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About the Society Awards Past Award Winners 2010 Awardees 2010 (Lanzendorf PaleoArt Prize) Digital Modeling & Animation - Alex Tirabasso
Alex Tirabasso

Alex Tirabasso, 3D animator and illustrator at the Canadian Museum of Nature (CMN) in Ottawa, Canada, is a visual scientific storyteller. He can turn 3D images of bone scans into a computer-generated, complete skeletal and/or fleshed-out creature that comes to life and walks across a monitor.

This graduate of Sheridan College – a world-renowned art school in Oakville, Ontario – recognized the importance of visual content in helping to explain science during his days as an undergraduate biology student. Studying biology opened his eyes to the scientific process, complexities and inherent beauty of the natural world. Training as a technical and scientific illustrator at Sheridan following his graduation from Carleton University taught him a variety of media and techniques – from graphic design to 3D modeling and animation – while allowing him to carve out his own style.

When the Arius 3D Centre opened in 2002 at the Canadian Museum of Nature's research and collections facility, Tirabasso was eager to apply his skills. He had always thought that a natural history museum would be the best place to work: the knowledge, scientists, public exhibitions, education and demand to communicate the science are all there. A major part of the work carried out in the 3D Centre is the scanning of fossils or zoological specimens. He and his co-worker, imaging specialist Paul Bloskie, are part of a unique group in North American museums providing 3D imaging, computer graphics and animation expertise to scientific and heritage communities.

Frame from

Tirabasso's 3D digital visualizations of these surface scans and his other animations are assisting in functional morphological studies of chewing mechanisms, locomotion, swimming movements, ranges in articulation, and other areas. He has done 3D reconstructions of extinct animals, including Puijila darwini, a recently discovered, missing-link pinniped that garnered international attention and was published in Nature. Tirabasso has contributed to other scientific projects involving prehistoric reptiles. His 3D animation methods have been used to shed more light on the complex chewing mechanism of the hadrosaur dinosaur Edmontosaurus regalis. His visualizations have been used in studying the semi-circular canals in Plesiosaurs as well as Ceratopsian posture and locomotion. He worked with Jay Ingram, popular host of Canada's Daily Planet science show, to create an animation that helps explain the complexities of Rosalind Franklin's "Photo 51" – an x-ray crystallography image that was used to decipher the DNA double-helix.

Although he embraces traditional artistic media such as painting, and sculpting, Tirabasso appreciates how powerful 3D computer graphics and animation methods can be in paleontology research, communication, and education.

With the Canadian Museum of Nature recently opening new galleries as part of its grand renewal, much of Tirabasso's work has been geared towards public education and new exhibitions. He has helped to visually explain such phenomena as the jet propulsion of a squid, water at the molecular state, the Earth 4.6 billion years ago, the formation of sea ice and even how a blue whale is exhibited. It is an ideal combination of fascination for science and passion for art that, for Tirabasso, fundamentally exist as one.

Photo: Alex Tirabasso
Image: Still frame from "Ceratopsian forelimb carriage and locomotion study using CMN41357 - Animation"
Photo and animation image courtesy of Alex Tirabasso.