In TV, the sketch artists who work for the FBI or the police, even if they just work at a minor metropolitan precinct, are talented almost to the point of clairvoyance. They could be taking a description from a drug-addled hobo who saw the suspect for about four seconds from a hundred yards away, and the resulting picture will be so accurate that you'd think the suspect posed for it. In real life, of course, police sketches are somewhat less precise. Also falling under this trope are the experts who perfectly reconstruct someone's face off of four square inches of decaying skull, and computer aging. (In the real world, though, the latter has on occasion proven freakily accurate, making it at least sometimes a case of Truth in Television.) Contrast with Facial Composite Failure.
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Anime and Manga
- Subverted in recent One Piece stories. Crew members who don't have bounties get bounties and wanted posters. The government got photos for most of them, but couldn't get a photo for Sanji and had to use an artist's impression, and thus the picture on the poster looks nothing like him. The Double Subversion comes in when a completely unrelated character was revealed to coincidentally have the same face.
- Averted in a scene in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood which briefly shows wanted posters of Yoki, Scar, and Greed. Yoki's is a very close image, which isn't too surprising, given that he was a former state official. However, Greed's is noticeably less accurate, potentially the result of difficulty sketching features like Hellish Pupils and razor-sharp teeth, which aren't normally found on people.
- Parodied during the end of the movie Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. The eponymous Harold and Kumar (who are Korean and Indian, respectively) have committed various crimes in their epic journey to White Castle. During the ending credits of the movie, a news report informs us "Police sketch artists believe the perpetrators to look like this", followed by a picture of two completely, offensively overly-stereotyped Arab and Chinese characters who look nothing like them. Harold and Kumar can be heard laughing at the gross misinterpretation.
- The "funky description" schtick was also done in Johnny English, where the aforementioned spy makes up an "aggressor" to cover his accidentally knocking out of a security chief. The "aggressor" looks like Ronald McDonald's Evil Twin, yet a matching person appears in the final scene, reading a newspaper.
- In the film Diabolik, Valmont has one of his girls describe Eva so that one of his goons can use a device to create a picture of her. The effect is...interesting to say the least. Aside from the girl giving a very hard to follow description that no-one could possible draw a likeness from, the face on screen appears to change at whim. Why, one could even assume that the images we saw on the device were nothing more than pre-rendered animation, but that would just be silly.
- And as MST3K points out, one of the women on the screen briefly looks exactly like a female red-haired Hitler.
- In For Your Eyes Only, James Bond and Q use an "Identi-graph" computer to construct the face of someone Bond saw pay off a hitman. Despite some Rule of Funny moments, they were able to identify their suspect.
Bond: I said a nose, Q, not a banana.
- It's implied in Inheritance Cycle when Roran goes into a city (after he's become a wanted fugitive) and sees his picture, which is accurate with the exception of the beard. In the poster right next to his, Eragon himself is pictured, which Roran recognizes immediately.
- Averted in Literature/Incompetence. Harry's image is placed on Euronews and it looks more like Dr Zaius than it does Harry.
Live Action TV
- Played oh-so-straight on Castle: Nearly every episode has the cast picking out a suspect based on sketches that could only feasibly have been drawn if the subjects were posing for them.
- CSI had a particularly grating example: they had a picture of a freckle-faced young girl grinning a toothy, squinty grin. They took us through the early stages of artificially ageing her, starting to make her look like a freckle-faced grinning adult. Then later when we saw the final result it was a picture of an unsmiling, closed-mouthed, wide-eyed young woman, which couldn't possibly have been extrapolated from the earlier picture.
- They also once managed to put together a recognisable face out of a nine years decayed skeleton; bones provided a gender and possible ethnicity, dental estimated the age. Then some computer work and a tissue database put muscles and other features on the skull, the shapes suggested more ethnicity information leading to hair and eye colour, and Archie did the rest.
- NCIS: Like many tropes on NCIS, this is played straight and subverted depending on the writer and plot requirements. Once this is played for laughs when Palmer's attempt at describing his attacker ends with a super villian-esque result. Other times, this is played incredibly straight, like when McGee created a program that successfully de-aged a suspect about ten years. Still other times, this averted when they get a vague pencil sketch that could be anybody.
- On The Closer, on one occasion, Brenda brandishes accurate pictures of her detectives (who were identified being where they shouldn't be) to prove her point. On other occasion, she's seen grimacing over a ridiculously vague drawing. The strangest version came when her wacky, airbrained sister decided she would describe the killer from her "psychic vision." Incredibly, she successfully describes . . . Chief Pope. Who she'd never met.
- The "four inches of decaying skull" version happened in an episode of Bones.
- This is somewhat justified in Bones, because Angela was hired specifically for her artistic skill and ability to extrapolate faces from remains, and there are real specialists who have this ability.
- There have been at least a couple of cases where she hasn't been able to reconstruct a face because there wasn't enough skull left.
- And one notable instance where, upon being given just the skin (the team found only the skin of the victim, with the contents, including bones, having been removed) Angela was unable to recreate a face from it due to lacking the underlying architecture. This didn't stop Hodge and Zac from trying to inflate the skin-face like a balloon in an attempt to help her...
- Subverted in an episode of Dexter. The title character has just killed, in cold blood, a man who was about to commit murder; he is now stressed about a sketch being made from a description given by a young witness — the boy who was about to be killed. Dexter gets a glimpse of the image before it is completed; it seems to resemble him and throws him into a further anxious frenzy. However, at the end of the episode the full picture is revealed to be a sketch of Jesus; the traumatized and delirious boy conflated the two as his savior.
- A similar subversion happened in an episode of CSI: NY. Mac and Stella discover the boy who witnessed a murder has great artistic talent so they ask him to draw the killer. He ends up drawing a character from one of his comic books. His traumatic experience caused him to confuse the events in the comic with reality.
- Used, though possibly as parody, in the beginning of Farscape in which they peel back an image of a spaceship to reveal the pilot.
- Subverted in Dark Angel when Max is seen stealing medications from a pharmacy in Flushed. Police pictures of her quickly land her in jail—along with about a dozen other women that approximately fit her description. Eventually, they all are released.
- Subverted in Life On Mars: Based on a witness description, Ray produces a sketch that looks like a Monty Python's Flying Circus character.
- In one episode of RoboCop: The Series, Murphy sees a black guy who tries to kill him. Later, he takes a photo of his childhood friend, and computer-ages it exactly into the guy he saw, complete with beard and hat. He is, of course, exactly right.
- Subverted in an episode of Corner Gas: a police officer listens and sketches as a perpetrator is described, then holds up a page full of squiggles and asks if it looks like the thief.
- Quincy once reconstructed a picture of an entire person from a single fragment of a thigh bone, including hair and eye color (although, to give the show credit, Quincy admitted he was only guessing on the hair and eyes based on statistical averages).
- Subverted in an episode of Law & Order: SVU where a sketch artist is told to draw a man with big, dark shades and a hooded sweatshirt. Both Detective Munch and a lead commented that this looked exactly like the Unabomber.
- Parodied in Strangers with Candy, in the episode where Jerri hits Mr. Jellineck with her car. The police sketch artist is told the perpetrator was male, but nevertheless produces a very accurate sketch of Jerri, which, when he puts it down, reveals her sitting right in front of him. Nobody suspects a thing.
- Used to varying degrees in the game Hitman: Blood Money. If Agent 47 is not seen in a level, the end-of-level newspaper publishes a sketch that looks nothing like him. The more often he is caught, however, the more the sketch resembles his actual appearance.
- Similarly, your wanted poster in Zack & Wiki starts as a horrible sketch, but gets progressively better as your notoriety increases until they just use photographs.
- Double subversion in Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy: at one point, the player takes control of a witness creating composite sketch of Lucas Kane via a computer program. Later on, the player takes control of Lucas when the police show him the sketch asking him if they recognize the person on it. The only response that doesn't increase suspicion is marked "Joke" where he says "Hey, this looks like a lot of people I know! Heck, it could even be me!" to which the officer replies "Yes, I understand. These composites can be a little vague.". However, if the sketch matches Kane's picture 100%, it can be later used as conclusive evidence.
- Hilariously, the above is still the only non-suspicious response even if you deliberately make the sketch look nothing like Kane.
- Played with in DefJam: Fight For NY: the police sketch of the guy who rescued D-Mob from police custody is used as the character creation system. Naturally, once the sketch is done, the PC looks exactly like it.
- Cook, Serve, Delicious features a rare minigame based around this for when the player's restaurant gets robbed.
- Parodied by Homestar Runner in "Strong Bad Is In Jail Cartoon", where the King of Town tries to describe the person who stole his crown (Strong Bad) to Bubs. The picture ends up as one of some guy Coach Z calls "Biscuit Dough Hands Man", who looks nothing like Strong Bad.
- You Have Become Your Avatar: The police sketches in a news report accurately described Fox and Joshua when they were at the scene of the explosion. Fox criticized the sketches because they got Homura's clothes and eye color wrong. Fortunately, they changed their appearance to prevent the police from spotting them.
- An especially egregious version occurred in Kim Possible, though it didn't involve a human: a small, rice-grain size fragment (from a digital reconstruction of the crime scene) had the weapon, an exploding golf ball, extrapolated from it.
- Parodied on The Simpsons when Homer makes up details of an imaginary assailant, picking features that are bizarre and unlikely. The cops then manage to find someone who fits this imaginary description: Groundskeeper Willie.
- Parodied again on The Simpsons when they're looking for Homer's mom (a fugitive from the police) - they show someone an old picture of her, and the person isn't sure, and then they say "according to our computer aging program she should be... 25 years older!" with the only thing on the screen being a large number 25.
- Parodied as well in The Simpsons Movie similar to Wrongfully Accused when they are on their way to Alaska and see a wanted poster for themselves. While Marge frantically tries to keep the shopkeeper's attention away from the image, Bart adds weird features to the picture, immediately after which the shopkeeper cries out "Oh my God, there they are!" and a family looking exactly like Bart's modified version of the Simpsons walks in.
- A sketch posted of the main four boys of South Park was incredibly realistic (though for some reason Kenny looked vaguely Inuit).
- Played with in an episode of Quack Pack, when Donald Duck thrashes the living-room while playing with his nephews' VR-videogame, which he'd been admonishing them about earlier, he makes up a description for an assailant to cover for it. Similar to the Simpsons example, this turns out to perfectly match someone - a known criminal with an unbelieveably brutish appearance. Involved in numerous crimes, nobody had ever dared to bear witness against him - and he's then arrested based on Donald's bogus claims. Cue fame, fortune, and said criminal breaking out of jail to get revenge on Donald. Naturally, Hilarity Ensues...
- Played with in an episode of the animated Men In Black series: The "sketch" artist used the witness's face instead of a sketchpad to physically recreate the criminal's appearance.