Virtual News Finds Its Niche

Posted November 15th, 2010 at 1:08 pm (UTC-4)
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Kate Woodsome | Washington, D.C

When news breaks, most reporters focus on the facts captured on tape to bring the story alive.  But Taiwan’s Next Media Animation is taking a different approach to create compelling material.

Their team of writers, actors, artists and computer programmers create digital animations that depict — and embellish — the stories behind the headlines.

Golf superstar Tiger Woods became the group’s highest-profile target last year when an altercation with his wife, Elin Nordegren, led to global news coverage of a string of extra-marital affairs.  Next Media Animation used CGI technology to depict what happened between the couple behind closed doors.

The video became an instant hit on the Internet, spurring media mogul Jimmy Lai, the founder of Taiwan’s Apple Daily newspaper and Hong Kong’s Next Magazine, to expand his new enterprise.

After the jump, the group’s international content editor, Angelica Oung, talks to VOA about the ethics, the process and the future of animating the news.

How did the idea for animated news evolve?

When news happens, wherever it is in the world, quite often there isn’t a video camera nearby to capture it. So what happens is reporters such as yourself, they get on the scene afterward. They gather the information. They ask eyewitnesses what happened. But you never have the footage. What animation does is we can’t be clairvoyant. We can’t know for sure what exactly went on. But we can take all the information we do have from reporters and turn that into a very concise animation.

Some of your animation tackles very mature, serious subjects like sexual indiscretions and domestic abuse. I’m thinking of a video that portrays Manchester United soccer player Wayne Rooney having sex with prostitutes and a grandmother.  How do you draw the line between salacious fantasy and serious journalism?

Well, for us, it’s pretty easy, actually. For any news outlet, not just us, for instance, a regular newspaper, they will have an editorial side and a news side. And the difference between an editorial cartoon, which is very exaggerated and has all sorts of fantasy even though it’s funniest when it has this grain of truth in the middle. And then you have the news side. And those two sides don’t really mix that much. If you go to our YouTube account and look around at our videos, you see that the serious news tend to be the ones where we actually back the animation up also with pictures and other materials. And the ones that are more satire, they’re like 70 editorial cartoons jammed into a minute-and-a-half.

News satire is a nice way to brand one of your more recent videos. It’s mocking a U.S. political campaign ad that plays up fears about China ruling the world. And it involves a talking panda. What makes this good fodder for your animation?

Well, I think we come from a third perspective. We’re based in Taiwan, and when we saw this video, it’s very obvious that it’s from a U.S. point of view. There’s a fear of China taking over the outside. And here in Taiwan, we’re not on one side or the other. We are an equal opportunity mocker. And I think that worked out well for us in that case because in that ad, we’re able to take on both sides and be fun.

Folks in my office loved watching it, so something’s working. What is your growth strategy?

The future is limitless for animation. We’re starting from a place where it’s still very controversial, but I think in the future, both the growth of technology and the trend of media consumption habits point toward a bigger and bigger market. So you should be looking out for our animation popping up in places that you might not expect.

Media mogul Jimmy Lai may be the brainchild behind this, but it seems like you must have an army of really funny, really creative writers and animators. Tell me about them.

Definitely it takes a team to churn out a product this quickly. We have more than 200 people working here. You’ve got, obviously, the people who process the script like me. And then you have the people who draw the storyboards. The people who do the motion capture. The people who modify the appropriate models to be used. The actual animators. And then there’s sound and editing. Everything is broken down so that it can be processed very efficiently.

A lot has changed. I remember the first animation that went viral globally was a reenactment of a fight between golf superstar Tiger Woods and his wife. And looking back, it almost looks primitive.

You say a lot has changed, but that was just last year. We’re coming up on the one-year anniversary right now. There hasn’t been anybody else who even thought it was possible to do animated news like this before we started. So of course in that year we’ve learned a lot. But the basic process is about the same. And I think the software, they’re improving it all the time.

The kind of animation we do is called “mo cap” animation – motion capture. So what you have is imagine somebody wearing kind of like a wet suit, that kind of material, with little reflective dots attached all over their body. And what happens is we have motion capture cameras that pick up the locations of those dots relative to each other so that when the motion capture actually walks, that movement can be used to trigger the same movement in a model.

You actually have actors acting out what you envisioned happened?

Oh yeah. That’s why we’re able to be so fast. If we have animators individually keying in each frame of motion, then there’s no way we can get the news out on the three-hour, six-hour cycle that we have.

And so you have like a studio or a stage where this is going on?

Yeah, we have a motion capture studio. That’s where the actors do their work, and there’s so many cameras. They’re in every direction so that they can capture the motion. And the actors definitely have to act it out. The sound isn’t captured, but when they have fight scenes, they actually shout at each other so they can really get the nuance of the gestures.

What’s the mood in the office?

I’m going to tell you, the schedule is so tightly packed that when you’re in the middle of the day, it’s really, really intense. Of course, during down time, there’s room for laughs, there’s room for goofing around a little bit. But when it’s on, if you’re the storyboard artist, you have 20 minutes to produce your storyboard. Then everybody has a very limited set of time, and once you’re done with your job, the next piece comes in, and the next piece.

I’m just amazed because so much of the content is very funny and to be that humorous in such a tense situation is pretty impressive.

Well obviously, we prepare the script before putting it in the system and that might take a little bit longer. But our turnaround time is pretty good. We always try to get things up as quickly as possible because it’s just that much funnier if it’s current.

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