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More than a Gut Feeling

You may have heard of the microbiome: the trillions of bacteria living in our intestines. These microbes are essential to our mental and physical health. It turns out, the brain and gut can actually "talk" to eachother through the vagus nerve. A healthy gut really is a healthy mind.

Challenge

Create an editorial cover design that utilizes visual metaphor to highlight a recent scientific discovery and capture the audience's attention

I remember learning about the gut-brain axis in my 3rd year of undergraduate studies. I couldn't believe that something so important was not more widely known! Recent advances in research show that the microbiome may be even more important than we thought. The gut and brain are directly connected by the vagus nerve, through which they communicate bidirectionally (Carabotti et al., 2015). This connection reveals how the gut can alter emotion and behaviour (Cryan & Dinan, 2012). Additionally, the gut-brain axis has been implicated in mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety (Rogers et al., 2016Foster & Neufeld, 2013), as well as neurological disorders such as Parkinson's disease and autism (Klingelhoefer & Reichmann, 2015Fowlie, Cohen, & Ming, 2018). Clearly, intestinal health is essential to our mental and physical health. This stresses the importance of our diet and external environment, where many of our intestinal bacteria come from. 

Client: Prof. Marc Dryer, University of Toronto

Format: Animation, 3D Modelling

Software: Autodesk Maya, AfterEffects

Ideate

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I first narrowed down my ideas to my top three. After receiving feedback from my professor and classmates, I decided to go with the circuit board idea. In this piece, I used the metaphor of a circuit board to compare to the vagus nerve—a neural circuit. This would allow me to play with the idea of input and output; in this case, I was treating the gut as the input, hence it is portrayed as a chip on the board. The brain is the output, represented by a meter to show fluctuations in emotion and behaviour. The bacteria are flowing into the intestine chip to show that they are the source of the electrical signal.

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Process

Next, I modelled several kinds of common bacteria found in the intestines and created a MASH network to make them look like they were flowing towards the gut. After the vagus nerve and brain-meter were modelled, I had some fun playing around with different shaders and lighting. In order to decrease the amount of rendering time, I used Render Layers to separate the pointer on the brain-meter, the bacteria, and the background (circuit-man, lighting, vagus etc.). 

Now for the real challenge: modelling my concept in 3D. With a lot of trial-and-error, the piece eventually began to take form. I started by modelling the circuit board which I traced from a silhouette I drew. The difficult part was getting the circuit texture. Instead of modelling the circuits by hand, I figured creating a displacement map (created in Illustrator) would be the most efficient way to achieve this effect. It worked beautifully! I added a layered shader to make the board green and circuits silver.

Compositing

The final animation was composited in AfterEffects. I initially tried to animate the light flashing through the vagus nerve in Maya using a ramp shader; however, I realized I could achieve this easier, faster, and make it look better in AfterEffects. I altered a lens flare to be the central light and used particle effects to create the light trail. Overall, it turned out better than I thought it would!

Animation