Next Media Animation (NMA): Inside The Wacky Taiwanese Animation Studio
By Mark Johanson | April 8, 2012 1:39 AM EST
If the name Next Media Animation, or NMA, doesn't ring a bell, then how about this: crazy Taiwanese animators. Chances are you've come across one of NMA's signature videos.
The animation studio broke out in 2009 with a surprisingly plausible computer-generated reenactment of the Tiger Woods scandal, which quickly went viral and planted a seed. A few months later, NMA set up offices in New York and began tackling global news, one animation at a time.
NMA takes hyperliteral to a new level, casting sports stars, Hollywood celebrities, and global politicians as laughable avatars in a world that resembles -- but does not quite replicate -- planet Earth.
The Taiwanese company succeeds, in part, because it can place a story in a whole new realm as it adapts the concept of parody journalism to the medium of animation.
"Media lends itself to exaggerating," NMA head writer Christopher Vespoli told the International Business Times. "Not necessarily the facts, but how we present them. We explain and entertain -- and if there is a moral, even better."
Vespoli scours the Internet each day to see what's trending and puts together a lineup. He selects stories that are lacking video footage like reports, case studies, celebrity gossip, or other things that need a visual.
"The catalyst for these news animations was, 'Hey, we don't have any footage for this, let's animate it,'" Vespoli said. "We're taking a different spin or making a point -- broadening our idea of the real stories. If we have a news story like Charlie Sheen ransacking a hotel room, we have accounts of it, but what did that look like? Then again there are stories that there's a lot of video for, but maybe we take an unexpected angle on it."
"Unexpected angles" seem to be what draws viewers to NMA's work. Its ability to transport the news into an alternative universe where Steve Jobs is actually Darth Vadar and Tim Tebow flies like an angel keeps people wanting more.
NMA thrives on its videos -- where animals, humans, and objects comingle -- exploding across the Internet, becoming one of those "You've got to see this!" memes that fills inboxes and Facebook walls.
The NMA.tv site also has otherworldly "weather girls" that dance and tease while the weather for major U.S. cities appears on the screen as an afterthought.
"They're highly trained meteorologists with Ph.D.s," Vespoli joked.
The weather girls, along with heavy sports coverage, fit in nicely with NMA's core demographic: males aged 18 to 50.
Writing the action, animation, and accompanying blog post happens in New York. Then, the content is sent to a team of roughly 300 animators in Taiwan. Each night, the company produces about 22 minutes of animation with each video taking about three hours to produce.
If it sounds impossibly fast, that's because it is. Vespoli said there could be anywhere from one to four writers, several storyboard artists, animators, a sound and motion-capture team, and a production manager who oversees the entire process.
"There are tons of hands on it. When it leaves New York, the tree arms branch out."
NMA uses body motion-capture animation similar to that seen in films like "Avatar" or "Spider-Man," with actors playing out versions of incidents where no footage exists.
In the world of animated news, NMA has cornered the market. There are plenty of satirical news sites out there like The Onion or programs like "The Daily Show" (which NMA collaborated with for a spoof on the Royal Wedding), but nobody else is animating the news to the degree Next Media is.
"We're playing in the same space, but it's not really a competition," Vespoli said. "I don't think there is a company out there doing quite what we're doing."
And people are taking notice. Next Media Animation produces original content for the likes of Spike TV, and it has built an international cult following with its string of increasingly surreal viral hits.
Mark Gongloff at the Wall Street Journal said: "You know you have made it in the world today when you are immortalized in Taiwanese animation."
"Next Media Animation has invented a new cartoon genre -- fantasy news for when the truth isn't out there," Richard Vine of The Guardian noted, while Andrew Leonard of Salon claimed, "Cyberpunk tabloid journalism comes of age."
According to NMA's marketing rep Jenna Manula, its videos get, on average, roughly 1 million views a day -- no small feat for a company that started in the second half of 2009. It has a presence in 156 countries, although the U.S., United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia remain the focal points outside of Hong Kong and Taiwan.
The animation studio is an offshoot of the Next Media organization, a giant pan-Asian company started in Hong Kong by Jimmy Lai. It's the largest publicly listed Chinese-language print media company and has always enjoyed blending entertainment and news.
What many people don't know is that Next Media has a more serious branch of hard-news animation called News Direct.
"You see animation and you think it's just a cartoon, so that's the big hurdle we face in the West," Vespoli said. "We hope to convince people that animation has a part in news sites. That's the heart of News Direct.
"The goal for the future is to open people up to the medium of animation," he added. "There is a stigma in the West that isn't there in Asia, so we want to break through and break that open."
While the hard news hasn't quite captured the public's imagination like the satire, the idea of watching animated news becomes less and less odd with each fanciful recreation from NMA.
"What we get on TV is always the last bit of image," founder Lai said in an interview last year. "What happened before that image is always missing."
Be it dancing condoms, rapping pandas, or saber-swinging moguls, NMA will be there to fill in the gaps.
Here's a look at five of NMA's most popular videos:
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