Reconstructing the JFK assassination

On Thursday evening, Nov. 20, 2003, ABC aired the news special “Peter Jennings Reporting: The Kennedy Assassination — Beyond Conspiracy.” The program featured Dale Myers' elaborate recreation of the Nov. 22, 1963, events in Dealey Plaza. Rarely has 3-D computer animation been used more effectively to enlighten more people on a more important topic.

When the network aired the two-hour, prime-time special, it was seen by more than 11 million viewers. The following Sunday night, the BBC2 broadcast the piece on its “Current Affairs” program, and it set a 20 percent share record when 4.9 million people tuned to the UK broadcast. Moreover, the Banff Television Foundation elected to show the “Beyond Conspiracy” news special at its History Congress trade conference in France in December.

In making the program, executive producers Mark Obenhaus and Tom Yellin gathered input from numerous people connected with the assassination and the ensuing investigation. They interviewed more than 70 friends and relatives of both Lee Harvey Oswald and his killer Jack Ruby, along with officials from the CIA, FBI, the Dallas Police, the Warren Commission and even the Russian KGB.

Seeing is believing

But senior producer Richard Brick, who is also vice president of Springs Media, the production company that co-produced the special with Peter Jennings Productions, knew that the best way to dispel the myriad questions that have proliferated around the assassination of John F. Kennedy would be to let the audience see for themselves the relative position of all the elements involved with the tragic events of 40 years ago. So he contacted Dale K. Myers, an Emmy-winning 28-year veteran of radio and television who had not only served as an on-camera expert and technical consultant for the critically acclaimed 1993 BBC/Frontline documentary “Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald?” but had also already spent a decade working on a 3-D computerized reconstruction of the events in Dealey Plaza.

A decade in the making

Back in 1990, Myers had purchased a NewTek Video Toaster with a 24-bit display card. Three years later, he started using version 1.0 of LightWave 3D software to create a 3-D model of the assassination based on the famous 8mm film shot by Abraham Zapruder. By aligning wire-frame models that matched each frame of the only real-time visual record of the event, Myers had, by 1995, produced a geometrically accurate representation of the Texas School Book Depository and the landmarks surrounding Elm Street, which the president's limousine had been driving down. But, since he was limited at that time to an Amiga 2000 computer with a 286 processor, Myers' first 3-D model was necessarily limited in its detail, with only primitive figures representing the relative positions of JFK and Texas Governor John B. Connally.

More rendering power

In 2003, ABC News approached Myers to provide his Dealey Plaza recreation for its special honoring the 40th anniversary of the JFK assassination. Already working on a face lift to his original version using LightWave 3D's 7.5 software, Myers accelerated the process by employing a 3DBOXX platform from BOXX Technologies. Myers used this platform, which boasts dual hyperthreaded Intel Xeon 3.06 processors with 4GB RAM and a 3Dlabs Wildcat4 7210 graphics board, to perfect the project as he had originally conceived it.

In addition to LightWave 3D, Myers used Adobe Photoshop to create texture maps for realistic surfaces and AfterEffects to blend wire-frame models with solid objects and to create the final composites.

Maps and busts

To ensure the accuracy of their three-dimensional layout of the area, Myers and his technical director Jon Tindall acquired a survey map of Dealey Plaza prepared by Drommer & Associates for the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1978. They based their model of the Texas School Book Depository on blueprints provided by Burson, Hendricks & Walls for the Dallas County Depository restoration project in 1978. Myers and Tindall crafted the presidential limousine, a 1961 Lincoln convertible, after the original body draft from The Hess & Eisenhardt Company.

For clarity, Myers elected not to include models of the Kennedy and Connally wives, and he commissioned sculptor Mark Stuckey to create life-size clay busts of President Kennedy and Governor Connally so he could pay particular attention to their relative seating positions. Then, he covered the surface contours of each man's casting with a grid that became the basis for importing three-dimensional data points into the 3DBOXX using a digital probe. With LightWave, he connected these data points and made accurate virtual models of both men's heads, and then connected them to generic models of human bodies that he had rigged for animation.

Reference and comparison

One of the benefits of Myers' 3-D recreation was its ability to reproduce the exact geometric relationship between Kennedy and Connally. The perspective of Zapruder's camera offered a simple digitized enhancement of the 8mm film. Myers used key landmarks in the plaza, such as the R.L. Thornton Freeway and the Fort Worth Turnpike road signs, to determine the triangulation of LightWave's virtual camera based on a camera's six degrees of freedom: X, Y, Z, heading, pitch and bank. He compared this with virtual recreations of many other assassination photographers, including Phil Willis, Wilma Bond, Hugh Betzner, Jr. and Charles Bronson, to verify its accuracy. Other pre- and post-assassination films from Marie Muchmore and Orville Nix added to the rich fund of source material.

Events in motion

Then, Myers began inserting the exact path of the limousine and its occupants. Zapruder's camera was a wind-up Bell & Howell Zoomatic that shot an average of 18.3fps. Since the final version of the animation had to run at video's 30fps, the digital video format would provide a sample rate nearly twice that of the original film (1.64 digital frames for every frame of film). This meant that, although there would not be a one-to-one relationship between Zapruder's original and Myers' 3-D animation, the digital sequence would actually be smoother.

Synchronization, alignment and key frames

As Myers matched the speed of the limousine model moving down Elm Street to the images revealed by the Zapruder film, the crime-scene recreation proceeded with a clarity and flexibility unrivaled by any other investigation. Using lampposts that were triangulated into the position they were in in 1963, Myers employed spline-motion paths to bring the Lincoln convertible into line with the original film.

To minimize errors, Myers used the clearest frames of the Zapruder film for positioning JFK and Connally inside the car. Generally, he placed key-frame positions at half-second intervals throughout the recreation, although he employed tighter keying patterns using between one- and five-frame intervals during Zapruder frames 220 through 238, and 312 through 330.

Stunning results

Now Myers could present the ABC viewers with a 3-D virtual animated model that they could view from any angle. Unlike Zapruder's film, the computer has the ability to lock its virtual camera onto a target without the imperfections a handheld or tripod mounted camera would produce. The result, as seen in “Peter Jennings Reporting: The Kennedy Assassination — Beyond Conspiracy,” was a clear and accurate view of the assassination of President Kennedy. To verify the computer reconstruction's validity, the show's producers employed Z-Axis, a forensic consulting group known for creating computer models used in litigation, to vet Myers' animation.

Even seeing these events recreated in a TV news special probably won't settle all questions, but Dale Myers' has provided evidence that should go a long way toward quelling the storm of conspiracy theories generated by the events of Nov. 22, 1963.

According to “Beyond Conspiracy”'s senior producer, Richard Brick, the ABC network already has the rights to re-run their news special. Let's hope that they do.

L. T. Martin is an industry writer and post-production consultant living in the Los Angeles area.