We've all heard the story by now. Fed up with his job as a JetBlue flight attendant, Steven Slater yelled obscenities over the p.a. system, grabbed two beers from the beverge cart, activated the emergency inflatable chute and slid out of his job and into his 15 minutes of fame. But the only people who witnessed it were on the plane. As with other dramatic events that didn't get captured by a cell phone, all most of us saw was B-roll and old snapshots of Slater that appeared in the news after the fact.
One Taiwan-based news service is out to change that. Next Media Animation, which launched in September 2009, churns out more than 30 computer-animated dramatizations of news events every day. A few of these, like Next Media's versions of Slater's dramatic exit and Lindsay Lohan's stint in prison, have garnered hundreds of thousands of hits from across the globe. Soon, says Mark Simon, Next Media's commercial director, "if you don't have an animation in your news sequence, it's going to be like not having color photographs in a newspaper."
With a staff of 200-plus that is still growing, Next Media Animation, part of the larger conglomerate Next Media Limited, primarily produces clips of local events in Mandarin and Cantonese for the company's Apple Daily newspapers in Hong Kong and Taiwan, as well as for its new online news channel. The animations vary from the funny to the gruesome to the downright boring, but taken together they've been astonishingly successful. In Hong Kong, Next Media's videos average more than 4.1 million hits a day, making it the second most watched news channel in Hong Kong in terms of the number of daily viewers. Not all the videos use animation, but most of the newscasts incorporate them, giving their online broadcasts a visual edge. "People want to watch something with attitude," Simon says.
To be sure, Next Media's clips for better or for worse have no shortage of attitude. The animation division is the brainchild of billionaire media mogul Jimmy Lai, who has been offending sensibilities ever since he entered Hong Kong's media world, after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Lai, a vocal critic of China, is credited with bringing celebrity tabloid journalism to Hong Kong and Taiwan via his Apple Daily publications. The newspapers' combination of political scoops, police-blotter crime coverage and sensationalist celebrity gossip has made Lai many enemies but it's earned him even more readers. The Apple Daily is the most widely read newspaper in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Even Lai, however, worries about the future of print journalism. He says he asked himself, "If this business dies, what's the next media business?" He thought about people under 40 who grew up playing video games and watching TV and realized that they belonged to an "image generation." The next innovation in news would be a visual one, he decided.
Lai introduced his innovation animated news to an international audience last year with Next Media's rendition of Tiger Woods' infamous car crash. Lai knew that the professional golfer's tawdry episode was sure to grab headlines. The whole process in producing the rendition, from Lai's order to finished product, took only four hours, Lai says. Next Media depicted Woods' wife Elin Nordegren chasing her husband's SUV with a golf club after finding out about his infidelities. The video went viral almost immediately. "God gave us a gift," Simon says of the Woods scandal. The video is still Next Media's most popular clip.
Woods has denied that violence played any part in his car crash, but the mystery of what really happened allowed Next Media to creatively fill in the blanks. Critics worry that by illustrating unknowns in news events, Next Media is taking a step away from journalism, moving toward fiction. It can be unclear from a Next Media video what details have been reported and what are made up. But Simon doesn't worry about deceiving his audience: "People are not stupid. They understand it's animation." With all the detail in the videos, there's a lot to nitpick about, Lai says, "but that does not damage the integrity of the news."
Next Media has encountered its share of obstacles. Last year, Taiwanese authorities fined the company for over-the-top violence in its videos, and Taiwan's National Communications Commission (NCC) denied Lai's bid for a cable news channel, citing the sensational nature of the Apple Daily animations. Simon insists the company has complied with Taiwanese law, and Lai says the cable channel would not include racy or violent clips. But the NCC apparently didn't believe that it would be different from Apple Daily. Bonnie Peng, an NCC chairwoman, defended the decision to CNN, saying, "If I am the victim of a rape and then you present that through an animation, how do I recover from that whole thing?"
Without a television license, Next Media instead launched an online news channel. The site has been live for only about two weeks, but Simon says it has already attracted advertisers. While Taiwan is holding the TV application under review, Simon fears that the government will try to influence the company's Web-based re-enactments. "I'm fully expecting, as the online gets more successful, that they'll decide they have jurisdiction over that too," he says.
Key to Next Media Animation's success is its speed. In about three hours, says Mike Logan, Next Media's manager of content and business development, its team can go from story idea to finished product. Members of the team work closely with Apple Daily reporters who gather information for CGI graphics as they report their print stories in order to work in all the known details. Next Media has also invested in improving its technology, to keep a competitive edge over any new animation companies. (In Hong Kong, other news channels have already begun to incorporate animations in their reports.) To stay ahead, Next Media bought a Light Stage apparatus, a huge light cage used in Hollywood movies like Spider-Man to capture and render people with precision the only one like it outside the U.S., according to Logan.
Right now, most of what Next Media Animation produces is for the Hong Kong and Taiwan markets. But it has worked with the BBC, Reuters and the Cartoon Network on some animations. Soon, the company officials predict, their clips won't just be known abroad as amusing novelty animations; they will become the norm for TV news. "We're still being laughed at," says Simon, "but two years from now, they won't be chuckling."