From Mechanical Engineering to Forensic Video Analysis: The Experience of Alan Michaelis

Alan is the owner of ALCAR Multimedia; while he transitioned relatively late to the world of forensic video analysis, he attended a lot of different training classes and became soon very passionate about the topic. Read on to see what first sparked his interest in the field and what are the most important aspects of training and education.

Martino Jerian, Amped Software CEO and Founder

Tell us a bit about yourself. What are your background and your current role at your company?

Hi, my name is Alan Michaelis. I graduated from Drexel University in 1969 with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Mechanical Engineering and a Master’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering in 1971. I received my Professional Engineering license in 1980. For 34 years I worked as a civilian field service engineer for the US Navy traveling the world at the drop of a hat to troubleshoot and oversee repairs to large hydraulically operated machinery and main propulsion gas turbine engines. During my final five years in that profession, I began carrying a small Sony Hi 8 camcorder around to document problems and their repairs. It made report writing very easy and eventually morphed into a full-time job creating documentaries and training films. When I retired in 2001, I decided to switch from working with sailors in ships to attorneys in court. I launched ALCAR Multimedia and got to work, breaking into the legal field as a trial tech. Back then, bringing a laptop and big screen into court to display evidence and play depositions was a big deal here in Virginia. My business took off and I made a profit in my first six months. That work continues today but is a small part of what I do now. Since 95% of all civil cases settle out of court in Virginia, I focus on producing multimedia presentations for mediations and arbitrations. I also produce documentaries to show others how an injury has affected an individual and their families. I have recently added Forensic Video Analysis to my list of services.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

Solving challenging problems in every area of my profession, not just FVA. For example, clients may provide me with a multitude of evidence, and I take that data, assimilate it and create graphics to explain complex concepts to mediators, judges, and juries. Another rewarding aspect is constantly learning new tools, tips, and techniques. Amazingly, they seem to instantly become useful. I call it getting ready to get lucky. So, I spend a lot of time online and in blogs learning every day.

What was it that first sparked your interest in the field of image and video forensics?

With over 25 years of video and photo production experience, my clients began asking me to look at surveillance videos, usually to determine the color of a traffic light at the time of a crash when the critical light is not apparent in the video. I wanted to learn the correct forensic workflow and methodology. Since I am only involved in civil cases I thought that taking classes from the criminal side of the law would provide a more rigorous background. In criminal law, the standard of proof is “beyond a reasonable doubt” versus civil law which is “more likely than 51%”.  In 2021, I completed 261 hours of technical and legal training in the field of forensic video analysis, including LEVA Levels 1 to 4 and their Courtroom Testimony for Expert Witnesses training along with several FVA vendor training sessions such as Amped Software. I also attended several legal seminars put on by the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association. I also spend a lot of time watching the Amped FIVE YouTube Videos and reading articles on the Amped Software blog. 

Why did you choose Amped software products rather than other solutions?

Like many who are reading this, I was introduced to Amped FIVE and several other tools in the LEVA classes.  My expertise was in Adobe photo and video editing products and PowerPoint. The FVA programs were completely new to me and their user interface totally unfamiliar. But if I wanted to stay in the game, I had to learn to be proficient in one of them. I went with Amped FIVE because of their extensive YouTube and blog training. They are also very responsive to their customers like no other vendor I have ever worked with. It is like having them on your team every day. After I purchased my license, I took their training course, and it was fantastic. I learned so much in such a short time. A few months ago, I took the LEVA Level 4 course and used Amped FIVE throughout. With only about 10 months of experience, I feel very comfortable going right into it and skipping Premiere.

What would you say are the most valuable features in Amped FIVE for your investigations?

All of the filters of course. There is always more than one way to tackle a problem in Amped FIVE. In particular, I love using the sliders to add and reduce effects while watching the changes in real-time. I still have much to learn but whenever I have a question, the answer is always either on the Amped YouTube channel, blog, or just a text away.

How do you think the world of image and video forensics will change over the next few years?

The use of digital multimedia evidence has already been explored with the plethora of video and photo resources now available to the legal community. One thing they all seem to have in common is that they are not professionally shot. Low resolution, insufficient lighting, handheld or body held shaky video seems to be the norm. I only see the volume of available video and photographic evidence increasing. With that comes additional time on each case pouring over hours of video.

We are often told that case backlog is an issue for many video labs, what do you think could be done to assist with this problem?

Faster computers, faster software processing times, and more trained FVAs.

What are the most important aspects of training and education for forensic image and video analysts?

I believe the presentation of digital multimedia evidence in court is almost as important as the technical aspects. When you are in court there is an enemy out there just waiting to bring you down any way that they can. Understanding the rules and how the game is played is the difference between success and failure for your clients. So legal training such as that provided by LEVA’s Jonathan Hak is critical. Everyone loves the techie stuff but the legal, not so much. As a trial tech for the past 21 years, I have seen many experts in various fields fail, not because they weren’t technically astute, but because they had trouble communicating and handling cross-examination questions.

Finally, what do you do to relax in your free time?

My wife Carol and I are Carolina Shag Dancers. It is like a toned-down version of West Coast Swing. We dance four nights a week and take two 9-day long vacations to Myrtle Beach South Carolina each year. About 5000 Shag dancers gather to dance from 9:30 am to around midnight. It keeps you young. I am the photographer for my three local clubs and an official photographer for ACSC (Association of Carolina Shag Clubs). And finally, I hope that starting out in the field of forensic video analysis at the young age of 75 encourages others to remember that it is never too late to pursue your dreams, you just have to apply yourself to the task at hand and get it done.

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