How Pixar's cartoon cheese led to a smarter view of science

The 3D animation that brought to life Remy in "Ratatouille" and Woody in "Toy Story" is illustrating complex scientific concepts to tell stories of a different kind.

Jennifer Bisset
Jennifer Bisset
Jennifer Bisset Former Senior Editor / Culture
Jennifer Bisset was a senior editor for CNET. She covered film and TV news and reviews. The movie that inspired her to want a career in film is Lost in Translation. She won Best New Journalist in 2019 at the Australian IT Journalism Awards.
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Jennifer Bisset
7 min read
Janet Iwasa

Ten years ago, a chunk of animated cheese in Pixar's "Ratatouille" captured the imagination of cell biologist Janet Iwasa. So much so that it changed the way she teaches how deadly viruses work.

The widely loved Academy Award-winning movie revolves around Remy, an aspiring chef who also happens to be a rat. Despite the challenges that poses for his career, Remy throws himself into studying at Gusteau's, the biggest and best restaurant in Paris. In one scene, diners share sparkling conversation at the posh eatery while adorable Remy munches contentedly on intricately textured cheese in the cobblestone lane outside.


Janet Iwasa is a biomedical animator at the University of Utah.

Janet Iwasa

"I told my husband, 'Look at that cheese, the way the light is bouncing,'" Iwasa says over the phone from Salt Lake City, where she teaches biochemistry at the University of Utah. "I was preventing him from enjoying the movie."

The 2007 film's hold on Iwasa set her on a quest to use computer animation technology to explain the complexities of disease transmission. It's a journey that took her from San Francisco biology labs to Hollywood schools, where she studied Autodesk Maya, the 3D graphics software used by Disney and Pixar. After that, she headed to Harvard University, where she taught molecular visualization, before settling in Utah as an assistant professor.

Iwasa's computerized models, which use the same technology that makes Woody tip his hat in "Toy Story" and Elsa dance in "Frozen," bring to life a molecular world that can only be seen through microscopes. Until recently, that world was hand-drawn by researchers hunched over their tools, rendering a complex and dynamic environment in static 2D. The animations are used during seminars and talks to show how Iwasa thinks about problems. They're added to scientific publications, either as supplemental downloads or embedded material for online publications.

Bearing all the polish of Hollywood blockbusters, the animations are also used to educate the public. Teachers from primary schools, high schools, universities and more can download the animations free from Iwasa's website to bring life to the biology subjects that students study on the page. The voice-overs are often simplified, replacing the jargon of science with accessible language. In the last 12 months, 107,000 unique users accessed the site.

In one 18-second clip, Iwasa created a colony of what look like blue bats landing on something that resembles honeycomb. They're animated proteins forming a protective lattice around an HIV protein to prevent further infection. Throughout the clip, you're rooting for the blue bats.

Iwasa isn't the only scientist using cutting-edge animation techniques to train the next generation of researchers looking for cures to HIV, dengue virus and Ebola. Teams from the University of Washington in Seattle and Northeastern University in Boston run Foldit, a crowdsourced computer game in which hundreds of thousands of players, a mixture of those with science backgrounds and people interested in science in general, solve 3D puzzles to help scientists understand protein folding. Polygon Medical Animation, a video production company in Surrey, England, builds 360-degree virtual reality animations of the brain that are compatible with Gear VR, Microsoft Hololens and other VR headsets.


Iwasa's illustration of what's considered the "immature" version of HIV.

Janet Iwasa

Apple animations

In 2011, Gael McGill, a molecular biologist at Harvard Medical School and computer animator, went to Apple with a new project. He wanted to move textbooks to the digital space, and the iPad seemed like the perfect vehicle. So he, E.O. Wilson, a high-profile biologist and professor at Harvard, and a team from the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation pitched the idea directly to the top man: Steve Jobs .

Jobs -- who in 1986 acquired the computer graphics division of Lucasfilm and renamed it Pixar Animation Studios -- recognized that McGill and his colleagues at Digizyme, his Brookline, Massachusetts, media production company, weren't just gifted animators and designers who collaborate with scientists to create their stories. They're dual-trained: animators with science Ph.Ds.

"At some point," McGill recalls, "Steve said, 'No no, I get it, you can talk biology to my Stanford professor friends, you can talk hardware to my iPad team, and you can talk design to my iTunes and iBook software team.'"

The meeting kicked off a partnership that led to the creation of Life on Earth, a digital high school biology textbook in seven parts. The books are available free on the iTunes store.

Like Iwasa, McGill wants to help molecular researchers visualize their work. He adapted Maya, the same workhorse animation software that Iwasa studied, specifically for the molecular data sets with which researchers primarily work. These data sets often aren't immediately recognizable as objects, but with Molecular Maya, a free plugin that lets users import, model and animate molecular structures, they provide a toolkit for creating visualizations of their work. The plugin has been available for the past 10 years and is now taught in several bioanimation programs around the world.

"We hope to democratize science visualization with more intuitive tools like Molecular Maya," he says.

Hollywood classrooms

Drew Berry, the granddaddy of animated biology, got his inspiration from video games and gushes about his computers with the reverence you hear when auto enthusiasts talk about beloved cars.

"My main machine was the Amiga 500," he says of his boyhood computer, adding it "was way ahead of of its time in the mid '90s with computer graphics."

Berry, a biomedical animator at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, has won a BAFTA, an Emmy and a MacArthur "genius grant" for his work animating molecular and cellular processes.

He used the style in a video that visualizes Icelandic pop star Bjork's body at the cellular level, running over the landscape of her skin tissue down to her chromosomes, which resemble a dancing field of little green and brown clovers. "If there is a Steven Spielberg of molecular animation," The New York Times wrote in 2010, "it is probably Drew Berry."

Berry's animation of kinesins, little courierlike molecules carrying cargo such as protein and membrane components.

Drew Berry

Though he started in biomedical animation, Berry's current work is building prototypes of real-world 360-degree planetariums. These dome-like dioramas, which surround you in a 3D interactive experience, combine video game technology with animations worthy of a Hollywood movie.

The difference: They don't end.

Berry hopes students at the university level and below will use this technology in the classroom. He sees teachers using the experience to explain scientific concepts, highlighting different objects before their students' eyes.

Like Berry's earlier animations of cell processes, the planetarium project is also inspired by his love of video games and the worlds they create. He's hoping to show people worlds they otherwise couldn't have seen, just as his ahead-of-its-time Amiga 500 did for him.

"With technology from video games," Berry says, "we are able to create representations that were not possible before."

Into the wild

Since molecular animation is relatively new, graduate students looking to work in the field often aren't sure where they fit in scientific communities. And few scientific institutions have jobs open for them.

That's made Hollywood a tempting place, and many biomedical animators find it hard to pass up the big bucks they can earn by creating special effects for shows such as "CSI" or for medical advertising.

Dan Lemmon, a visual effects supervisor who won an Oscar for his work on "The Jungle Book," has watched scientists brought onto movie sets as advisers become bewitched with Hollywood.

"I've certainly seen my industry rob science in order to tell stories," Lemmon says. Half the team on "Apollo 13," a movie about rocket science, were rocket scientists, he says. "It seemed like just about every other person was from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory."

For some freelancers, the pace of the projects is appealing. In academia, animations can be a year to a year-and-a-half commitment. If the project is boring or the collaborators unpleasant, the animator is stuck for a while.

In Tinseltown, by contrast, gigs run from two weeks to six months. Sure, you have to be on constant lookout for the next job, but you're not held down by a single project. And at the end, you could have an onscreen credit.


This is the scene in 2007's "Ratatouille" that made Iwasa fall in love with animation.


Not everyone, of course, falls for the bright lights. Iwasa enjoyed her exposure to Hollywood, but says she's happy in a university setting.

As her Ph.D work at UC San Francisco wound down, Iwasa proposed a postdoctoral fellowship. Her idea: get an "animation postdoc." So she applied for a National Science Foundation fellowship to study animation. The NSF says no one else has applied for anything like Iwasa's animation studies.

When she arrived in Hollywood, Iwasa dove into a 10-week fast-track course in Autodesk Maya. Classes at the Gnomon School of Visual Effects ran from  9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day, starting with the basics of the software and progressing to more difficult subjects.

Culture shock hit hard.

At 27, she was the oldest student by far. She was also the only woman. But the laid-back style of Hollywood creative types was the toughest challenge. Iwasa was used to the grinds she met in medical school, not the easygoing types with whom she now shared a classroom.

She felt, she says, like an alien. Still, she found her classmates to be welcoming and friendly. Most importantly, she found Hollywood had tools no lab had ever thought of using before.

"The trick and fun puzzle of working with a software like Maya is that it wasn't really meant to animate things like molecules," Iwasa says. Once she learned the program, she says, conveying the data was "really hard to do any other way."

For years Iwasa has been trying to fund an animation of the HIV life cycle entirely at a molecular scale. Researchers from five different universities are lending her their knowledge and expertise, each of a different aspect of HIV. The animations will show how all the different molecules fit together.

At a conference on graphics and visualization, she ended up by chance sitting near a bunch of artists and engineers from Pixar. So she struck up a conversation about the image from "Ratatouille" that changed her career: the hunk of cheese.

"They talked about how difficult it was to render that cheese. And I felt vindicated." Iwasa says. "I knew that was something I should be appreciating."

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