How Computer Animation Is Changing The News Right Now

In November 2009, golfer Tiger Woods' life changed forever. So did TV news in Taiwan.

Woods was involved in a traffic altercation that resulted in a wrecked Cadillac Escalada, minor cuts on his face and his car window being busted, apparently with a golf club. Details were murky.

Enter Next Media Animation. Next Media is a Chinese media conglomerate with the Apple Daily newspapers, the Next magazine in Hong Kong and Taiwan and the Next TV station in Taiwan. The animation arm is 200 employees strong and has a production pipeline that can churn out animated news clips in real time, just like it did of the Woods incident.

Opening in September 2009, Next Media Animation is a project that had been in development for two years, preparing the studio to be ready to react to the news in real time. For Next Media, the animated clips have been a smash, and the proof is in the pudding: Traffic has ballooned, with the animated news kicking up traffic in some markets by 30 to 40 per cent. Next Media readers have come to expect the animations.

The animated models do look familiar. When the Next Media Animation team first captured the public's imagination last November with its Tiger Woods clip, it was thought by some that the footage was based on popular video game series "The Sims".

"No, we don't use Sims software," Next Media Animation Content and Business Manager Michael Logan tells Kotaku.

Instead, here is how Next Media Animation makes its news clips: The team begins with its own database of 3D models of people, objects and environments - a database that is constantly being added to. According to Logan, a reporter then meets with a storyboard artist about a particular news animation. The reporter will convey all the necessary information to the artist, who then storyboards the scene.

The 3D model team pulls all necessary 3D models for the story. The animation team then takes those models, while the motion capture team acts out any required scenes. This mocap data is combined with the 3D models to generate the necessary animation. Finally, the clip is edited, sound, music and voice overs are added.

The entire process takes less than 3 hours, and Next Media Animation runs 12 cycles a day starting at noon. "You need to work within the news cycle," says Logan. "That's where we really excel." Next Media Animation is using the same animation tech that is available to any other studio; however, the streamlined and well defined production pipeline has enabled it to turnaround animation as quickly as some newspapers churn out written stories.

"We tend to look for stories where there isn't a lot of source video," says Logan. "We animate action. Specifically, we animate the missing action."

Something like the recent story involving the phony monk Wii molestation case or the one about Al Gore, a massage therapist and Al Gore's nether region are ideal for the Next Media Animation treatment. The action action apparently took place, but no visuals to flesh out the story. That's where Next Media comes in.

"There was this 77-page account of what took place, describing the action. So what works well for animation is when there is a strong desire by the audience to see what happened, but there is no video to serve that purpose. That's where animation can step in." And that's where it does, filling the gap that has traditionally been held by artist's rendering of events. This tradition continues through courtroom artists and stretches back before the advent of film and television cameras.

Next Media Animation can breath life into events that readers and viewers could only previously imagine. It can do it in a realistic or even comical fashion. Television programs have used re-enactments in the past to typically depict things like crimes. Next Media Animation can use its computer generated animations for a wide variety of topics - serious or trivial. The flexibility of CG allows the news outlet a certain degree of freedom that live actors do not. Because of this, critics have said that what Next Media Animation is doing is not "journalism" or the studio is taking liberties with the facts.

"The media critics who oppose animation in news video are the same ones who don't think blogging has a place in journalism," says Logan. "But as we know, technological innovation has changed how we create, disseminate and consume news - animation is but one of those technological innovations.

"The rules of journalism haven't changed. What has changed is how technology - including the tools of animation - is being applied to the craft of journalism." And it will continue to change.


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