Some of you may have heard that I have been using Adobe Flash for creating court exhibits. I started using Flash a couple of years ago after taking a course at a local community college. I use Flash as an alternative to PowerPoint, but it clearly has features that reach beyond the best features of PowerPoint. If I have simple graphics, text, or audio clips, most likely I’ll stick with PowerPoint. It’s easier by far. But if I have video, I will never again use PowerPoint.

PowerPoint may work for CSI clips, but the biggest problem with PowerPoint and video is that 1) the video must be linked. 2) When the video is playing, all resources are dedicated to the playing of that video. I cannot annotate over the video or control the stopping or starting. But as I said, PowerPoint is great for simple linear exhibits.

Flash was not designed for trial work; it was designed for internet animation. Because of this I can take advantage of animation tools and follow a map, or show camera locations, or where a witness was standing in relation to a crime. I can annotate anyplace on the screen, over playing video, under it, sideways, put text next to the person speaking with precise subtitling. Flash also uses alpha channels, and now that it is an Adobe product, you can insert graphics in layers.

Speaking of Adobe, you can have your Flash document open on one monitor and Bridge open on the other. Simply drag items from Bridge onto Flash and they become automatically embedded. (You can also drag over graphics from an open PowerPoint).

Output

Flash allows me to set my output screen size. For instance, the projectors in our courts are all XGA. Therefore, my default screen size in Flash is 1024 x 768. So every incident of any graphic I place on the Flash stage is in relation to this pixel matrix. I know that if my video native size is 320 x 240, it will take up only so much of my screen. I can play back the video in the native size, or I can interpolate the images up and play it both ways, having to only load the images once. Now, if my presentation vehicle is a high definition Plasma screen, I can take the native pixel dimensions of that monitor and make the same dimensions on my Flash stage. Therefore I know exactly how my visual elements will fit on the screen, accounting for every pixel and I will know that my monitor will not distort my image. (The caveat here is that your PC or Laptop must also be capable of pushing out the same matrix…further testing is in order)

Workflow

In my workflow, I often have a series of images numbered sequentially, such as a sequence pulled from a screen capture utility such as Snagit or similar tool. Just import the first frame and the rest will follow. You can then edit multiple frames (hundreds at a time if needed) to place them all in the exact same position. If I would rather import a .mov or .avi I can convert it to .flv easily. FLV is the format that most online video plays from. (All YOUTUBE, google, etc play FLV.) Flash uses a compression engine called ON2VP6. A white paper is available for this codec. (http://www.on2.com/file.php?127). I will convert video to FLV if I have a long video and it would be impractical to import each frame as a key frame. Most DVR’s are loaded on the timeline as described above. Other video that can be compressed (such as SCALES or other Interviews or perps taping themselves) will be converted to FLV and then played as an external file. Flash does not require that you link to the video if you move it to a different PC, it only requires that the FLV be in the same logical file.

PowerPoint will not play directly inside Flash (I am guessing because one is Microsoft), but with a small effort you can capture the PowerPoint slides and insert them on your timeline. Even ones with builds or animation can be translated. You can also use your favorite wireless clicker to advance the slides (as long as you can assign a keyboard button to the button on your remote).

Once your Flash document is complete, you can export your presentation as an executable file in either MAC or PC format. This file can then play on any computer. If there is external video, it must be copied to the same folder as the executable…that’s it.

I just finished a high profile case in Hennepin County where there was deleted cell phone video recovered by someone else. I was able to load each frame into Flash. Because the original video was very small, it was loaded in its native size and actually had the best clarity at this size. I didn’t have to wonder what interpolation methods Windows Media was doing. I pushed it out to an XGA projector which made the video about the size of a large TV screen. I then took every frame and made a navigatable format with Frame number so that they could move to any frame and discuss it. The still images were enlarged in Flash. When the case went into deliberation, the judge allowed the video to be loaded onto a PC for the deliberation room. (This was unprecedented in Hennepin County). The video was very sensitive and there was significant risk that someone would try to copy it. This risk was completely eliminated because I was able to put password protection on the executable file.

Audio Mapping in Flash

Another visual tool I have been doing in Flash is what I refer to as “audio mapping”. This is extremely compelling when the jury is looking at an aerial photo of a neighborhood and then they listen to a 911 call. As the caller describes where they are or where someone went, annotations appear on the map. I recently did one where crime scene photos where superimposed over the map as the caller described the victim.

Cell Phone Evidence

Cell phones have become very common as different types of information are gleaned. A recent exhibit I did had a map with cell phone tower locations marked. On the side of the map was a list of phone call times. Hold the mouse over the time and a red circle shows the tower that was pinged. Hold the mouse over the tower and all the tower’s info comes up in a small box. Flash can also animate phone calls between phones which is helpful when there are a lot of calls. I find it useful to have the mug of the phone’s user next to the phone and then animate with arrows or moving dots which “who” called which “who.” Being part of the Adobe suite, Flash can take advantage of the Adobe Device Manager. Visually you can play back cell phone images in the same model of the phone where the evidence was taken from.

Can You Zoom In On That?

One of the biggest features that our attorney’s love is the ability of Flash to zoom in on graphics. I have done several cases where DNA Excel spread sheets with tons of complicated data are imported into Flash. The attorney simply right clicks and the image zooms in. Here we can see DNA details, serial numbers on weapons, Cell Phone record print outs, maps, crime scene photos, etc. You can import the image at a very high resolution, and then size it to fit on the “stage”. When played back, the full resolution is available when zoomed.

Total Frame Control

Every frame of DVR video becomes a loaded key frame in Flash. Flash then plays the timeline, not the video as though it were a media player. Because every frame is a preloaded key frame, no processing resources need to be dedicated. In other words, Flash doesn’t have to go find the video to play it. It’s already loaded. This means that Flash won’t crash when playing video back. I have had many times where PowerPoint freezes up because it lost its link or didn’t have enough RAM ready.

The above description involves importing individual still images extracted from native players. Playing still images off the timeline is a stable way to control every frame. You can place your own buttons on the screen (visible or invisible) that will allow you to play at frame rate, stop, step forward, skip forward, gotoanywhere, (even go to another software or internet, or send an email, or virtually anything a computer is capable of. (This is presently above the 5% knowledge I have…except I do know how to get to a website or send an email). As mentioned above, there are other ways of playing video. Encoding video into a FLV to playback using the compression mentioned above. This method does require an external video file, but you only have to make sure it exists in the same logical file; therefore you can change it if you need to, and just make sure it has the same name. The frame rate established in your flash document will not affect the playback of your FLV file.

Flash allows for me to standardize the playback format regardless of the source. I can play video frame by frame with the frame rate set up in Flash. If it plays back natively at 2 FPS, then I simply tell Flash that is my playback rate. Flash frame rate can be set as accurate as one tenth of a second. This means I can set it for 2.5 FPS, or 29.9. It will not set to “one hundredths” so ‘29.97’ is not an option….yet. I would say this would be a change for CS4 if I had my way. Flash can play as slow as .1 FPS all the way up to 120 FPS.

Another feature I have found valuable is that Flash can reverse its timeline. I recently had a DVR that would skip about four minutes on playback, but for some reason playing it backwards gave me all the frames I could not get going forwards. I processed the video backwards and as soon as I got it into Flash I was able to reverse the timeline so it would play forwards.

Isn't There Trial Software Made For Evidence Presentation?

I have been asked why I don’t use trial presentation software such as Sanction. I’ve explored Sanction but found that I am subject to the interface of the software. I choose to be in control (or have the attorney in control) of every pixel. I don’t have to make sure that the end user has Sanction installed. Flash can be brought home by the attorney and reviewed on their laptop. No software whatsoever is required to play an executable. Even PowerPoint cannot claim that feature.

Flash is huge and not very intuitive. It will take some effort to learn it. I will say that a little comprehension will go a long way. I am only using about 5% of what Flash is capable of. Its ability to handle video of the multiple types I deal with is my favorite feature. Most proprietary DVRs are difficult to navigate, adjust frame rate, find areas of interest, etc. When this is done in advance and the attorney gains complete control over what is shown, it becomes a compelling exhibit.

The more Flash exhibits you end up making, the easier it becomes. Developed assets can be moved around to save time. I am certainly not a Master flash programmer…far from it. I understand some of the action scripting, but not enough to make a living at building Flash web sites. And I am not a reseller of the software.