The Forensic Imagination

Curator's Note

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.



I've been working with this notion of "the forensic imagination" in relationship to the dramatization of science on CSI and the like as well its early appearance in the news documentary narratives of early forensic reality shows that used to run in the late night hours on TruTV (formerly Court TV), The Learning Channel, The Discovery Channel, and The History Channel (not to mention A&E and ID--formerly the Times/Discovery Channel). My argument is that these early "educational" documentaries established a clear pattern of investigation and solution (which they themselves inherited from pulp fiction, police procedurals of the 40s and 50s, and even earlier empirical detectives like Holmes and Dupin). The solution to so-called "cold" cases and killers who seemed to elude identification was based primarily on human ingenuity (of which medico-legal technologies are portrayed as an integral part) and the individual detective's relentless pursuit of "justice". Now such patterns have shifted to focus primarily on scientific/technological processes themselves as dramatic elements of the mystery narrative. Certainly the righteous detective, working tirelessly on behalf of victims, is a main character; however, the "action" appears within the test tube itself, hence the more anatomical imaginary of now prime-time series (certainly CSI but also the newer breed of "reality", pseudo-documentary programming on the cable channels I mentioned before.  I'd love to talk with you more about your work.

I recently heard Carol Clover speak about the predominance of a "paranoid construction" at work in American popular cinema--especially prevalent in the trial movie. In such films, there is a tendency to deliver the experience of evidence in a manner that evokes the subjective view of being one among the jury.  Often in close up or extreme close up, the piece of evidence is made "wholly" visible & yet invites speculation that seeks orders "behind" the visible. In this moment, the particular rhetoric of the filmic image constitutes a paranoid visuality commensurate with what cognitive psychology has identified a "paranoid style" of cognition.  That is, "paranoid" refers to a formally definable process, not a content--or, in the case, of the filmic image, how the image presents, not what it represents.

I'm wondering if we might understand these forensic animation sequences in terms of such a "paranoid attention."  Do they mobilize a paranoid construction?  If so, might this construction be evidence of/invite/reify  a paranoid visuality?  What about the fact that these images might be said to be avisual (insofar as they are rendered "visual" according to algorithms, etc. registering quantitative data collected at the scene & after the fact)? 


Heidi Rae Cooley Editor, Journal of Visual Culture Assistant Professor of New Media Studies University of South Carolina

Sue Tait coined an intriguing term for the kind of visuality at work in CSI -- autoptic vision --where the camera actually invades the body's interiority making possible a whole new level of objectification. I'm also interested in the (slow, at least in this country) turn to virtopsy, the virtual autopsy. They had a simulation of such technology during the "Visible Proofs" exhibit at the National Library of Medicine in DC (which ran from 2005-2007 I believe). It was very interesting in terms of the substitution of the screen for the tactility of the body, and I couldn't help but wonder how much CSI and House and others are helping to prepare their viewers (who are potential jurors) for a new kind of perspective (one that is, as you say, predicated on the extreme close-up) as they look at evidence no longer gathered by conventional photographic means (there's a wealth of intriguing and troubling information about those "conventions" if one looks at the history even current training of forensic photographers). Because it is billed as a way to uncover cause of death without re-victimizing the corpse, virtopsy has some champions but beyond the obvious issues of its high cost, resistance (that I've seen mentioned in the limited study I've done) seems rooted in the idea that the technological mechanism and the resultant documentation is hard to read, understand for a viewer. It requires a "surgical" vision (which, with the growing use of robotic technology, is becoming more and more "screened") and, as such, I began to think that shows that employ forensic animation are actually constructing, for viewers, a window on such de-centered, close-up, de-contextualized space. I'm not familiar with Clover's new work but wonder if one could substitute "paranoid" for "surgical" in this kind of medico-legal context.

Catherine Summerhayes PhD. Lecturer in Film Studies and New Media Arts Australian National University

What struck me about this short clip was the point of view and how different the accident looked from the various ones created or used in the animation.  The first one, the point of view of the driver was shocking to the extent that I felt I was in the truck, although I did not know it was a truck at the time.  I know this is different from Heidi's discussion of Clover's 'paranoid construction' but I found myself wondering if it might be related - in the sense of asking the question about what point of view the jury is going to take of the accident, will they identify with the highly mimetic, subjective one which interestingly is also the first point of view shown.  As the comments below also note, it is the choice of these points of view that constructs the evidence.  I find myself hoping that the juries might be given a quick course in film studies re the question of Mulvey's 'looks' and other cognitive theories of subjectivity...not a realistic scenario I know. But I do wonder if juries are given qualifying information about the format and production of these clips?

These image sequences fascinate me. I agree with the previous comments, but I wanted to pull it back a bit and ask how much the conventions of visualization (amateur and "professional") drawn from programs such as Destroyed in Seconds (my current favor cable program) influence the re-creation of the data in visible form? The spectacular aspect of these forensic clips seem to be informed as much from the framing that goes on in reality video programs - the building collapses, the truck is obliterated by the train - as it is from the evidence on the ground (speed of the tractor, slope of the road and such).

It also seems that the intention of the producers - back to auteur theory of a sort - would serve as one possible approach to the notion of causality that is lost in the merely textual. The assumed intentions and the residual intentions of the producers open up one path from data to paranoia. Is it assumed by the producers that this is the best way to communicate to viewers - the jury - what happened? Seeing accident-crashes in ways that are familiar to the jury-audience?

And why is it such a rush to see a tractor plowed into by a semi?

Dan Leopard, Saint Mary's College of California

Great reference to Destroyed in Seconds, which in its promotional discourse raises some interesting issues pertaining to Dan's last comment.  As stated on its website:  "Destroyed in Seconds is not meant to just shock and entertain, but to explore the causes of mass destruction and how, when possible, families and communities bounce back from devastation."  (

It is the fusion of the pedagogical and sensationalistic impulses in this program and in Patrik's clip that is so compelling.  On one hand, in the latter there is the repetition of the collision from multiple perspectives and renderings and that serves an evidentiary aim.  At the same time, it also seems to pick up on the same kinds of notions of pleasure that Dan alludes to with reality programming such as Destroyed in Seconds and to some extent MythBusters and the like.  Particularly with Destroyed in Seconds, and one could argue with Patrik's clip, there is a pretense to "explore the causes" but also an emphasis on the pleasures that derive from keying in on and replaying the forensic "money shot."


 This new technology is amazing and the Forensic Imagination is a great way to visually put together the pieces of any mystery or situation. This clip makes the accident seem very realistic and the little details are really making large contributions to make the scene feel as real as possible. As the creators of these videos take all of the facts and evidence to create a scene it is depicting a story of what happened. My only concern is that in the creation of these clips the scene can be framed in ways that people may not have come up with on their own. The jury can be swayed one way or another simply because of how the scene is framed. When people come up with their own visual of how something happened, they can make their own conclusions. People tend to believe anything they see in front of them, as we can see with the news and other programs on television. If a clip is made to portray a scene, it doesn't leave much room for interpretation of why something happened. With that said I do think it is a huge step forward in making sure all of the pieces of evidence are remembered when looking at a scene that entails investigation. 

I would agree with what Lisa is saying here because the first thing that came to mind when I watched the clip, while keeping in mind that clips similar to this are being used in criminal cases, is that what if there is a vital piece of information that was left out of the simulation? For example, what if there was a rock or a flash of sunlight that came in the way of the driver, which caused the driver to not be able to see the vehicle in front of him or her, that essentially caused the accident? If the people involved in the accident had died, then no one would ever know, and based on this simulation, the blame of the accident is based on information that is not complete. I feel that this idea of simulating an accident to recreate it for the jury is a great way to communicate the way something happened, so as to better analyze the situation, but I feel that in cases where there were not enough witnesses, vital information could be left out, that could lead to injustice or unfair or untrue conclusions.

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