Next Media inks deals with Turner, BBC

Animated 3D news clips offer media alternative coverage

TORONTO -- Being denied Taiwanese TV licenses two years ago gave Hong Kong print tycoon Jimmy Lai an idea for a controversial news animation business with content he's now selling to the Turner Network, Reuters and the BBC.

Mark Simon, commercial director at Next Media Animation in Taipei, said Lai chose to do an end-run around Taiwanese regulators by developing web TV for his Apple Daily tabloid newspapers.

The result is 3D animated news clips created on the hop by around 180 artists at a studio outside Taipei using avatars and motion-capture technology to recreate breaking news stories.

Simon says the cartoon news offering took off with Tiger Woods' early morning car crash last November, when Next Media animators produced a reenactment, complete with a representation of golf club-wielding wife Elin.

Simon recalled the animated car crash story instantly generated huge traffic to Apple Daily's Web sites, and to date around 3.5 million views on YouTube, according to Google.

The Tiger Woods video also stirred complaints from Nike, a key Woods sponsor. After the animated video first flashed worldwide, Simon recalls a phone call from a U.S. Nike executive to demand the company's swoosh logo be removed from the SUV depicted in the video.

Jimmy Lai's right-hand man defends the animated video dramatizations as legitimate journalism, and not fanciful animation mixed in with hard news videos and photos, as critics claim.

"What Mr. Lai said was: 'Let's fill in the blanks for people after the fact of the incident," Simon says of the animated news clips, which work best in Asia, with crime and industrial accident stories backed up by police reports.

Next Media's Tiger Woods car crash clip also caught the eyes of western media groups, leading to some early business signups. Turner Networks recently commissioned the studio to animate Sandra Bullock to dramatize her marriage troubles, with a quick one-day turnaround.

"They (Turner) tell us the idea, we storyboard, they approve and we animate," Simon said of the animation process.

The Next Media exec admits to quality issues with early animation for Western media groups. "Sandra Bullock ended up looking a lot like Michelle Wie, so we had to work on that," he said.

Reuters is also taking advantage of the 3D cartoon news clips, which cost $3,000 per-minute to purchase, to animate financial news stories. Next Media typically receives an early-morning call from Reuters' Singapore office for a commission, and animators send the clips off by 3 p.m. Singapore time, in time for the market opening in Europe.

A recent example was a short animated clip of bluefin tuna for a news story about declining ocean fish numbers.

Lai is currently pouring around $1 million a month into the Next Media animation shop to produce around 20 minutes of animated hard news daily.

Simon agrees Reuters or any news service could just as well use b-roll footage to illustrate a news story, but have opted for Next Media's animated clips to add value to their coverage.

An unnamed British broadcaster has also tapped Next Media to provide animated clips for its current coverage of the British general election.

And the Asian media group is talking with the stock footage search engine about supplying animated material on spec that can then be sold onto customers.

Back in Taiwan and Hong Kong, Next Media is daily using "hyper-local" animated clips of gruesome murders and attacks based on preliminary police reports to drive traffic to its tabloid Web sites.

Simon doubts that tabloid coverage like that will fly in litigious cultures like North America and Western Europe, but sees value for media groups that can spread the cost of the animated clips by syndicating hard news stories over a number of platforms.

"There's a constant demand for news," he argues.

Next Media has been slow to roll out an animated news offering for the mobile platform, but sees one coming.

And sports surprisingly does not work well with the 3D animated news concept.

"How do you compete against a broadcaster offering 17 angles of a hockey game and slow-motion recreation?" Simon said.

To avoid breaching libel laws, Next Media animation creators ask for as much description of news events and accompanying photos as possible, that can then be used for storyboarding.

Simon argues that the number of editorial layers a news organizations wants to ensure the accuracy of the Next Media animated clips "depends on the speed you want," referring to the workflow turnaround.

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