There are sports and what they provide—the awe and inexplicability and the like—and then there’s a great and growing everything else. The silent chatter on Twitter, the gifs and homemade highlights: the commentary and second experience that attends the thing itself.
It's instantaneous and mostly goofy and generally without shelf life, and its silliness is, in a way we've maybe yet to figure out, actually important. If this didn't exist, then Next Media Animation (NMA) wouldn't exist. You know them—and you almost certainly do know them—as the people behind "the Taiwanese animation treatment."
NMA is based in Taipei, Taiwan, and was founded by Jimmy Lai in 2006 as a unit of Next Media Limited, Hong Kong’s largest publicly listed Chinese-language print media company. The TV channel went live in late 2009 and is Asia’s largest full service 3D animation studio. It is one of many product lines produced by the company, and one of the strangest things on the internet, and it's part of how we do that Everything Else.
"Mr. Lai is always looking to the future, anticipating where our society is bound," NMA’s Julie Huang told me. "Often, there are breaking news stories that have no video footage or there are amazing technological and scientific breakthroughs that go beyond what film can capture. Animation fills that void. Animation can recreate events and even go beyond what a camera is capable of."
Which is one way of putting it. But "beyond what a camera is capable of" is a fairly understated way of describing just how batty and wonderful and goofily obvious NMA's contributions to the sports-watching experience are. It just takes a sampling of their video—I present Tim Tebow’s playoff win or the studio's jaw-dropping take on The Manti Te'o Imaginary Girlfriend Affair—to understand what imagination means for the studio.
“Our goal is to make everyone laugh with our animations," Huang says. "We want our viewers to come away from watching our animations with their stomachs and cheeks hurting because they've laughed too hard. But at the same time, our writers strive to drive home larger points about values, society, institutions and the people who lead them with our animations. Anything you can imagine, we can animate."
All that, and quickly. NMA's video interpretation/deconstruction/destruction of a given news story often hits the internet while the news story is still at its first-day apex. This is a tribute to the work of over 300 animators, modellers, storyboard artists, motion captures artists and writers at the animation studio. Stories are selected, researched, written—in English, then translated into Chinese—and then storyboarded; animators base their drawings upon photos and videos that the initial writer finds on the web, and are then set in motion when motion-capture actors perform the script. The animations are finished in a matter of hours. Every 30 seconds of animation can be completed in approximately two hours from scriptwriting to storyboard to animation to final video. So the NMA.tv animations, which typically run between 60-90 seconds, can be completed in approximately four to six hours.
NMA animators are especially proud of their treatment of Danny Boyle’s 2012 Summer Olympics Opening Ceremony. The animation was created prior to the actual ceremonies, culled from leaked scripts floating around the Internet (Huang shared the working script for the Olympics video, along with some storyboard shots here, here and here.)
Whether it's "good" or not is mostly beside the point—the animations are pegged to events in the news cycle, but are not quite about news, or information. They're noise, but carefully made, immediate, collaborative, and wildly stream-of-consciousness noise. What we imagine—more to the point, what we bullshit about on Twitter—is what they animate.
"The technology is improving," Huang says. The visual quality is improving and we're also getting faster. Next year, we'll be able to animate within 30 minutes. Pretty soon, there won't be any technological barriers. We'll be able to animate as fast as the facts come in." It's not hard to imagine NMA outgrowing the need for facts entirely.
But if NMA is the visual shape of our goofier internet conversations about sports, and if these internet conversations are increasingly as vital as the sports that are their ostensible subject, what does the popularity of these videos say about that conversation?
The short answer is "nothing much," or maybe "nothing that's any more significant than some in-the-moment Twitter pun or mini-meme." NMA has found its niche because its videos come out fast and weird, as the high-speed news cycle demands. The Manti Te'o story is representative, here—the NMA video, weird though it is, already has the feel of an artifact, something from months or years ago. There's nothing especially re-watchable, there: just the right jokes at the right time, and well over a half-million views on YouTube. This story, which unraveled over a matter of weeks but started to fade in just a few hours, is maybe the perfect NMA story in that its virality depended on its timeliness: if that video had come out 24 or 48 or 72 hours later, the joke would've fallen flat. The story, like a great many others, was a race to the buffet line; by the time the line had cleared, everyone was sated. What's left over is getting thrown out.
The absurdity helps, of course. Sports are as weird as life, or weirder. A less-bizarre video wouldn't do the trick for stories like Te'o's or Tebow's. NMA's psychedelic ridiculousness, in this case, almost qualifies as realism. So when NMA turns Colin Kaepernick’s arm into a cannon, or has Te’o partying with drunken leprechauns, it’s tapping into a weirdness that's already present, if not quite that explicit. We might make these jokes on Twitter, but the jokes also sort of make themselves. NMA just gives them another couple dimensions.
The videos can be funny, but there's another and less-flattering dimension to watching them, if only because of the way in which they make concrete not just the weirdness of the subjects they sort-of-satirize, but their epic insignificance. The sports discourse may yet achieve some sort of elevated consciousness that allows these goofy, gossipy stories simply to filter through us, with the better stories—ones that deserve and demand more reflection, and something other than an instant-reaction mock session—allowed to play out in their own time, with contributions from all sides.
There will, hopefully, still be room for goofy jokes in that enlightened future. But it is decidedly not the present. And in the present, we have NMA. They succeed at what they do because they’ve tapped into a need. They understand the same thing that ESPN understands—that what's Now and Next is what matters. NMA's animators, unlike ESPN's bickering pundits, just have the good sense to make jokes about whatever that Now/Next happens to be. Maybe that's progress.