If you ask, "What about Delgo?" you'll be met with a predictably blank look. But Atlanta's Fathom Studios is making a high-stakes bet that this will change next year, when Delgo, a computer-animated fantasy epic years in the making, will debut. And then, who knows? If Delgo meets Fathom's lofty expectations, the film's director, Jason Maurer, could be hailed as Atlanta's own George Lucas or Peter Jackson.
Delgo is the brainchild of Fathom Studios, where Maurer holds the in-house title of "Sovereign Architect of Creation." Tongue-in-cheek, yes, but apt, considering that he is the man responsible for the look and feel of every frame of Delgo, which is coming to life on the eighth floor of the Macquarium building on Peachtree Street.
Maurer wants his sci-fi saga to have a strong message against racism, but he aspires to enthrall his audience and not preach to it. "Delgo's animated. You don't want to make a bloody drama. It's in a fantastic world, with an adventure story, some coming-of-age and a romance in the style of Romeo and Juliet."
But if Delgo's plot follows a Hollywood formula, the making of the film has been anything but. Maurer and his team, which includes his boss Marc Adler, founder of Macquarium, are attempting what has never been done before -- the production of a full-length computer-generated movie outside the Hollywood studio system.
On second thought, perhaps the making of Delgo is fit for Hollywood, after all. Imagine the pitch: Backed by nameless investors, a handful of visionaries and techno-geeks labor for years on a feature film, and in the process re-define the way animated movies are made, while an adoring public lines up on opening night.
Of all the endings, of course, that's the happiest one. Maurer and Adler don't even want to imagine the unhappy ones.
Jason Maurer's first attempts at animating didn't go so well. As a boy growing up in Fort Wayne, Ind., he drew pictures and created comic book stories about talking animals, inspired by both Disney characters and Mad Magazine. Intrigued by TV cartoons beyond just watching them, his father built him a stand so he could hand-draw his own animation cels. "I tried it," Maurer recalls, "but it was so time-consuming that I didn't have the patience for it."
Putting animation aside, he focused on drawing. In 1989, he enrolled at the Savannah College of Art and Design, where he earned a bachelor of fine arts in illustration and minored in comic books, which the school was offering as a major for the first time. "In some of my classes we studied comics as our texts," says Maurer, who designed a 12-page black-and-white comic book as one of his final projects. "You can't beat reading comics in class."
By the time Maurer graduated in 1993, Marc Adler was already a hot young entrepreneur 250 miles away in Atlanta. His company, Macquarium Intelligent Communications, founded in 1991 when Adler was still an Emory undergrad, capitalized on new computer technologies to produce all kinds of graphic products for its clients, from TV commercials to CD-roms to websites.
Hearing that Macquarium was looking for talented artists, Maurer applied. Adler wanted a computer animator, and while Maurer's portfolio showed he could draw, his computer experience was negligible. But that didn't matter to Adler, who reasons you can teach someone technology, but not talent.
His hunch paid off. After 16-hour days filled with endless tutorials and constant tinkering, Maurer emerged from behind Macquarium's $40,000 UNIX computer a natural. Says Adler: "After two weeks, he did a Duracell ad that was so good we put it in our show reel."
Maurer discovered that technology had finally caught up with his love of animation, and doing it on computer, instead of by hand, became his forte. In the coming years, his work at Macquarium would win eight industry awards -- one Addy and seven Telly awards.
But perhaps more important than Maurer's new facility with the UNIX was his rapport with Adler. The two clicked into an easy rhythm. Hearing the two 30-year-olds talk is like listening to a conversation between two college buddies who call each other "Dude!" They finish each other's sentences, rag on each other and dream big.
"We share the same brain," Maurer says.
It was no surprise, then, that Adler kept a close eye on the creative new addition to his staff. One day, about six months after he started, Maurer was playing around on his computer.
"This was around the same time that Toy Story came out," says Maurer. "I had this idea in college about an ant named Randolph who got in this big conflict with a caterpillar over an olive in a picnic basket."
Maurer used motion-capture software to link the image of his pony-tailed, spear-carrying ant character to a film clip of a person doing kung fu moves. "It was just a simple jump-spin-kick, to make sure the ant could move," Maurer says. "Marc came in and looked over my shoulder, as he would often do, and he was really excited. 'We can do things like that? We really can?'"
Adler couldn't get Maurer's dancing ant out of his mind. At 10:30 that night, he phoned Maurer.
"So," Adler said, "have you ever thought about making a movie?"
Maurer paused. "It's crossed my mind. Is that what you want to do?"
"It's always been a goal of mine, ever since I was a kid."
"Funny you should mention it," said Maurer, "because it's always been a dream of mine, too."
Computer-animated films like Ice Age and Shrek are box office staples now, and even live action movies boast digital characters, such as Lord of the Rings' astonishing Gollum and Star Wars' annoying Jar-Jar Binks. But when Pixar Animation Studios released Toy Story in 1995, computer animation was still a high-tech curio, appearing only in TV commercials and in the background of Disney films like Beauty and the Beast.
Toy Story proved that audiences could embrace a computer-animated feature: It earned almost $200 million and established Pixar as some of the hippest filmmakers in animation or live action. With their gorgeous graphics and savvy sense of humor, the Toy Story films, A Bug's Life and Monsters Inc. have grossed almost $1 billion.
Maurer and Adler took heart from the example of Pixar -- which cast an even longer shadow than they expected. Initially they decided to expand Maurer's idea of competing insects into a feature-length story. The working title? Bugz. Work had barely begun on the project when Toy Story creators Pixar announced that the concept for their next film was going to be Bugs, subsequently called A Bug's Life. "We joked that they were tapping our phones," said Adler.
Beaten to the punch, they rolled with it. "We said, 'OK, we can recover. Let's take the premise of what Bugz was going to be, and change it up. We were like, all right, what hasn't been done yet? What gives us the most freedom?'" recalls Maurer, who reads The Lord of the Rings every year at his birthday. "I'm a big fantasy fan, Marc likes fantasy, so we sat down and started brainstorming with the guys and gals on staff."
The end result was Delgo, a title concocted from an amalgam of names found in baby books. Delgo comes from Diego -- and, coincidentally, happens to be the name of a city on the Nile.
The setting for Delgo is the planet of Jhamora, populated by two vying humanoid races, the winged, pink-tinted Nohrin and the land-dwelling, greenish Lockni. "I'm kind of a closet anthropologist, and I've always wanted to create new weird cultures and strange things like that," Maurer says. "For our film, we decided to create our own world."
The film takes its title from a Lockni teenager who finds himself the unwitting catalyst for a civil war. A power-hungry Nohrin named Sedessa exacerbates tensions between Jhamora's rival races by kidnapping Nohrin princess Kyla, and framing young Delgo for the deed. It falls on Delgo to rescue his beloved princess, clear his good name and prevent the races from destroying each other, with Delgo's clumsy sidekick Filo providing comic relief.
To Maurer, the most important issue the movie could address was racism.
"I wanted to address the conflict and struggle that everyone has in our society, and illustrate that in a positive light."
To learn if such a sweeping story was even technically and commercially feasible, Adler and Maurer produced a 90-second piece of computer animation called a "proof of concept." The clip was designed in the form of a movie trailer and used software originally developed to animate automobiles, not living characters. It proved to Fathom that Delgo was more than a pipe dream. "The proof-of-concept illustrated the story we wanted to tell, the boy-meets-girl aspects, the villain, the struggles and the theme of unity," Maurer says. "But I think the people we showed it to were most attracted by the look of the film."
Adler and Maurer screened the trailer of the unmade film to experienced filmmakers, who encouraged them to move forward. More importantly, the trailer was the deciding factor in raising money for the project. Delgo is funded by private investors, whom Adler says have shown Fathom a great deal of faith, even though the production team will miss Delgo's target release date by at least a year. Currently they hope to finish the film by the end of 2003, and get it in theaters for the holiday season of 2004. "I don't think they really expected it to meet the initial deadline," Adler says with a laugh. "These people trusted us, and they wouldn't have committed the funds otherwise."
Since Delgo the movie is wholly a creature of the computer, it's fitting that you don't need to visit the studio to get a glimpse of Fathom Studios in action. Instead, go to www.delgo.com and click on the link to the "Digital Dailies" site. There you have access to the studio's internal message board, where you can download clips of unfinished animation and see the back-and-forth discussions that are bringing Delgo to light. The Digital Dailies are filtered a bit -- workers are identified not by name but by their grandiose titles, and not all of the company's internal communications are posted.
But the Dailies offer a clear window into how Delgo is being made. On one post, Maurer evaluates the "acting" of one of Jhamora's indigenous animals, a hopping "nouragh." "The arc of the jump seems a bit linear, like he has a jet engine keeping him in the air," Maurer notes, making suggestions for the movement to seem more natural.
In part, the Dailies are a unique publicity stunt, a way of showcasing Fathom's work. But Maurer sees them more as an educational tool. "Making a movie is a new experience for us, and we want to help others benefit from the experience," he says. "They were originally meant just to foster more staff interaction, but we liked the idea of putting them online and letting people see how we do things. And it's really worked -- we've gotten e-mails from film professors saying they use the Digital Dailies in their classes."
The Dailies also show Fathom's willingness to toss out the rule book for making movies. "For a studio to have a making-of-the-movie available, while it's being made -- that's never been done. We know we don't have all the answers, and now other people will know we don't have all the answers, too," Adler says.
Since Fathom began developing its big-screen feature in 1996, about 150 people have worked on Delgo, from full-time employees to consultants, and the hours can be arduous. Maurer himself works 10-14 hours a day, often six days a week, which means less time for his wife Sherrie. "To be honest, it's a struggle. We have to work really, really hard. But I take every Sunday off, no matter what."
"This is a much bigger task than we first realized," Adler admits. "Making a movie is not like making a string of 60-90-second commercials."
As it turned out, most aspects of Delgo, from the scriptwriting to the animation to the recording of voice actors and soundtrack, have taken longer than expected. A five-second shot, for example, of three Lockni scaling a cliff by moonlight required a day-and-a-half to animate the characters and three-and-a-half days to light. And that doesn't include the time in pre-production to build the sets and characters, which takes up to a month for each. Says Maurer: "We have more than 100 characters, more than 50 sets, more than 10 creatures and more than 50 varieties of plants in Delgo's world."
The visual results are far-out and fanciful, but very polished. Lavish throne rooms, otherworldly forests, ethereal horizons -- all are intricately detailed and authentically lit. "It almost looks like film," Maurer says, "except you've got green people with stripes on their heads."
Indeed, Maurer's job is not just to push the limits of his animators' imaginations, but to know when they go too far. "We can't be so whacked out that we throw people off. If we had green sky or purple grass, that would probably disorient people."
And while Delgo's production team makes much of its independence from the studio system, they're not naive enough to discard all of Hollywood's practices. For instance, they've been testing many aspects of the film with focus groups, gauging everything from how "alien" the characters should look to how many syllables their names should have. When the team realized an exposed navel on the heroine might turn off Middle Eastern viewers, they covered her up. Says Jennifer Jones, Delgo's co-producer, co-writer and director of publicity, "We want Delgo to be for all audiences worldwide."
"Worldwide" may seem an ambitious goal for an independent film, but such a wide release will be necessary for a picture with a budget in the "tens of millions of dollars," according to Jones. "Independent does not mean inexpensive." Jones is similarly tight-lipped when asked who will voice the characters, saying only that the cast will include "Academy Award winners and nominees."
And while cartoon features can be wildly popular, they're not guaranteed. Final Fantasy, a spinoff of the popular video game of the same name, had ground-breaking computer animation, yet cost more than $100 million and grossed less than $35 million in 2001, according to the movie revenue website Box Office Mojo.
Linda Simensky, the Cartoon Network's senior vice president of original animation, says that compared to making animated TV series or commercials, "Movies are the hardest thing to do. You work and work for all these years, and if you want to have box office that competes with the majors, it all comes down to the opening weekend. Three days, and it's over. [Fathom's filmmakers] face an incredible potential for a let-down. If it doesn't hit, they'll just have to get it out on video as soon as possible."
Simensky adds that while science fiction and fantasy have had huge big-screen success stories, they also run the risk of merely appealing to a specialized fan base. "When you tell a story like that, you limit yourself to the people who like that stuff, so getting non-fans to the theater to watch it will be hard."
The notion isn't lost on Adler, who hopes to ensure an even bigger return through ancillary merchandise. Jones says that the company has been approached by Simon and Schuster for a book deal, and that they hope to transfer Delgo's animated images to video game tie-ins. Fathom has put together an in-house "catalog" of potential tie-in products, with ideas including Halloween costumes, action figures, lunch boxes, temporary tattoos, and even a Princess Kyla makeup head and kit. The marketing ideas, along with a trailer and pieces of finished animation, will be part of Delgo's "distribution kit" to woo distributors, a process that Jones says will go "full throttle" in early 2003.
Given so much possible merchandising, Maurer tries to stay sensitive to Delgo's integrity. "We try to remember that this is a business, but that the most important thing is the story. People will go, take their children and be influenced, so we have a responsibility to have a positive message. If we can do that and have good products along with it, then we're good. We're golden."
As Delgo's director, Maurer acknowledges that he's the point man for a lot of pressure. "Anyone who said there wasn't any is a lying fool. That's part of the excitement, and part of the challenge: How do you manage to keep going when things look darkest? But in the worst situations, you can always say, 'I'm making a movie, and that's important.'"
When Delgo's deadlines seem unattainable, or when the animated frames seem plagued by a million bugs, Maurer can find inspiration whenever he looks up from his computer. Hanging on the wall in a small glass frame is a portion of the white burnoose worn by Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, directed by one of Maurer's favorite filmmakers, David Lean.
Looking at the fabric, Maurer marvels at how fortunate he is, having lucked into making a film that strives for the scope of a Lean picture. Only Maurer need not hire thousands of extras or travel to exotic locations.
As a boy struggling to hand-draw his own cartoons, Maurer could only have dreamed that he'd one day be creating scenes like a stampede of dinosaur-like "rockbiters." "Every day," he says, "is something else: 'Oh, this is so cool!' 'Oh, this is so cool.'"
For now, Fathom is pinning its hopes that the American public will have the same idea of "cool," and find Delgo to be a fantasy hero worthy of Yoda and Gollum, and not a computer-generated pest like Jar-Jar.
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