Forensic animation is a category of 3D animation that is used for re-creating crime scenes, criminal events, accidents or disasters that have caused death. There is a wide range of uses for forensic computer animation, as forensic scientists work with investigators to gather all the relevant facts of a case and build a provable explanation of what happened and who might be at fault. There are many forensic events that can be useful to re-create in 3D, such as automobile or vehicular accidents, building, bridge or crane collapse, deadly assaults with weapons or the failure of a mechanical device that has caused a crash, explosion or fire.
To begin a forensic animation, facts must be compiled from as many sources as possible both investigative and scientific. Eyewitness accounts, photographs of the scene, statements from emergency responders and police detectives must be combined with reports from experts in relevant fields, such as weapons experts, engineers, scientists, forensic experts, etc. By combining all of the information from these sources it is possible to do a crime scene recreation or accident scene reconstruction.
Animators take these documents and use them to build accurate photorealistic 3D models of all the necessary objects in a scene. Then the items are placed accurately within a 3D environment. Once the proper textures, surfaces and colors are added, decisions must be made regarding lighting and camera placement. In many cases, facts that have been turned into a realistic and accurate 3D forensic animation can help determine culpability. The advantage of building a 3D forensic animation of scenes and objects is that the camera can then move around the scene freely to show relevant information. This can be very helpful as demonstrative evidence in the courtroom as it can help jurors to more clearly understand the facts of the case.
Forensic animation is only as accurate as the verifiability of the data that was used to build them. Important details such as direction and speed of a vehicle prior to impact in a car crash for example, must be added to a long list of other important facts. Everything from the point of contact, to weather conditions, to reports from engineers who have studied tire tracks and the vehicles after impact can be important factors in the case and should be included in the forensic animations of the scene.
Forensic animations are being accepted more and more in courtrooms around the U.S. It can be extremely difficult to explain to jurors the facts of a case without visual aids to increase their understanding and retention of the facts. The overall use of 3D animation in courtrooms is still not as high as it could be due to several myths about the process of animation.
Because of our movie going experience with special effects, there is a pre-conceived notion that 3D animations are largely products of the animator’s imagination. However, trained forensic animators spends as much as 70% of their project hours on tracking down and verifying the data they are using to re-create the scene. At each and every phase, from building the models and objects to the planned movement of those objects, and the environment they are shown in, every detail must relate and correspond directly with the investigative facts, eyewitness reports, photographs, and expert testimony.
When it comes to forensic animation, very little is left to imagination. Even if the animator is provided with few facts, if there are enough essential details they can use science, such as the laws of physics, or geometry to determine the rest.
3D animation should only be created for use in the courtroom under the following circumstances. It must adhere to and support testimony of expert witnesses and that expert should be involved in the creation of the animation in its planning stages. The use of the animation must be disclosed in advance of the trial date, with enough time for the opponent to cross examine the evidence. The animator must be an objective party that fairly and accurately has conveyed the evidence as dictated by the expert witnesses and litigators.