An Interview with Jason Sharpe, President of AXS Studio, on the Wondrous Art of Medical Illustration
ReGenesis, a fictional series about biological and ecological crises that ran from 2004 to 2008, revolves around a group of badass scientists that work for NorBAC — or the North American Biotechnology Advisory Commission — out of a hooked-up laboratory based in Toronto, Canada. While the series is a figment of Christina Jennings’ amazing imagination, the show’s claim to fame is its super realistic approach to modern science and technology; that, and it’s Emmy-winning accompanying “alternate reality game” called ReGenesis Extended Reality.
Not only does the show utilize the expertise of highly reputable scientists, many of its visuals were created by an award-winning team of professional medical illustrators at AXS Studio, helmed by Jason Sharpe. The artist, author, and former Chair of the Association of Medical Illustrators, helped establish AXS Studio as a leading biomedical communications company, which may have never happened if he didn’t accidentally discover the existence of the emerging medical 3D animation field 20 years ago.
With only a handful of institutions offering graduate level courses in the field in North America, most people don’t actually know that medical illustration is a highly specialized profession that allows for a very interesting and engaging career in the sciences, education, and entertainment. Since completing his degree in 2003, Sharpe has created work featured in games, television shows, as well as private and public institutions related to health, medicine, and technology, located around the world.
ARTpublika Magazine had the distinct pleasure of speaking to Jason Sharpe, the president and co-founder at AXS Studio, to learn about the remarkable profession.
How did you find out about medical illustration?
Many of the people working in this profession didn’t want to choose between a visual art career and a career in the sciences. Medical illustration encompasses all kinds of medical and scientific visualization — everything from illustrations to 3D animations to interactive applications, games, websites, and large in-person interactives. They all have one thing in common — communication of life science information.
So, most of us working in the profession came at this with training in science and visual art. In my case, I have an engineering degree [from Queen’s University], but I was always a visual artist at heart. Coming out of high school, it’s hard to see how you’re going to make a living as an artist. So, I got an engineering degree, and with that done, I then moved to Vancouver and went to Emily Carr University of Art and Design, where I studied fine art and majored in printmaking, which is kind of my first love.
But, after working for a number of years as a printmaker and in advertising, I discovered a biomedical communications program at the University of Toronto. So, I went back to school in my late 20s and studied 3D animation.
In the programs that train people for this career, there’s a very heavy emphasis on the sciences and medicine. We studied gross anatomy with medical students from the [Institute of Medical Science in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto.] We attended surgeries and cadaver dissection classes; we studied pathology, physiology, and molecular biology. These are graduate level programs, so, you actually need an undergraduate science degree in order to get into one of these programs.
A lot of our clients are life science companies involved in pharmacology, biotechnology and medical technology. Some are healthcare clients, like hospitals, but we also work with research institutions, and even individual physicians and scientists. So, to understand what doctors, scientists, and drug manufacturers are talking about, we have to speak their language and understand the world that they operate in. To give an example, in order to understand how two molecules interact, which is often what’s at the very basis of how a drug works, you have to understand how molecules look and behave, as well as their scale relative to other structures in the body.
Most of the work that we do is quite variable. There are some medical illustrators that focus on gross anatomy and surgery, but our company tends to operate mostly in the cellular and molecular realm. So, showing things that can’t yet be seen with microscopes, using our knowledge about how these things are and how they would look if you could see them, to recreate things that are going on in the molecular realm.
So, sometimes you are tasked with creating visuals of something you’ve never actually seen?
Yes. There is a certain degree of artistic interpretation, but it’s all based on data. So, to give you an example, molecules which are the building blocks of life, every cell is made of millions of molecules and there are trillions of cells in our bodies so, while we can’t see individual molecules quite yet, we’re getting close, but they don’t actually have any visual appearance.
Atoms can’t be seen, but scientists have used visual models to represent them for years. So, stick models and diagrams of what a molecule looks like are visual tools that scientists and scientific artists use to represent them. They are so small that they don’t actually have any visual properties, so, as artists, we give them visual characteristics based on their structures. We know the space they take up, we know their size relative to other things, so we attribute characteristics to them like color and surface properties that we create for communication.
Let’s rewind a bit. Where were you born and raised? What were your hobbies as a child?
I was born and raised in Toronto. And I drew, a lot. I [also] skateboarded, rode bikes, and I hung out with my friends.
What did you draw, mainly?
I drew superheroes, BMX bikes, and comics. I drew anything I could think of.
I was a huge Batman fan. When I was three/four years old, we moved to San Francisco for a bit. Back then, the Adam West series was big on TV and I got hooked on it, and then I drew Batman all the time.
As for the other activities, biking and skating, are you a fan of the outdoors?
Yes! As a teenager, I spent a lot of my time outside. A lot of my jobs throughout high school and university were outside.
Aside from nature, what were your interests as a young person? What kinds of books or movies did you enjoy? What types of music did you listen to?
I loved rock music, I still do. I was a big Ramones and Pixies fan, The Cars, I was really into new wave and punk. I really liked espionage and spy books; I read a lot of Tom Clancy and the Bourne series kinds of books.
Did you attend a high school that required you to pick a major?
No, we kind of did everything. Very few of us knew what we wanted to do coming out of high school, as there wasn’t much of a focus, so I just steered towards the sciences and math to get into engineering.
Was it something that came naturally to you?
I wouldn’t say that it came naturally. I had to work at it, certainly. The thing I enjoyed the most in high school was the art class, that’s where I had the best time.
What did you like about art?
I’ve always been a fan of visual art and wanted to be an artist growing up. I’m someone who likes to make pictures and appreciates the pictures made by others. I love being in galleries, I love going to see shows and learning about artists and their lives.
When did you realize that visual art was a little bit more than an interest?
I always knew that it was more than an interest, but I didn’t know that I could ever have a career in it, so after I completed my engineering degree, I went to art school, cause I figured that was the surest way to make it work if it was going to work. I did a fine art degree.
Most of the working artists I knew were also teachers in colleges and universities. Very few artists were actually supporting themselves only through their work, so I looked at other ways to do that and explored other creative fields. I got into advertising for a while; I was interested in art direction, design, and illustration, so I taught myself Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, and graphic design programs like QuarkXPress, so that I could get some paying work that was visual in nature, and then I stumbled into the medical and scientific art.
How did you get into medical illustration?
I was working for an agency doing consumer product advertising, but I found out about the medical illustration program in Toronto. I looked into it and then went to visit the space and met one of my mentors there. But, I was blown away by the work people were doing. I didn’t really know that this field existed — and many people who get into it tell a similar story, where they kind of stumbled onto it by accident — but when I found out that there were people who were drawing and animating what’s going on inside the body, I found it very exciting. So, I quit my job and went back to school.
Can you provide a career timeline?
I graduated with a degree in engineering in 1992, and a BFA in 1996. Then, I worked for a number of years, and from 2001 to 2003 I did my master’s at the University of Toronto. I graduated in 2003, then I met my current business partners and we started our agency in 2004.
One of our first jobs was doing the visual effects for a biotech drama called ReGenesis (2004 - 2008). We did the visuals for its second, third, and fourth seasons. It was a really interesting show [that] basically dealt with issues of bioterrorism, biotechnology, and pandemics; it was about scientists who dealt with mysterious illnesses, environmental disasters, etc. So, when they would be describing something, of course the audience would have no idea what they were talking about or what to imagine, and our job was to animate whatever that thing was.
How do you prepare for projects?
So, we usually do a creative brief where we look at the communication objectives: what needs to be communicated, why, and to whom — are they patients, general practitioners, or specialists? Then, we do a lot of research, diving into the scientific literature and learning what we don’t already know about the subject.
Our clients are often experts in their fields or have experts working with them, so we will occasionally get briefs from them. Once we have the brief and our basic understanding of the underlying science, we bring in our creative team and hold ideation sessions where we look at the communication problem, the visual problem, what the constraints are on the project. Then, we hash out our ideas.
What are some of the constraints that you may encounter?
One would be timeline, budget is another.
For example, last spring we developed a video around a specific cancer as part of a campaign for a pharmaceutical client. The client wanted to use it for social media, so the video needed to be no longer than a minute. We had to think about its length, the audience, and the language we were using.
Sometimes we have to think about brand guidelines, like when we’re working with a product for which someone has already determined the visual identity, so that would be a constraint. It’s nothing that hinders our creative process, it’s just a parameter that we have to operate within.
What is the brainstorming process like?
Once we have a basic understanding of the objective and what the content will be, we’ll do an outline, bring in the creative team, and make thumbnails — so very loose storyboarding.
A lot of our projects are interactive. Let’s say it’s a number of storytelling approaches for an interactive solution, we might propose a game, a touch screen interactive, or something to do with virtual reality. We will rank and vet these ideas to evaluate how well they serve the client’s objectives, and how interesting or novel they are. From there, we’ll decide on the approach, and get into storyboarding, wire-framing, and the creation of all the visual assets.
Since 2004, what aspect of your industry evolved the most?
Computing power and software tools. Also, when we started, there weren’t as many people running digital scientific animation studios as there are today. But, in terms of the industry overall and especially on the healthcare side, I would say the emergence of biologic drugs and biotechnology.
We do a fair amount of work in oncology, and the cancer research treatment landscape has evolved significantly in the last 15 to 20 years. We’ve seen a large number of biotechnology companies doing amazing things, like engineered drugs that help people who may have previously not had a chance. We have been able to contribute to that by visualizing and communicating how these therapies work, and I think that has been one of the really interesting things that we’ve seen evolve and have been involved with.
Do you ever have a situation when you’ve illustrated something early on in your career, and then because of the advancements or evolution within that field, you’ve had to go back and rework a project to be more up to date?
That’s a good question. We have animation projects that we will update over a period of several years as new scientific data is published. So we might work on something, and then a year later we may open it up again and make some adjustments, because there’s been new published data, like a new clinical trial result on how a drug works in patients.
How do you keep up to date with all of the advancements in your field, like the animation and illustration technologies?
My business partner Eddy Xuan stays on top of the developments in animation and visualization software. I’m an active member with the Association of Medical Illustrators, [Together,] we keep up to date with the latest developments in our industry.
In terms of the subject matter, we learn something new with every project, which is why a lot of us get into this field in the first place. We’re constantly learning, but there are definitely things that are constant, like human anatomy, which hasn’t changed in the time we‘ve been doing this. But even when it comes to the body, we’re learning new things all the time, like how the immune system works and, more recently, watching the whole COVID-19 situation and the emerging vaccines; mRNA technology has been around for a decade, and when COVID hit, that work spun into the spotlight and became a major thing.
My point is that the frontiers of medical science are constantly moving and there is amazing stuff coming out of it every day, so there’s no shortage of things to learn. But, as artists and communicators, we have a lot of base knowledge and tools to draw from, like best practices pertaining to laying out an image, narrative structure and story design for an animation, data visualization, etc. Things like that are very well established and time tested, so we put those into action every day.
Some people have been questioning the science behind the vaccines. Has this affected your profession?
I think our profession has risen to the challenge. Over the past year, many of my colleagues have made amazing efforts in terms of visualizing and communicating the truth behind the CORONAvirus, as far as how vaccines work and how antivirals work to dispel misinformation. I have colleagues at CDC who have been working on education materials for the general public.
We always try to operate from a place of truth and evidence in the work that we create; we use evidence for everything that we do, and I think it’s more important than ever for the public to understand that science is presenting facts and looking for the factual reasons behind why things are the way things are. If anything, I think it’s deepened the resolve of people who do scientific visualization because they realize how important it is.
Do you have a favorite project that you’ve tackled?
That’s a good question. It’s a small project and not a typical thing that we do, but we created an animation of a chick embryo in development. We did this for an organization in Australia, where we basically explain how a chick grows from a single cell into a hatchling, and nothing that we’ve done has had as much impact. It’s something that people around the world have contacted us about; educators, journals, and museums reached out to us.
And one of the more interesting and engaging projects I’ve worked on personally was the ReGenesis series, just because it was very fun, fast paced, and involved really cool science. It was cutting edge television and it was going to broadcast every week, so we got to watch our work on television!
What do you do for fun?
I get outside. My big loves are skiing, snowboarding, and hiking. I’m an avid runner, and I started biking last year; it’s something that my wife and I get to do together.
Do you have kids?
I do, I have three kids. They are my biggest interest. My son is in university and is a quite accomplished scientific artist (paleo artist) himself, who is studying paleontology. He does remarkable recreations of prehistoric life, illustrating for journals and scientists all over the world. I also have two daughters. One rides and works with horses and is working her way through high school, and the younger one is a ski racer and wise beyond her years.
Note* All images and videos are property of AXS Studio.