Common Misconceptions About Forensic Animations

There seems to be many preconceived notions about forensic animations and their overall use in litigation. Many times, lawyers or accident reconstructionists will say that “An animation can show whatever the animator wants” or “Animations are difficult to admit in a court of law”. However, to a forensic animator, this is also like saying, that your accountant can “fix your books”. In reality, it is far from the truth.

Misconception #1 – “An animation can show whatever the animator wants”
Perhaps it is the fact that so much of what we see on television and in films is altered with lifelike special effects that we tend to associate anything with 3D visualization with more than a hint of skepticism. Ironically, much of the same software used to animate films such as “Spiderman” or “Lord of the rings” is also less known to be used in scientific visualization, research and forensic animations. People may associate the fact that an experienced special effects animator is capable of creating surreal, yet realistic looking effects. Therefore, it must not be accurate.

The greatest difference between a forensic animation and just any other type of animation is the “forensic” part. This implies that there is a large effort in understanding the details of what is being animated and that there is a large emphasis ensuring a high level of accuracy. An animator can spend more than 70% of his time on activities related to the verification of data and ensuring accuracy in the animation.

An experienced and qualified forensic animator would tell you that a large effort goes into building and checking each step of the animation process to the correct and accurate dimensions. In fact, very little is left to the imagination since most recreations are based on accurate data typically provided by the expert witness. A simple example is the terrain data of a particular scene. This can be obtained by means of a total station along with the positions of important features such as signs, traffic lights, debris or tire marks on the roadway.

Even the animation and motion of objects in a 3D recreation is typically based on information or data provided by the expert witness. This data is often obtained through careful calculations or through the use of simulation software. In the case of simulation software, the data can be directly converted or imported directly into the 3D animation software, leaving little room for error.
There may be cases where the forensic animator is provided with less than ideal information, however, even in these rare instances, an experienced forensic animator will have enough knowledge to ensure that the basic rules of geometry and physics (i.e. motion) are applied and adhered to.

Misconception #2 – “Animations are difficult to admit in a court of law”
Somewhere along the way, there have been animations which were so poorly constructed or erroneous they simply could not have been allowed in court. It would seem that these cases tend to stick in the minds of litigators and cause reluctance for future use of what is a perfectly acceptable and effective use of technology.

Normally, it is an inexperienced animator or lawyer which does not follow some of the basic rules of demonstrative evidence.
Some key points to consider when considering a forensic animation are:

  1. The animation needs to support the testimony of the expert witness and should be considered an extension of the witness’ report. The expert witness should be directly involved in authenticating and reviewing the animation.
  2. Disclose the animation well in advance of the trial date. Evidence needs to be disclosed in a timely manner and the opponent requires time to cross examine the evidence.
  3. The animation fairly and accurately conveys the data or matter that it purports to convey or depict. The animation should not be prejudicial in that it outweighs the probative value.
  4. The animation should be relevant.
  5. The forensic animator should be prepared to testify that the works created are based on sound technology, process and algorithms such that the final works are a reflection of the expert witness’ opinion.

There are, of course, many other factors to consider which may be case dependent. Further materials and references are available for review including a paper entitled “The Admissibility of Demonstrative Evidence in Jury Trials:” Written by Barbara Legate of Legate and Associates and available at the AI2 forums (www.ai2-3d.com/Forums).

Today, most forensic animations are admitted into court since there are greater considerations and groundwork taken into account to ensure the accuracy, validity and quality of the animations. By choosing an experienced forensic animator and by adhering to the rules of demonstrative evidence, the risks associated with inadmissibility are greatly reduced.

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