THE POWER OF A WELL-DESIGNED ANIMATION
Words alone can be insufficient to describe the details of a car accident. A crash is messy and myriad factors go into creating a portrait of one. Jurors are asked to listen and understand details about the weather on a given day, the slickness of the road, the speed of the cars, the state of mind drivers were in, the stakes of the moment, and more. The details are numerous and the emotions in a courtroom run high. Courtroom interlocutors are employing every rhetorical and theatrical method available to inform a juror’s crucial vote. It can be a lot.
The high volume of technical and jargon heavy information is difficult to synthesize. Being so dense, it’s no wonder juror’s struggle after hours and sometimes days to account perfectly for the particulars of a given accident. The image in a juror’s head may be an incomplete portrait of the event. It’s at this stage that the work of Steve Irwin and his teams at Scientific Analysis becomes a clarion call for focus. For nearly 30 years, Steve and his teams have employed forensic animations to use as set-pieces of their expert testimony in the courtroom.
A well-designed animation is a powerful tool of communication and can cut through courtroom distortion to provide much needed clarity and narrative coherence.
Forensic animations are the use of computer graphics to accurately recreate accidents and represent complex ideas visually. Based on engineering principles, simulations and physical evidence, forensic animations have proven to be powerful in trials or settlements as they allow the best transmission of forensic evidence to the jury.
The first animation was presented to a Bronx jury in a 1984 auto-accident case. Made on an Apple II it was a far cry from the sophisticated tools employed today but it marked a paradigm shift in litigation. Today, Scientific Analysis animations teams, assemble their animations using the drafting design software AutoCad and libraries of mix-and-match pre-modeled people and vehicles. These animations are derived from the world-class investigations and accident reconstructions performed by SAI teams using state-of-the-art technology. Animations provide clients with precise visual representations of even the most complicated accident reconstructions. Their intent is not to dazzle with effects but convey a scientifically accurate chain of events. They have proved again and again to be a potent tool.
There are things to be mindful of in animation, however. Similar to the way a Hollywood production may have all the CGI bells and whistles but lack narrative substance and fail to deliver an impact, forensic animations can fall short in similar ways.
Inexperienced animators may ‘over-animate.’ Animators without the level of sophistication the SAI team has may be influenced to make their animations more dramatic as a way of distinguishing them. But, by prioritizing the aesthetic beauty of an animation, the very problem that animation was employed to solve may become exacerbated. Beauty is a quality described when discussing art and poetry. Beauty in the circumstances of an animation is found in the elegance of design, the unusual level of effectiveness and simplicity an animation can display.
Animation is both an art and a science. The art is ensuring that the science never loses focus because emphasis has been placed on the lifelikeness of a tree or the facial expressions of crash onlookers.
A forensic animation must be refined and balanced. It’s a precision tool to add a level of coherence to proceedings. Too much razzle-dazzle can result in an animation being deemed speculative and prejudicial and be judged inadmissible - a costly mistake. This is the reason crash animations are played without audio. Sound, especially of a crash, can be deemed manipulative and lacking in objectivity. A visually appealing animation is important but overzealous special effects or editorial choices are liable for inadmissibility. Steve and members of the SAI team must also be able to verify each detail of the animation using the data. At 30 frames per second, that’s a lot of data. Anything too creative beyond that leads to inaccuracies and inconsistencies in testimony that leaves room for a prosecutor to poke holes. The rule of thumb in animation: less is more and always let the data lead.
A lucid and dynamic tool is indispensable in the courtroom. The right phrase or the right image may be the key in determining an outcome. As such a powerful tool, making the most scientifically sound animations has both an ethical dimension for SAI and, due to the circumstances these demonstrations are deployed, a moral one as well.
Animation transforms jurors from people on the bench to witnesses of the crash. Multiple angles can put them on the side of the road to watch, to float above the moment of impact, or even be right there in the vehicle at the moment of collision. It’s an unparalleled level of omniscience.
They may not be as visually striking as a current generation video game, but the sound physics and scientific demonstration accompanied by expert testimony make them just as compelling. A great animation captures attention the way 2-D diagrams and words struggle to. Attention in the courtroom equals retention. Where there is distraction, a refined animation provides focus. When there is uncertainty, quality animation provides clarity. These powerful tools combined with the expert testimony provided Steve Irwin and the teams at SAI make for unmatched service in the forensic engineering field.
SAI continually reevaluates the data and our understanding of the data to arrive at a conclusion consistent with the facts. They explore alternative scenarios to establish theories and refute opponent’s theories. By examining ‘what if’ scenarios they examine many facets of an accident and make airtight analyses that are difficult to puncture in cross-examination. Fact and truth are the guiding principles of their work.
This ethos has served SAI and their clients well for 30 years and makes them a valuable member of the Aperture portfolio.
Aperture’s vision is to use science to shine a light on the truth one person at a time. Animation is one small, but vital aspect of that service. The work of a great animation begins in the field, however. Sometimes mere hours after an accident Steve stands amongst the debris of a wreck assessing damage, taking photographs, and scanning environments with 3-D lasers to capture millions of points of data. It’s here on a country road with hundreds of tire marks or a bustling city intersection that an accident reconstruction begins. Where the countless data points and evidence begin to accumulate and may eventually lead to testimony. It’s where Aperture goes to work.