Introduction: How to Do a Forensic Facial Reconstruction

Picture of How to Do a Forensic Facial Reconstruction

This is a brief overview of how forensic 3-D manual craniofacial reproductions are done.  While this instructable will show the process of one case from beginning to end, it is not intended to be a proxy for teaching the knowledge and skills required to perform a credible facial reproduction; that takes years of training. Please vote for this project in the Up contest here! Thanks.

Step 1: About the Author

Picture of About the Author

I am a doctor of physical and forensic anthropology. Prior to getting my PhD, I was a special effects artist in the film industry for over a decade. I have extensive training in anatomy (both medical and artistic), art and science. These facial reproductions draw on the science behind the morphology (shape) of the face as well as the knowledge of materials and skills developed from working in the effects industry.

Step 2: The Forensic Workup

Full forensic workup is performed:
Forensic anthropologists use scientific methods to determine the age, sex, stature, ancestry and any abnormalities that are detectable in the bones.
the decedent was estimated to be a white male, between  the ages of 45-55
Height: around 5’6”
Died from strangulation
Edentulous (no teeth)
Skull was brought to me for facial reconstruction

Step 3:

Picture of

For this case the skull had to be copied by using slow set alginate to make a mold and cast in a gypsum (plaster-like) material. The cast was not as ideal as working on the actual skull, but it was necessary for the skull to remain in the lab for testing. For this reproduction, the cast worked fine. Due to the decedent having no teeth, you can see the lower jaw takes on a much more severe angle than normal, and the tip of the chin tilts up toward the nose.

Step 4: Setting the Eyeballs

Picture of Setting the Eyeballs

Eyeballs are then created and set into place in their anatomically accurate position (they are usually positioned at an angle to produce a lifelike effect). Most adult human eyes are about the same size (26mm).  This is the eerie part when the skull begins to seem alive!

Step 5: Estimation of the Nose

Picture of Estimation of the Nose

This next step has been well studied and documented; there is less guesswork than one would assume. The nose tends to follow very clear guidelines as to the shape and angles of the nose.  There are a lot of nose shapes and there is a long list of articles dedicated to this one aspect of the face! 

Step 6: Adding the Nasal Cartilage

Picture of Adding the Nasal Cartilage

In this step a piece of styrene is used to form the "backbone" of the nasal cartilage. The depth markers are also in place but I will explain those in the next step.

Step 7: Finishing the Nasal Cartilage and Adding Depth Markers

Picture of Finishing the Nasal Cartilage and Adding Depth Markers

Here the nasal cartilage (the stiff portion of the tip of the nose) is sculpted in and the depth markers are placed at osteometric (specific, measurable points) on the skull. Here again there is extensive literature on the depth of the soft facial tissue at these points; it is based on the age, ancestry and health of the individual. 

Step 8: Adding the Muscles of the Face

Picture of Adding the Muscles of the Face

Here the individual facial muscles are sculpted in. The placement and thickness of the muscles are determined by the skull morphology (shape) and the tissue depth markers.

Step 9: Muscles Continued

Picture of Muscles Continued

Here the muscles of the upper face are almost complete

Step 10: Muscles Finished and Neck Added

Picture of Muscles Finished and Neck Added

Here the muscles of the face and the neck are pretty much done. also, glandular and fatty tissue are added.

Step 11: Adding the Skin and Ears

Picture of Adding the Skin and Ears

In this step the skin layer is added. All the wrinkles and pores are added according to anatomical studies and the estimated age, health and habits of the decedent (such as smoking, alcohol and drug abuse, and sun exposure).

Step 12: Adding Hair

Picture of Adding Hair

At this final step any hair, accessories or clothing that were found with the body are added. Photos are taken, often in Black and White so that no information that we do not know for certain is conveyed to the public (such as eye, hair or skin color). And hopefully someone recognizes the individual so that an identification can be made. Please vote for this project in the Up contest here! Thanks.
One final note, this case did end in an identification, but I cannot add any details of the case or pictures of the individual for obvious reasons, so please don't ask.


Brianaala (author)2013-02-19

Hi everyone, have to say I am stunned at the interest in this instructable! Thank you all for your kind words! If you feel inclined to, please consider voting for this project for the Up contest:
Thanks again for your interest!

RobertK62 (author)Brianaala2017-05-10

Hello Brianaala. Hopefully a quick question. On average, how long does it take from the time the skull is brought to you until completion? Assuming there is some sift tissue to work with (even heavily burned)?

SpencerA18 (author)2017-02-16

How much of this is artistic interpretation. It seems that if there is a scientifically proven process that it could be automated entirely in the computer before 3d printing. Are there any automation tools out there for determining all the measurements from a skull geometry or inversely deriving a skull shape from surface topology.

mishacollins (author)2017-02-13

lol die bitchesss

Rose_way (author)2015-10-13

I found this a great idea for my art project at school about changes and I chose facial reconstruction because it's giving back what decayed away and it's cool to think its so easy to do in 10 hours at school with 6 weeks preparation and looking up how to do it and everything, my art teacher was amazed when I asked him about doing it on one of the skulls laying around in art

rice-nd-music (author)2014-06-04

Hi, I'm doing my Undergraduate honors thesis on forensic facial reconstruction, and was wondering if I could contact you and ask you some questions about your job and the field in general.

TrollFaceTheMan (author)2014-04-03

Very Cool and Informative, Nice Job and Thanks.

jrsfo (author)2013-02-21

My family gave me a rather authentic looking skull for Xmas a couple of years ago. It would be interesting to try this procedure and see what the model may have look like. I imagine one should have a fairly good anatomy book handy to compare the musculature and general facial anatomy. I'm sure it would take me several weeks rather than 3

Brianaala (author)jrsfo2013-02-21

Hi Jrsfo,
Absolutely, that would be a fun project! I would suspect that if it is a plastic skull (one cast from a mold of a real skull) and relatively new, you will find that it is a young female of East Indian descent. You could start with a google search on Caucasian depth measurements and go from there!

jrsfo (author)Brianaala2013-02-23

Looking at the skull does appear to be female, but that's just a guess. If I were to to start this project, where could I obtain the proper equipment such as the eyeballs and measurement tools? What medium or type clay is used?.

Brianaala (author)jrsfo2013-02-25

Most of the books I mentioned below are really good resources, as far as eyes and clay types; that is really up to you and what you're comfortable working with. The typical adult human eye is ~26mm in diameter, so anything of that size should work, as for the clay, I tend to use oil based plastiline, because it's reusable but you could do it in anything you want. I hope this helps!

xenobiologista (author)Brianaala2013-02-25

Why a young Indian female? Was there one particular skull that's been used for a lot of teaching models, or is India a particularly good source for donated body parts?

Brianaala (author)xenobiologista2013-02-25

Hi Xenobiologist,
yes a little of both; in the case above I was referring to a particular skull that pops up a lot (a really good cast was made and it has been produced a lot). Also, the culture in India is such that they were selling a lot of bones for a while, as a result most of the specimens come from there.

Sequimania (author)2013-02-23

Nice overview. Can you name some of the resources regarding soft tissue depth, nose shape, etc.?

I find this type of science-art hybrid fascinating. (Er, yes I do have a degree in each discipline.)

Regarding the angle of the chin - does it increase when an individual loses their teeth? Or in this case was that apparent due to the lack of any dental remains (? fragments?).   It seems as thought the bone surrounding the roots would show changes after tooth loss?

Thanks! Any answers are appreciated.

Brianaala (author)Sequimania2013-02-23

Hi Sequimania, the majority of the resources I use are compiled from journal articles and FBI bulletins. Carl Stephan (JPAC-CIL) has a number of articles pertaining to eyeball placement within the orbit, Caroline Wilkinson has a number of books on the subject which are very useful as well as Taylor, Marks and Clement. As for the jaw; yes, the mandibular angle does become more acute due to tooth loss, the alveolar tissue (bony tissue surrounding the teeth) does resorb after tooth loss. The amount of alveolar bone loss can exceed 1/2" over time! This will further increase the apparent mandibular angle. Thanks for the great question!

Sequimania (author)Brianaala2013-02-23

Thanks for the references. You seem to have found just the right field of work to use the breadth of your knowledge and talents. BTW, nice eyeballs!

Euphrosyne (author)2013-02-22

This is marvelous. Questions: how was the eye color determined? (do I hear you say"from the dead body, stupid") Not having had much exposure to dead bodies and how long their eye color lasts after death, or if disappears in the first place...anyway, this person's clear blue eyes seem slightly out of place in a face that seems to suggest Native American identity - or is that the red scarf talking? and did you make the eyes, they're beautiful, and btw they look a tad better (e.g., clear) than this person's might have been in life, since evidently he had some bad habits, to say nothing of fading color from old age. This person looks about to speak...your talent is impressive! thanks so much for putting this information out, and it's a gratifying way to make a living, I'd think.

Brianaala (author)Euphrosyne2013-02-23

Thank you Euphrosyne! No there is no way to determine eye color, these reproductions are usually revealed to the public in B&W photos so that any misleading information is not suggested. I do make the eyes, thanks for the compliment! To answer your question, eye color can last for a while after death (depending on the temperature and humidity of where they are; for example a frozen body can maintain the iris color for over a hundred years)! It is usually the dehydration that turns the eyes a cloudy white and eventually darkens all of the tissues to nearly black. In a hot, dry climate it can happen within days. Thanks again for your kind words!

realife11 (author)2013-02-21

Great job! Just out of curiosity, what films did you work on?

nvnusman (author)2013-02-21

Good overview of the whole process, but SO lacking in details available in fiction, let alone scientific docs.

I say "kindly,": this is not a how-to or instructable, merely an overview of the process.

Nothing here about the function of the "depth markers" or how their dimensions are determined. Nothing about that whole perceived race thingie. So how do you protect your process from just evolving toward an expected result?

I'm not saying you are wrong. I am also not saying you don't have many protocols embedded to protect against errors ... I'm just saying there's a lot of details left out for this to actually be "How to do a Forensic Facial Rescontruction."

Of course, to actually provide ALL those details would amount to posting the details of several years of college education and hands-on experience ...

Just commenting "nicely" on what appears to be a bity of mislabelling ...

stephenfitton (author)2013-02-21

Believe it or not,what you are doing helped in breaking the ice between Russia and America, The Kremlin requested American Re-Constructive forensic team help reconstruct (Ivan the Terrible) I think that was his Nick-name, The process confirming your undertaking of the same.The benefits helps us get a better understanding of each other. To help further your research ,drop me a line for updates.

Brianaala (author)stephenfitton2013-02-21

Hi Stephenfitton, isn't it amazing how much the world has changed! Thanks for the info!

JrezIN (author)2013-02-21

we can see you steps to build this amazing piece, but not how you came to them... Some links to documentation about the procedures and measures for the reconstruction would be very appreciated! =]

Brianaala (author)JrezIN2013-02-21

Hi JrezIN,
Yes I agree, the problem is that many of the techniques and resources are from a lot of different sources (and sometimes hard to find) and, depending on what you working with we often have to use different data (depending on age, ancestry, sex, etc.). If I were to try to include all of that this instructable would be over 300 pages long! That is why this can only be an overview; it just requires too much research and knowledge to fully cover in this format. Thank you so much for your compliments! I could direct you to some books if you want more information.

JrezIN (author)Brianaala2013-02-21

wow, some books about the methods, data and procedures are VERY welcome! =D

JTomM129 (author)2013-02-21

This is one of the things I absolutely love about 'Strctables. Everything from how to dress your kitty up like Brad Pits in Pirates to this. I love the background you give - puts some meat on the bones (sorry) of fascinating field.

Brianaala (author)JTomM1292013-02-21

Thanks JTomM1129! I agree, the breadth of Instructables is awe inspiring!

kirnex (author)2013-02-21

WOW. Fabulous instructable. I work in the forensic sciences as well, but on the behavioral side. I've always been fascinated with reconstructions. Very cool that you brought your experience from special effects work with you into such a useful, necessary science.

BTW...not for nothing, but this victim rendition reminds me of Geronimo. It takes on a special meaning for me, in particular, because he was my great-great uncle; as many of you know, his skull was stolen by a particular "secret society" and never recovered.

At any rate, it's very cool to see this reconstruction, because it gives me some idea of what could be done with HIS remains, should they ever be recovered.

Anyhow, thanks so much for sharing!

Brianaala (author)kirnex2013-02-21

Hi Kirnex, first off, thank you for the compliment! He does have a bit of the same look as Geronimo, but alas, he was Caucasian. You know, it's funny you bring up the Skull, I mean "secret society", that stole your ancestor's skull; their explanation was to say that "it was the skull of a you boy (or woman)" and yet if you look at the most famous photograph it is obvious that is not true. I am still stunned they get away with that!

triciafb (author)2013-02-21

This is absolutely amazing. I took forensic classes at my first college. Sadly I didn't get to finish because my family and I moved. This is one of the things that drew me to forensics in the first place. I also love ballistics, even though I hate guns lol. I am a 3D modeler, and I my 'dream job' would be able to do this in 3D, or do 3D crime scene animations/re-enactments.
You did a marvelous job, and I'm happy that the family was able to find out what happened to their loved one.

Brianaala (author)triciafb2013-02-21

Hi Triciafb, thank you so much! It is a fun and inspiring field to work in!

Philip Williamson (author)2013-02-21

This is great stuff, and completely interesting. It makes me want to go back to school and follow your career path.

Hi Philip, thank you so much!

askjerry (author)2013-02-21

I was interested to find that you actually sculpt the muscles and cartilage details. I knew about the depth markers... I just had presumed that you piled on clay to that depth and smoothed it out evenly. Very interesting... it would be really nice to see one that you did with an image of the person to compare just how close you can come.

I presume the same information can be extrapolated to some extent to determine how extinct animals and such may have looked. Very interesting science.

Brianaala (author)askjerry2013-02-21

Hi Aksjerry, thank you for the kind words! Yes, there were other methods developed over the years that use one or the other technique, they were developed during the Cold War by a Russian scientist named Gerasimov (this is the method of building up each muscle) and the other is called the American method (not to be outdone during the Cold War) this is the depth marker and fill with clay method. Both of these methods have pros and cons, so a combination method emerged using the pros of both methods this is dubbed the Manchester method (from England). This last method is the one I use. Finally, yes, these same techniques are used on premodern hominins ("Early man") reconstructions as well!

Krenath (author)2013-02-21

It looks almost like Terry O'Quinn - John Locke from Lost.

danthman2000 (author)2013-02-21

I want to do this with a skull that has been passed down to me from an old town doctor in my family.

melarkey (author)2013-02-21


What an interesting presentation. Were you able to compare a real life photo of the person with your reconstruction? It would be so fascinating to how closely they compare. I realize that a photo wasn't available but perhaps once he was identified?

Thank you!

Brianaala (author)melarkey2013-02-21

Hi Melarkey, actually in the end a photo of the decedent was found and compared. However, due to the sensitivity of the subject I cannot present it here.

melarkey (author)Brianaala2013-02-21

I understand about the privacy aspect. It must be so rewarding to see how close your representation is to the actual person. Keep up the great work!

Brianaala (author)melarkey2013-02-21

Hi Melarkey, thanks for the support!

daytona675 (author)2013-02-21

Absolutely brilliant! Thank you for this I really enjoyed it, particularly in the light of the discovery of Richard lll's skeleton and the subsequent reconstruction of his face from the skull.

Brianaala (author)daytona6752013-02-21

Thanks Daytona675! Yes, the Richard III project is really interesting and exciting! Good stuff!

mooster (author)2013-02-21

This is fascinating! Thanks for sharing it.

I just wanted to remark that if you get one like this who has lost all his teeth, especially at so early an age, perhaps it means that he has been out on the street for a long time and isolated from relatives. If the toothless version had not yielded results, would it have been possible to do a version of what the person would have looked like with teeth, as he may have been when he was last seen by people who knew him well?

Brianaala (author)mooster2013-02-21

Hi Mooster, good instincts! As it turned out he was homeless; but adding in something that isn't there can lead to some confusion, so we generally avoid it. Simply because it can cause people to discount a possible match because the teeth don't match or something, so we err on the conservative side only for that reason. All that being said, you are absolutely right; the aim is to try to jog the memories of those that knew them well.

mooster (author)Brianaala2013-02-21

I was thinking of something like the age progressions that we see for missing kids, only in reverse. Definitely you'd need to do the one for the skull as you got it, but in addition to that, sometimes a younger version might help someone recognize the person.

sawtooth1953 (author)2013-02-21

How is the skin added? Also, Many denture wearers are always seen with their teeth in. They don't allow themselves to be seen without their teeth in. Why do you believe that a person without their dentures would be recognizable to people who may never have seen the face collapsed like that... It seems risky.

Brianaala (author)sawtooth19532013-02-21

Hi Sawtooth 1953,
That is a really good point, and you're absolutely right! The problem is; we can only work with what we have and if we add any false information it might be misleading and actually derail the investigation. You would be amazed at how often we hear "those are not they type of glasses she wore" or "He didn't wear that color hat"! That can actually cause a potential witness to decide not to come forward! As a result we have to err on the conservative side and just present what we find, in this case the decedent was found with all of their clothes and belongings, but no dentures, so we presented it that way. But you're right, the last picture of him had his dentures in!
The skin is a very thin layer over the muscle and glandular tissue (usually about 1-4mm depending on the anatomy) and then wrinkles and texture are added. Most of the real shape of the face are determined by the skull morphology (it acts as a sort of armature for the face). Great questions!

rhino (author)2013-02-21

Great job! Not exactly a DIY skill, but it is nice to be familiar with some of the details involved. I am glad this man was identified.

Brianaala (author)rhino2013-02-21

Thanks Rhino!

About This Instructable




More by Brianaala:How to do a Forensic Facial ReconstructionHow to make a Flocking or Static Grass Gun from a Bug zapper for less than $3
Add instructable to: