How It’s Made: Human Microbiome Scientific Illustration Cover for Nature

June 27th is World Microbiome Day, in celebration of all of the microscopic organisms that live in and around us. A recently published issue of Nature showcases the Integrative Human Microbiome Project, which delves into the link between humans, their health, and how their microbiomes affect them.

The Human Microbiome Project spanned over 10 years and resulted in a foundational reference dataset for genomic diversity in human microbes, laying the groundwork for many studies to come. AXS Studio was tasked with encapsulating this diversity in an eye-catching editorial cover befitting the Nature journal.

Nature Journal Cover

Nature Volume 569, cover art ©2019 AXS Studio

Look Development


Bacteria and other microorganisms often get a bad rap, and are painted as agents of disease and infection. In reality, our microorganisms are mostly commensal, and do not cause us any harm.


In order to combat this stereotype, a key goal for our scientific illustration was to depict the organisms of the microbiome in a non-threatening and pleasant style. To achieve this, we drew inspiration from the lush organic landscapes of underwater coral, which had complex geometric shapes similar to what we wanted to evoke. Coral reefs are also a vibrant symbiosis of life and biodiversity, another parallel to our own microbiomes.

 ©Kong via Flickr under CC BY-SA 2.0

We aren’t the only ones who drew a connection between reefs and the microbiome! Another major source of inspiration for us was artist Rogan Brown, who creates meticulously detailed reefs of microorganisms using layered cut-paper. With the coral reef metaphor in mind, we set forth to create the first draft of the cover. 


We researched over 35 cell types mentioned in three studies from this issue of Nature to ensure accuracy of scale and form for each. In order to demonstrate the true diversity of the human microbiome, several populations from different parts of the body were collected and shown in this one image. The resulting scientific illustration is a colourful snapshot of just a fraction of the diverse ecosystem within us.


Rough Drafts

Initial rough draft ©2019 AXS Studio
Various layout designs ©2019 AXS Studio

As with all 3D illustrations, we began with an initial greyscale rough draft, created with Autodesk Maya. The rough draft stage allows us to set the scene and experiment with different camera angles and layout designs to determine which one works best. 


To keep the Maya scene light, our Head of Animation Julian Kirk-Elleker used MASH networks to place two-thirds of the bacteria, and hand-placed and posed the remaining third. Once the rough draft and layout were approved, it was time to add colour! The challenge was to include a lot of visual detail without overwhelming the viewer. The different cells and microbes needed to look distinct, yet cohesive. Julian experimented with various colour palettes to try to come up with a solution:

So many colour options! ©2019 AXS Studio

In the end, we decided to go with a combination of all the different colour options by incorporating the elements we liked most from each.


Julian used several visual strategies to achieve the final look. He avoided excessive value-contrast by using mostly hue and saturation to distinguish between microbe species. He added a subtle hue gradient from blue in the top right to yellow-green in the bottom left to maintain visual coherence and gestalt. By using depth of field and contrast, he draws attention towards the middle third of the image, where the title will be.


The Final Result

The final result is a stunning scientific illustration of the human microbiome as a vibrant coral reef.

On International Women’s Day, Sonya Amin reflects on 15 years at the helm of AXS Studio

International Women’s Day is a global celebration of women and women’s rights advocacy. We interviewed our fearless and fabulous leader Sonya Amin in order to learn more about her journey as a female entrepreneur, BMC alumnus, and mother.

Today is International Women’s Day! You are the “A” in AXS and the sole female co-founder of this company. Over the past 15 years, AXS has flourished into an award-winning leader in the medical animation industry. We want to know — how did AXS start?

SA: The idea for AXS started back when Jason, Eddy and I were still in school taking animation class at Sheridan College. We carpooled together between Toronto and Oakville in Jason’s grandma’s car, which meant we were spending a lot of time together talking. And one fateful day, one of us said: We should start our own studio!

What was your role in helping AXS off the ground?

SA: The three of us have very different personalities and strengths, and we complement each other. My role in the beginning was to act as the glue and facilitator. I focused on logistics, Eddy directed the creative vision, and Jason led the charge in drumming up business.

There were a lot of late nights, take out, and caffeine. So much caffeine. The tea kettle was constantly on. But because our skills complemented each others’, things ended up working out very well.

Double burden” is a term used to describe the addition of a domestic workload on top of a career. What are some of the challenges you’ve faced balancing work and family?

SA: I read a quote recently that said: “We expect women to parent like they don’t work, and work like they don’t parent.” Growing up, I wasn’t the girl who dreamed of her wedding day or having children, so it’s funny how things work out. 

I’m lucky that my partner-in-life is a “modern” dad in that he is hands-on and involved. And at AXS, many of us have families and understand the struggle. I’m doing an okay job, but I haven’t figured it out completely. I’m taking care of clients at work, and my family at home. Taking care of myself too — that’s the next step.

Did you have any female role models you looked up to growing up?

SA: FosseyGoodall and Galdikas, any kickass lady scientists who lived in the jungle. Also the character Ripley in Aliens (which I watched when I was 9 and was my favourite movie growing up), who isn’t a lady scientist, but is definitely kickass.

Any advice for your past self?

SA: Set up AXS in Hawaii. Where it’s warm.

AXS July Challenge

At AXS Studio, we’re big proponents of “learning by doing”. It’s a principle we strive to bring into the design of all our medical interactive media. So when it comes to our own professional development why would we do anything different?

Last year, we created the AXS Challenge Day – an opportunity for our production team to learn new skills and have creative control over a project. The challenge is less about creating polished finished products and more about having a safe space to step outside your comfort zone and take risks.

Our most recent challenge paired up our animators and developers to build Summer-inspired interactive experiences, with the end goal of developing skills and tools for navigating the often quirky Maya-Unity production pipeline and workflow.

When striving for visually stunning interactive experiences, it’s often hard to draw a line where the role of the programmer ends and the role of the artist begins. I would argue our best technical art arises from blurring this line or removing it entirely. It takes collaboration and conversation; bringing together people with diverse skill sets and experiences. And with the recent release of art and design oriented Unity features such as Shader GraphTimeline, and Cinemachine, it’s a great time to build on those skills.

AXS Summer Challenge developers Raheel and Matt and animators Ruth and Man-San
© 2018 AXS Studio Inc.



Department Heads, Joyce Hui and Brendan Polley established a few technical constraints to help our teams establish a reasonable scope for the time allocated:


  1. Export into Unity, an animated 3D assets imported from Maya. It’s up to you how many assets you make but they must include at least one rigged animation and one blendshape
  2. Interactivity must include some control over an imported animation from Maya (eg. click to play)
  3. Include an animated visual effect created in Unity (eg. shader fx, particles)
  4. Prioritize establishing a unified look and feel
We also created a quick sketch and exemplar:
Wireframe sketch of simple Unity interactive. Sunny environment for cat
© 2018 AXS Studio Inc.

Sunny Cat (by Joyce Hui and Brendan Polley)

The teams had one day to make their own Summer experience and we were blown away by the end results.

Just Deserts (by Ruth Chang and Raheel Zubair)

Unity development clip of snake navigating with user clicks
© 2018 AXS Studio Inc.

Ruth Chang and Raheel Zubair made a game about a colour-changing worm on the hunt for fresh fruits. The hilarious expressions of the worm are a combination of rigged animations and blendshapes created in Maya while the burrowing displacement effect is driven by shaders in Unity. Everything from the motion of the character to the small texture details in the scene came together nicely to create a fun experience.

Beach SMatt (by Sam Holmes and Matt Ostil)

Development clip of blendshape clouds being animated with pokeball in Unity
© 2018 AXS Studio Inc.

The studio is a little obsessed with Pokemon Go as is evident from Sam Holmes and Matt Ostil’s look inside a beachside Pokeball. Here, almost every part of the environment has a subtle combination of Maya and Unity-made animations to make this busy, confined space really come alive.

Sunflowers (by Stuart Jantzen, Man-San Ma and David Tran)

Clip of sunflower blooming and blinking using blendshapes in Maya
© 2018 AXS Studio Inc.

Stuart Jantzen, Man-San Ma, and David Tran built this wonderful sunflower simulation. The team came up with a creative solution for seamlessly transitioning between animations with different rigs and blends. Within Unity, each flower’s animation is then procedurally altered as they reach out for sunshine.


Finally, the teams met to reflect on their work, share tips and tricks, and discuss any roadblocks they hit along their journey. The challenge is over but our learning doesn’t end. Our goal was not to train our team on a technical pipeline because one perfect pipeline doesn’t exist. The diverse nature of our work requires creative problem solving, teamwork, and the ability to fail and iterate quickly.


I think we’re all eager for another challenge. What should we do? Any ideas for themes or skills to tackle?

Visualizing DNA in a virtual reality (VR) science game

A simple image search of ‘DNA’ or ‘DNA structure’ makes it clear that there are myriad ways, both inaccurate and accurate, of representing DNA in science illustrations and medical animations. For a Virtual Reality (VR) science game AXS Studio is developing internally, called Guardians of the Genome, we had the challenge of meeting various requirements in our own depiction of the ubiquitous double helix.

Science and learning requirements: The game features DNA mismatch repair, with players (as nanobots) identifying incorrectly paired bases, excising them, collecting correct bases, and ligating them in place. 


We want players to gain an intuitive understanding of how DNA is constructed: i.e., two strands, each with a backbone and a sequence of bases; each base paired to a base on the opposite strand (A with T, and C with G). The bases should be easily recognizable so that mismatches can be identified. The DNA should be accurate with respect to the 3D spatial arrangement of components ( and handedness).

Nucleotides showing Watson-Crick base-pairing using a geometric representation

Stylistic requirements: DNA is a complex molecule, and we wanted to provide enough information without overwhelming the player with visual detail, as the expansive and immersive VR environment is already visually rich. 

In contrast to the players’ mechanical nanobots and robot tools, we also wanted the DNA to feel natural and part of a living organism.

Gameplay requirements: One early gameplay decision was to make the DNA very large, with nucleotides larger than players, to afford the movable and immovable states of the bases. Large objects are harder to move in real life, so large DNA suggests how it can (and can’t) be manipulated during gameplay. 

Because the player would be physically interacting with nucleotides (excising, replacing, ligating), we wanted to allow some space to work in and around the bases, without frustrating collisions or clipping through geometry. 

There also needed to be clear locations on the nucleotides for certain operations to take place (e.g. ligating the backbone).

Smooth surface nucleotide models with “ghosted” stick representation

Technical requirements: Because there would be hundreds of nucleotides in an interactive VR environment being rendered in real-time in stereo at high frame-rates, the geometry should have a relatively low poly-count.

Geometric model of DNA’s double helix

One proposed representation was a geometric style, demarcating the parts of the sugar-phosphate backbone and bases, including hydrogen-bond donor/receiver components to make the base-pairing mechanism clear. Typically geometric shapes are reserved for simple 2D illustrations of DNA, and are often a student’s first introduction to the building blocks of DNA.

A 3D version of this style may help clarify the components of a nucleotide and the method of base pairing, however the various components in both the backbone and the base resulted in high visual complexity, particularly when viewed as a full double-helix, which might hinder the ability to assess each base (and base pair) as a single unit from a distance.

Work in progress model using a geometric DNA representation

Furthermore, there was some debate about where the representation sat on the stylistic spectrum between “mechanical” and “organic”. The geometric style ultimately placed visual emphasis on structural features that were less important to attend to during the identification stage of gameplay.

Smooth surface model of a DNA strand with “ghosted” stick representation

So we went back to the drawing board and thought about how, as the objectives of the user change throughout the course of the game, so must the direction of our visuals. For identification, we arrived at a smoothed surface representation, where from a distance, we let color be the primary differentiator between bases.


We also wanted to help players appreciate how the backbone connects the bases together, so we added a stick representation of atomic bonds which appears inside the surface representation at key points in the gameplay, during excision and ligation.

Final Representation: We feel these two representations combined fit our various requirements. Do you agree? 

In-game footage of nanobot flying into “nuclear arena” and inspecting our final DNA representation

In the end, there’s no single best style of DNA, and even in a single project, sometimes multiple representations are beneficial. As long as the outcome is science-based and driven by learning objectives, there are plenty of styles to explore.

Top 10 Game Jam tips. Developing fun science games in a hurry

AXS Studio science game developers Joyce Hui, Mike Kent, Susan Park and Brendan Polley recently stormed the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) annual Game Jam for a sleep-deprived weekend of art and coding. Given 2 days to finish a space-themed video game, they rocked it. Rogue Rovers is an addictive, super-fun multiplayer game of discovery (and smashing) on the surface of Mars.

Rogue Rovers start screen

Rogue Rovers gameplay



Here, the team shares their Top 10 Tips for creating science games under pressure:


  1. Define team member roles before not during the Jam.
  2. Plan ahead so you’re only actually building at the Jam.
  3. Prioritize the must-haves and nice-to-haves.
  5. Match game goals to learning goals. If the game is meant to be educational make sure these goals are compatible.
  6. Be prepared to change things on the fly and go with the flow.
  7. Take risks. Play to your strengths, but don”t be afraid to try a new technique or software feature.
  8. Get up and move occasionally. No one wants a DVT at the game jam!
  9. Small is beautiful. Keep your scope small and focused; and make it excellent.
  10. TEST! TEST! TEST! Does it work and, more importantly, is it fun?!