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The dawn of Delgo 

Fathom Studios defies Hollywood to create a computer-animated epic

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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."

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