Culture & Heritage

Telling stories with technology

How a Dunedin computer graphics company, led by Māori founder and CEO Ian Taylor, took innovation to the world and revolutionised how people watch televised sport.

Telling stories with technology

How a Dunedin computer graphics company, led by Māori founder and CEO Ian Taylor, took innovation to the world and revolutionised how people watch televised sport. Looking for a place where innovation knows no bounds? We know a place.

If the story of technological innovation in New Zealand was made into a movie, there’s no doubt that Ian Taylor would have a starring role, with a stunning supporting cast of technology wizards with him.

Today, Taylor is recognised as one of New Zealand’s pioneers of computer graphics with his company Animation Research – which exports its game-changing 3D digital animation renderings from the very same city where he founded the business nearly three decades ago. 

Born in Northland of Ngāti Pāhauwera and Ngāti Kahungunu descent, and raised in the small East Coast settlement of Raupunga, Taylor’s humble beginnings could never have predicted the direction his life would take. What it did do was give him a solid grounding in storytelling and inspired a foundational approach to innovation that has served him well ever since.

“I’m only just discovering how important that Māori-ness has been for me. My upbringing was all about place, home and family,” says Taylor.

“When I was growing up in the 1950s, my mother, who is Māori, faced the challenge that a lot of Māori mothers faced, deciding how she wanted her children educated. She sent me to a Pakeha (non-Māori) school, which set me on this particular life path,” says Taylor.

Following time as a rock singer in the 1960s and ’70s, then a stint in the army and training as a lawyer, Taylor went on to become a familiar face on New Zealand television in the 1980s as a presenter on the TVNZ kids’ show Spot On, which finished in 1988. 

“I’d never really thought about getting into animation. All I had decided was that Dunedin was where I was going to live. I’d been involved in making television there through my company Taylormade, and came across a team working on this new world-class technology called ‘computer graphics’ at Otago University in 1989.

So, that same year Animation Research was born as a joint venture between Taylor’s television company Taylormade and the University’s computer science division.

“Dunedin is an interesting city, as it’s the place that changed the economy of New Zealand in the 19th century using the latest technology of the time, – refrigerated ships,” he says.

“These ships took New Zealand products and shared them with the world. We became one of the richest countries in the world because of that technology. Similarly, the technology that’s allowing us to take New Zealand to the world today is the Internet.”

Animation Research has since revolutionised televised sport through its Virtual Eye sports division, producing computer animations in 2D, 3D and virtual reality for some of the world’s most well-known broadcasters, media groups and corporations.

Their work has featured in television programmes for the BBC, CBS, National Geographic, Formula One, the US Golf Masters, United Airways and countless other sports and science shows, TV commercials and corporate productions.

Notably, Taylor and his team won the 2014 Sports Emmy award for their work on an innovative mobile app for the 34th America's Cup.

It’s no surprise the accolades for Taylor have been many. He has been inducted into the New Zealand Hi-Tech Hall of Fame, made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit, awarded an Honorary Fellowship of the New Zealand Computer Society, named Outstanding Maori Business Leader of the Year in 2013, and received a World Class New Zealand Award for creativity. Currently, Taylor serves on the board of Māori Television and is an adviser to the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

At the heart of Taylor’s success has been his focus on storytelling, inspired by his Māori background.

“Our approach with clients is to consider them part of our family – our whānau – which is a different way of thinking for the technology sector. By treating those we work with in this way, we build trust and commit to never letting them down,” he says.

“From there, it really does come back to storytelling – that’s the Māori part of me. Technology has only ever been a means to tell a story,” he says. 

“Whether it’s a racing car driver, a golfer or a sailor, our job is to tell these peak performers’ stories through cutting-edge animation and graphics.

“I’m also inspired by my Māori ancestors, who were true innovators and amongst the greatest designers, engineers, astrologers and scientists of their time. They came to New Zealand well before Captain Cook, sailing across a third of the planet in waka (Polynesian sailing vessels) designed to carry 100 people.”

Taylor is now turning his company’s skills and innovation to projects that will address Māori issues, and inspire Māori youth to seek jobs in the tech sector.

“I carry the Māori worldview with me, which says that the footprints that brought you to where you stand today always lie in front of you. By keeping them in view, you see how you got to where you are.”

With a view of the past guiding the steps of Taylor and his team at Animation Research, it’s clear their journey of innovation is far from over, and will continue to solve problems and deliver good things for Māori and all New Zealanders.