Animating and the Law Alexandria Company helps Lawyers in the Courtroom
October 26, 2000
By Angela Pfeiffer
It was 1996, and a ValueJet plane had just crashed into the Florida Everglades, killing all 109 people on board. Three years later, family members of the victims brought four wrongful death lawsuits against the airline, and all four suits had been settled out of court. A fifth suit was going to trial, and the plaintiffs’ lawyers had enlisted the help of a computer animation firm working in legal support.
The firm was Animators at Law, based in Alexandria on Powhatan Street. A team of artists and lawyers produced a computer animation of the plane’s flight path and included dynamic graphs that showed the plane’s altitude and airspeed. This animation was synchronized to run with the cockpit voice recording, simulating the crash.
In this case, the firm members who worked on the animation had decided to recreate the terror of the crash because they thought this would divert attention from the fact that one of the victims was a waitress and single mother. They wanted the jury to think the case was about fairness and justice, not money.
Animators at Law CEO Kenneth J. Lopez, said that his company often thinks about painting the best face on a case for the jury. For trials involving moral questions, such as the ValueJet case, the firm brings in jury consultants. "They’ll say, ‘For people to even hear our message we need to tell it to them this way,’" he explained.
In fact, while the company provides presentation support to lawyers for the courtroom, much of what Animators does is figuring out what it will take for its client to win. "Our specialty really has changed over time. It started out as animation for lawyer," Lopez said. "Now, we’re really translators. We translate things that are interesting and understandable."
This may mean explaining something as basic as how a computer works. "We’ve got to explain something to a jury," Lopez said. "We show them, ‘Here’s what the Internet is, here’s how it works, I know you’ve never seen a computer before.’ So we’ve got to start at that level and explain it all from the ground up."
When Lopez stared the company in April 1995, the firm did little consulting. The lawyers the company was working with would direct the presentation strategy and form, and Animators would create whatever they wanted.
More than two years later, the firm has 30 employees and has expanded its services. "Now, we’re the folks who are helping design strategy," Lopez said. "We’re hi-teachers. We’ll help you teach it. And we’ve got some cool tools that will help you do it."
Artists deign several types of presentation formats including posters, videos and 2-d and 3-D interactive computer presentations. They work at the direction of Animation lawyers, who design a strategy for each case.
Hi-tech presentation does not come cheap. The animation for the ValueJet crash, which cost $65,000, was actually less than the average cost of Animators’ services, at $150.000. But Lopez said the business is getting cheaper.
"Animation itself is more like a tenth of the cost of what it was [in 1995]," Lopez said. "There are a lot more people that do it, the hardware is out the, the software is out there, and it’s just not quite as difficult as it was back then."
He doesn’t apologize for the cost of his company’s services. "Lawyer-artists are a very, very rare breed," he said. When clients started asking his employees to take on the teacher role, Lopez said, their talents became especially unique. "There’s a price for that."
Something Ventured, Nothing Gained
If Lopez has pioneered in the animation industry by bringing computer animation services into the courtroom, he has also pioneered in the business world by foregoing venture capital.
"In the very beginning, I was convinced that venture capital was something we absolutely had to have. That’s because we had no money," he said. "I eventually got to the mindset that it was much more important to control the destiny of the company and create the vision for the company. That became a lot easier when we got a lot of clients."
When Lopez talks about controlling the company, he means creating its culture — a culture where people enjoy what they are doing. "We could today surely go out and get venture capital and grow really fast, even faster than we are right now. But I think that’s sort of a frightening prospect.
"Right now, I and everyone else that works here own almost all of the company. To give half of it up to somebody else just wouldn’t seem right to us. We’re doing great and we’re passionate about what we do. We would hate to take the fun out of it."