If An Oak Tree Falls, Will A Camera Record It?


Laurence R. Penn, Senior Forensic Animation/Video Specialist



The storm which hit our area on Wednesday July 21st, 2021, was a wild one with extremely gusty winds, torrential rainfall, and golf-ball sized hail leaving streets blocked by downed power lines, cars riddled with dents, and homes extensively damaged by wind and fallen trees. After a lengthy and circuitous commute, constantly having to find alternate routes due to road closures, I returned home to find my family’s yard covered with shredded leaves, torn from the trees in the adjacent woodland by the barrage of hail. A huge, towering oak in our front yard was no match for the wind that whipped and twisted everything in its path, splintering it at the base of the trunk, sending it crashing into the power lines and fence. Our utility pole snapped, and lines were down along our driveway. As I stood in awe of the destruction, I could still hear parts of the tree cracking and snapping as it continued to settle into the drenched ground under its immense weight. Luckily, the tree fell in a direction that spared damage to nearby homes.
It came to mind that one of my security cameras may have captured the falling oak. I checked the video footage online and indeed, the tree was in its field of view, but the last uploaded video disappointingly did not show the fateful moment. I then checked the storage on the base station of the surveillance system, thinking maybe the video was recorded locally but not yet uploaded due to the power lines being taken down. I located the last file, which happened to be corrupted, likely due to the recording being interrupted as the power was suddenly cut. Could this be video capturing the dramatic last few seconds of our beloved oak standing tall? With some forensic analysis, I was able to correct the corrupted file by stitching closed the missing data by using a non-corrupted video file recorded earlier that day as a template. Disappointed again, I determined the video did not record what I had hoped; we lost power before the tree fell, taking down the surveillance system just moments before.
Once power crews chopped back the oak and the utility lines were safely off the ground, it was time to assess the tree more closely. The main trunk was still a few feet off the ground, with hundreds if not thousands of pounds of dense hardwood teetering on the splinters where it fractured. Just a few feet away was the filtration unit for our septic system, a large underground cement structure with plastic covers at ground level. My mind couldn’t stop imagining the expense and burden of having to repair it, should the tree continue to settle and possibly fall onto it. I took out my Sony Xperia 1ii phone and started snapping hundreds of RAW photos around the fallen tree to document the scene. Once in the office, I brought the photos into our photogrammetry meshing software to recreate a to-scale 3D model of the tree, the scene now frozen in time and available for future assessment, should it be necessary. I hired my go-to tree crew to cut the tree into rounds and watched as they impressively calculated their cuts and gradually eased the remaining trunk to the ground, avoiding any damage to the nearby filtration system.
A lesson learned from this experience, other than that of fixing a corrupted video due to system power loss, was to purchase an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) battery backup for my camera system. As for the oak tree, it served as a great way to demonstrate how photographs, if taken correctly, can be used to reconstruct a scene in three dimensions. We will continue to enjoy the tree’s presence this winter, with its logs warmly crackling away in our wood burning stove.
Laurence R. Penn, Senior Forensic Animation/Video Specialist with DJS Associates, Inc., can be reached via email at experts@forensicDJS.com or via phone at 215-659-2010.

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Tags: Forensic Animation | Laurence R. Penn


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