Medical Visualization Part 3 of 3: 3D tools

Medical Visualization Part 3 of 3: 3D tools

We’ve come to the last article in this series. You’ve learned about the origins of art, design and visualization in Medicine, their uses in the industry today, and the amazing work leaders in the field have created, thanks to the same advancements in computer graphics we enjoy in film and games. If you’re looking to try your hand at this rapidly evolving market, here are some things to keep in mind as you embark on your journey to become a Medical Illustrator and Animator.

3d Tools of the Trade

Any sort of render created in 3d will adhere to a workflow involving time spent modeling, texturing, lighting, animating (for animations) and rendering an image (or image sequence). For medical illustrators and animators, however, versatility and a strong motion graphic oriented toolset are key. Here’s a rundown of what a medical visualizer might want in his or her pipeline, and the software that can get each job done.


In Architectural Visualization, a modeling hurdle might come in the form of a particularly ornate piece of furniture. An asset being created for film might also require some serious poly-pushing, but for medical renders, an anatomically accurate heart or skeletal system is often the order of the day. Modeling such complex forms necessitates some serious skills and some serious tools. In this regard, MODO’s selection operations, snapping and direct and procedural modeling feature set can come in handy. If you prefer to sculpt first, then retopologize after, you can do that in MODO as well!


Most forms a Medical Illustrator or Animator would need to create possess surface characteristics that are very complex. Sub-surface scattering and capillaries beneath tissue are only some of the material creation challenges a medical render could present. The ability to work with procedural textures intuitively, and with a viewport that updates with changes smoothly is something the Substance product line is renowned for. Allegorithmic’s Substance Designer and Substance Painter are the industry standard for authoring materials and texture painting respectively. Both use Physically Based Rendering real-time viewports, and on top of that, Substance integrates with Maya, 3ds Max, Cinema 4d, and MODO.


Lighting your meshes is something you can do with any 3d suite, but access to a variety of premade light setups come in handy when you’re pressed for time, or want to iterate through some presets to find out what direction you want to go. Software with good add-ons for lighting rigs include Cinema 4d with Light Kit Pro, MODO with SLIK, and Blender with Pro-Lighting Studio.


Since Medical Animation usually features microbiological processes or anatomical systems, we’re less likely to need sophisticated character controls and pose breakdown features boasted by programs known for their animation tool sets, but would more likely be interested in programs with tools geared towards motion graphics. Here, Maya’s MASH system and Cinema 4d’s Mograph tools stand out. Dynamics, instance and transition based animations are the name of the game, and these two applications are perfect for this.

One thing to be said in favor of Cinema 4d is its integration to Adobe After Effects that comes in the form of Cineware. The seamless link it provides between the two applications can make a huge impact on efficiency especially when it comes to post production.


With most of Medical viz work centered around actual living organisms, photorealism is a sought after characteristic in many Medical renders. The quality of a render has a lot to do with the engine used, and often, industry professionals turn to Chaosgroup’s Vray, and Autodesk/SolidAngle’s Arnold to achieve photorealism in their work. Blender’s Cycles engine can deliver similar results, but be sure to install Troy Sobotka’s filmic add-on, to be able to render with high dynamic ranges. Cinema 4d’s integrated render can do wonders for the right kind of scene as well. Deciding between engines boils down to personal taste, how well the engine is integrated to your software, the kind of scenes you create and how it might behave with your hardware.


After all that’s been said about some of the big players in the 3d software field and where they shine for Medical Visualization, one important consideration to note is how much money and time you’re willing to invest in these programs. Learning two that suit the nature of Medical renders you want to create could be a good idea, but what about the costs?

In truth, while having robust features that simplify things for you is important, there is little that can’t be done on cheaper software with a little resourcefulness and patience. Creating Medical renders doesn’t have to cost you an arm and a leg. In fact, Blender is a powerful 3d suite that costs absolutely nothing and can help you create renders that would equal any of the other programs out there. It has a strong user community and as a result, it has a lot of very useful add-ons that give more functionality to the program. Whether you’re starting out or are an experienced 3d artist looking to add another program to your tool shelf, Blender is definitely worth having a look at.

Making the grade

You may have the 3d chops for this line of work, but to thrive in the Med viz biz, you need to be well acquainted with the Medical world. Medical Illustrators and Animators deal directly with doctors and researchers, most of whom will not have been used to communicating their needs to the average creatives. This is why most people in this business pursue graduate programs dedicated to the fine art and science of, well, marrying art and science. Some universities that offer such programs are the University of Dundee, University of Glasgow and the Liverpool John Moores University. Programs like this require you to have majored in an Arts centric degree, with units in various branches of Biology. A strong arts portfolio won’t hurt your chances either. After earning a degree, you become eligible to apply for certification by The Board of Certification of Medical Illustrators, which would elevate your value as a freelancer or employee.

If you’ve been in the CG business for some time, going back to school may not be a viable option, but that doesn’t necessarily mean this door is closed to you forever! Depending on the purpose of the medical animations you’ll be making, you could land a job with your experience in Motionography and 3d modeling. Work made for marketing efforts might demand less medical knowledge and accurate representation than work for research purposes for instance. And with digital medical imaging on the rise, you could be working with freely available assets instead of having to create complex forms accurately yourself. For example, there are sources online that can provide accurate structures for microbiological entities like

In any case, some time spent learning about what you’ll be visualizing is time well spent. Ultimately, having a foundation in anatomy and biology, studying structures and the work of certified medical illustrators, can help you create a portfolio that might catch the eye of people looking for a medical illustrator. You can focus on one aspect, be it fine or gross anatomy, equipment design or simulating viruses. Find out what you want to do the most, and learn it as best as you can. Use as many references as possible. Our good friend, Brad Baxley weighs in on this:

I’m a pure testament that you can start anywhere. I have two degrees in architecture but randomly got the opportunity to jump into visualization. It just happened to be for research science. What I’ve enjoyed the most about a career in 3D is the deployability of the skillset. I’ve been able to work for and across a number of disciplines.

In general, any endeavor or career in 3D can be helped along tremendously by working with more experienced designers. We always learn from others faster than we can teach ourselves. Not to say self-development isn’t a large part of any practice. Doing independent spec work and competitions are great exercise.

Meeting the Demand

The need for Medical Illustration and Animation grows with advances in CG technology, so on top of broadening your knowledge of the life sciences AND honing your skills, you’ll need to stay up to date with new tech developments that will find their way into the Medical Market. Some of the Universities mentioned earlier have already integrated AR and VR into their curriculum.

If you already have a good grasp of your favorite 3d software, and a stellar portfolio to boot, you may be leaps ahead of others who are only familiar with traditional medium, and that should buy you some time to focus on your medical studies.

To get you inspired, here are our some more thoughts from Brad on the Medical Visualization Industry as a new frontier for 3d artists:

The demand for medical visualization will be high for the foreseeable future. My impression is the field is far from saturated with artists. If it’s something you want to do, you should be able to find work. There are a number of avenues leading to various tiers in the system. I do think it’s worthwhile to know who your client is and what purpose they serve. You will ultimately be serving that same purpose. Do you want to work for big pharma and show how one of the latest drugs interacts with your systems or do you want to take on a venture with a Kickstarter project to develop a new 3D printed kidney? The artist is pivotal in both. You are afforded the great opportunity to be a part of the success or failure of either.

Now that you’re aware of this avenue for your CG skills, you can elect to pursue it as a career or alternative avenue for income. The road will be long and arduous, but also rewarding.The Association of Medical Illustrators provides a holistic look into the industry, and can help you on your way to this exciting new career, should you choose. If this is something you’d like to do, we wish you the best of luck, and as always, Happy Rendering from all of us at GarageFarm.NET

We’d like to give special thanks to:

Emily Mc Dougal, from whom we learned many things about Medical Illustration and Animation in the course of our Live Stream event (link)

Brad Baxley, who has rendered some projects with us and offered additional insight from his experience in the field.

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