Monday, February 3, 2003

When it comes to authenticity,
'CSI: Miami' is dead-on


The woman's body on the shiny stainless steel autopsy table is fake - about the only thing that's not authentic in the CSI: Miami lab.

"Everything in here is real medical or autopsy equipment," explains technical adviser Elizabeth Devine as TV critics recently toured the CSI: Miami (10 p.m. today, Channels 12, 7) set near Los Angeles.

"Our set decorators and designers work really hard to not only make beautiful sets, but also sets that are real," says Devine, a former Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department crime scene investigator and DNA lab supervisor.

My visit to the CSI: Miami set reveals how the CBS drama has become the highest-rated new scripted series this season (No. 12) by combining cutting-edge forensics technology and state-of-the-art special effects. The mothership, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, is TV's No. 1 show.

In the made-for-TV crime and DNA labs are $150,000 mass spectrometer machines, a $90,000 genetic analyzer, ViewSonic flat computer monitors and flat plasma TV screens that are the envy of many U.S. crime scene investigators.

"We're asked all the time: How come real CSIs can't solve as many crimes?" says Ann Donahue, the Loveland High School graduate who is a CSI: Miami co-creator and executive producer. "It's because real CSIs don't have our equipment."

Watching the show, it's hard to tell what isn't real. For starters, the high-tech crime lab is 2,700 miles from Miami. (The actors fly to Florida every few months to shoot scenes, similar to the way ER and NYPD operate.)

In Dr. Alexx Wood's (Khandi Alexander) autopsy theater, medicine bottles and boxes of sterile cotton-tipped applicators fill the shelves of eight back-lit cabinets. In the corner is a light box for reading X-rays and a scale for weighing organs.

"The sinks, and everything here is what you'd find in a coroner's office. We, of course, just make it look prettier," says Devine, a consulting producer on CSI: Miami and co-producer on CSI.

A few steps down the fake CSI: Miami hallway is the fake DNA lab, with a real DNA analyzer.

"We didn't have one on CSI until this year. We had to pretend we had one. You couldn't get them. They were flying off the shelves to go to crime labs," she says.

CSI producers take pride in using only the latest equipment, Donahue says. Manufacturers are eager to provide machines for free publicity on CSI and CSI: Miami, which together average 44 million viewers a week.

"They get their stuff seen by millions of people, and that includes criminalists and detectives," Devine says.

Around the corner from the DNA lab is the crime lab, where evidence bagged and tagged by investigators is analyzed by Tim Speedle (Rory Cochrane). Here hair, fibers, narcotics, soil, chemicals, shrapnel and other materials are examined by actors surrounded by five flat-screen computers, three microscopes and two $150,000 mass spectrometer machines.

All of the machines work, she says. On TV, they just work faster. A DNA report ready in 15 minutes on CSI: Miami takes 12 hours in real life.

"We cheat time on our show," admits Devine, who left a 15-year law enforcement career to work on CSI. "We do DNA in 15 minutes. . . . It's not accurate, but it's a television show, and we have to do it."

Fake blood and guts

Under the green sheet on the cold metal autopsy table is "Christine," a life-size silicone model of a woman whose body was gnawed by rats behind a crematorium on tonight's episode.

The phony female was designed by Matthew Mungle, the Oscar-winning makeup artist from Bram Stoker's Dracula. His job is to create the match for performers seen in flashbacks, or to apply rubber gashes and protruding organs to actors playing dead.

"About half the time, we're not sure if it's a dummy or a real actor, when we come in here," Devine says.

Part of our attraction to both CSIs is how they use silicone body parts and computer graphics to illustrate a bullet or knife penetrating internal organs. The producers call them "CSI shots."

"When we say something technical, we then bring them (viewers) into the body to show them what we're talking about," Devine says. "We say it, and we show it."

In his makeup room hidden near the CSI: Miami lobby, Mungle creates the fake blood and guts. He has file drawers filled with spare body parts labeled "hearts," "stomachs, "full lungs," "ribs" and "intestines, colons & full livers."

"When we do the autopsies on the real people, we have a foam rubber piece that's cut open in a Y-incision, and we put internal organ and ribs on top of that, and just set it onto their stomach," says Mungle, whose credits include The X-Files, Schindler's List, The Perfect Storm and Edward Scissorhands..

After he reads each week's script, he must study color photos to get things right, not an easy task for the surprisingly squeamish Oklahoma native.

"I can only look at them for about five minutes, and then they get to me," Mungle says. "I can't (look at) real blood. I faint."

Some of the gore is gone

Actually, viewers have seen less blood and gore in recent months on CSI: Miami.

"In a couple of episodes early on, we may have gone a little bit over the line. We've pulled it back," says executive producer Jonathan Littman, an executive at Jerry Bruckheimer's TV production company which makes both CSIs, Without a Trace and The Amazing Race.

As our tour ends, Devine, the former real-life CSI, talks about how two TV shows have educated America. CSI creator Anthony Zuiker says crime labs have been flooded with applicants since CSI premiered in October 2000. Las Vegas crime scene analysts (CSAs) now are called CSIs.

Across the country, "when a CSI goes on the crime scene now, they don't hear, `What you doing here?' They know what a CSI is," says Donahue, whose credits include Picket Fences, Murder One, High Incident and 21 Jump Street.

"In our own little way, we're glad we can shed some light on the fact that it's not enough to hire more police officers. You've got to allocate the money to buy these great machines," Donahue says.

As Devine says: "It's important to have good forensics in a case. Good forensics is what keeps people in jail."


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