Few details and unrealistic proportions: it sometimes seems impossible to see real people in composite drawings. Gilles Vermeulen has found a solution: with AI he transforms the sketches into realistic portraits.
The American serial killer Zodiac Killer, a member of the Belgian Gang of Nivelles and an unidentified woman, found in a river. They have all been put on paper – one better than the other – by composition artists. Flemish Gilles Vermeulen (38) picks up these sketches and then creates a realistic image.
Experimenting with AI
As a creative developer, Gilles is fully occupied with the possibilities of artificial intelligence (AI). While he believes it is seen as a threat by some people in his industry, it actually offers him many opportunities. “It was always my childhood dream to become a professional illustrator, but I never thought I was good enough. But suddenly, because of that technology, it all became much more realistic.”
In the beginning, Gilles mainly used AI to make portraits of himself and family members. “Just to see how I could generate an image with text. I then tried to make special portraits that you cannot simply achieve with photography.”
House full of swear words
It does not come out of the blue that Gilles focuses on the reconstruction of faces. His father was also involved in this, after training as a forensic dentist. “He has undergone training to do facial reconstructions, on the skull with clay.”
Based on the information that could be derived from the skull, the face could be recreated. “The house was often full of skulls that were then transformed into a human face in various stages of finishing. For example, he has made reconstructions of Neandertals on Neandertal skulls for museums.”
AI is developing rapidly and therefore the way Gilles deals with it has also changed. He discovered a new program that allowed him to create images not only from text, but also from existing sketches.
Gilles: “In the beginning I made sketches of sneakers, clothes or monsters, for example. That was already fascinating. Then robot photos (Flemish word for composition drawing, ed.) came up and I thought: wait a minute, it seems fascinating to me to see what such a robot photo would look like in real life.”
Bizarre ‘robot photos’
He started making realistic images based on compositional sketches because he found it comical, Gilles says. “What you often come across are funny robot photos that make you think: how could that person who drew this ever get his job? Or how come that robot photo looks so bizarre?”
Think of a very large nose, drooping eyes or a special headgear. “I thought it would be fascinating to take such a bizarre robot photo and ask the hypothetical question: Suppose this robot photo, as crazy as it looks, was super accurate, what would the real person look like?”
‘We found him’
“What I mainly did in the beginning was take those bizarre robot photos and keep them as close to the sketch as possible. Then generate an image that would make you say, ‘Ah yes, that’s that person.’ explains that you say: ‘We found him’.” It is not Gilles’ goal to solve the issues for which the sketches were made or to provide a breakthrough.
“The chance that such a sketch is really accurate is very small. A lot depends on: how well did that witness see the person? How good is that witness at describing that person? And the sketch artist at converting all that data into a sketch? I realize all too well that the realistic image I generate is probably far from what the real person looks like.”
For now, Gilles sees his project mainly as a hobby. Although he does admit that his work ‘does not have to be completely useless for solving cases’. “It puts the focus back on the matter. It lets you look at the sketch in a different way and makes people talk and think about it.”
Composite sketches are made not only of perpetrators, but also of unidentified victims. “If they can make a good sketch, and everything is described well, then I can imagine that such a realistic version can be reasonably accurate and can provide recognition in certain matters.”
‘Fantasy in the back of your mind’
Some of the composite sketches that Gilles used come from the Identify Me campaign that was set up in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany to identify twelve unidentified deceased women. “If I maybe give them just a little bit of an extra chance to be identified, even if it’s only a zero point percent chance… I thought: if it doesn’t do any harm, it won’t do any harm.”
Gilles thinks that there is little chance that his work will actually lead to a breakthrough in a case, but it remains a nice fantasy. “That would be very chic. That’s just a naughty fantasy in the back of your mind, but not something I consider at all,” he says in Flemish.
Active murder case
Yet Gilles is open to anything with his project. “If there are experts, forensic illustrators and so on, who say: ‘We see possibilities in this’, and they want to work with me, I would welcome that with open arms.”
His work has already been picked up by an American private detective, who is working on an ongoing murder case. Gilles steered the realistic image in the composition sketch in that direction. “I haven’t gotten any feedback yet, and I don’t know if they’ll actually use it, but it’s fascinating to think that maybe that killer will see it in the media and get a good laugh if it doesn’t look like him at all,” he jokes. Giles.
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