Behind The Visuals: Craniotomy

finished craniotomy visual

1985. What a year. Families enjoyed dinner together, maybe around a favorite TV show. Kids played outside until the street lights came on. Some even drank straight from a garden hose on a hot summer day and zombies began to talk in film (maybe they began to talk in real life too, I don’t know). What I do know is that while the hoards of undead in the cult classic, Return of the Living Dead, were the first of their kind to speak, their vocabulary was incredibly small. “Brains.” Maybe a “more” thrown in there. That was it. I can still hear it. Clear as day. “Braaaaaains”. For over twenty years, this movie, this EXPERIENCE, shaped everything I knew about the brain. Nothing. Until now.


When I first heard the term, I didn’t know what it referred to. The cranium, yeah, sure, but what about it. Turns out, it’s cranium surgery, a procedure used to access the brain and maybe remove a tumor or repair damage. A piece of the skull is removed, the brain is accessible, the operation is performed, the “bone flap” as they call it, is put back. Simple. Hardly.

To create the craniotomy animation, I had to drill down on the specifics (you see what I did there?). I watched many videos on YouTube, and slowly but surely my confusion was peeled away and I – well, I like puns. And I enjoyed my time working on this project. The experience I gained recreating this surgery - that requires the utmost care and delicateness by the surgeon – refined my artistry as I continue working to provide the best animations for our clients.

It helped me to mentally deconstruct the surgery into 5 parts. I call these “the incision,” “the drill,” “the bone flap,” “the brain,” and “the replacement.”

The Incision: Depending on the type of craniotomy needed, an incision may be made along the hairline, in the eyebrow, or behind the ear.

The Drill: The practice of drilling holes into the skull of patients suffering from head injuries dates back to 4,000 BC. Although, I’m certain their instruments didn’t look much like the cranial drills of today.

The Bone Flap: To reach the part of the brain with the issue, a piece of skull – the bone flap – is removed and replaced after surgery. This differs from a craniectomy, where the bone is either not replaced or put back as part of another surgery.

The Brain: To see the brain encased within its dura mater, covered with blood vessels that pulsate with every heartbeat was one of the more fascinating aspects of this project.

The Replacement: When the bone flap is put back, it is often supported with bolts, screws, plates, and titanium mesh. Advancements in AI technology have allowed for more precise sizing.

The Reconstruction Process

Craniotomy Sketch

To bring the craniotomy to life, I relied on a few of the “go-to” software technologies we often use in our daily workflow. The lighting rig is built upon the concept of a real-world surgical room. I used 3D Studio Max, and Vray, a physically accurate lighting and photography software to capture that essence.

craniotomy with no texture

HDRI (high dynamic range image) textures of real light bulbs in the 3D geometry model replicated real-life surgical light. Subsurface scattering materials for the skin of the ear and face, as well as on the flesh of the scalp, flap to allow light penetration, just as real human flesh does.

the digital framework of craniotomy depiction

3D Studio max's native hair and fur modifier was utilized to create the small hairs of the ear, eyelash, and eyebrow. The Adobe suite was used in post-production. After effects added the color correction and a realistic camera depth-of-field to the piece. Finally, I used a Wacom digital styling tablet and stylus for digital texture painting. The character and environment are all 3D models.


bone flap missing brain exposed

This was a collaborative process where I leaned on the feedback and suggestions of my colleagues every step of the way. The finished product was a detailed replication of a surgery that itself requires the utmost precision. I was excited to see the transformation of the project as those suggestions kept coming in.

As an artist, it’s easy to fall into a thought process that digital media means some aspect of the art’s humanity is missing or more steps removed from the artist to the audience. At DK Global, the projects we create capture real moments in people’s lives. They rely on our accuracy and attention to detail to visually depict the story.

Knowing that people directly benefit from my work as a member of Team DK Global is something that pushes me each day to continue learning, working on my craft, and expanding the boundaries of what I can do. I’m eager to see what’s next for us and who else we can help. Who knows, maybe it’ll be recreating the first attack of the zombie apocalypse. Braaaaaains!

Written by: Hagen Gilbert 3D Generalist
Aaron Birk
Alex Deaconson
Brianna Staples
Cameron Thies
Courtney Bowers
Hagen Gilbert
Heather Texter
Irma Hawkins
Michael Caldwell
Nika Hogue
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