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Facial Composite Failure

"They just can't get my nose right!"
Flynn Rider, Tangled

The facial composite is a standard technique in police investigations. It is a drawing created to try and identify a suspect whose appearance alone is known. While the quality and accuracy of these drawings can vary based on the quality and accuracy of the eyewitnesses, you can reasonably expect the sketch to resemble who the police are after.

That is, of course, unless the Rule of Funny is in play.

When this happens, the composite sketch will inevitably be a hideous caricature of the actual person. Of course, because it's the Rule of Funny we're talking about here, this will typically do absolutely nothing to prevent people from recognizing the person on the sketch anyway.

A frequent inversion is for the composite sketch to be very accurate but the character himself, either out of obliviousness or vanity, insisting it looks nothing like him. Another variation will feature a character creating a face completely out of their imagination to blame something they did on a made-up individual, only for the person they described to actually exist and be arrested as a result of their lie. In a bout of Stylistic Self-Parody, animated or comic mediums will have the composite drawn in a realistic style instead of the art style of the series itself.

Contrast Super Identikit. This can also sometimes happen because the Suspect Is Hatless.


Examples

    open/close all folders 

    Advertising 
  • An old Yellow Pages commercial shows a Chinese shopkeeper describing a robber to the police sketch artist. He gives a reasonable description. The artist finishes and asks, "Is THIS the man that robbed you?" He shows us a stick figure with only a general resemblance to the description. The victim flips out. "You're not an artist! You can't draw!"
  • Invoked Trope in a Dove ad where a criminal sketch artist draws two versions of the same person, one where they describe themselves, and one where someone else describes them.

    Anime & Manga 
  • Sanji, The Chew Toy of One Piece, spent a great deal of time desiring to get a bounty put on his head (since a bounty translates directly into fighting power and awesomeness). When that finally happened, his Wanted Poster got hit with Facial Composite Failure. However, the second part of this trope didn't kick in much since everyone but a zombie with Luffy's personality legitimately failed to recognize him from the sketch. The sketch's consequences come up in a different way when the crew encounters Duval, whose face is near-identical to the sketch. The only reason why the wanted poster is so inaccurate in the first place is because Wanted Poster in One Piece are usually photographs, but the cameraman that tried to get a picture of Sanji left the lens-cap on, so they had to make his poster based off second-hand descriptions.
  • There's an instance in From Eroica with Love, when Eroica and the Major are reluctantly working together at the Vatican and end up getting the police on their tail. Unfortunately the sketches turn out a bit "artsy" — meaning that the gruff Major ends up looking something like a model posing on a magazine cover. The only one who ever recognizes him based on that sketch is the overeager Italian detective. (The Major is not amused, but Eroica wants to color the picture, preferably with lipstick.)
  • In the Pokémon Special manga, Gold has to give a description of Silver to a police officer. He exaggerates all of Silver's facial features so much that it looks like a grotesque monster and nothing like Silver. This was however, done deliberately — he didn't want the police interfering with his vendetta. Eventually turns into a Brick Joke of sorts. When Green/Blue (The male one) tries to arrest Silver for the things he did at the beginning of the Gold/Silver/Crystal arc, Gold pulls out the wanted poster and points out that it looks nothing like him. Before that, Silver is walking through a town and sees his wanted poster on the wall. He looks at it, face faults, then stares at it for a moment while sweat dropping.
  • Saiunkoku Monogatari plays with this a little; when Seiran and Ensei get wanted posters put up for them during the trip to and through Sa Province, Seiran's likeness is perfect, but Ensei — who would be bishounen if he hadn't grown out a coarse, shaggy beard to disguise his face — is drawn as a wild-haired, jagged-toothed monster not unlike a bear. Ensei finds this rather unfair.
  • In Slayers, when a bounty is put on Lina's, Gourry's, and Zelgadis's heads, their wanted posters turn out something like this.
  • Happens in Scrapped Princess. The fact that it seems the police sketch looks totally the same when one drawn by a person with zero artistic skill, or a "professional" street painter, makes it looks like the whole world suffered from the Bad Artist Hat.
  • During the first arc of Busou Renkin, Kazuki creates a composite sketch of Papillion... that looks like it was taken out of JoJo's Bizarre Adventure.
  • Suzume, the Dark Chick of a gang of Ronin in Samurai Usagi, reacts to facial composites being handed out of her and her allies by wanting to hunt down the one who drew them.
  • A Running Gag in the manga The Seven Deadly Sins is that none of the Seven Deadly Sins' wanted posters really resemble the actual person. They're so inaccurate that Meliodas, their Captain, has the posters on display in his own bar.
  • Sket Dance has a chapter in which Bossun tried to sketch a profile of something with "a protruding head, an antennae, a face like a bat's and has spotted butterfly-like features". His drawing ended up looking like a disgusting alien monster and, according to Himeko, "Nothing would look like that crap". However such an object does exist, much to Bossun's own surprise, though obviously it turned out not to be the object Quecchon was looking for.

    Films — Animation 
  • As noted in the page quote, this is a Running Gag on Tangled regarding Flynn's Wanted Posters. Upon seeing one with a ridiculously long nose, he replies, "Now they're just being mean."

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Diabolik has a bunch of criminals use a weird device to come up with a sketch of Diabolik's girlfriend. It doesn't work too well. ("No, she wasn't Hitler!") Said "weird device" is a regular old light box — the kind artists use for tracing — over which the criminals placed transparencies with various pre-drawn facial features, kind of like a low-tech version of computer compositing.
  • Joe Dirt. With two pictures. They are funny. The joke is that his mom actually sort of looks like her picture.
  • The Brave One references the Truth in Television phenomena below regarding a person thinking of a well-known face when they are unable to recall a face clearly.
  • In the live-action Flintstones movie, Fred's Wanted Poster is drawn in the style of the cartoon Fred.
  • In Johnny English, the main character makes up a perp to cover up his own mistake. He describes an utterly ridiculous figure with orange hair, an eyepatch and identical banana-shaped scars on both cheeks. At the very end of the film, a guy fitting the description appears reading a newspaper.
  • Same thing in A Guy Thing. Jason Lee's character Paul fabricates a story about being mugged, and when questioned by the police, describes the mugger as black AND white, with red hair in dreadlocks, a gold tooth, and a tattoo of barbed wire around his neck. His response when asked to identify a man matching this description as the mugger: "It's not him."
  • During the end credits of Harold And Kumar Go To White Castle, a news report mentions that the titular characters are still wanted by the police. However, the provided police sketch depicts a stick figure in a turban and goatee, and another wearing a Chinese hat, squinty eyes, and big teeth.
  • In National Lampoon's Loaded Weapon 1, one woman is describing a suspect, and the police guy fumbling at what looks a bit like a Mr. Potatohead. And later, we see two policemen arresting a guy who swears he is innocent — looking just like that.
  • In the 1964 Fantômas movie with Louis de Funès, this occurs in a process similar to the Diabolik one, but the criminal ends being recognised as police commissioner Juve (played by de Funès) — the actual criminal, Fantômas, used Latex Perfection to disguise as him.
  • Nacho Libre has a variation in the form of a caricaturist whose drawing of Nacho's sidekick winds up looking like a (reasonably attractive) woman.
  • In Wrongfully Accused, Ryan Harrison (played by Leslie Nielsen) finds a wanted poster of himself in a store flanked by three well-known TV personalities, including John Walsh of America's Most Wanted, and scribbles all over it. When one of the personalities recognizes someone, he draws his gun, causing Ryan to panic... and watch as the guy pulls away the guy who looks like the scribbled picture.

    Literature 
  • In the Eva Ibbotson novel Island of the Aunts, the police circulate composite drawings of the aunts, who are wanted for kidnapping. However, the descriptions result in grotesque caricatures that look nothing like the real women.
  • Played with in the French novel Monsieur Malaussène (part of the Malaussène series by Daniel Pennac). The person on the facial composite is very familiar to the Amateur Sleuth, but she only recognizes her after retouching by a professional photographer, especially blurring the facial composite.
  • In 1634: The Baltic War three fugitives hiding out in London are helped immensely by the fact that the only detail their wanted posters get right are their beards, which are a very common style in the city. The poster even actively hinders the up-timers trying to work out who they are.
  • In Incompetence, Harry checks out the news to find out if he's been identified by police. Due to the fact that Police Are Useless, not only does it look nothing like him, it strongly resembles Dr. Zaius from Planet of the Apes.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Played to brilliant effect in a series of sketches on comedy supergroup Big Train; a lady describes her assailant using a barrage of adjectives that have nothing to do with visual appearance to an increasingly frustrated police officer.
  • Happened on one episode of Dear John. Kirk is robbed by the girl he's dating and gives the police an exaggerated description of a very tough guy. The sketch artist then congratulates him on being the first person on the block to be beaten up by Arnold Schwarzenegger.
  • In the Doctor Who serial The Mind Robber, the Second Doctor's companion Jamie is turned into a faceless cardboard figure. In order to restore him the Doctor must reassemble his face from photographic segments, but he picks the wrong ones and Jamie is revived with a different face. This was actually a clever device to replace Jamie with another actor because actor Frazer Hines was off sick, and it works perfectly in the context of the story's Mind Screw plot. In the next episode the same thing happens, and of course this time the Doctor gets it right, restoring Jamie's original appearance.
  • One episode of The Goodies has two identikit pictures of suspects for some crime who resemble some high-up members of the Royal Family.
  • In the Lemon Wacky Hello episode of Just Shoot Me!, Nina gets robbed, and she asks Elliott to draw a sketch of the burglar. We don't get a chance to see it, but the cop points out that it should be easy to track down the guy. After all, how many eight-armed cowboys with beaks are there in New York?
  • Life On Mars: "We're looking for a man with huge cheeks and a 6-inch forehead!"
  • Mad TV. "He lookalike... a man."
  • Attempted to invoke on No Ordinary Family. Jim is a sketch artist, so when someone comes to describe the person they saw (him) to him, he tries to steer them in the wrong direction. They insist though on describing him accurately, except for giving Michael Chiklis long stringy hair.
  • One episode of The Office has Pam drawing a composite of a suspect who flashed Phyllis in the parking lot. When Dwight takes it upon himself to find the offender, Pam draws Dwight's face and adds a small mustache.
  • Played for laughs in the pilot for Psych, Shawn "reads" the victim's hot sister to describe the "perp" to a composite artist. Of course it looks like her boyfriend in a picture of them skiing.
  • A Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live featured an interview with the guy who did the sketch of the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, comparing the image with the eventual mug shot, and how the two look nothing alike. It then showed his sketches for the "Ten-Gallon Hat Bandit," and a criminal in a chef's hat, both with large hats and sunglasses, despite how neither criminal actually wore those items. The sketch artist notes he's not good with eyes or hair.
  • In Person of Interest "Baby Blue," after Finch kidnaps a baby, an AMBER Alert is sent out with a sketch of Finch. It's a pretty bad caricature.
    Finch: It's no wonder they never catch anybody with these things.
  • An episode of Medium had a witness describe, instead of the suspect whom she was terrified of, the man on the cover of a magazine nearby. The resulting sketch is a pretty good likeness of Matt Damon.

    Video Games 
  • Tales Series
    • Lloyd Irving experiences this early in Tales of Symphonia when the Desians put a price on his head. When the party gets a price on them in Tethe'alla, the wanted poster of Lloyd is much more accurate.
    • Yuri Lowell also experiences this in Tales of Vesperia after The Empire goes after him, though he takes more offence at how low his bounty is.
    • Jude and Milla both get subjected to this in Tales of Xillia as a result of their actions in Rashugal, though it's an optional scene.
      • A variation shows up in Tales of Xillia 2, where Ivar draws and shows off wanted posters for Ludger and Julius to be used in case they decide to do anything foolish. He knows perfectly well what they look like, but they look as terrible as the previous examples.
  • In Indigo Prophecy, the player gets to try making a composite image of the protagonist. You're ostensibly supposed to try your best, but it can be more fun to add ridiculous mustaches and hairstyles.
  • In Hitman: Blood Money, the newspaper article after each mission will have a different composite image of Mr. 47 depending on what your notoriety level is at the time. At low notoriety, the image will be wildly different from 47's rather distinctive face. If 47 was a "Silent Assassin" during the mission (and therefore was not placed at the scene at all), the picture is one of the recently deceased target.
  • In BlazBlue's story modes, the wanted poster of Ragna The Bloodedge is drawn with such absurd levels of Gonk that Taokaka insists "Good Guy" (Ragna) can't possibly be the same person as "Rawgrna" (Ragna's poster).
  • Baten Kaitos Origins has the Power Trio find wanted posters of themselves in Sudal Suud. Perverse Puppet Golem Guillo is drawn with a beak and claimed to be a man in a mask (despite Guillo's female physical features being more prominent than Guillo's male ones). Milly wears way too much makeup and is reported as a kleptomaniac. Sagi appears to be much older than he is, and it says he's a marriage con.
  • Super Mario Sunshine gives us a wanted poster showing "Shadow Mario". This is enough to condemn Mario to clean all of Isle Delfino, despite the fact that the real Mario had only been on the airstrip for literally two minutes.
  • In Bioshock Infinite, after Booker gets the entire city after him, you hear a PA announcement describe the six-foot-plus, brown-haired, green-eyed, Caucasian and thoroughly American protagonist as "either a Mulatto dwarf or a Frenchman with a missing left eye, no more than four foot five inchesnote ". Since Columbia is so violently xenophobic, it makes sense they'd rather peg a minority than an American. Later, you find a woman describing Booker to a sketch artist, and the picture looks like Sander Cohen.
  • A variation happens in Disgaea Dimension 2. Laharl demands statues be made of him and at first they look fine. But then the camera swings around to show the face, which has very strange bug-eyed expression.

    Web Animation 
  • Sort of used in the Homestar Runner toon, "Strong Bad is in Jail Cartoon," where Bubs draws a sketch of The King of Town's description of Strong Bad, only for it to look nothing like him—in fact, it's a perfect match for someone Coach Z identifies as Biscuit Dough Hands Man, who, in later cartoons, is revealed to actually exist.
    • Of course, the KOT's description was "head like a big, round, red, mean egg and hands like biscuit dough"...

    Web Comics 

    Web Original 

    Western Animation 
  • South Park
    • An episode has a police sketch artist draw the boys in a very realistic manner, completely different from the animation style of the show itself. Kyle's mom says the sketches are a bit off.
  • Family Guy
    • Subverted and played straight when a news report releases an accurate sketch of a suspected serial killer, and then shows a sketch of a suspected accomplice, "believed to be his wife". This composite is also accurate — but since the killer's wife is imaginary, the screen is blank.
    • Another episode had Peter and Lois on the lam, described as "a fat man inexplicably married to an attractive redhead"; the police sketch of them is Fred and Wilma Flintstone.
    • Peter once lost a job as a police sketch artist for drawing racist caricatures (a crude smilie face with buck teeth, slanted eyes, and a conical hat). Subverted moments later when Chris is mugged by a man who looks identical to Peter's sketch.
  • Similar to one of the Family Guy examples above, an episode of American Dad! had a police sketch depict Hayley and Jeff as Velma and Shaggy.
  • In the Sponge Bob Square Pants episode "Hall Monitor", the police show Patrick a sketch of the Open Window Maniac, which is clearly a stick figure of SpongeBob. Patrick screams in horror every time the picture is shown.
  • The Simpsons has played with this one quite a few times.
    • Once Bart was making it up (because there wasn't really a perp) but it ended up looking just like Groundskeeper Willie.
    • Another sketch was shown on TV of the roving graffiti artist "El Barto" which looked like a mean, teenage version of Bart. Homer's response: "Boy, I hope I never meet him in a back alley," completely oblivious to the fact that it's his son.
    • In the episode Homer's mother first appears in, there's a scene where FBI agents were asking a cabbie about her using an old photo. When the cabbie couldn't recognize her, the agents showed him their computer telling him she would look 25 years older. The cabbie immediately remembers her, even though instead of an photo, sketch, or rendering, however, it was just a big number 25 on the computer screen.
    • In The Movie, Bart scribbles over a wanted poster in a convenience store with fake mustaches, eye patches, etc. in order to disguise his family being on the poster. As they escape, the owner of the store points out the offending family... which looks exactly like the marked-up sketch, complete with an eyepatch-wearing Maggie. In the DVD commentary, Matt Groening comments that he wants to do an episode about that family.
    • How about the time Bart went missing and they came up with a picture of... Dennis the Menace.
  • A Wanted Poster of Toph appears in the Avatar: The Last Airbender episode "The Runaway". Being blind, Toph couldn't actually see the picture, but was pleased when Sokka said it wasn't a bad one (though it was far more cartoonish that it really should be). Also averted when the Gaang had enough sense not to use the pictures of Appa drawn by Sokka, which earned only Toph's praise.
  • An episode of British Dennis the Menace has Dennis and Gnasher's pictures appear on the news and they have their faces swapped over (the newsreader also notes that anyone who recognised them from those pictures would need their eyes testing).
  • Composite sketches of Beavis And Butthead showed up in a couple episodes. Naturally, they're too dense to realize it's them and nobody else seems to catch on either.
  • Freakazoid!
    • It is taken to extremes when Cosgrove drew stick figures for a composite sketch. This resulted in Scotland Yard arresting the Bic mascots.
    • Then there was America's Most Hated, which provided a composite sketch of Freakazoid disguised as a Shetland pony.
  • A close variant in Wakfu episode 24. The sketch of Nox's two common minions (a Grouilleux and a Noxine) done by Renate is rather poorly drawn (and unfortunately using blue, despite insistence that the creatures were black). This results in the Crâ border guards, to which the poster was distributed to, to attack Yugo and Adamaï when they show up.
  • In an episode of What's New, Scooby-Doo? the gang found themselves fugitives in Japan and their police sketches were drawn in an anime style.

    Real Life 
  • In Real Life, police are now using software that builds a composite of seemingly unrelated faces (unrelated except for certain features, like lips or the eyes) to build a more accurate face. The technology (FaceGen) had been developed for law enforcement and then leased for various 3D design applications, and then to Bethesda for The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. The software is also capable of the inversion; taking a real photographic portrait and matching points of facial features to a head model to reproduce the face in 3D. This feature generates composite failures much more often than not.
  • In a related trope, the facial composite will sometimes turn out to look like someone who obviously didn't do it, like a celebrity. This is Truth in Television; when a person is trying to recall an unfamiliar face, they will often use a face that they are familiar with as a guide, along the lines of "He resembled {insert celebrity here}." This means that the more they think about the face the actually saw, the more their memory of it begins to resemble the celebrity's that they used as a reference.
  • During the hunt for an armed robber turned multiple murderer nicknamed The Black Panthernote , the wanted posters issued were so different that many people seeing them all displayed together assumed the police were looking for a gang.
  • This Bolivian Police sketch for a murderer was broadcasted under total seriousness. Funny.
  • Also, The Japanese police are using Miis to composite images of wanted criminals now.
  • There's an infamous police sketch of a man in a baseball cap and large sunglasses, with the bottom of his face hidden with a bandanna. What was that drawing supposed to accomplish?
  • An even more bizarre example occurred in Thailand, where a police sketch was made of a man wearing a motorcycle helmet.
  • According to Dave Chappelle, the police sketch artists "keep drawing the same brother over and over again" to the point of simply using stencils whenever the suspect is black.
    • Which might explain this image where the composite sketch strongly resembles the newscaster.
  • This British photofit. It's apparently meant to show a man with wavy blonde/greying hair, but looks more like he has a lettuce on his head.
  • This trope is why many police departments are leaning away from composite artists. The utility is bad with hand-drawn and even worse with computer-generated pictures.


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