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Shooting Death: Reflections on the Making of Autopsy: Through the Eyes of Death's Detectives

Dr. Thomas T. Noguchi, M.D. Chief Medical Examiner of Los Angeles County, Retired, and Michael Kriegsman, Director, equipped in a doctor's mask and cap. Photo courtesy of Judith Heiman Kriegsman

A wise man once said, "If you can find a path with no obstacles, it probably doesn't lead anywhere." A year and half ago we embarked on a journey that few would want to travel. It was a journey down a path leading to Death's Door'.

Autopsy: Through the Eyes of Death's Detectives documentary that explores the much-maligned character and work of clinical pathologists and forensic experts. It's also an unflinching, uncensored look at autopsy and its role in medicine and society. The documentary is our attempt to demystify subject matter that has forever been taboo, in no small thanks to Hollywood.

When we produced Autopsy: Through the Eyes of Death's Detectives during 1998-99, we were not only met with great resistance by some of the very pathologists who desperately felt it necessary to bring the reality of their profession to light, but we also met with Death. An experience that profoundly changed the way we looked at Life.

Presented here are excerpts from the director's daily journal, and reactions as we reflect back on staring Death in the face for 15 months—first in the morgue, then in the autopsy suite, and finally, in the editing room.

The first seven months of our project saw a number of advocates, professionals in the field of pathology and furensics, abandon us out of fear, greed and for any number of reasons. By December 1998 we had hit a dead end. Our newly formed production company, Bipolar Productions, was faced with mounting bills, no credibility with the forensic community and no way in. Our only asset was a 2-page proposal.

Dr. Michael C. Fishbein, Chief of Pathology at UCLA Medical Center, reviewed our proposal, and in a single e-rnail, our dead end became an open road.

12-10-98, 4:40 p.m.

Alun calls, excited... he received an email from Fishbein. He offers to allow us to shoot (autopsies) at UCLA... Great News!

Now armed with some semblance of credibility, we were able to engage a number of forensic heavyweights, including Dr. Thornas T. Noguchi, the most famous coroner in the world.

Cocky with elation, and with Drs. Fishbein and Noguchi in our corner, we were able to re-open a door that three months prior had been literally slammed shut in our faces...

12-24-98, 2:30 p.m.

Had an incredible meeting downtown at the L.A. County Coroner's Office. Scott Carrier (the Public Informationa Officer) loves this project and would (now) like to see the Coroner's Office get involved...

Being so consumed with keeping this documentary on track, we never considered how Death might insinuate itself into our lives. Then came the first moment when we actually had to confront it.

...Carrier takes us to a room where 239 dead bodies lie, awaiting autopsy. Incredibly intense. A stainless steel door opens and before us lay frozen corpses. Each, a human story.

The sight and smell of death—cooled—over was overwhelming. Battered bodies, young and old, in various states of rigor mortis, seemed to literally reach out tor us. Walking the length of that cold, L-shaped crypt was a trial by flesh and a rite of passage.

So many aspects of successful filmmaking depend on down-to-the-minute scheduling. But Death knows no calendar. Our many attempts to expose the crew to an autopsy at UCLA prior to shooting were derailed, as there were simply no bodies to autopsy. Until...

12-28-98, 8:00 a.m.

Fishbein calls... Tells me there will be an autopsy today if we want to view it. 

Months of detective work and mad scrambling had now converged. It was time for our first autopsy.

1:00 p.m.

...Witnesses the autopsy of a 66-year-old male HIV patient w/ pancreatic cancer... We had to view from behind a glass wall, as his AIDS has caused his autopsy to take place in the contagion unit.

All organs were removed from his body.

Viewing the gutting of a human being was an unforgettable experience. It was horrific. Shocking. Otherworldly. But it was also moving, somehow beautiful and inspiring. We knew that this was one of the messages our documentary needed to convey to an audience bold enough to watch it.

l2-30-98, 8:00 a.m.


We toss out interviews w/ Dr Fishbein... so that we can shoot an autopsy that came up from out of the blue. We scramble to reorganize our schedule. We scramble to get a 2nd cameraman. We scramble to get Tim''s (our post-production supervisor) beta deck...

It all comes together within the hour!

Full autopsy. 66-year-old man with liver and kidney failure...

...Doug, the second cameraman was... uneasy about the autopsy and it showed... Can't blame him. It was brutal from start to finish, including removal of the brain.

...The bowel was nicked... The smell was unholy. Next time be sure to bring Vick's Vapo Rub for (our surgical) masks).

We received our first casualty. Doug, our second cameraman, resigned immediately. And we understood. It was 5 torturous hours of an inescapable stench. bone-sawing noises, and gore. We were shocked and excited over what we had witnessed too and what we had captured on videotape.

Nineteen ninety-nine was only hours away but all feelings of celebration were vanquished. Thoughts of the deceased and his grieving family stayed in our minds well into the Happy New Year.

Real or imagined, the smell of death seemed to linger for days following our first autopsy. Death's hold on us had begun. Even the healthy relationships with our wives and children now seemed affected. We attributed this to the daunting task that we knew lay ahead as we prepared ourselves for our second autopsy.

1-4-99, 8:00 a.m.

Shot autopsy #2: 35-year-old-female (and mother of three). Cause of death: congenital heart defect.

...Emotional day.

She was beautiful. She lost her life-long struggle with a genetic heart defect while on a road trip with her family. She didn't look like she was ready to die. A mother in full bloom, her skin was pink and soft, and her legs were freshly shaved. She was the focal point of our three cameras as she lay splayed open on a cold steel table.

Fol some reason the visual impact of this autopsy was not as harsh as its predecessor. But the emotional impact on our crew and us was far greater.

While this woman's young body was being prematurely deconstructed, thoughts of the three children she left behind was too much to bear. It still is.

In the ensuing weeks, our interviews with all participants, especially Dr. Noguchi, and our footage from the L.A. County Coroner's Office and Cedars-Sinai yielded over 70 hours of incredible material. But Death was still not behind us. We now had to stare it down in an editing room.

After a month, we stepped back and discovered that the piece felt more like a "public service announcement" for pathology than the documentary that we had intended. We realized that in order to bring out the positive sides of autopsy and the truth about pathologists we were going to have to deal head on with some dark issues that people might wonder about, but would never dare ask.

6-3-99, 12:30 p.m.

Went to edit, feeling down about the project. As we continued on w/ the paper edit as our guide, I struggled to find a way to streamline the project & put back "the edge" (it) seemed to lose after the autopsy sequence...

...Before the end of the session I decided to kick ass and shake things up. We replaced some tame interviews w/edgier topics, like necrophelia...

...It worked! The edge is back. We'll continue cutting and re-shaping tame areas tomorrow. It felt good again.

By our journey's end we had completed the documentary that we wanted. One we were both proud of.

If there's any truth to the adage,"Life is only error: Death is knowledge," we received the education of a lifetime. But there's no doubt that the experience of shooting Death has changed our perspectives about everything. Every thing.

Perhaps this is best evidenced by the last entry in the director's journal. It is not a production entry per se but a personal one.

10-31-99, 11:40 p.m.

POST ENTRY: Just returned from my mother's funeral. She died on 10/28 after a sudden but rapid decline from liver failure.

We knocked on a lot of doors to ger this project completed. But did I knock on one—Death's—a bit too hard?

Michael Kriegsman (writer/director/producer) won a Student Academy Award for his documentary Face Value. Since 1982 he has been creative director of his own commercial production company. 

Alan Lewis (writer/producer) has practiced clinical dentistry for 21 years. Autopsy: Through the Eyes of Death's Detectives was his first filmmaking experience. Go to for more information