Dr Paola Magni is a forensic entomologist and scriptwriter for the television crime series RIS Delitti Imperfetti. She tells us how to create a realistic crime scene for television, and why fly maggots are sometimes better than caterpillars.
This article contains descriptions of real and fictional crime and disaster scenes, and human remains.
I worked on eight series of RIS Delitti Imperfetti. The writing team introduced a character based on me, played by the actor Jun Ichikawa.
I trained Jun to act like an entomologist. We had long chats and spent time in the lab using the microscope and other tools. Jun didn’t need much training. She observed me doing my job and and she simply did what I did. She was great.
I started as a writer, and after a while, I was writing, doing scientific consultancy for the stories, creating the scenes and the labs, and working with Jun.
How do you create a realistic crime scene for television or film?
I create a case story while the scriptwriting team are writing the episode.
Sometimes it's based on my personal experience in case work. I take elements of the real story and make it more suitable for fiction. Or, I base it on interesting research that has never been used on a real case. So, I build a fictional case around the research.
During the scene set-up, I discuss the scenario with the producer and I speak with other people on the set to get everything we need in the scene.
Once, the bugs warehouse didn’t provide us with the right insects because they thought my insects were not video-friendly, or not attractive enough.
I had to explain that their good-looking bugs were wrong in the scene. Those pretty caterpillars would never be interested in feeding on the rotten meat of a cadaver. That is a preferred meal of the common – and not very good-looking – fly maggot.
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What are the differences between a real crime scene and the ones we see on television?
Real crime scenes – explosions, for example – can be extremely large.
These scenes are difficult to reproduce, because of their large scale. Recently, computer graphics and animation have made it easier, but for small productions the cost can be prohibitive.
Real-life crime scenes can also be uncomfortable. I've worked in small apartments and even underwater. Filming a scene underwater requires different skills, equipment and permissions. This can also be expensive.
The odour of a real crime scene can be intolerable. That doesn't come across on television.
What mistakes do you see in television crime scenes?
On television, things happen quickly at both the crime scene and the lab, which is not realistic.
In real-life genetics analyses, a test can take three days, or less. During an investigation it can take longer because of priority cases, availability of tools and labs, and poor preservation of the sample.
In entomology, we sometimes have to wait the full life cycle of the maggots collected on a body before we can gather evidence, which could take several weeks.
There is also a high success rate on TV shows, and everyone knows everything. One person might be an expert in crime scene investigation, entomology, toxicology, blood pattern analysis and ballistics. That doesn't happen in real life.
In reality, we are experts in one area, and we need resources to do analyses or experiments. Sometimes cases remain open because of money constraints, and that can lead to miscarriages of justice.
Who is involved in making a TV crime scene?
There are at least two scriptwriters for one episode, sometimes supported by a technical expert like me. There are the directors, actors, and people who look after sound, effects, casting, hair and makeup.
Are there any ethical issues connected with creating crime scenes for TV?
Episodes based on real cases must be treated carefully.
If we replicate a recent case, the family of the victims or the suspects may be still alive, and could be affected.
We also have to consider the CSI effect, named after the television crime series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. The CSI effects can include the mistaken idea that criminal investigations are always easy and successful. If the case story in a TV show is similar to a real case, and has a successful outcome while the real case does not, the audience may question whether the case was properly investigated.
The science we show to the audience must be credible, to avoid giving false hope to people seeking justice, or misconceptions about forensic science and the criminal justice system.
What are some other reasons to simulate a crime scene?
Crime scene simulations are important for teaching crime scene experts, and some simulations are used for research.
Recently, I attended a conference where my colleagues presented their experiment at the Australian body farm. They placed human remains in a simulated mass disaster scenario of a building collapse, for research and training.
Paola was the winner of FameLab Australia 2019. FameLab is a global science communication competition run by Cheltenham Science Festival in partnership with the British Council. Applications will open soon.
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