The Forensic Imagination
by Patrik Sjöberg — Karlstad University
March 03, 2009 – 06:29
Instead of letting a series of expert witnesses appear in court to give testimony on whatever their expertise happens to be (fingerprints, blood splatters, DNA, car accidents, weaponry, plane crashes, et cetera), more and more lawyers are turning to professional animators to turn these various statements into one coherent film – a forensic animation film.
A forensic animation sequence, or film, is a computer animation that shows, or suggests, a scenario for an event. These films can be used in anything from pre-trial deliberations and negotiations, to screenings in the courtroom in front of an audience, judge and jury. The events depicted range from car accidents, house fires, murders, airplane crashes, incidents of medical malpractice, and construction failures. When making a forensic animation film, facts and observations from a wide range of sources are taken into account: eyewitness statements, police investigation reports, crime scene photography, measures of brake marks on the road, or blood splatter on a wall, the possible direction of a bullet, et cetera., all these can be used. The firms making the animation almost always visit the crime scene or scene of accident and photograph and film the scene, take notes, record sounds, measure the distance between various points, material that later finds its way into the animation. Forensic animations are much more complex than merely a dynamic illustration of elsewhere established facts. The animations are capable of taking thousands of disparate facts, from a wide variety of sources and media, and compress them into a compact package which can be presented in a coherent and seemingly common-sensical manner and present them in a court of law.
This particular animation, produced by Knott Laboratory, is instructive as it demonstrates the variety of audiovisual modi these sequences rely on for rhetoric efficiency. In the opening sequence we can clearly the see how documentary discourse influences the choices made: the shaking “camera”, the photo-realistic rendering of details (like bird shit on the wind shield), or how the engine sounds from the perspective of the driver. We get to see the accident from multiple angles; there are sequences where the digital object (the truck) is pasted onto live-action film, also rendered in a highly detailed and photo-realistic way, and we also get to see a digital environment that does not try to conceal its status as such (less details, no sound, and the ghostly “camera movement” we are accustomed to in digital environments by now). Included are also still photographs from the scene of the actual accident. The result is a highly complex and suggestive presentation that relies on a number of rhetorical conventions found within a larger context of audiovisual culture.
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