The Avon and Somerset Constabulary in Great Britain uses animations created with the open source tool Blender to help citizens understand how to protect their vehicles and possessions from theft.
Ian Ball, the constabulary's senior Internet and Multimedia Unit expert, picked up Blender on a whim about three years ago. "I was interested in learning 3-D and animation," Ball says, "but I didn't want to pay for Maya or anything else. I took a look at Blender, did the 'model a castle' tutorial, and was seriously impressed." Ball says he found Blender's interface "strange" and difficult to use at first, but as he became more familiar with the program things got easier. He went on to create "Car Thief Keith," and most recently, "Tent Thief Tony."
The Internet and Multimedia Unit serves the police force by maintaining the Web site and network, and it also creates all the advertising promotions. Ball's superiors asked him to come up with an interesting way to educate citizens about automobile break-ins and theft, a problem in Bristol, Bath, Somerset, and South Gloucestershire, all in the Avon and Somerset Constabulary's jurisdiction. "The predominate age of car crime victims is 18-27 years old," Ball says. "This group makes up 31% of victims. Someone suggested we get Aardman Animations to do something." Ball offered to create some animation, but says his coworkers didn't take him serious. "So I set out to prove a point."
Armed with Blender, Ball started working on a story idea. "I came up with a short animation called 'Shaun the Smackhead,' where the character breaks into a car to feed his drug habit, and gets blown away with an atomic plasma cannon. I kept the animation low poly and basic so I could speed the whole project up." The term low poly refers to a 3-D animation that is made from fewer polygons. Polygons (multisided shapes that are the basic elements of computer illustrations) add detail and quality to an animation, but also increase loading and rendering times.
When Ball presented his first animation to his coworkers, they were "impressed, and decided to use it in the hope that people would watch it and get the crime prevention advice." Ball changed the character's name to Keith, took away the reference to a heroin addict ("who are themselves victims"), and produced two more animations starring Keith. In each video, Keith meets his end in a unique way with a different fantastical weapon. "One of the biggest problems was to get Keith to shatter in the Ice Blaster episode," Ball says. "The version of Blender I had didn't support this, but I found one on Graphicall that did. I bow down to the coders of that one."
In addition to posting the videos in their own special section on the Web site, Ball put the animations up on YouTube and Google. Car Thief Keith also garnered some attention from the local press. "They have been given quite a lot of coverage, as this is something I don't think any other police force has done," Ball says. "Hopefully people enjoy them and they get the message about not leaving valuables on display in their car."
As a followup, Ball also created an animation starring "Tent Thief Tony" as a way of educating citizens who will attend the Glastonbury Festival this weekend. At the Glastonbury Festival, attendees often bring tents and camp out for the weekend. When they leave their tents to attend concerts or other events, thieves take advantage of the opportunity to invade them and steal valuables.
Using Blender is Ball's first experience with open source software, but he hopes it won't be the last. He says that he always looks for open source alternatives now. He uses OpenOffice.org at home, and he's looking at Jahshaka as a possible editing application for his work with digital video. Ball says the biggest boon to using open source is that powerful applications like Blender are free. "[It's] a big, complicated program and I probably only use about 40% of it. Its potential is massive."
Ball says the response from his superiors is positive. "They want me to do more." The reaction from the public has been less encouraging. "Not so good," he says. "Some think the animation is poor and it makes them cringe. Others feel I have a good grasp of Blender and have done a good job with limited resources. If you compare Keith with Tony, I think you can see areas where I have improved.
"For me, it's all about doing projects to learn. I would say to newcomers that you shouldn't be put off. If you want to learn something, stick at it and you will. I never thought I'd be able to do 3-D animations, but after a year of messing about I've picked up enough knowledge to make a start."