Jason Guerrero’s Philippines-born parents insisted their son, born in
Canada, become a doctor. In high school, he dreamed of becoming a
Disney animator or visual artist, but when he entered Ontario’s
McMaster University he dutifully became a Biology major.
Afterward he volunteered in an ER and at a geriatric hospital, which is when he realized that “sick and dying people are really bummed out and not nice, really depressing to be around. I think it’s an incredibly noble job, but not for me. I like happy positive people.”
Not wanting to waste four years of science education or to displease his parents, but still yearning for a career in the visual arts, Jason lucked out when a friend told him about a degree in biomedical communication. “I had a bunch of paintings, brought those, had an interview, got accepted. It was an awesome program. For the first time I was in school and I knew what I was going to be,” he recalls, his voice peaking with excitement. “It was really cool, because as a first-year you take the exact same courses as med students… I got to saw a guy’s head open to take out the brain. The only difference was while med students were taking clinical stuff we were taking watercolor, Photoshop, carbon dusting…”
Slicing open cadavers was as icky as it sounds: “At first everyone put like three pairs of gloves on and were very careful and if they got one little drop of preservation fluid on their clothes they’d flip out. After a few weeks people were picking up lungs with bare hands and still talking about lunch. You get over it. But you never get over the smell… It’s tough if you miss a class and have to make it up. You’re in a basement alone with seventeen dead people and that’s freakin’ scary.”
In January of 2000, midway through his final year, he was invited to do a joint medicine and animation project with Sheridan College, an institution well known for producing animators. Jason was the pilot student: “I went for eight months and did three projects. One was with sperm motility and I worked with a professor to try and make all the parts of the mitochondria, the nuclei, the flagella, accurate. Then I did a project on how HIV replicates and another on how people with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder experience the world versus what a non-PTSD person sees.”
So while still in school, Jason had the chance to work with medical leaders in their fields and use cutting edge animation technology. He had started combining his talents and enthusiasm for visual art and his knowledge of biology.
Next, our intrepid animator, having finished his schooling, was offered a job by Industrial Light Magic, the hot company that is responsible for the animation in such movies as “The Mummy” and “Star Wars”. But because Jason by that point spent six years studying medicine, he decided to stay in the medical field. In February, 2001, he agreed to work for Hurd Studios, a high-budget medical animation studio off Union Square.
The work Jason does is as precise as surgery, as imaginative as a comic book. It has to be, because it must both convey sophisticated, accurate medical information and at the same time give a sense of looking at a real human body part. Unlike a typical Soho gallery-goer or Fifth-Avenue museum-goer, who could stare for hours at a Baroque canvas without knowing, or caring, what an actual dead rabbit looks like, Jason’s audience are experts. Drug manufacturers, for example, need and expect his work to be realistic in detail and in overall feeling; otherwise, their own work cannot proceed.
The movie microbes that Jason creates need to be as realistic — as life-like — as possible. Scientists are constantly working to improve the technology that he uses. For example, they derive new equations that can more accurately portray the effects of light as we perceive them using tools like the spectrometry machine, which reads how light reflects off of different objects.
No matter how advanced the technology, however, creating a medical animation takes a lot of time and effort: “It takes typically three to four months to do a five minute animation. That’s with a team of five or six artists working on it. We’ve done rush jobs — like three or four minutes within a few weeks — but that’s really rare. And obviously the longer you spend, the higher quality it turns out. In rush jobs you might literally be at the office three days straight without leaving.”
Pulling all-nighters to finish an animation is a lot like studying for a school final. But the stress is even greater when fighting an animation deadline: “If you don’t do well in finals, you have only yourself to blame. In a team, so many are depending on you… you risk letting a whole team down, not just yourself.”
Accuracy requires research. Hurd has two full-time researchers, and for most jobs, the client recommends leading experts to critique the preliminary sketches. And even so, there’s always the danger that after a year, the experts will turn out to be wrong.
Still, science waits for no animator, and “It’s always a danger that a year from now, discoveries are made because a lot of the stuff we’re animating is at the cutting edge. Sometimes, literally, we’re working with someone and their paper hasn’t been released yet. So we’re animating and the world doesn’t know about it.”
To avoid errors, Jason uses sleight of hand: “You try to animate so that what you’re not sure about, you don’t really show. You might allude to a structure with glows, or show just one step in a process. That way the animation has a longer shelf life. We try not to make anything up so that if something is newly discovered in a year, it doesn’t make our animations obsolete. We make it all look very seamless, so that you don’t focus on the thing.”
It’s harder as things get smaller: “”If you’re showing a pancreas you’re not going to get it wrong because you can go see it… But molecularly, it’s hard to visualize. You have to do a lot of tests; now scientists are actually able to see these things.” Ultimately, Jason said, “You make your best educated guess of what it probably looks like.”
And when it comes to that, what does a tiny little cell floating in some itty tube in the body look like? “Anything where you get to the level where you get to see the molecules,” Jason confided, “you see an otherworldly alien landscape… But it’s not just something out of your imagination: you’re trying to depict something that’s real, that no one has actually seen. We get to work with leading meds writing papers on these subjects. We get to illustrate processes happening in the body that no one has visualized.” The representations that come out of Jason’s studio have the potential to become the new standard for how a certain molecule is depicted.
Mixed in with concerns for accuracy is the personal artistry. “I think my style is very, very influenced by Hollywood and by animating certain camera angles,” Jason explained. “And visual rhythm and pacing… Hollywood movies have very definitive, distinct techniques in creating visual narratives – how you set up a shot before you go into a house — people take it for granted now when watching a movie. But over a hundred years that cinema has progressed.” He concludes: “There are formulas that people use, and I try to use that in make these medical animation stories more dramatic.”
The walls of Jason’s Lower East Side apartment are covered in large
printouts of his digital photography. Particularly striking is the
image of a paper-white face, wearing tinted orange goggles and a
headset, and looking like some cross between a girl, a bug, and an
alien. There are also more serious portraits of people on the street:
the creased faces of New Yorkers deep in their own thoughts and
concerns, and unaware of the photographer. Reflecting on his
photographs, and on the paintings he used to do as well, Jason
realized, “My animation style developed from my art style: a very
limited palette, very detail-oriented, focused on line rather than on
It’s not entirely surprising that a professional portraitist of microbes should find the little guys creeping into his art-for-art’s sake – and vice versa. Recently, “The Adventures of Bob and Sam: Episode I,” a film short starring two sperm cells with Cockney accents that Jason and his co-workers were preparing for a client turned into a hit. It was accepted into the prestigious SIGGRAPH Electronic Theater in 2004, alongside such fare as “The Hulk”, “T3,” “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Matrix.” Most recently, it was accepted into the HBO Comedy Film Festival in Aspen, Colorado in 2005.
Jason’s mother still reminds him that he could still become a doctor. Not likely.