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The dawn of Delgo 

Fathom Studios defies Hollywood to create a computer-animated epic

Ask moviegoers to name the creator of Star Wars and you'll hear "George Lucas." Mention The Lord of the Rings, and these days, filmmaker Peter Jackson's name probably comes up more than J.R.R. Tolkien's. Those movies aren't just renowned for their financial success, which has made them among the highest-grossing films ever made. They're also visionary film fantasies that have changed the face of pop culture.

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.

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