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 they 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, waiting 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 voiceover 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 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."
The serious side of their business is growing. Next Media's paying partners now include the global news wire Reuters, digital outlet Yahoo News and the Spanish-language network Univision. 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 Chinese 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.