Written for Imagine Magazine, April 2010.
Imagine a hushed, reserved courtroom, jurors’ heads bowed, quietly contemplating the evidence that may or may not convict the man in front of them to life behind bars. He shot a pedestrian in cold blood, they are told. They have been given motives, fingerprints, DNA; but he protests his innocence. The stillness is broken when the jury’s attention is stolen by a screen in front of them: it plunges them directly into the crime scene. Everyone in the room is guided through the scenario: they retrace the suspect’s footsteps, they look around at the wet pavement behind them. When their gaze is returned ahead of them, they meet the victim, digitally resurrected to convict his killer. Animation has surpassed the business of entertainment and reached the realms of law.
Forensic animation has been growing in popularity since the early 90s, but recently Vancouver College of Art and Design has pioneered a 3D animation course that includes forensic animation. It has increasingly been used to inform and convince juries in court by presenting them with 3D diagrams of settings or even placing them at the scene. Forensic Visualisation Models (FVMs) have been developed so that jurors can relive crimes at 30 frames per second from the courtroom, bringing judges and lawyers up to speed with the experts. Animators collaborate with eyewitness testimonies and accident reports to recreate the scene of crime, complete with interactive camera angles. Before the animation is shown in court, police investigators can explore locations, analyse events and experiment with hypothetical situations with a view of enhancing the evidence already gathered. In theory, they need never visit the site themselves, saving time and money. Using laser scanning techniques, small but vital details can be recreated and added to digital scenes: in one case, skid marks that existed three years previously were added to an animation created for a car accident case.
As the most recent development in forensic animation, FVMs do more than simply re-enact crimes: they aid manual analysis of evidence such as bloodstain patterns and speculate on bullet trajectory. They assist in objective consideration of vast quantities of information: even in a simple car accident, there are inevitably a number of events that occur simultaneously, which run the risk of being overlooked or underestimated by pressed investigators. In the court room, researchers demonstrated that jurors retain 85% of information presented in animations, compared to just 10% of that in oral accounts, reinforcing developers’ claims that animation makes evidence much more memorable.
Forensic animation is evidently starting to make its impact on law, but what about its place in animation? Professional and amateur animators are all too aware of the competition involved in securing their place on the first rung of the animation ladder; in a field abundant with rivalry, but short of opportunity, is it sensible to confirm forensic animation as a viable career option? When approached, founder of forensic animation group AI2-3D, Eugene Liscio, P. Eng, acknowledged that there is no school that trains “forensic animators”. He suggested that a film school diploma “could be a good start”, but warns that many artists may be left unfulfilled by the limited creativity offered by forensic animation. After all, its purpose is not to express individuality, but to present fact as simply and concisely as possible. A film graduate is unlikely to have any knowledge or experience in law or forensics, so the prospect of imparting crucial evidence to a judge and jury is a daunting and inappropriate expectation. The role of forensic animator will involve handling data, information and statements sourced from subjective witnesses and secondary reports, handing them charge usually required of a detective, not a filmmaker. Liscio acknowledged that some forensic knowledge would be “advantageous”, although “crucial” may be more accurate.
The motives of forensic animation may also be kept in mind when considering its value to the field of law as well as that of animation. The assumption is that its purpose is to help convict criminals and bring justice to their victims, but the type of trial that forensic animation is typically used in lends itself to gimmicky lawyers and their wealthy clients rather than honest targets of crime. Most popular with car accident cases, the benefit that forensic animation could bring to trials investigating violent, life-threatening crimes appears to be disregarded. According to Liscio, “the most common people who use it are lawyers for courtroom trials and engineers/experts for analysis and presentation of data.” The working class have gone completely unnoticed. In an industry where time equals money, and a single forensic animation can easily take in excess of four weeks to make, it is little wonder that the working class is the unspoken omission of clientele. Whilst wealthy businessmen are busy accusing drivers of crashing into their brand new Mercedes, single mothers are left waiting for their local police force to track down their missing children using maps and metal detectors.
Law and science turning to art is fraught with danger which has the potential to change people’s lives forever. Lawyers and the people they work for have the power to influence and sway juries in their favour, just as they always have. Ultimately, forensic animation is an artist’s impression of the information they are provided with, and no matter how this evidence is presented, it still came from the same subjective, human source. If it does catch on as a legal tool, it will of course create jobs in the challenging industry of animation, and perhaps for this it should be commended. It is, however, up to the animator to decide whether they want to carry the responsibility of a detective.