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The woman who did Star Wars’ visual effects - and is now rebuilding faces to solve cold cases

PUBLISHED: 10:12 05 February 2020 | UPDATED: 10:12 05 February 2020

The work as part of the New York Academy of Art and Royal Canadian Mounted Police scheme. Photo: Cpl. Charity Sampson, RCMP-GRC

The work as part of the New York Academy of Art and Royal Canadian Mounted Police scheme. Photo: Cpl. Charity Sampson, RCMP-GRC

CHARITY SAMPSON PHOTOGRAPHY

A visual effects expert who has worked on the likes of Star Wars has joined a project hoping to solve cold cases by rebuilding faces from 3D printed copies of skulls.

Anita Clipston taking part in the New York Academy of Art and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police scheme to solve cold cases by reconstructing 3D printed copies of skulls of unidentified people. Photo: New York Academy of ArtAnita Clipston taking part in the New York Academy of Art and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police scheme to solve cold cases by reconstructing 3D printed copies of skulls of unidentified people. Photo: New York Academy of Art

Anita Clipston, 49, was born in Norwich, growing up in Sprowston and attending Earlham High School - which has since become City Academy Norwich - from 1982 to 1986.

She later studied at Norwich University of the Arts, learning graphic design, in the 1990s.

She was 31 when she left Nelson's County, moving around the UK and taking on roles for film giants including Aardman Animations - known to many as the creator of Wallace and Gromit and Shaun the Sheep - and Lucasfilm, where she worked on Star Wars.

Beginning in stop motion animation and retraining in visual effects, her career has seen her work on productions including Jurassic World, Games of Thrones and Harry Potter, roles she said were good fun, but involved very long hours.

She has since gone transatlantic - the last eight years have been spent living in Canada - and, now studying a masters at the New York Academy of Art, recently joined a forensic sculpture project.

Anita Clipston taking part in the New York Academy of Art and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police scheme to solve cold cases by reconstructing 3D printed copies of skulls of unidentified people. Photo: New York Academy of ArtAnita Clipston taking part in the New York Academy of Art and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police scheme to solve cold cases by reconstructing 3D printed copies of skulls of unidentified people. Photo: New York Academy of Art

"I had always been fascinated by forensics and using art to reconstruct, to try and help people," she said. "I said yes, sign me up. I wanted to do something that meant something.

"My mum died four years ago and my life changed, and I went back to school. When you lose family it puts things in perspective."

The innovative initiative, created thanks to a partnership between the academy and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, has seen her work with 15 other students to help police identify the remains of men found in British Columbia and Nova Scotia between 1972 and 2019.

Each student has been given a 3D printed copy of a skull from which they have, over five days, painstakingly recreated the faces of the unidentified people with clay.

But Miss Clipston said the reconstruction was largely science based, with little room for artistic licence.

Anita Clipston taking part in the New York Academy of Art and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police scheme to solve cold cases by reconstructing 3D printed copies of skulls of unidentified people. Photo: New York Academy of ArtAnita Clipston taking part in the New York Academy of Art and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police scheme to solve cold cases by reconstructing 3D printed copies of skulls of unidentified people. Photo: New York Academy of Art

First, the muscles on the face must be applied, before students put in depth markers to decide the thickness of skin tissue - the skin that covers our skulls is 16mm, for example.

"Sometimes if there were clothes found they can tell whether the people were skinny or larger weight," she said.

Ageing can be applied to the sculpture if police have been able to estimate someone's age, and the appearance of eyes, for example, are dictated by how deep the sockets are.

"Suddenly, you have a face staring back at you," she said. "There's a moment in the room where everybody goes quiet and all of a sudden you realise you have somebody's face in your hands. This person doesn't exist anymore.

"They don't tell us whether someone is a murder victim or just lost, but it's very interesting.

Students working on the New York Academy of Art and Royal Canadian Mounted Police scheme. Photo: Cpl. Charity Sampson, RCMP-GRCStudents working on the New York Academy of Art and Royal Canadian Mounted Police scheme. Photo: Cpl. Charity Sampson, RCMP-GRC

"You reach a point where there are 16 extra people in the room and it's very emotional. It's quite a moving process."

Since the New York academy began the programme in 2015, four people have been identified. It is the first year the Canadian police have been involved.

"If there's one person out of 1,000 [identified], you help someone say goodbye to their family member. It changes lives," she said, adding that she had thought about pursuing forensics in art in her future career.

The sculptures will go on display around America and Canada in the coming months - they can also be found online here.

The programme is the only one of its kind in the world, and over the years it has included murder victims, migrants found in the Arizona desert and remains found on a Civil War battlefield.

Cases are only put forward when dental records and DNA testing have failed.

This year's cases include people who have been found on a hiking trail to someone washed ashore on a beach.


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