Less than a day after JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater made headlines with his take-this-job-and-shove-it moment at New York's JFK airport, a computer-animated version of the event appeared online. The video, which quickly garnered 600,000 views on YouTube, was courtesy of Taiwan's Next Media Animation. For about a year, the company&mdashpart of Hong Kong publisher Jimmy Lai's empire, New Media — has been turning out computer animations of current events, including celebrity scandals, and local news.
The animated news clip is the latest innovation from the controversial Lai. Born in southern China in 1948, Lai made his fortune as the founder of Giordano, a Gap (GPS)-like retailer based in Hong Kong. Lai sold his stake in the company in the mid-1990s after his public insults of a Chinese premier jeopardized the company's prospects on the mainland. Lai then built a newspaper and magazine empire in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Three years ago, Lai decided his news stories needed to be more visual. "Images can transmit information so much faster," he says. He decided to start Next Media Animation (NMA) in Taiwan, a country with a successful video-game industry and a deep pool of animators. Persuading them to join wasn't easy, though. Many told Lai they needed two weeks to produce an animated clip; he wanted it done in two hours. Lai managed to assemble a team that spent months designing ways to speed up and improve the animation process. The company is building a stockpile of digital faces that can be inserted into videos. It's also experimenting with generating street scenes using images from Google Maps and is using a motion-capture camera system to improve animation quality. "The hair has to be softer, the skin has to be more real," Lai says.
NMA planned to release its first video in early 2010. Then Tiger Woods took his SUV for that notorious late-night drive on Thanksgiving weekend. Lai's team rushed out an animated dramatization of the crash and the subsequent revelation of Woods's affairs. The video got millions of views on YouTube. By now, Lai has invested more than $20 million and has a team of 260-plus animators. The clips have helped to nearly quadruple traffic for the website of Lai's Hong Kong newspaper. Next Media had $210 million in revenue during the six months ended Mar. 10, up 9 percent over the same period in 2009.
NMA has had its share of setbacks. Last year the company had to pay a $31,000 fine after Taiwanese officials found the sex and violence in some of its videos offensive. Taiwan regulators have yet to approve Lai's application to start news and entertainment TV channels. While he awaits their decision, Lai is streaming Next Media's content online, planning TV show-length animations and moving into political satire. He's even hired an actor to impersonate Barack Obama's voice.