Forensic Animation - Its Origins, Creation, Limitations and Future

In August of 1985 Delta flight 191 crashed while attempting a landing at Dallas /Ft Worth Airport. Caught in a powerful wind vortex, the plane was plunged into the earth a mile form the runway. The crash resulted in the deaths of 137 people and extensive property damage. There followed a monstrous legal battle over who would pay for an estimated $150 million to $200 million in claims for wrongful death and loss of property.

Claims were made against the Federal Aviation Administration and National Weather Service for negligence in failure to advise the crew of the impending weather conditions. One of the results of this landmark case was the first major use of computer animation in the courtroom. It was not lost on the government attorneys, that complex fact or technical issues have a tendency to overwhelm jurors.

A method was required to explain complicated information and situations while holding the attention of the jury. As part of the government's presentation, a 45-minute computer generated presentation was created to explain the intricacies of the evidence and thus began forensic animation, a new field of collaboration between art and science. It is important to note that that the US Government won that case and the animated presentation given no small amount of credit for the win. The legal world has not been the same since.

At that time, animations were created using very expensive Unix-based workstations. Costs were often quoted as $1000 to $3000 per finished second of animation. Since then, there has been a revolution in computing, bringing near "super computer" power to the average desktop system.

Today, it's not unusual to discuss off the shelf software, hundreds of megabytes of RAM and a gig hertz of processing power as being the "norm" for high-end relatively inexpensive desktop computer graphics systems. What was once $1000 to $3000 per finished second is now competitively priced at $50 to $100 per finished second with a quality far greater then was available in the 1980s. The animation field has grown exponentially and the use of forensic animation is quickly becoming a common occurrence in the courtrooms of the 21st century.

Unlike animation created for the entertainment industry, the forensic process depends on the collaboration between the animator and a designated expert. It is often used to show something that couldn't be visualized in any other way, such as:

  • A vehicular accident in personal injury litigation.

  • A demonstration of the workings of a technology for patient or medical liability.

  • The details of an architectural element for construction litigation.

  • The spatial relationships or specifics in a crime scene or environment.

The expert's job is to analyze and produce data that will facilitate production of an animation corresponding to and illustrating their testimony at the trial.

Before the animator begins, the expert sifts through the data. This could include police reports, witness statements, photographs, engineering documents, vehicle inspections, accident scene data, and possibly medical reports.

The forensic expert calculates the placement of objects in the environment and their movements, if any. The animator uses this data to place objects into the environment to correspond with the facts. The computer generates the animation and upon verification by the expert, it is used as an exhibit along with expert testimony.

The use of computer generated 3D graphics has become the visualisation tool of choice for the courtroom. Additionally, the persuasive use of this technology has spread. It has evolved from a way to visualize and demonstrate expert testimony during trial, to use during depositions, for leverage in settlement conferences or to disprove opposing counsels expert testimony.

There are, two types of forensic animation, descriptive forensic animation and scientific forensic animation. Descriptive forensic animation illustrates the testimony of the expert. Scientific forensic animation takes actual dynamics and physics into account by the program itself. The models are not animated by hand but by a programmer who programs and inputs data for the simulation.

The computer program creates an animation that fits the data. If alternative theories or scenarios are to be tested, the data is changed and the computer runs the new simulation in realtime. Changes are seen immediately.

Its very nature is mutable in that it can be used to show 'on the fly', what happens when parameters are changed. In a real sense, the program is its own expert. If the veracity of the programming technique is proven to be reliable, it can be admitted as evidence. This type of animation is more costly, requires more powerful computers and much more sophisticated programming then descriptive animation.

At what cost?

The creation of computer animation, especially forensic animation is time consuming. This is due to the collaborative nature between the expert and animator. In addition, this kind of animation requires far more scrutiny and exactitude then is common for entertainment or corporate animation. This of course translates into money. The time necessary to gather the facts, build the models and environment, program, preview, tweak, approve and render, all add to the cost. The cost can grow if the level of detail, increasing programming parameters or if a number of different views or scenarios need to be created. The cost of a single animation can be $5000 to $10,000 or more.

But the trend in costs has been steadily going down while the quality has been improving. Computer animation in general, is quickly becoming a commodity, driven by market forces and a glut of talent. The bottom line, you don't have to have deep pockets to utilize its power.

It could be argued that considering the potential impact on juries, a well-used animation would be a bargain at twice the cost. Animations have been shown to be major factors in increasing settlement and trial damage awards. So the question becomes: "What is it worth to win?"

However, whilst there are benefits of using animation in the courtroom, there may be a sinister price to pay. This is the possible cost of undermining the basic foundation of the legal system. We have been taught by our culture to integrate reality through the images that we see on television. We unconsciously take in these images on a very deep level and therefore believe what we see is real. Seeing is believing. John Selbak in his December 1994 article published in the American Bar Association Journal, states "&juries are especially prone to believe evidence which is presented visually, regardless of it veracity& By the use of this material in a courtroom venue, we are unconsciously turning our jury members into witnesses". The more immersive the animation experience, the more individual jurors feel as though they are witnessing and not just viewing. This creates a powerful tool in a courtroom setting. Roy Krieger, in a 1992 American Bar Association journal article on computer animation In the courtroom, quotes "the 'Weiss-McGrath Report' which found a 100 percent increase in juror retention of visual over oral presentations and a 650 percent increase in juror retention of combined visual and oral presentations over oral presentations alone.

Paradoxically, the power of the media cuts both ways. The impactfullness of the presentation could also result in its inadmissibility. According to the US Federal Rules of Evidence, it is possible that the use of this material could be considered so prejudicial that it would be excluded. As the one of the rules states: ".. relevant evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading the jury&" Additionally, a case has been made that forensic animation creates an "unfair prejudice" simply because it handicaps opponents who cannot afford to utilize the technology. It has been reported in some instances, that individuals have been forced to settle out of court because they couldn't afford to create their own animations and fight their case on an even playing field. If the rules of evidence were created to allow jurors to be true "fact finders", then the obvious question presented has to be: Is justice served or thwarted?

What is the future of this technology and how will it affect the judicial process? Increasing computer power is quickly making it possible to introduce realtime photo-realistic rendering into the courtroom. Is this something that is desired? Who is technically able to determine the veracity of this type of evidence? Is the sheer artistry of this technology defeating its original purpose as a way to visualise facts or is it creating its own reality? Usually parties have exchanged all documents, including computer animations, in advance of the trial. Attempts to surprise opposing counsel with 'new' evidence is an old trick and usually isn't tolerated. Should scientific forensic animation be considered 'new evidence'? If the programming takes all the facts into account shouldn't it be allowed if the rules of evidence state "all relevant evidence is admissible"?

One day soon, it may even be possible to admit fully immersive photo-realistic virtual reality into the courtroom. In this case, the jury would move from viewing the world through a monitor to actually 'living' in it. The 'reality' effect would then increase exponentially as would questions of prejudice. The technology could also hinder rather than assist the judicial system in its major function - to resolve disputes - if both sides in a case presented their differing versions of the facts in virtual evidence. This could lead to severe juror confusion and more hung juries. Turning jurors into witnesses or active fact finders would be nothing less then a revolution in the legal system. So what is the next step? Do we frantically try to close Pandora's Box, turning back the clock by outlawing this powerful presentation technology or do we set standards and guidelines as to its use and embrace it's unique ability to inform, educate and visualize ideas and concepts? There are many questions that remain unanswered and the jury is still out.

About the Author: Stuart Gold is the owner and director of Shadow and Light Productions. He currently has more than 12 years of experience in the forensics multimedia industry. For more information, please visit the Shadow and Light web site.

Copyright © 2002 Stuart Gold, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on Nov 6, 2014.