Forensic Animators Are Coming to the Rescue by Recreating Crime Scenes and Accidents The Buzz


Picture a court case involving two computer companies that deal with flash memory. One company is accusing the other of stealing its techniques. The material is complicated. The expert witness is dry and technical. The jury is falling asleep. What now?

Call in the forensic animator.

Stuart Gold is a forensic animator in Berkeley, California. He created a computer animation that likened the flash memory technology to a parking lot.

Each car represented individual bits of computer data. Each parking slot was a memory address. The person who ran the parking lot was the controller.

Gold's animation showed the jury how the controls would work with both companies' memory technology.

"You have to figure out a way to help the jury understand very technical information," says Gold. "It requires a creative approach."

Gold says forensic animation is used in civil litigation concerning intellectual property issues or business arrangements.

Gold points to the high-profile Genentech vs. City of Hope case that was tried in the spring of 2002. Genentech argued that the City of Hope broke terms of a contract.

Genentech's attorney wanted something to use in the closing argument. Gold created an animation in which a big eraser appeared on screen and erased paragraphs of the contract.

"It made headlines," Gold says. "It conveyed a feeling to people about how to look at things."

Forensic animation helps jurors comprehend and remember. Gold points to a report which found that juries remember things 100 percent better when they see something visual than when they listen to someone speak.

And if a presentation combines both sound and images, juries remember it 650 percent better than if they simply hear someone speaking.

Forensic animation was first used in a big way in 1985. An airline crash in the U.S. sparked a big legal battle over who was responsible.

The government used forensic animation to illustrate its position. The animation was credited with playing a significant role in influencing the jury's decision.

Since then, forensic animation has been used more and more in civil litigation.

Attorneys know that presenting an animation will give them an advantage. However, they must be able to defend the animation and argue that it is an accurate representation of what really happened.

If the other side makes a good argument that the animation is not an accurate representation, the judge might rule that it is inadmissible.

Steven Breaux is a forensic animator in Washington. He says that many people think forensic animators go to crime scenes or accident scenes and gather evidence.

That's not the case. Expert witnesses gather evidence, figure out how an event happened and give their representations to the animator.

"You take their information and create a visual format that displays what the expert is testifying," he says. "You are limited to showing what you are given. You can't put in your own interpretations."

Many forensic animations are based on exact mathematical figures and on principles from physics and other sciences.

Although the cost of producing a forensic animation is less than it once was, animations are still pricey. That means they are mainly used in high-profile cases with big budgets.

Breaux charges $180 an hour to produce a presentation. Since animations can take 25 to 40 hours to produce, it can be a significant expense.

However, forensic animators do not get rich. Breaux points out that he might go for weeks or months without a contract. He has to budget carefully and save enough to live on between contracts. "It's feast or famine," he laughs.

Gold agrees that it can be tough. After he pays his expenses, he estimates that he earns $50,000 a year.

It's difficult to say how many forensic animators there are in the U.S. Breaux estimates there could be a dozen companies doing forensic animation. They seek contracts from attorneys, expert witnesses, insurance companies and so on.

When forensic animation is used in criminal proceedings, it's usually in the area of accident reconstruction. Crime scene animations are unsuitable for court use. The opposing side can challenge many factors that could get the animation thrown out of court.

Gold points out that the elaborate animation developed for the O.J. Simpson trial was ruled inadmissible in court. The animation shown on television was created specially for that medium.

Animators who produce presentations for criminal proceedings likely work for a police service.

Teresa Redmon is a forensic artist who works for the Kentucky State Police. Redmon agrees that animations are best used as technical or mechanical illustrations of how something works rather than as recreations of crime scenes.

Redmon says forensic artists do more than animation, however. They also do compositing, where they draw a figure based on a witness's description.

They do image enhancement (showing how someone may have aged, for instance). Some other tasks involve post-mortem and skull reconstructions. Artists might prepare courtroom graphics, scaled models or 2D or 3D animations.

Forensic artists must be both artistic and scientific at the same time. "We use both right brain and left brain," says Redmon.

Buchanan created his first forensic animation in 1989. It was two-dimensional and was used in a criminal negligence causing death case.

He began doing 3D animations in the '90s. "I've had a few of those accepted into various levels of courts," he says. "Most were criminal matters with a few on the civil side.

"To stand up in court, an animation has to be based on other evidence," Buchanan says.

"If it's a motor vehicle accident, you have to have witnesses that will corroborate, or an accident reconstructionist who has put together the scenario, calculating time, distance, speed and so on."

Both Buchanan and Redmon are employed by police services. Their wages reflect the current salary paid to police officers in their regions.

Redmon says entry-level workers in her area might earn around $35,000.

Michael Sweet is a bloodstain pattern analyst. He examines the size, shape and pattern distribution of bloodstains at crime scenes.

Then he makes a reconstruction of the possible chain of events. Sweet's constructions involve making computer-generated 3D images of bloodstains.

"I take a large photograph to illustrate the path of bloodstains, then I apply trigonometric calculations of a right angle triangle to get it three-dimensional," he says.

Bloodstain interpreters are usually police officers, Sweet adds.

Because forensic animation is such a small and highly specialized field, there are few, if any, training courses offered. What's more, you will not see an advertisement for forensic animator in the career section of your newspaper.

Animators agree that the way to break in the field is by developing the necessary skills and getting experience in a related field, such as police work or accident reconstruction.

It's important to have a strong background in math and science, as well as training in one of the 3D animation software applications. It is also helpful to know graphics software.

Computer equipment and software will cost around $10,000.

Links

Forensic Animation and Forensic Multimedia
Legal issues

Forensic Animation FAQ
Find the answers here

Crime Seen
An article about forensic animation published by Wired Magazine