client to fees and terms of the work to be done, and usage rights.
  3. Research and materials from the client – often, the client will provide a script, reference materials, etc. This is also the time I do my own research for reference materials. 
  4. Sketches and storyboards – a (usually) hand-drawn draft of the key moments in the animation – provide the look and feel, framing, and content base.
  5. Blocking – After storyboards are approved, I usually produce a rough draft of the animation with no materials or lighting and to work out the timing. Depending on the project, I may or may not share this with the client. It’s a good time to make refinements
  6. First draft – A polished first draft to share with the client. This could just be rendered still frames that represent the storyboard frames drawn out previously. This is a chance for the client to provide some feedback.
  7. Working draft – The completed animation frames are rendered out and saved for post-production.
  8. Post-production – this includes any color correction, fine-tuning with voice tracks or audio tracks, and any compositing of layers, text, graphics, etc.
  9. Final output – output the finished product to client specifications for they’re needs. 

What Kind of Education is Needed to Become a Medical Animator?

Medical and Scientific Education

One of the most direct ways to get all of the education you need to become a medical animator is to go to a graduate program in medical illustration. These accredited graduate programs cover everything from human gross anatomy at medical schools with medical students to surgical observation and anatomical drawing – and most cover the basics of medical animation as well. The Association of Medical Illustrators has a great section about this on their website. There are a few different schools to choose from in North America. The requirements for admission are pretty heavy, but they are clearly listed on all of the Universities’ websites, so check them out. If you want to go this route, there are a few ways you can prepare. You could go to one of the undergraduate programs in pre-medical illustration such as the one offered by Iowa State University.  There is a more complete list along with some information about other options on the Association of Medical Illustration’s website too. Or you could get a minor in art with a focus on drawing the human figure and then a biology or pre-med degree. You can also go the other way around and get an art degree with a minor in biology. Either way, you’ll probably need to add a few extra classes to get all the requirements completed. 

If these options aren’t available to you, there are other pathways as well. There is no law stating that you have to have a degree to practice medical illustration or animation. You do need the knowledge but you could potentially put this together on your own if you are motivated and do well studying and learning without a classroom and instructor to guide you. This path is a little harder, but it is definitely possible. 

Animation Skills and Education

There are lots of educational programs online and at universities that teach the workflow of professional 3D animation. You could enroll in one of these programs, or you could piece-meal together enough of an education on your own using all of the wonderful tutorials that are available on YouTube or Skillshare. The School of Motion offers terrific training to get anyone up to speed using Cinema 4D and After Effects. These are the tools I use the most in my work and they are pretty standard in the Industry. I’ll include a few links below with resources to get you started. These aren’t medicine and science-based, but they will get you comfortable in the software to know enough and be confident enough so you can make anything you want to make in 3D.  I offer my own trainings on YouTube and I’ll link to some of those below too. 

Here are some of my trainings on YouTube

Business Education – not required but useful

A minor in business would be helpful, but outside of that, just learning from your local business organization, or taking an online class in business for artists would be a big help. The AMI also offers some great resources for business practices that you can take advantage of. 

What Types of Software Tools Do Medical Animators Use?

To be a great animator, you need to come as close as you can to mastering a digital toolset and then stick with it. Here are some of the main tools that are used in the industry and a bit of info about each one and why you might choose it over others.

A 3D Modeling and Animation Tool

Maxon Cinema 4D

This is is hands-down the most-used tool in the field of medical animation and it’s the one I use for all of my own work. Almost every medical animator I know of uses it. Why? In my opinion, it is the most easy to get up to speed with and it offers amazing flexibility. With the latest rendering technologies included in Redshift (a heavily integrated rendering engine that is now owned by Maxon) and the built-in MoGraph (motion graphics) suite – Cinema 4D gives you just about everything you need to make your 3D visions come to life. If you’re a student there is a great discount that lets you renew for about $11 USD every six months as long as you’re a student. 

Autodesk Maya

Maya has long been an industry standard software tool – particularly in the entertainment industry. It is robust,full-featured and used by some of the top CG artists in the world. Personally, I find it a bit cumbersome to get the hang of, but many people love it and swear by it. 

Blender

Blender is an incredibly well-supported and completely free open-source 3D modeling and animation tool. I know a lot of people who are using Blender to create amazing things. Did I mention it is 100% free? Check out its capabilities and the community on the Blender.org site. 

A 2D Compositing Tool

Adobe After Effects

The industry standard for 2D graphics, effects, and compositing is Adobe After Effects. You get it as part of the Adobe Creative Cloud suite and it is the software I use for all of my 2D and compositing work and it’s the tool I teach in my classes. 

Nuke

Nuke is a popular node-based 2D graphics, effects, and compositing tool used in the entertainment industry. It’s amazing and if you are drawn to working in nodes vs layers, then you’ll probably love using Nuke. 

A Video Editing Tool 

Adobe Premiere

Like After Effects for graphics and compositing, Adobe Premiere is the industry standard tool for video editing. It does everything you need and works on Mac or PC. This is the tool I use for all of my video editing and it’s the tool I teach in my classes. 

Final Cut Pro

If you have a Mac, another great option is Final Cut Pro. Final Cut used to be industry standard many years ago, but Premiere has taken its place. I still like it though. It kind of feels like iMovie on steroids. The interface takes a bit to get used to, but once you’re there it is nice to work in. 

Game Engines!

I would be remiss if I did not mention game engines as a growing need for medical animators (and 3D animators in general). Game engines like Unreal Engine and Unity are quickly becoming part of standard workflows in the field because of their super-fast rendering abilities. They are not yet great for modeling, but new tools are being added all the time, so keep an eye out!

Unreal Engine

Unreal Engine is quickly grabbing the 3D rendering world by storm. Its being used in high-end productions by companies like Disney (have you seen The Mandalorian? A lot of the background imagery is made with Unreal Engine and its done real-time!) for virtual production, and a lot of 3D artists are using it to render out their scenes and to create real-time walkthroughs of their work. 

Unity

Unity is another gaming engine that does many similar things to Unreal Engine. 

Wrapping Up

Medical animation can be an incredibly rewarding field to work in. I’ve had a 20-year career and it has gotten me where I am today. It’s funny – when I was in grad school, I told the director of my program (medical illustration at the University of Michigan) that I didn’t think animation was for me. Guess what – that is probably 80% of the medical work I’ve done and now I use the same software to create all of my fine art pieces. If you have a love for science and medicine and you like thinking in 3D space and considering how things work and move in the world, I think you’ll love medical animation. It takes a lot of planning and practice to get into it, but once you’re there you’ll easily be able to create a rewarding and lucrative career for yourself. 

If you have questions about the field, feel free to get in touch via my contact form. I’d love to hear from you!

Cheers,
Travis V.

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Disclaimer: Some links that appear in this article allow me to earn money using affiliate advertising programs. I only recommend products I truly believe in. Any advice or instructions given in this article are purely my own and supplied with the very best intentions.

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