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Film Review: 2012 International Science and Engineering Visualisation Challenge

29 April 2013
Appeared in BioNews 702

2012 International Science and Engineering Visualisation Challenge

Organised by Science and the American Association for the Advancement of Science

'2012 International Science and Engineering Visualisation Challenge', organised by Science and the American Association for the Advancement of Science

Visually gripping and engaging new methods are increasingly used to convey scientific principles and developments to the public. The journal Science and the National Science Foundation annually hold an international competition to recognise the best examples of projects that bring scientific information to life.

The 2012 winning film 'Alya Red: A Computational Heart', rightfully made a lasting impression on the judges. This visually captivating film brings together a groundbreaking scientific development with better established knowledge of the heart.

Alya Red is in fact a new computer model of the heart based at the Barcelona Supercomputing Centre. The model is based on MRI data, where each coloured strand represents linked cardiac muscle cells that transmit an electrical current and trigger a model human heartbeat. Eye-catching graphics, informative diagrams, simple and defined vocabulary permit the viewer to easily follow along.

My only real criticism of the film is that it put on some serious pace at some points, making it impossible to read all the diagrams. However, the technology and the film are both fascinating and it gave me a new found appreciation for the complexity of the human heart.

If Alya Red had not won the competition, honourable mention 'Fertilisation' would have been the obvious winner. The beautifully narrated film takes you on a visual journey of the fertilisation process.

Mostly it's a visually eloquent description of a complex process although from time to time the narrator has a tendency to use complex scientific terminology that not everyone may be familiar with. Still, the film is so strong visually that most viewers would understand the main points even watching with the sound off.

The film starts with 300 million sperm on a journey to fertilise an egg and finishes with the fertilised egg travelling to the uterus for implantation. It is captivating from beginning to end.

The remaining honourable mentions of the contest lagged behind in quality. I admit to being baffled as to how 'Observing the Coral Symbiome Using Laser Scanning Confocal Microscopy' even made it on to the shortlist.

It brought back long afternoons sitting though painfully dull high school science lectures. The cinematography was repetitive and amateur and the classical music used as backing pure aural wallpaper. Coral may be described as dynamic; the film is anything but.

Confocal microscopy allows scientists to observe living coral and its associated organisms in a non-invasive manner. That sounds like it could be a real visual treat but the film's bright coral images all began to look the same. It was a struggle to finish.

The shortest film in the shortlist was 'Revealing Invisible Changes in the World'. It's a fairly lifeless affair and I had to view the film twice to fully understand its content.

But once I had understood I was captivated, at least by the subject matter. Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed a new method of magnifying subtle changes normally invisible to the eye. The team uses video input to analyse each pixel for slight variations in colour over time. A sleeping child appears still, but the chest rises and falls with breathing. A crane looks stable, but rocks with the wind. A man’s face changes colour as blood pulses through his veins.

I would recommend a look at 'Alya Red: A Computational Heart' and 'Fertilisation' without hesitation. I think the latter film was the more visually powerful and I can't help but wonder if 'Alya Red' only won because it presents fresh, new technology whereas 'Fertilisation' doesn't.

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