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Digital Media FX - The Power of Imagination

dFX Interview: Jason F. Maurer
Jason F. MaurerJason 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' The Gate to the Mind's Eye.

Maurer has won numerous awards for animation including seven Telly Awards and an Addy.

Digital Media 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?

Jason F. 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.


dFX: What exactly is Fathom Studios first animated feature film, Delgo: A Hero's Journey, about and where did the idea for the movie originate?

Jason F. 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 today.


Delgo



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?

Jason F. 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 to life.


dFX: How do you coordinate between all the different departments or aspects of an animated movie (i.e. voice acting, backgrounds, characters, writing, story development)?

Jason F. 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 newsgroups.

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.

Of course, 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.


dFX: What 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?

Jason F. 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.


Exploring...


dFX: How far along is Delgo and what has been the biggest challenge to date?

Jason F. 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 and structured.


Delgo and Filo


dFX: 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?

Jason F. 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.


dFX: 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?

Jason F. 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.

The high-end 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 programs.


dFX: 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?

Jason F. 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.

Finally, we 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.


dFX: You said, "we are redefining the rules for CGI filmmaking by creating this feature outside of the Hollywood system." Explain this further, please.

Jason F. 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.


Delgo with his slingshot


dFX: Who worked with you in the writing of Delgo: A Hero's Journey and what was the inspiration for the story?

Jason F. 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.

Of course, 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.

The inspiration 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 these creatures.


dFX: What is the step-by-step process that Fathom Studios follows in the development of an animated production like Delgo?

Jason F. 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.

While storyboarding 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.


Fahn's Room


dFX: 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?

Jason F. 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.

Apart from 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 this project.


dFX: 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?

Jason F. 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.


dFX: Thanks for your time, Jason. When will we be able to see Delgo in theaters?

Jason F. 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.

Interview (c)copyright 2001 Joe Tracy / Digital Media FX.
All Delgo: A Hero's Journey movie images (c) Fathom Studios.

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