All Tech Considered
5:17 pm
Mon January 27, 2014

For Taiwanese News Animators, Funny Videos Are Serious Work

Originally published on Wed January 29, 2014 1:17 pm

The team behind the bizarre, over-the-top Taiwanese news animations put itself on the cultural map when it animated Tiger Woods' 2009 car crash, a clip that got 3 million YouTube views in the first weekend it came out. Since then, Taipei-based Next Media Animation has grown into a news animation studio on steroids, producing 50 to 60 original, animated 3-D news re-enactments every 24 hours. Today, the company's videos average about 40 million YouTube views a month.

"I think we have the know-how which basically we developed in the last seven years. I consider that our trade secret," says Next Media Animation's CEO, Kith Ng.

Animation is painstaking, time-consuming work. When it first started seven years ago, the animation staff here produced one story a day. But after years of trial and error, Next Media, which now employs 200 animators, perfected its pipeline to the fastest it's ever been — going from story conception to a finished product in less than 2 1/2 hours.

The Production Pipeline

Teams responsible for different parts of the process work together on a people-powered animation production line that runs day and night. It starts with the writers, who turn the day's most interesting headlines into scripts. Content chiefs lay out storyboards that get scrutinized during an hourly meeting, and graphics teams ready the backgrounds or images they might need from the growing archive of 80,000 ready-made assets.

But making the scenes seem real requires capturing human movement. Motion-capture actors wait around, in full body leotards with sensors on them, for a director to call them to act out a scene.

In the motion-capture studio, 40 cameras positioned all around the room roll on the action, so the movement can be rendered into animations. Animators then go to work, rushing to turn around their creations. The music team then scores each story, a voice-over artist reads the final script and video editors put all the elements together. The whole process takes no longer than two hours per story.

"It's very important how fast you can deliver the content to the audience. Because people expect real-time information," Ng says.

Sometimes Real Life Is Better

Next Media's latest globally viral hits animated Rob Ford, Toronto's crack smoking, loose-lipped mayor. But his story was so absurd that it didn't require much embellishment.

"We just had to animate what was happening because it was crazy enough anyway," says Richard Hazeldine, one of the team's lead writers. "Some of the stories, that's the way it goes. It's so crazy you don't really have to change anything or put any jokes in."

The Next Media team thinks of its funnier pieces as modern-day political cartoons. They aren't meant to be taken literally. But for all the attention on the zanier work, "the funnies," as the team calls them, make up less than half of each day's animations.

"The funny and crazy video is just a door for people to enter our world," says Ng. "We're always serious. We always serious."

'Always Serious'

The serious side of their business is growing. Next Media's paying partners now include the global news wire Reuters and Japan's Kyodo News wire. Digital outlets Yahoo News, MSN and the Spanish-language network Univision are clients. Those outlets use animation to help illustrate news events like plane crashes or oil spills.

The earlier sensational stuff has led to rejections of TV licenses in Taipei and serious fines for obscene and violent content. And when it first became big, the company caught criticism from media traditionalists.

"If this is the future of tabloid journalism then I don't want any part of it," American media critic Howard Kurtz said on CNN in 2010. "If this creeps into what I would call more serious journalism, then people are just gonna lose confidence in us."

Nowadays, it's not so black and white.

"I do personally think that the viewer has a pretty good capacity to figure out when something is supposed to be entertaining them as much as it is informing them," says Caroline O'Donovan, who covers future of journalism topics for Harvard's Nieman Journalism Lab.

She says there's value in animation — both editorially and financially.

"News outlets have the opportunity to make a lot more money the more video content they have. That's where all the ad dollars are. And animating is a really compelling way to be able to get all those dollars for your outlet without having to necessarily be on the scene," O'Donovan says.

Next Media is funded by Hong Kong-based media tycoon Jimmy Lai, who continues to support its growth. The drive now is to make more realistic animations and turn them around even faster.

"Hopefully in the future, we can deliver animated news story in real time. In real time. Not two hours or three hours," Ng says.

Of course, as Rob Ford's story reminds us, real life can be a lot crazier than even a real-time animation.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

I'm Robert Siegel. And it's time now for ALL TECH CONSIDERED.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: NPR's tech team is covering the intersection of technology and entertainment this week. And we begin with a trip to Taipei. When Tiger Woods crashed his car a few years back, video cameras didn't catch the action, so the Taipei-based Next Media Animation animated it.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS ANIMATION)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

SIEGEL: That's a clip from a Taiwanese news animation, an over-the-top 3-D re-enactment. The video went instantly viral, putting these cartoonish clips on the cultural map. Today, the company that makes these videos gets 40 million YouTube views a month. It's not just online silliness, it's also serious business.

NPR's Elise Hu takes us inside its Taipei headquarters.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: At 15 minutes past the hour, all 24 hours of the day, teams of animators, editors and directors cram into a meeting room to talk out the latest news story Next Media Animation is creating from scratch.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

HU: Animation is painstaking, time-consuming work. When they first started seven years ago, the 200-person animation staff here produced one story a day. But after years of trial and error, Next Media perfected its pipeline to become an animation studio on steroids. CEO Kith Ng says the company now makes 50 animated news stories every 24 hours.

KITH NG: I think we have the know-how, which basically we developed in the last seven years. I consider that our trade secret.

HU: Teams responsible for different parts of the process work together on their people-powered animation production line that runs day and night. It starts with the writers.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: We should do Sir Mix-a-Lot.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Sir Mix-a-Lot?

HU: They turn the day's most interesting headlines into scripts. Directors lay out storyboards that get scrutinized during the hourly meetings, but making the scenes seem real requires capturing human movement. Today's news calls for a cop writing a ticket.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: (Foreign language spoken)

HU: Motion capture actors who wait around in skin-tight, full-body leotards with sensors on them that look like little marbles get called on to act out scenes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: (Foreign language spoken)

HU: This actor gets some instructions before the 40 cameras positioned all around the room start rolling. The director counts him down during the sequence.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: And cut.

HU: Animators then go to work, rushing to turn around their creations. The music team then scores each story...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HU: ...a voiceover artist reads the final script...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

HU: And video editors put all the elements together. The whole process takes about two hours per story. Kith Ng.

NG: It's very important how fast you can deliver the content to the audience because people expect real-time information.

HU: Next Media's latest globally viral hits: Animated Rob Ford, Toronto's crack-smoking, loose-lipped mayor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANIMATION)

MAYOR ROB FORD: I smoke some crack some time. What can I say?

HU: The animations of Ford showed the mayor meeting with his dealer, Canadian cops taking video of him in a crack house and a rambling news conference where he denied having sex with an aide, which is all basically what happened.

RICHARD HAZELDINE: We just had to animate what was happening because it was crazy enough anyway.

HU: Richard Hazeldine is one of the lead writers.

HAZELDINE: Some of the stories, that's the way it goes. It's so crazy that you don't really have to change anything or put any jokes in.

HU: The Next Media team thinks of its funnier pieces as modern day political cartoons. They aren't meant to be taken literally. But for all the attention on the zanier work, the funnies, as the team calls them, make up less than half of each day's animations. CEO Kith Ng.

NG: The funny and crazy video is just a door for people to enter our world. We're always serious.

(LAUGHTER)

NG: We're always serious.

HU: Serious because Next Media's paying partners now include the global news wire Reuters, digital outlet Yahoo News and the Spanish-language network Univision. They use animation to help illustrate news events like plane crashes or oil spills.

NG: Serious news story is what we keep trying to do.

HU: The earlier sensational stuff has led to rejections of TV licenses in Taipei and serious fines for obscene and violent content. And when it first became big, the company caught criticism from media traditionalists.

HOWARD KURTZ: If this is the future of tabloid journalism, then I don't want any part of it.

HU: That was American media critic Howard Kurtz on CNN in 2010.

KURTZ: If this creeps into what I would call more serious journalism, then we - people are just going to lose confidence in us.

HU: Caroline O'Donovan covers future of journalism topics for Harvard's Nieman Journalism Lab.

CAROLINE O'DONOVAN: I do sort of personally think that the viewer has a pretty good capacity to figure out when something is supposed to be entertaining them as much as it is informing them.

HU: She says there's value in animation, both editorially and financially.

O'DONOVAN: News outlets have the opportunity to make a lot more money the more video content they have. That's where all the ad dollars are. And animating is a really compelling way to be able to get some of those dollars for your outlet without having to necessarily be on the scene.

HU: Next Media is funded by a Chinese media tycoon, who continues to support its growth. The drive now is to make more realistic animations and turn them around even faster. Kith Ng.

NG: Hopefully in the future, we can deliver animated news story in real time. In real time, not two hours or three hours.

HU: Of course, as Rob Ford's story reminds us, real life can be way crazier than even a real-time animation.

(LAUGHTER)

HU: Elise Hu, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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