A short while ago we came across a beautiful animation that takes you deep into the workings of the ear (you can check it out at the bottom of this post). It went up on our Facebook page and got some really positive feedback, so we thought it would be fun to learn what is it like to be a medical illustrator and what is required to create illustrations like these. We were fortunate enough to talk with Brandon Pletsch, this illustration’s animator, and wanted to share with you some of what we learned.
Brandon is a medical illustrator who currently creates animations with Thomas Direct Studios. He made this animation, titled Auditory Transduction, during his studies at university.
He said that art and science were intertwined as early as his high school years.
“As early as High School I knew I liked science, and then as a visual artist and painter I often used anatomy as subject matter,” Brandon said. “Because I wanted to combine sciencey art and education, I started a graduate program at the Medical College of Georgia (now Georgia Health Sciences University) in medical illustration.”
When he was at school, lots of his studies were done in conjunction with students that studied medical disciplines like Biochemistry or Neurosurgery.
“In these programs you actually attend classes, like Gross Anatomy and Histology, with medical students,” he said. “But when they go to their more clinical classes, the illustrators go to learn techniques in the studio.”
Classes like Gross Anatomy and Histology teach anatomy with and without microscopes. Sometimes, he said, what he learned left him thirsting for more.
“I found that one of the biggest struggles in the lectures was the task of teach hearing anatomy and physiology,” Brandon said. “During class as the various structures were taught, I tried to visualize what it looked like in the ear when sound was actually heard. I thought, ‘This is a great opportunity to provide the class with a different way of understanding hearing, and really a perfect application of animation as educational medium.’”
Although the animation was inspired by his studies, all his work was done outside of school. After it was completed, he showed the animation to his professor and it was incorporated into the lecture about hearing.
He has no personal history with hearing loss, so much of the information that went into the animation was completely new to him.
“It was primarily an independent project; a labor of love. I did all my research from scratch, from storyboarding the scene to creating the animations. I even borrowed an otoscope to examine my wife’s external auditory canal, and my wife and I signed up for an fMRI study to get three-dimensional data from our own heads. There were some surprising finds for me: for instance, you might think that tonotopic organization would position higher frequencies toward the apex of the cochlea, but it’s the other way around.”
Tonotopy is part of the science behind MED-EL’s Complete Cochlear Coverage, and there’s lots more to talk about that at another time.