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Artist Uses CT To Re-create Faces From Skulls

July 13, 2011
Written by: , Filed in: Musculoskeletal Radiology
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Most people look at a skull and see bones. Joe Mullins sees a face. And he uses CT scans of that skull to re-create that face.

Mullins is a forensic imaging specialist for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, a nonprofit organization based in Alexandria, Virginia. He spends much of his time “aging” photos of children who have been missing for more than two years—creating an “older” image of how the child might now look.

But he also creates full-face portraits from CT scans of skulls—children, and occasionally adults, who were found only as unidentifiable skeletal remains. Those reconstructed images are distributed on flyers and through the media in hopes that someone will recognize the face.

In a fascinating Washington Post story by Rachel Saslow, Mullins described his work:

It’s already a horrible story by the time the skull gets here. Opening up a little box and pulling out the skull of a 7- or 8-year-old who has been found in the woods is tough. But someone’s got to do it, so we use our powers for good to help find missing children and help give them their name back.

“Powers” seems appropriate when discussing Mullins’ work. He says he can derive the projection and width of the nose, the projection of the ears, the location of the eyebrows, even a good guess about the location of the hairline, all from the CT scan. “All of that information about the soft tissue of the face is etched into the skull,” he said.

Mullins starts by sending the skull to physical anthropologist David Hunt at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. Hunt analyzes the skulls to determine the ancestry (Caucasian, African-American, etc.), general health, and any identifying details. Then he puts the skull through a CT scanner. (When the Smithsonian’s machine broke recently, Mullins used scanners at Inova Alexandria Hospital in Alexandria.)

Using the 3-D CT scans as a base, Mullins, who has a degree in fine art and graphic design from James Madison University, digitally builds virtual layers of muscle and skin. He uses Adobe Photoshop and a technology called FreeForm that gives him tactile feedback, as if he were working with physical clay.

The final result: an image of a person, not just a skull—an image that, Mullins hopes, will eventually help a sad collection of bones get his or her name back.

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