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People Highlight
Michael Loomis brings science to life.

Communicating complex scientific and technological concepts to a variety of audiences may seem daunting to some, but for animator Michael Loomis, it’s all in a day’s work. Through animation, Michael helps scientists and engineers effectively explain their ideas and research to peers, colleagues, laypeople, and decision makers. He blends his knowledge of computer science, art, and communications to create technically accurate, aesthetically pleasing visualizations that bring science to life. “I really enjoy the diversity of my job,” Michael says. “Each project is unique and comes with a fresh set of challenges.” 

Michael started at the Laboratory 25 years ago as a computer programmer. When he discovered that scientists and engineers need visual tools to explain their research, he seized the opportunity and was soon producing animations full time.

Michael uses software similar to that which filmmakers use to render an animated feature. After extensive meetings with clients and research to collect source materials, Michael builds a three-dimensional scene in the computer. Objects in the scene can be original designs, imported computer-aided design (CAD) models, or derived directly from simulation data. Lights and a virtual camera are then added to the scene. Michael likens the process to a director positioning actors and props on a movie set. Motion is accomplished by changing the parameters associated with each object over time and rendering a number of individual frames that are pieced together to generate a video. 

Michael works on a range of projects with researchers throughout the Laboratory. Using engineering blueprints and working with Computation’s high-performance computing facility manager Anna Maria Bailey, Michael recently created an animation to communicate a new building design concept that LLNL is exploring. The movie depicts how a building can be expanded in sections over time as computational needs increase. A second, related movie shows viewers the unique process by which air will circulate in this type of building to cool the computer equipment.

Michael’s foray into sonification—the representation of data as sound—was featured in a July 2013 environmental blog in The New York Times’ opinion pages. Working with Julio Friedmann, LLNL’s chief energy technologist, Michael created the sonification of climate data over the last 600 years. “Sonification is essentially the audio equivalent of visualization,” Michael explains. “Julio’s view was that sonification would allow a nontechnical person to better comprehend the relative timing, magnitude, and rates of climate change. For some people, hearing rather than seeing the changes in the data could lead to a more visceral and intuitive understanding than looking at stagnant graphs.” This project nicely blended Michael’s passions for science and music. In addition to his talents as an animator, Michael is a guitarist and bass player who performs regularly. He also has a recording studio in his home.

Michael’s work has been instrumental in helping researchers to communicate their work. As science and technology continue to advance, the capability to visually explain new breakthroughs is not just an advantage. It’s a necessity.