Interview: Jason F. Maurer
F. Maurer is the Sovereign Architect of Creation for Fathom Studios,
a unique way of saying "supervisor of writing, direction
and production" for all Fathom Studios' animated projects.
Prior to Fathom
Studios, Maurer led the broadcast and animation division of Macquarium
Intelligent Communications. There he created station packages
for the Sci-Fi Channel, and the Weather Channel, as well as national
broadcast spots for Leo Burnett, and J. Walter Thompson. During
this time, Maurer also worked with Syd Mead on a virtual reality
set for a Sci-Fi television program, and produced and directed
an award-winning video tutorial series. In addition to corporate
projects, Maurer's work has been featured in Odyssey Productions'
Gate to the Mind's Eye.
won numerous awards for animation including seven Telly Awards
and an Addy.
FX (dFX) recently caught up with Maurer to discuss Fathom Studios'
first feature film project, Delgo: A Hero's Journey.
dFX: How did you become involved with Fathom Studios?
Maurer: Fathom Studios evolved from Macquarium Intelligent
Communications, an interactive strategy and design agency Marc
Adler formed in 1991. I joined the company around 1994
and brought with me a background and education in fine art. Marc's
belief has always been that one can teach technology, but cannot
teach talent. So, although my experience was more classical than
technical, he brought me on board to lead Fathom's projects, both
interactive and animation. Fortunately, he saw early on that technology
doesn't replace artistry, but, rather, it is the tool an artist
uses. It was this conviction that drew me to Fathom Studios and
Macquarium in the first place.
exactly is Fathom Studios first animated feature film, Delgo:
A Hero's Journey, about and where did the idea for the movie
Maurer: The idea to make a movie came from Marc's goal meeting
my dream. Years ago, I was playing around with early motion capture
technology and was animating a little insect critter I had created;
I think it was an ant, actually. Marc happened to walk by and
saw the motion test. The rest, I suppose is history. Once he saw
that test - saw what we could do, we began talking about the feasibility
of making a CG feature film. It had always been a goal of his
to make a movie and it had certainly been a dream of mine.
Once we worked
out the logistics of creating a CG film, Marc asked me to gauge
the creative team's reaction to the project. Of course, everyone
was extremely gung-ho, so the first step was to develop a treatment
for our concept. Scott Biear and I wrote the script with Marc
serving as our editor while the Fathom team spent many months
developing a ninety second proof-of-concept, which we took to
Hollywood for industry feedback. The reaction was positive, so
Marc gave us a green light to expand our staff. We brought in
talent from around the world and started pre-production.
I really believe
film has a social responsibility, particularly the animation genre
that makes such an indelible impression on the younger generation.
Delgo: A Hero's Journey is an epic adventure of a world's
struggle for unity. It is an action-adventure fantasy film with
a strong social message about two races overcoming their bigotry
and working together. We felt the concept of unity was both a
classic theme with global appeal and one that we've not seen often
in animation. Certainly, that theme has been made more urgent
dFX: Naturally once the project was given the green light and
you expanded your staff the costs drastically increased. How have
you been paying for all the people working on the project?
Maurer: Years ago, before we embarked on the making of this
film, Marc pulled together financing from a number of investors
who believe in the project. It is with this funding and company
earnings from past projects that we are able to bring Delgo
How do you coordinate between all the different departments or
aspects of an animated movie (i.e. voice acting, backgrounds,
characters, writing, story development)?
Maurer: When we sat down and began planning out how we were
going to make Delgo: A Hero's Journey, one of my biggest
concerns was communication. I wanted to ensur that everyone on
staff understood my ideas, even as they evolved with the story
and our capabilities. I also wanted everyone to see everyone else's
feedback so that all departments could collaborate efficiently.
This is especially important with regard to our flex-hour system.
So, we utilized the power of the Internet, and set up internal
We have newsgroups
for animation, reference, story, music (for the composer), tips
and tricks and the major one, Digital Dailies - which we've opened
up to the public via our Web site, www.delgo.com.
Using the newsgroups, everyone on staff can post an image or a
movie of what they are working on and get instant feedback from
others, with the added bonus of the feedback being documented
for later reference. This gives us the freedom to be anywhere
at anytime and see what is happening with the film.
we also have real-time face-to-face collaboration. We have a stadium-seating
digital theater in our facility. Oftentimes, we gather there for
collaboration as well as training and screening of other films
for reference and fun.
about voice actors? That seems to be one of the initial steps
in creating an animated feature. Have all of your parts been cast?
Anyone we know?
Maurer: We have been putting together a solid ensemble cast
made up of highly-acclaimed talent, including Academy Award winners.
However, we are not yet announcing the cast.
far along is Delgo and what has been the biggest challenge
Maurer: We have completed all characters, sets, worlds, creatures,
flora and fauna. We've been animating to scratch track for a couple
of years now.
When we set out to create Delgo: A Hero's Journey, we examined
the challenges we'd face with the story. Of all of the challenges
we have overcome so far, the greatest would have to be organization.
Defining what your pipeline is going to be like, how it works,
what is involved in it is absolutely critical to the success of
a CGI film. We spent a lot of time going over our workflow making
sure it was set up in the most efficient and communicative way
possible. We set up internal newsgroups, websites for project
tracking, check sheets and calendars for the different stages
of production, specific naming conventions and directory structure,
and a ton of other stuff. While we did have the advantage of having
created successful workflow processes on previous corporate and
broadcast projects for a number of years, the challenge was in
the number of organizational systems that needed to be planned
It seems that every year technology advances to allow new things.
How does this affect your production when it has been going on
for several years?
Maurer: We adapt and change, as we need to. We are very careful
to ensure any implementation of new technologies is tested and
adds value before we work it into the pipe. Every day things get
faster, and software improves - we make sure that we are always
using the right products to achieve our goals.
So as software evolves do you make any changes to your models?
What high-end 3D programs does Fathom use and do you use any proprietary
software as well?
Maurer: Generally, we do not change models as software evolves.
We are, however, always evaluating the state of our work and newest
versions of software before bringing them into our workflow and
we are very careful about how we introduce these upgrades because
once you've gone forward with a model in a certain package, it
can be very difficult to go back.
programs we use include Maya and Deep Paint 3D.
We, at Fathom,
are not software engineers, we are artists. However, we do have
technically-minded people on staff who have developed proprietary
tools that fit our workflow, such as crowd and battle simulation
programs and Internet-based production management and asset management
Animated movies have been very shaky at the box office. The
Iron Giant, Osmosis Jones, and Final Fantasy had terrible
runs at the box office while movies like Shrek, Toy Story 2,
and Monsters, Inc. made a bundle. How does this affect
the thinking, planning, and marketing for Delgo?
Maurer: It is a shame that some terrific animated films did
not find their audience in theaters. We are fortunate in that
our relationship with Macquarium enables us to tap into talented
interactive designers early in our film's production. We have
dedicated resources for our Web site, DVD-ROMs, CD-ROMS and many
other products that will help us expand Delgo's reach prior to
and during the film's release.
In fact, our
Web site has already generated an incredible following. Because
we've enabled site visitors to follow the making of this feature
as it happens, our fans have an invested emotional attachment
to our success. In addition, our fans recognize that we are redefining
the rules for CGI filmmaking by creating this feature outside
of the Hollywood system. Certainly, we are benefiting from top
Hollywood talent - including actors, musicians, and the counsel
of insiders; but the film is being independently produced. Our
fans know that if we are successful, Delgo could alter the landscape
of animated films. To have their support is critical, because
they are the ones who can make us successful.
have the advantage of Marc's knowledge and experience. He is a
successful business leader. He knows the necessity of marketing,
merchandising and creating a business plan that will merge every
facet of this project to find our audience.
said, "we are redefining the rules for CGI filmmaking by
creating this feature outside of the Hollywood system." Explain
this further, please.
Maurer: This is the first fully-financed, independently produced
CGI feature film for full theatrical release. We are a mix of
high-tech business leaders and artists in Atlanta using off-the-shelf
software to create a full-length feature. One doesn't get much
further outside of the Hollywood system.
If we are
successful, doors could open for other studios who have the talent
and ambition to create their own features. Many people believe
that CGI features can only be made by Hollywood. What we hope
to do is dispel that myth in the same way successful independently
produced live-action films such as Sling Blade, Good Will Hunting,
Reservoir Dogs and The Blair Witch have done. Those films and
so many more opened the doors for future filmmakers to turn their
cameras on. That's what we hope to do for other studios.
Who worked with you in the writing of Delgo: A Hero's Journey
and what was the inspiration for the story?
Maurer: Scott Biear and I wrote the script, which is an ever-evolving
process. One or two drafts are never enough. Marc has served as
our editor throughout the process. In addition, we have an internal
story team made up of different members of the staff, including
the art directors, the promotions department and animators. Each
member of the story teams brings their own insight and perspective.
For example, the animators and art directors bring a strong visual
aspect to the brainstorming sessions, whereas the promotions team
remains very audience-focused. What the story team does is deal
with overarching plot points and character motivations. It is
their job to punch holes in the script - find anything that doesn't
flow - the points that Scott, Marc and I may no longer see because
we are so close to it. Then Scott and I rewrite the specific scenes
and dialogue and send it back to the story team for their thoughts.
we've also sent the script to studio readers for coverage. These
professional readers rate the script and story and try to punch
holes as well. Our coverage has been as favorable and encouraging
as it has been useful.
for the story really came from all of unrest we have in society
today, prejudice, discrimination, hate crimes, violence - all
of those terrible things. We wanted to tell a story where our
heroes overcame these things personally and facilitated change
among entire peoples. As I said earlier, I believe film has a
social responsibility so I wanted us to tackle real problems and
show that people can grow, change and live together in peace.
In addition, we knew early on we wanted to tell a fantasy-adventure
story. So, our initial concept art had us creating different races,
that artwork lent itself to the telling of war and peace among
What is the step-by-step process that Fathom Studios follows in
the development of an animated production like Delgo?
Maurer: Everything always starts with the script. I break
the story into specific shots with notes on what I am looking
for from the camera, lighting and actor. Then the storyboard artist
puts together boards for every shot. I review these daily and
we make slight changes as we go. Once all the boards are done,
we put them together with a scratch voice track in an editing
system (animatic) to see how it all flows together. If something
doesn't gel the way we would like, we change it in the boards
first. Once we have locked down the boards in the animatic, we
move into layout. Here is where I set the stage for how every
scene and shot is going to be played out. Together, with a team
of layout artists, we dress the sets, place the cameras, and animate
stand-in characters for rough staging of motion. Then, we take
playblasts (little quicktimes of the scenes generated by Maya)
and bring them into the animatic to, again, check to see if the
story and timing flows. If so, then we move that scene into animation.
and layout are going on, all of the characters, sets, props, and
creatures are being modeled, textured and articulated by another
team. Once animation is done, the lighting team breaks every scene
up into separate files for every shot. They then proceed to set
up the lighting for the shot, based upon a color sketch provided
by one of the art directors. After they have set their lights
and shaders, they do a series of test renders to ensure that everything
looks solid. Finally, it is all broken up into passes for compositing
and sent to render. All of the final audio - dialog, sound effects,
and musical composition - are added in post.
There are literally dozens of studios in the U.S. that are currently
working on an animated feature production. Some have been at it
for over five years with some nice visuals and trailers to show
but no definitive release plan. How will Fathom Studios differ
from this pattern with Delgo?
Maurer: Unfortunately, I don't know very much about other
studios' plans, so I cannot explain how ours differ. However,
I can tell you some of our plans for a successful release. Regarding
the film, a great advantage we have is through our eclectic and
diverse talent. One cannot tell a story of unity among people
if the team comes from the same backgrounds.
having a fully-financed, independently produced CGI picture, our
animators all bring unique experiences and talents, including
previous, seemingly unrelated studies to the project, such as
natural history, geology, architecture, broadcast television and
more. We will have a diverse cast made up of Hollywood's most
respected and beloved actors and today's hottest talents. We have
remarkable, multi-platinum musicians from different genres creating
original works for the soundtrack. As I've said, we already have
a massive following of fans via our Web site who are able to witness
the work and artistry that goes into making this feature as it
happens. We have a business and merchandising plan being executed
by Marc and his promotions team and, we are benefiting from the
counsel and guidance of many industry insiders who believe in
When artists, technicians, and animators were hired to work on
Delgo, what was some of the specific criteria you looked
for in selecting who became a part of the project and who didn't?
Maurer: First and foremost - a strong demo reel is critical.
The work always speaks for itself. What I want to see is vision,
talent, and understanding of the technology. Can they animate
something with weight and character? Do they understand how light
and color work? Can they frame a shot correctly? Do they understand
composition? What software packages do they know and how long
have they been using them? And of course, can they draw?
In addition, the subtleties can say a lot about a person and their
professionalism, such as the presentation of their materials.
Did they quickly hand write a VHS 120 tape or does it have a professional
label and packaging?
For this project,
I set out looking for generalists with focuses. I wanted to bring
together a team who knew a little about everything in the process,
but were really strong in one or two areas. The reason for this
is that I wanted everyone to be able to experience every aspect
of the project and the areas where someone maybe weak, someone
else was strong and could then mentor them in that area. The beauty
of this is that it gives everyone the opportunity to grow, which
is something that I think we all want and need, and it allows
for a tighter staff and higher overall efficiency.
for your time, Jason. When will we be able to see Delgo
Maurer: Of course, the actual release date is up to the distributor,
however, we expect Delgo: A Hero's Journey to hit theaters
sometime in 2003.
(c)copyright 2001 Joe Tracy / Digital Media FX.
All Delgo: A Hero's Journey movie images (c) Fathom Studios.
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