The Force is With You: fighting crime in virtual villages to make a difference in reality.

Prato CIRN-DIAC Community Informatics Conference 2010: Non-Refereed Paper Steve Thompson
Institute of Digital Innovation, Teesside University, UK

Speaking to the theme of the CIRN – DIAC conference 2010, “Vision and Reality in Community Informatics”, I have a rich vein of experiences to draw upon. Working with diverse communities every day contains the unexpected, a veritable adventure! One day the Mayor of Loftus, Cllr Barry Hunt asked me to meet with the Crime and Justice Coordinator at Cleveland Police HQ. The Home Office, in an endeavor to combat crime and disorder and to try to build closer bonds with Police and Community had put the coordinator in post for one of a handful of pilot projects across the country. The purpose of our meeting was to explore ways of using Community Media to help fight anti social behavior. We talked about various ideas and then it became clear that what these people really wanted was another Second Life movie. (Like the one produced the year previously) We were meeting in December 2009 and an ideal screening opportunity was coming up for February 11th 2010. I declared, “there’s one problem, we should have started production six months ago”. Everyone just said, “Let’s do it anyway”. Little did I know the twists and turns that this project was going to take, how Skinningrove Village scenes would be shot in Vienna and then when we launched the film we actually made it onto National TV in Latvia. There was even another unexpected outcome on the evening of the screening when the previous years issue was put right back onto the agenda. The links forged between Police and Community using this device continues as I write. In my presentation I propose to explain how this film was made and how the project developed and of course to show the film. In my paper I will explain the difficulties in presenting a serious issue through the medium of virtual animation, the tensions between the importance of the message and the need to put it across in an entertaining way. And finally how despite the tight schedules and difficulties the project came in on time and had quite an impact.

An application for funds was made to Northern Film and Media and the UK Film Councils, “Social Impact Fund” in order to run the event and this was successful. Meanwhile we started to develop the script and scout for suitable filming locations in Second Life. This part of the project and the community workshops was funded by The East Cleveland Community Development Group (Big Lottery Fund) and The Institute of Digital Innovation (ERDF). It had been decided upon during community meetings to name the film; “The Force is With You” and to adopt a Star Wars theme, but to avoid possible copyright issues the villain was cast as “Arthur Vador”. The developing script was a slight concern. I said to our partners, “this is a good and serious message but we have to also entertain, where are the gags”? Unless the message could be presented in an entertaining way we might struggle to fill the theatre. Luckily the police, with only minor alterations approved the script and the project was ready to go into production. Police officers including Inspector Charlie Bell voiced their own characters and pupils at Whitecliffe Primary School provided the voice characterisations of the children in the film. Naturally Cllr Tommy Evans and Cllr Barry Hunt played themselves as they have done in earlier projects.

Second Life
The act of making a film within Second Life contains many of the elements of full-scale traditional film production including set building, scripting, blocking, directing, acting and obviously post production and editing. The making of films in virtual worlds and games engines is commonly known as “Machinima”. Several suitable locations in Second Life were found and the owners of each one were sought out and permission to film requested. This is not strictly speaking necessary but it’s a good policy and we got some additional assistance from some Sim owners including members of a school Sim performing as “extras”. Some of the props used in the film were purchased with the funds from Northern Film & Media. There are many places to buy objects in Second Life and these are relatively inexpensive with 265 Linden Dollars equating to $1 (USD). Although anyone can build anything in Second Life there was nobody on this project capable of building a fully functional “Tardis” (Time Machine) and so one was purchased relatively inexpensively. One set had to be specially built and this was Skinningrove Village Square. This was built on a sky platform high above Teesside University’s “Teeslife” Island with some excellent help from the Institute of Digital Innovation’s DLab. Community workshops were held to produce the scenes and all but one scene was in the can by Christmas 2009. There are several hilarious out-takes that may one day see the light of day.

Voice Characters
In January 2010 Cllr Barry Hunt and I attended a Grundtvig workshop on Video Bridging in Vienna. With a screening approaching in early February I was obliged to edit many scenes in my hotel room whilst at the 2-week workshop. We kidnapped some other delegates of the workshop who “voiced” one of the scenes from the film. Trouper 1 was played by Markus Petz from Finland, Trouper 2 by Thomaz Chepaitis the Minister of foreign affairs of Uzhupis Republic (Lithuania) Also present during this session was Laura Pakalne, Senior Officer in the Public Relations Department in the Ministry of Justice, Latvia who was most interested in working with the British police and the movie production team on more collaborative projects.

The Event
Markus Petz delayed his return to Finland to travel to Saltburn to assist with a hook-up with Latvia during the event. The community animation event, Animex Fringe in Saltburn on Thursday 11th Feb 2010 was a tremendous success. The Mayor of Redcar and Cleveland Cllr Brian Briggs launched the evening event preceded by a Mayors Reception for cast and crew from the film. During the matinee and the evening performance, last years Mayor, Cllr Mike Findley gave a presentation explaining how he had launched the Skinningrove Jetty film, and then gone on to appear in a Second Life Movie himself, “Supermayor”. During his presentation he took the opportunity to place back on the agenda the need for support to redevelop the Skinningrove Jetty, an issue he continues to support to this day. The matinee was a full house with children from Whitecliffe Primary and Saltburn Primary attending. The event included animations produced by the children of Whitecliffe Primary on the subject of Rain Forests and sustainability. With help from Markus Petz we hooked up with children and police in Latvia during the matinee. There were around 100 people for the evening event which we also “Blogcast” for the enjoyment of people around the world. As well as the hook-up with Latvia, people in Greece, Lithuania, Poland, Turkey, Sweden, Finland and elsewhere in the UK also followed the event. We even made it onto Latvian National TV!

Naturally, the big event was the premier of “The Force is With You. It was extremely well received by the audience as well as the police for whom it was a first screening too. They had placed their reputations in our hands and were well pleased with the outcome with Inspector Charlie Bell particularly pleased with the dashing matinee idol hero he had become on film.

Technical Notes
We used largely free resources for all production processes but the use of second life demands fairly high spec hardware. Moreover film making in Second Life is very demanding of the hardware particularly on the machine(s) shooting the footage. All the Second Life Avatar accounts used for characters in the film had free Second Life accounts. There are many similarities between shooting a Second Life film and a Hollywood production. The differences are the lack of need for a Hollywood budget and some limitations of realistic movement of Second Life avatars (although SL avatars can fly!) Some of the limitations can be reduced by “animation overrides”, scripts written in Linden Scripting language that override the default animations built into avatars. These scripts can also be purchased. One such script produces a more realistic walk (male and female) than the default “duck walk” of Second Life avatars and another produces useful facial expressions. There are scripts to produce all kinds of avatar animations some of them quite exotic and we used one to have the police character arrest the villain although it was not 100% effective. We simply used different camera angles and editing to compensate for this. Other limitations are the participants themselves. Undoubtedly there must be many fine exponents of Machinima but our project had community volunteers, many of whom had very little experience of Second Life or in some cases computers in general. For instance Tommy Evans and Barry Hunt could quite instinctively maneuver their virtual characters around the set but often had difficulty taking corners and keeping their characters in synch so we simply shot these scenes in two takes and cut them together in the edit. There was one quite complex scene where the camera zooms in on a space station to a window where Inspector Charlie Bell is looking contemplatively out to outer space. A space shuttle leaves a hangar and flies across the screen and as we zoom in we see Head Teacher of Whitecliffe Primary enter the room to speak to the inspector (see diagram below). Imagine the difficulty of shooting such a complex scene when the Head Teacher is played by a local poet and the space shuttle is flown by a parish councilor!

In order to capture the action on screen a piece of free software called CamStudio was used (Windows PC only). This is traditionally software for making tutorial videos and other software is also available to do this job.

Although it is possible to have voice communication in Second Life and even some degree of lip-synch, another method was chosen for the dialogue parts. The process used was to first record the dialogue using a hand held recorder (M-Audio). The audio was edited using the free open source software, Audacity. Then still image captures were made of close up shots of the characters and imported into Crazy Talk. Crazy Talk is inexpensive lip synch software. At it’s most basic, 4 “hit points” are selected: the eyes and the corners of the mouth, the audio track is imported and the software causes the lips and eyes to move in synch with the speech. Avatars were edited to resemble the real life characters they represented. This is by no means an exact science and is more akin to caricature with key physical features being emphasised. This may mean nothing to an international audience but when shown locally where the characters are clearly identifiable it is quite engaging.

Most sets were found already in existence but the Skinningrove Village square had to be purpose build. However this is typical of all movie sets and the buildings are merely 3D facades i.e. the doors and windows do not work and the buildings cannot be entered. Anything out of camera shot was ignored and there is a street of houses that are merely peripheral and so Middlesbrough buildings were used which is not Skinningrove at all.

Crowd scenes were shot by simply inviting “friends” online to also invite their own friends online. In this case the difficulty of directing increases exponentially. In a situation where some of the virtual “puppeteers” are in the room with the director and others are being communicated with online it is those that are in close proximity that are easiest to direct. As well as the dialogue sounds being added, ambient sounds were added to most scenes to make them “feel” right. In the Skinningrove Village Square scenes, sounds from that actual location provide the ambience but mixed in with that is a recording from a town square in

Vienna. Because of the nature of the film it was felt that a dramatic orchestral sound track was called for. This was produced using a simple and free online tool called Aviary. Finally the project was edited in Windows Movie Maker. This is not ideal and WMM was sometimes operating at the very limits of it’s capabilities and some workarounds had to be used to do things commonplace in more sophisticated software. However WMM is simple and useful in community settings as it is free with the Windows operating system (beyond XP)

Conclusions and Further Developments
It’s clear that this approach with a mixture of fun with a serious purpose has the ability to engage people from many different walks of life including decision makers and authority figures. People seem drawn to the fact that although the outcome is an important message, the bizarre act of flying a spaceship or arriving in a time machine to make an arrest makes things interesting and engaging. The police loved the idea that Constables Mark Ballinger and Mark Lightfoot became “Mark i” and “Mark ii” and that a “Galaxy far away” was Loftus Police Station. At the event Inspector Charlie Bell enquired “what next”? Producing more films would be quite an undertaking but the project had clearly opened up a dialogue and understanding between the police and community and the resulting film sent out a positive message about the public and police attitude towards anti social behavior. One thing that has come out of the project is the possibility of developing community media hubs to help establish a dialogue between citizens and decision makers. An approach was made by “Safer In Tees Valley” seeking to set up a project, which could further develop good relationships between Police and Community. Safe in Tees Valley is an independent community safety partnership and registered charity promoting coordinated approaches to tackling crime and anti-social behaviour. SITV have already done some exploratory work encouraging a community group in a deprived/high crime estate to articulate their concerns using the social media. The proposed Community Media Hub would encourage community reporting on local issues and establish a two-way dialogue to promote more community engagement and contribute to better outcomes for neighbourhood policing and neighbourhood management. If we are to develop such community media hubs it would be advisable to do some initial research on just one pilot before considering a roll out across Teesside with several community media hubs. The question we need to ask is “Can community and social media be used to create a greater understanding between citizens, neighbourhood managers and police, what are the most appropriate technologies and techniques and what are the possible pitfalls of this approach” Finally, an unexpected outcome has come about as a result of discussions with both the local ironstone mine and the community history group. The discussions were about heritage and history. At the end of “The Force is With You” the Police arrive in a Tardis (Police Box Time Machine) to arrest the villain Arthur Vador. However they depart in a space ship. Clearly a mistake was made in film making continuity!. However this means there is a Time Machine in the village square and our two local heroes enter it and inadvertently start it up. They therefore travel back in time and experience stories from the rich heritage of the area. The resulting story line will soon go into production as another Second Life Film ……..

“Tommy and Barry Go Back”!

The Force is With You: Workshop participants in Vienna play voice characters: Second Life: Film Making in Second Life: Blogcast, the event in the order it happened: Grundtvig Video Bridge Workshops: Machinima: Teesslife (SLURL) Movie Set on Teeslife (SLURL) Skinningrove Set (SLURL) Dlab: IDI: Supermayor: Skinningrove Welcome To The Future: CamStudio: Audio Recorder: Audacity: Safe in Tees Valley: