How to Do a Forensic Facial Reconstruction

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Introduction: 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

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:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here the muscles of the upper face are almost complete

Step 10: 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

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

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.

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    67 Discussions

    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: https://www.instructables.com/contest/up2013/?show=ENTRIES&sort=FEATURED
    Thanks again for your interest!

    2 replies

    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)?

    This was the question I was looking for the answer to, and I didn't see it. Need it for a mystery book I'm working on. Thanks.

    Skin color based only on guessing ?

    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.

    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

    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.

    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 days......lol

    5 replies

    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!

    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?.

    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!

    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?

    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.

    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.

    2 replies

    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!

    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!

    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.

    1 reply

    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!