Animators in Taiwan simulate Tiger Woods sex scandal news events in videos like this one depicting speculation about Tiger Woods's recent accident.
By NOAM COHEN at the New York Times
Published: December 5, 2009
Welcome to the new world of Maybe Journalism — a best guess at the news as it might well have been, rendered as a video game and built on a bed of pure surmise.
See YouTube video at www.youtube.com, sometimes called "You To Be" in Taiwan...
An animated character depicting Tiger Woods’s wife confronts his character in a video “news report” by animators in Taiwan.
A computer-generated “news report” of the Tiger Woods S.U.V. crash — complete with a robotic-looking simulation of Mr. Woods’s wife chasing him with a golf club — has become a top global online video of the moment, perhaps offering a glimpse at the future of journalism, tabloid division. (No matter that the police said she was using the club to release Mr. Woods from the car.)
The minute-and-a-half-long digitally animated piece was created by Next Media, a Hong Kong-based company with gossipy newspapers in Hong Kong and Taiwan. The video is one of more than 20 the company releases a day, often depicting events that no journalist actually witnessed — and that may not have even occurred.
The animation unit, which works out of the same building as the company’s Taiwanese newspaper, Apple Daily, has dozens of programmers, designers, animators, even actors on its staff, said Daisy Li, who is responsible for scripting the videos.
The animated “reports” began in November and are based on information gleaned from the Web and Apple Daily’s own reporting, making what the staff considers to be informed guesses about how events unfolded and giving a vividness and a sense of concrete reality to what is basically conjecture.
“I am awestruck by this,” the MSNBC host Keith Olbermann, who had fun with the Woods animation on his show, wrote in an e-mail message. He was both appalled by the video and convinced that it was a harbinger of the future. “Yes,” he wrote, “this will be done by somebody, in this country, within six months.”
The production values are not exactly Pixar-quality, and Ms. Li conceded that the designers were not so successful in capturing Mr. Woods’s appearance, though she said, “We got the skin color and hairstyle right.”
Despite these obvious flaws, and a Chinese-only soundtrack, the Tiger Woods animation video has achieved global fame in the week since it went online. There have been more than 1.7 million views on YouTube alone.
The ethical pitfalls in the videos are hard to miss. Ken A. Bode, a former national political correspondent for NBC News who is the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s ombudsman, corrected a reporter who called the Woods video a “re-enactment.”
“That’s a creation,” he said. “How does any Taiwanese journalist know what happened between Tiger Woods and his wife?”
Mr. Woods, who, after the accident, acknowledged “transgressions” in his relationship with his wife, wrote on his blog that “the stories in particular that physical violence played any role in the car accident were utterly false and malicious.” Attempts to reach Mr. Woods for this article were unsuccessful.
Ms. Li, who manages those who write the scripts for the animated stories, said she believed that viewers understood what they were seeing. “Readers can differentiate that it is an illustration,” she said. “All of it was based on what was reported on the wires, on other Web sites.”
Apple Daily was introduced to Taiwan in 2003 by the tycoon Jimmy Lai, who publishes an older and more famous Apple Daily in Hong Kong. In addition to their sensationalist articles, Mr. Lai’s publications are known for being willing to needle the mainland Chinese government.
Most of the animated stories produced by Next Media are local news (typically 10 daily stories from Hong Kong, and 10 daily stories from Taiwan, with a few international ones), Ms. Li said. Recent offerings from Taiwan include a story about a man attacking his grandmother, with a close-up of his foot stomping her. Another, with more than 100,000 views on YouTube, tells the story of a man who cut himself, then took an ambulance to drive to the hospital after scuffling with the ambulance driver.
“When a story happens, my team reports the story, gets the material, discusses the story with our sister company, an animation company,” Ms. Li said. “Their staff will draw up a story board.”
Actors often play the people described in the story, including Mr. Woods and his wife, Elin Nordegren, she said, so that animators can capture the motion for the virtual characters to imitate.
The project has already faced sharp criticism in Taiwan, not for ethical lapses but for its depiction of violence and sex.
The KMT-led city government in Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, recently fined the liberal Apple Daily US$30,000 for violating a law protecting young people from exposure to obscenity on the Internet and banned the publication from city schools and libraries. (The line between print newspaper and video reports is quite porous: a bar code included in some newspaper articles can link cellphone users to the animated videos.)
The popular tabloid newspaper initially bristled but later accepted the fine and agreed to print a warning about its content.
But fresh from the unexpected success of the Tiger Woods video, the media company has been delving into international news more, Ms. Li said.
Not surprisingly, there is already a new Tiger Woods animated story showing him texting a woman said to be a girlfriend and meeting her in a nightclub, where he dances awkwardly.
“From our side, we have more work now,” Ms. Li said in an interview from Taipei. “There is international attention. We have to improve the quality. There are definitely a lot of opportunities.”
She said the animation project had been more than two years in the planning, part of Mr. Lai’s vision to make news more relevant to young people.
“There was a lot of discussion of the future of newspapers; the print version of newspapers is shrinking,” she said, adding, “The young people don’t like to read the newspaper.”
Such computer-animated videos have found a utility beyond tabloid news. In the trial in Italy of the American college student Amanda Knox, which ended Friday in murder convictions for her and her Italian former boyfriend, prosecutors played a video-game-like animation to the jury showing how they believed her housemate was killed.
Gert K. Nielsen, a Danish news graphic consultant, said he considered himself part of a minority that viewed the story in a news illustration more important than getting every detail correct.
“If you don’t know if the neighbor’s car is red or black, that shouldn’t stop you from doing a graphic,” he said. But with its made-up story and use of “thought balloons” to describe what Ms. Nordegren was thinking, he said, “I think that the guys at Apple Daily are too crazy even for my taste.”