In a weekly lineup saturated with crime drama TV shows, it has become increasingly difficult for new series to wrestle attention away from the pre-established giants of the genre. Shows like LAW & ORDER, HOMICIDE, and the many branches of CSI have put the forensics pathology subgenre at the forefront of police procedurals, reflecting America’s insatiable appetite for the macabre.
FOX’s answer to the growing trend was the introduction of BONES, a TV series loosely based on Kathy Reichs’ investigative thriller novels. Starring Emily Deschanel, David Boreanaz, and Michaela Conlin, BONES is chuggin’ through its second season to reveal more of the forensics anthropology side of crime scene investigation.
Storyboard artist, forensics scientist, and biomedical illustrator all rolled into one, Donna Cline is the Jack-of-all-trades when it comes to providing BONES with real world verisimilitude. Having a few moments to spare out of her uber busy schedule, Donna was able to speak with us from the FOX production studios earlier last week.
Mania: So Donna when did you first get interested in forensics work?
Donna Cline: Well part of my academic background is involved with medical illustration. I’ve always been interested in the human condition, physically and anatomically. That’s always been a favorite study of mine. I became a forensics artist doing suspect composites and facial reconstruction of skulls of unknown deceased, probably five or six years ago.
Can you elaborate on your academic background? What kind of education have you had in the field?
I did my undergraduate work at Berkeley in the History of Art and Fine Arts and my Master’s in Biomedical Illustration. I’ve been working in film and TV for about 18 or 19 years. Because of the forensics work I started to do I became interested in cognitive interviewing and was just struck by the power of it. I have a second Master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy and I still see clients. Lastly, I just began Doctoral studies in clinical psychology last Fall.
Wow. Going through school did you ever imagine in your wildest dreams you’d be putting your skills to use for a television show?
Umm no, actually, I thought I was going to be a happy medical illustrator! Then I met some film people and one thing led to another. Because of the technical abilities for research and image-making I have I was able to enter a film union fairly quickly. I’ve never looked back since.
Have you ever done any actual investigative or forensics work?
Yeah. Because of my forensic artist background I work as a forensic artist and get calls from detectives and police agencies all the time. When I get a call generally it’s usually for a suspect composite drawing. That’s more common than facial reconstructions simply because of frequency and the budgetary constraints of governmental agencies. I interview the victim or witness of violent crimes and then develop a composite sketch based on their recollection and reconstruction of facial elements. I then give that composite sketch to the detectives and they go forward with the investigation. This kind of collaboration has caught a lot of perpetrators!
Oh yes. It’s not unusual, research-wise, to go to coroner or medical examiner’s offices and other such interesting places. It’s kind of second nature because I dissected bodies when I was in graduate school so I’m kind of used to that subject matter.
I have to ask don’t you find digging around in people’s remains kind of…well, creepy?
Well, you know it’s a funny thing. The first time I was going to dissect a human body I was apprehensive, but then it became so interesting. When I see actual cases (murders, suicides, all kinds of things), you know I’m not oblivious to the human sadness of it all, but truthfully it’s so interesting to try and figure out what happened and to be able to contribute to the investigation. I think there’s an absolute direct alignment with psychology when you think about human perceptions, behaviors, and the manner in which people try to elude capture or try to avoid being accountable for their actions.
Is BONES your first television project?
No, mostly I do features, but then I received a call to do the storyboards for THE X-FILES. I was their storyboard artist for the last three seasons and during the course of that time, around the end of THE X-FILES (which we were all very sad about) someone from JUDGING AMY called and asked if they could recommend an illustrator. So I worked on JUDGING AMY and some of those people subsequently came here to BONES. I worked on the pilot of BONES in terms of getting equipment and coordinating manufacturers for the lab machinery. One thing led to another and when they began the series of BONES I was asked to come on over. From the start the show was of great interest to me.
What exactly do you do on the show?
Well I have sort of a multi-faceted involvement here. I’m their forensic advisor so I do a lot of initial research when I get the script. I research every technical scene and double check all the dialogue and pronunciations. For every episode I put together what I call ‘actor packets’ which include not only pronunciations from medical dictionaries of the words in the script but also visuals of what anatomical structure the actors will be talking about and/or where it is in the body. They are able to study these packets in advance. Then I do other notes for props, wardrobe, and other drawings or research items for the producers.
I also do the production storyboards and the artwork for Angela’s character (Michaela Conlin) who’s a kind of intuitive forensic artist in the show. All of her sketches of the people and such are those that I produce.
Okay so are you kind of the on-screen personification of Angela’s character?
(laughs) More like her shadow. Michaela’s just great and does a good job of relating to the drawings that I give her. She plays an artist wonderfully.
I know BONES is loosely based on Kathy Reich’s mystery novels.
Having Kathy as a producer on the show, is it a pretty rigid creative process adapting the forensics side of her source material?
Well all the producers are just wonderful. To a person they’re all just great and open to suggestions. Their attitude is very expansive so they’re more like, “Let’s make this right, let’s make this fun.” It’s just terrific and even with the cast, we’re just so fortunate to have all these people.
In regards to the technical aspects of the investigations, do you have any leniency with the show’s writers to come up with new stuff or do they just let you know what the script requires?
Actually the script is a good guideline but it’s still amendable. If I have a suggestion, I’m able to go to the producers and say look this is a really good way to show this point and they’ll take it into account. That’s the advantage about being a storyboard artist and a film/TV person because I understand why we’re going from point A to point B dramatically. I think if I was only a forensics person I wouldn’t be quite as knowledgeable in that sense. So basically when I get a script that’s our path through the forest. From that I can make suggestions, submit all kinds of ideas, and to make suggestions about specific equipment, protective gear, or actions. I really do have a lot of openness and leeway and that’s due directly to the producers.
They pretty much trust you to get the facts right?
Yep (laughs), and everyone is really great about it. We all collaborate.
I know you mention that you put together these ‘actor packets’ to get the cast up to speed on the medical information, so I take it you work pretty intimately with them?
Yeah I’m with them on the set. When we shoot, do private rehearsals, any of that kind of thing, I’m right there. I like to be that person they can trust and make sure they know that I’m watching out for them. I really do care that they look the best in front of the camera, and that they look credible and have an ease with the material. Much to the casts’ credit they learn things so quickly it’s wonderful. They’ve learned so much since we first started. What I try to bring to them are my instincts when approaching a crime scene or a body, how to touch things, which instruments to use, things like that. We try to do as much prep as we can so that when we walk on the stage for a scene we have everything in place. And I absolutely love coming to work here. I’m very lucky.
Well one of them is definitely one we just finished, episode 17. It was really cool shooting it. I just love doing set work that includes animal attacks (laughs), such as the research for the film THE EDGE with bear attacks, or the shark attacks for DEEP BLUE SEA, that sort of thing. I really find that interesting.
From new shows like DEXTER to the many established off-shoots of CSI, it’s apparent that crime drama is a huge staple of American television. How do you manage to keep your material distinct in what some consider an already overexposed niche?
The writers draw their inspirations for stories from many different sources. The fascinating part about BONES, and the brilliance of it really, is the fact that Emily Deschanel’s character is a forensic anthropologist. It’s such a different angle. Forensic anthropologists operate differently, they’re wired differently, their discipline is different from the homicide detective or even from the forensics pathologist. The latter work hand in hand, but the anthropological part really taps into the other areas of crime investigation which involve the scientists. I think it’s a brilliant play between the FBI and the anthropological part. It’s definitely a really different take on it. Emily plays the part of the forensic anthropologist so well!
And I adore the humor and how it’s written into the different characters. We want humor to be an element of the show and some of the lines that Zack (Eric Millegan) said yesterday… I was almost beside myself they were so funny, which is a tribute to the writers.
What does BONES have in store for us in the future?
More complexity, more interest, and really just more fun. I know that’s really broad (laughs).
Do you think now that you’re really into Season Two the cast and the production team are really meshing in the show?
Yeah I think that’s a great question and the answer is yes. We all know each other really well now, we’re like a huge family (laughs). We were on location yesterday, we’re on the stage today, we’re all over the place, but we’re always together.
And what do you have going on in the future?
BONES is my main priority so other than that and a lot of homework on the weekends for my doctorate I’m keeping busy!
Well we’ll let you get back to your work Donna. On behalf of myself and Mania.com I’d like to thank you for your time.
It’s been a pleasure to talk to you too. Thanks Pat!
You can check out BONES every Wednesday night on FOX at 8PM ET or visit the show’s website, http://www.fox.com/bones, to find out more.