Bringing Science to Life

How Ink and Giants turned DNA into an animated, immersive experience at a Saudi Arabian science museum.
By Meleah Maynard

Sarner is known for being a creative agency that specializes in immersive visitor experiences, so when they were asked to head up a new exhibition for the Biotech Room at the King Salman Science Oasis in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, they assembled the perfect team to get the job done. One Small Pixel served as the creative and production company coordinating the content in three main rooms, and they partnered with London-based Ink and Giants to create and direct experiential films as part of the installation.

The two companies had already worked together several times, “and they knew that we are always up for the challenge of designing for unusual spaces,” recalls Peter Dobes, who co-founded Ink and Giants with his wife Dianne Dela Torre in 2015. The client, Oasis Technology Center, asked that the installation to be in keeping with the science museum’s mission of engaging visitors in new experiences. And they specified that the project’s focus be on the science of DNA and the ways it might be of help to humanity. They also needed the installation to fit well with the museum’s larger exhibition, which aimed to get people excited about the power of science.

Using Cinema 4D, X-Particles, Red Giant tools and Octane, Ink and Giants made a three-minute, animated film explaining what DNA is and some of its potential uses in medicine, energy and more. Sarner commissioned Frozen Fish Design to create the immersive environment, which was centered around a screen at the heart of the exhibition and surrounded with infinity mirrors and LED strands of DNA. “They wanted the room to feel like an infinite space so when people stepped into the room, it would almost feel like you were in the galaxy,” Dela Torre recalls.

As they do on most jobs, Dela Torre and Dobes acted as co-creative directors, working together at every stage of the project while collaborating with the client. The duo met while working for a design agency. With backgrounds in broadcast and branding, they launched Ink and Giants and soon moved from their home office into a studio with a small team of collaborators.

The team scales up and down, depending on the projects on their plate at one time. “We tend to do most of the pre-production work, coming up with the concept and overall direction, storyboarding and style frames, and we bring in specialized freelancers, like animators and Houdini artists,” Dela Torre says.

Demonstrating the Wonder of DNA
Some of the visual concept, as well as the script, was already in place when Ink and Giants came on board, and they were given a fair amount of freedom to further develop creative aspects of the project. “We decided to use particles as the backbone of the art direction for our visuals, just as DNA is the backbone for life,” Dela Tore says, explaining that the approach “allowed for great flow as the story goes from galactic to microscopic scenes.”

They also needed to come up with ways to visualize the various topics the client wanted to cover—how life began, how many living organisms share the same genetic code and how scientists are learning to edit DNA using powerful technology. “One of the key concepts was gene editing, so the level of detail had to be exciting enough for a younger audience without getting too technical,” Dela Torre recalls.

For the storyboarding process, Dela Torre and Dobes always like to try to show some of how things will be produced, technically, so they blocked out some 3D particles using MoGraph cloners and particle emitters in Cinema 4D to visualize how particles would flow from one scene to the next. In addition to C4D and X-Particles, they also relied on Red Giant’s Trapcode Particular so they would have a lot of flexibility when the client wanted to change things.

“A lot of the 3D elements in the scenes were a mix of Particular, X-Particles and C4D, which was so helpful because the resolution was massive, and we needed to turn this around quickly,” Dela Torre says, adding that they knew the film would be particle heavy so, for practical reasons, they wanted to avoid generating millions of particles per scene in C4D. They also wanted to be able to art direct certain shots, mixing in Trapcode Particular and Form in After Effects where needed.

Storytelling with Compelling Visuals
One of the biggest challenges Ink and Giants faced was finding ways to make the most of the wide screens to tell the story without having too much empty space. Adding to the complexity were the infinity mirrors, which reflected everything around the room. “We couldn’t overload the background because the repetition in the mirrored room would break the illusion were trying to create,” Dobes says, explaining that they tried to have just one key object in the center of the screen.

To create the stunning galaxy scene, Ink and Giants relied primarily on X-Particles. Red Giant’s Star Glow and Trapcode Shine were added in After Effects to enhance the look of the galaxy’s center, and an extra layer of real lens flare footage was added to finish the look.

The Biotechnology film was one of three pieces of motion content Ink and Giants created for the Oasis Technology Center, and each presented its own creative and technical challenges. One of the most interesting parts of the project, Dobes says, was getting to finally see the film remotely and hear that people found it “educational and mesmerizing to watch, which was truly rewarding.”

Meleah Maynard is a writer and editor in Minneapolis, Minnesota.