Michael Kaplan profiles Next Media, the company behind those bizarre news animations that have become all the rage this year:
“There’s no better sensation than image. It’s so in-your-face!” the 62-year-old founder of Next Media says. Lai is sitting in the fourth-story office of his headquarters in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, which is the latest outpost of the Next Media empire. He wears a custom-tailored white shirt and a pair of suspenders that hold baggy Ralph Lauren jeans up over his potbelly, giving him a grandfatherly air. But Lai’s beefy face is hard, his eyes fiercely alert. He has the appearance of a man who is always ready to throw the first punch—or the last. […]
The idea of cartoonifying the news hit Lai in a brilliant flash. In October 2007, he shared his idea with the rest of his staff. They could gin up exclusive footage of the most bizarre, the most titillating, the most scandalous events of the day. But Lai didn’t want just any animation, he wanted computer-generated 3-D animation, which is notoriously costly, labor-intensive, and extremely time-consuming to create. And they didn’t have a lot of time; the videos had to air while the news was still warm. Lai needed to be able to crank out reenactments of breaking stories in just a couple of hours. “Everybody told me it would be impossible,” he says.
So he decided to build his own CG studio. Lai didn’t know much about animation, but he knew a lot about assembly lines—he made his first fortune in the garment industry. After two years of trial and error, experimenting with various technologies and seeing exactly how many corners it was possible to cut, Lai set up a sort of un-Pixar, an offshore animation factory with a staff of 200 that could storyboard, model, motion-capture, and animate a clip in about the time it takes to watch Toy Story 3. “People said I was nuts to try this,” Lai says, leaning intently over a conference table. “But everybody knows I’m crazy. I never do things the normal way.”