timespace coordinates: cytoplasm at nonhuman temporal scales
Director and Producer: Mike Davis
Duration: 57 minutes
A documentary made for BBC Two in 2012 exploring the inner world of the human cellular structure via the narrative of a viral infection from within the world of a single cell.
UPS: Probably this documentary will be regarded as a total highlight of scientific motion graphics animation for some time to come. As of now, BBC Four was still screening it in 2019, a basic item in their science arsenal (already feeling infected by the militaristic jargon used throughout the production – but i will stop here with that).
Vibrational: Finally a documentary that takes into account the fact that all all molecular parts of the cell (not mentioning the atomic lattices) are under constant vibrational trepidation. Once could build on this vibrational metaphysics at work here at this biochemical molecular level and this movie makes it very clear for the first time. Especially the scenes with the star molecule (a bit too rash hailing it as symbol of the 21st c while it is so mid 20th c!) DNA. In the nucleus scene the details of the DNA helix are phenomenally alive, humming somehow under perpetual quivering. Most DNA up to this 2012 feature is depicted as forever static, chains of billiard balls rotating but never vibrating. Older 3D rederings introduce this assembly line movement and then always rotate along an invisible axis. This time the movement is basically incessant and blurry – showing how impossible it is to actually catch DNA at rest and make it visible for human eyes. This touch of realism makes the whole documentary one of my favorites.
Enough to think that all this prolific activity is going on all the time down there, and that the molecular recyclers, the membrane trafficking, the rotating mitochondrial rechargers or the busy rybosomal reading in and out activity is going all at this very moment, in all creatures and in all cells on this planet.
Most CGI work on biochemical processes is so much a question of promoting biochemical products, an outcome of pharma or big pharma pipelines trying to promote their products. I find it always welcome when a documentary does not function as a simplistic add-on illustration of a pharmaceutical add-on no matter how essential and life saving it actually is. At the same time it is always illuminating to see how such imagery makes the unseen seen and on what type of libraries or imagology it draws on.
The new cellular realism entails various accounts about its own artifice – the ways in which it is slowing down time or processes in order to make them visible, perceptible or even HD. One such process was the movement of cellular carrier (molecular machinery) across long immense scaffolding that spans the whole cytoplasm and support its internal architecture. Movement of 60 steps or so per second was slowed down to human level – at the same time the actual movement itself at normal (normal at the cell level) is blurry, another vibrational process that does transforms the step by step Sisyphus into some Flash – superhero speed.
Somehow these documentaries are the fallout of the molecular revolution which I think is bringing not only the star molecule DNA into the limelight but precisely cellular mechanism and the cell as such as well as the complexity of metabolic pathways that are not always traceble via genes (science of epigenetics or metabolomics).
A few notes on the wonderful work of Tory Miles. According to his website which I encourage you to check, it is his the first show he ever worked on. One more time we realize how important and valuable is the work of an artist (matte painter-concept art-environment art) for the illustration, understanding and making visible the invisible, hidden and out – of – this world landscapes. Goes without saying the role played by motion graphics and gaming. THE HIDDEN LIFE OF THE CELL could be seen as just gamification of biological processes and it still would brake boundaries in scientific illustration and imagining the invisible.
Also big pro for the fact that there has been a big con in choosing(no anthropocentrism intended) simplicity over complexity. Cells are just one direction while viruses and other simple parts went basic. Prions (misfolded proteins) or viruses do not suffer from their simplicity. They infect prosper on the back of growing complexity elsewhere or this is how I understand it. There is no shame in going half dead half alive as viruses manage to stay. You can be at this boundary zone when you are not too simple or not too complex and use this shapeshifting potential. The documentary makes this amply clear.
What he also makes clear from his website is the symbiotic relationship with speculative fiction and speculative biology and SF via other productions, influences and works. I found some on his page some proposals for the Protomolecule presented for the Syfy Channel success series EXPANSE (based on a series of novels by James S. A. Corey). Altough final concept art was done by Canadian studio North Front, it is revelatory in this sense. Would be an interesting exercise to tease out the reciprocal influences of developing the ‘protomolecule’ and the actual epidemiological account of the infection of a cell by an adenovirus featured in The Hidden Life of the Cell. The protomolecule is both cell-generating, viral and of extra terrestrial origins as the fandom wiki explains:
The Protomolecule was created by extra-terrestrials around two billion years in the past, and launched as a one of the Bracewell probe swarm at a trajectories towards the stars harbouring planetary systems having conditions for the emergence and evolution of some molecular replication mechanism. Such replicators could be any powered by energy from chemical bonds, such as life based on carbon, silicon or other elements, and also by any kind of photons also or even radioactivity.
There is direct reference to phage (viral) mechanisms of the protomolecule replicator so there is some inherent virality to the both of them.
Also in relationship with the cellular CGI structures is mentioned the 2007 SF cult movie Sunshine by Danny Boyle. It is both a cosmic horror movie and one that has transformed the mission of reigniting the sun into something else akin to an initiation tale of solar burnout and cvasi-solar cult (also mentioned in recent The Lighthouse hit).
The cellar nucleus has the same dimensions and presence of a galactic core – at the same time is both clarifies how this sort of nucleus-centrism in the BBC documentary coincides neatly with our heliocentric image of a dying sun or a some star at the brink of going nova.
Not to mention the whole general alien aesthetics of this world, indeed we need more documentaries like this. There is the sense of incredible spaciousness, that makes the improbability of it all the more poignant. Everything bumping into each other, everything self organizing and still there is an incredible avalanche of timed effects, shapes and chemical bonds that shape them shape all actions in a bizarre orchestration of larger and larger assemblages. It is outer space and it is not. It is a sort of liquidity and viscous becoming that bathes everything into something almost oceanic and abyssal.
This inner and outer drift is what is the hardest to catch aesthetically I guess, the fact that nothing is really under the control of the central unit – the nucleus even if so much aimed at its inner data base. There is a lot of stuff getting in and out, but also a lot of parts, outside of the cell and inside of the cell that somehow manage to collude and act out outside of direct influence or control. There is no end to the alien realms out there even if most of it is CGI – the most incredible inflamationthing being how one can almost completely bypass new imaging flourescence techniques that are wonderful in themselves. These make at least at larger scale of bacterial and inter-cellular level things more vivid than ever.
Epidemiology & militarism
Throughout the features the cold war neo-Darwinian slang lies heavy. Yes, this is life when infections happen. Yes, we always seem to lack the proper metaphors, the nonhuman turn makes itself least sensible at these invisible, apperceptive levels, but it is most funny and frustrating how unavoidable and pervasive war – and war of all against all gets center stage. Not all scientist in the documentary proffer this dramatic mode of heightened description, but there is most certainly a kind of almost normal happen stance creepy ego shooter battle cry, almost making sure that every anti-body lock-on or surrounding every viral particle is a mine, a weapon, an attack, a deathly struggle. Everything seems to revolve around sacrifice and selfishness.
The pionering work done in immunology by Élie Metchnikoff and others is supported by a vision that had the organism as a living, inner/outer refashioning relation, of innate learning capacities and constantly developing system while in contact with the exterior. His discovery of intra-cellular digestion in flatworm paved the way to discovering phagocytosis, the fact that certain blood cells are actively destroying bacteria won him the Nobel Prize. Even if absent his shadows looms large. His fundamental breakthrough of inflammation as a boundary interaction and a directed action against host invasion by pathogens features large in this documentary. Metchnikoff was a Darwinist and atheist and also an early supporter of the larger role of the microbiome/holobiont and believer in the virtues of probiotics (Bulgarian yogurt) in prolonging life and preventing aging.
Also expect a lot of DNA centrism hailing, as mentioned above. Expect a restricted view focused just the human genome project (or any other species genome), never taking into account the non-human genes and microbial cellular assemblages that we have learned to appreciate only relatively recently.
As usual only the mitochondrial endosymbiosis powerhouse account escapes this war logic as well as the fact that almost all the pieces coexisted and co-evolved since the dawn of time. This ultimately brings home the realization that we are not witnessing just power blocks or absolute contraries at work but also complementary forces, tensions and divergences.
Yes, there is more gripping action and attention when there is talk of war, of conflicts of permanent arms race or egotistic units vying for supremacy. Still there is other ways of avoiding banality, bored viewers or easy simplification. So i wish they would have gotten more inspiration from indie games (not only graphically) but also conceptually, rather than the usual strategy war games.
Other big lack is the CRISPR-Cas9 system (revolution?) and its implications for the evolution of viral or bacterial interactions and evolutionary origins.