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?

The AXS Studio calendar: A tradition 12 years and running

As 2017 draws to a close, the AXS Studio team is reflecting on the year past. In a long-standing tradition —12 years and counting! — we’ve selected our favourite science visualization images from the past year to showcase in our 2018 AXS Studio calendar. This handy desk calendar gives our clients, families and friends a glimpse into the variety of beautiful, high-science medical animations, medical illustrations, and interactive experiences our talented team creates throughout the year.
Feeling a bit nostalgic, we collected all 12 calendar covers from the past, beginning in 2006. Have we really created 12 years of calendars already?
Collection of past 12 year AXS calendar covers in chronological order.
©2017 AXS Studio Inc.

The Selection Process


How does the AXS calendar come into being? It starts in September each year, when team members begin selecting their favourite images from the past year. This year we started with 41 candidates. Several rounds of voting reduced this to a shortlist of 17, from which we chose a cover and 12 images — one per month.

We then pair each image with an appropriate month. For instance, our image of the cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR) from the PBS documentary, Gene Doctors, was a perfect fit for May, cystic fibrosis awareness month. Cool, frosty colour schemes usually wind up in January and February, while summer and autumn get the warmer images.


Print Production


With the images selected, we lay out the cover, 12 pages and calendar stand that features descriptions of the images. Rigorous proofing ensures we have all the dates correct! The press ready files are then sent to our printer for preparation of colour proofs. With those approved, lithography plates are made and set up on a 6-colour Heidelberg press. Here’s a sneak peek of the press run, expertly operated by master pressman Andy.

As you can see, from preparing the artwork and laying out the calendar to print production and finishing, the process of creating the calendar is far from simple. With production of the 2018 AXS Studio calendar complete, we wrap up another wonderful year. 


Happy holidays from the AXS team–we look forward to sharing our love of art and passion for science in the new year!

Celebrating 10 years of medical science visualization

We’d like to thank everyone who celebrated 10 years of amazing medical science visualization with us!

We had a fantastic turnout: teachers from our alma mater, Biomedical Communications at the University of Toronto; colleagues from the medical and visualization communities; family members; and clients, who have provided us with so many opportunities over the years to tell important medical science stories.

Thanks to Daniel et Daniel for the wonderful eats and superb service (wasn’t an empty glass all night). It was a great time to catch up with friends and colleagues and a great time was had by all. Thanks to everyone who made it such a special event!

– The AXS team