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Wacky minds behind Taiwan's viral videos

Adrienne Mong

NMA can turn a story around in as little as 90 minutes.

TAIPEI, Taiwan —They are the faceless but spunky purveyors of animated media.

And for about a year we’ve been curious about who is behind the sometimes hilarious, sometimes shocking, but always edgy computer-generated “news” reports produced by Next Media Animation (NMA). 

Spots like the now-infamous retelling of the Tiger Woods car accident, the rap battle on the U.S.-China currency dispute, and air passenger rage over the U.S. Transportation Security Authority’s enhanced airport checks. This week alone, NBC News got some love with two spots that poke fun at us: American tv network coverage of the U.K. royal wedding and rumors about Today show anchors.

NMA's report on rumors of Today show anchor changes.

NMA is owned by Next Media Limited, Hong Kong’s largest publicly-owned Chinese-language media company, which publishes Next Magazine and Apple Daily, a popular Hong Kong newspaper that has a separate Taiwan edition.

The animation group, however, is based in Taipei. So top of the agenda during a recent weekend trip to Taiwan was—after feasting on local fare, of course — a visit to its office and studio.

NMA came to widespread international attention in late 2009 with its report on the Woods scandal, which went viral, garnering 6 million hits and still counting.

Yet it took several more months of trial and error before NMA’s animated videos became consistent hits online. Some early hiccups included behind-the-scenes at the White House featuring a voiceover actor depicting President Barack Obama. 

“They were all dialogue driven,” recalled Michael Logan, the Content and Business Development manager at Next Media Animation.  “That was the format we tried early on, and we found it didn’t work.”

But a quick succession of triumphs followed, including one about allegations by a hotel masseuse that former Vice-President Al Gore had groped her during a stay in 2006 and a biting look at the roll-out of the iPhone 4, with Steve Jobs as Darth Vader and a cheeky nod at the spate of suicides at Foxconn.  One of our personal early favorites was an unflinching take on the late night talk show dispute involving NBC, Jay Leno, and Conan O’Brien.

A bi-cultural outlook
The NMA team comprises some 300 people in Taipei and a handful more in New York—all of whom are responsible for producing some 210 minutes of animation every week for the Hong Kong and Taiwan editions of Apple Daily and Next Media TV, also based in Taipei. 

Logan helps to helm the international team.  The eight editorial staff members in Taipei are a mix of Taiwanese who have spent time in the U.S. and, in one instance, South Africa, and Westerners who all have some degree of fluency in Chinese and have experience working in Greater China.  Four more work in the New York office, which also includes native Taiwanese.  Most are former journalists.

In fact, when they aren’t all busy brainstorming on how to lampoon the latest tabloid celebrity—the international team functions much like a news agency such as Reuters or Associated Press by providing straightforward animation reports on hard news.

“Someone in Germany can come to our website and pull down [a 30-second package that we’ve produced] and use it for their publication,” explained Logan, an American with a multimedia background and a Columbia journalism graduate school degree.

But what they’re increasingly well-known for is their edginess.

Like its media cousin, Apple Daily (which has been banned in mainland China for years), NMA doesn’t shy away from tackling material politically sensitive to Beijing. 

The team covered the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo and has been contemplating “doing something on Ai Weiwei,” a high-profile Chinese artist who hasn’t been seen or heard from since he was detained on April 3.

“With stuff like that, it’s about striking the right tone,” said Logan.  “[Ai’s detention] is such an important topic that we don’t want to take it too lightly.”

Everything else, however, they do thumb their noses at—an approach that given their popularity seems to be succeeding.

“Certain themes work well on the Internet,” said Logan, outlining narratives that portray a sense of affronted justice; are celebrity-driven (“I call it celebrity plus misery”) and are not already captured on video; or employ their newest experimental format, like the rap battle.

“We’re working on one about Obama versus Gadhafi,” he continued.  “We’re still trying to figure out who will voice Gadhafi.”

A rapid turnaround
A defining feature of NMA’s work is the visual humor, which is Taiwanese; much of the creative input comes from the storyboard artists, who are predominantly from Taiwan.

They’re also the production linchpin.  Although the writers come up with the initial ideas, they talk through the concept with the storyboard artists.  (Every script is bilingual, written first in English and then translated into Chinese.) 

Adrienne Mong

NMA employs 300 staff in Taipei.

In the meantime, the artists have only half an hour to come up with the storyboard, and everything follows on from that critical step: the animation, the modelling, the motion capture, the music and sound effects, and the final editing. 

An entire production cycle takes about three hours although in a pinch they can turn a story around in 90 minutes. 

Part of what enables NMA to produce their spots so quickly is a constantly growing database of models, an invaluable resource for the animation.  The team also uses motion capture, which can be expensive but time-saving. 

NMA has two studios used for motion capture.  One is equipped with 30 4-million pixel cameras and the other with 30 16-million pixel cameras, according to Thomas Tong, the head of NMA’s motion capture department.

All of this enables NMA to churn out two to three satire pieces a day every week.

“Speed is very important, and timing is key,” said Logan, who cited the example of Casey the Punisher, a 16-year-old Australian who struck back at a school bully. Within 24 hours of the story surfacing, NMA had produced an animation that’s still getting hits.

Driving traffic to the boob tube
“It used to be that they said, if you’re not on TV, you don’t exist,” observed Logan.  “For online video, if you’re not on YouTube, you don’t exist.”

NMA posts all of its satire pieces on its website as well as YouTube.  Most of its audience is American; in fact, 46 percent is in the U.S., followed by Australia, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, and Canada.

And satire is what NMA hopes will get it a bigger profile on a more old-fashioned medium: mainstream television.

“Our online presence is what got us noticed and is what is getting us contract work,” said Logan.  “Success for us is to have a permanent, lasting presence on TV as well.”

After doing contract work for the Cartoon Network and BBC’s Newsnight program, NMA has signed a deal with Spike TV, a division of MTV Networks.  Early last month, it produced a 30-minute special for the cable channel called, “Charlie Sheen’s ‘Winningest’ Moments.”  Consisting of 13 animated segments, the show drew 700,000 viewers—pretty respectable for cable.

“We’re excited about doing the next one,” said Logan.

In the meantime, the team continues to be hard at work, dreaming up with ways to entertain and inform.