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What Is DELGO, And Why Did Moriarty Have To Go To Atlanta To Learn More?!

Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.

Several weeks back, I took a trip to Atlanta. As with many of my adventures of the last few years, this one began with a call from The Dude.

That phone call in early 2001 summoned me to a restaurant to meet Marc Adler and Jennifer Jones. I learned a long time ago what when Jeff “The Dude” Dowd calls, you need to go and see what he’s calling about. His whole job is to find things that other people are going to be talking about in a few years, and to identify those things now. He’s a talent scout, an artist’s rep, a pipeline for people who are trying to get attention for deserving projects. All he told me up front about Adler and Jones is that they were part of an independent animated film, and that I’d like them. Over lunch, he busied himself with a plateful of salmon, and Adler was the one left doing all the talking, a mile a minute, as he told me about his vision for something called DELGO.

Jennifer, a charming Southern belle, gave me an art package with some early designs to look at. I looked everything over later, and what struck me most was that they had a hell of a long road ahead of them. It seemed ambitious, but at that point, it seemed like they were just getting started, and I held off writing about the film because, to be honest, I wasn’t sure it was really a film yet.

As time passed, I would peek in at their website on occasion. They were trying something unusual and even potentially deadly for a small start-up company, opening themselves up to scrutiny from the outside, inviting it even. They were posting their progress online, and not in the form of sanitized press releases or occasional images. They were actually using their site to post dailies, rough footage, fragments of animation as they were being scrutinized, polished, and reworked.

About eight months ago, I got a call from Jennifer, her honeysuckle accent instantly recognizable. She told me Marc was going to be in Los Angeles and wanted to update me on the film’s progress face to face. We met at Jerry’s Deli by the Beverly Center, where I arrived early enough to be able to watch Heather Donahue of BLAIR WITCH PROJECT fame meeting with several people. She was polished, prettier than I remembered, and there was a desperate quality to her manner in the meeting that I could pick up five tables away. Seeing her there and realizing just how completely she vanished after that first burst of fame was a stark reminder of the fickle nature of this business, and I was in the midst of some business turmoil of my own at the time. As a result, I was a wee bit melancholy when Marc showed up, and we ended up talking frankly about how much longer the film was taking them than they originally thought it would. He was, if anything, more dedicated to the project than before, though. It was like the hard lessons had given him fuel to continue. It was obvious that a few year’s worth of work had been an education for everyone associated with the film, and that there was still a hell of a lot of hard work to be done.

Which brings us full-circle, back to that trip to Atlanta, where I finally got a look at what Adler and his associates are up to.

The trip was Marc’s idea. After our lunch together, Marc got it in his head to bring me in so he could show me the studio, so I could meet his collaborators, and so he could preview some of the marketing materials for me. There was an apparent sense of pride in his descriptions of the work they were doing, but a description only goes so far. I wanted to go, but my schedule made it a problem several times. It was only through extraordinary effort on the part of Jennifer Jones that we finally found two free days where I could visit, and I found myself flying into Atlanta late on a Thursday night.

A lovely temperate Los Angeles afternoon left me totally unprepared for the snow in the air when I stepped out of the Atlanta airport. Marc was there to meet me himself, even though it was after midnight. One of the things I determined over the course of the trip is that Marc, like me, never sleeps. He dropped me off at my hotel, and when Jennifer picked me up the next morning, she told me that Marc was already at the office.

That office turned out to be several floors of a nearby building, where Marc’s primary business is housed. Macquarium is part web-design, part advertising agency, and they’ve won awards for their multi-million dollar campaigns and serviced some major corporate clients. Marc’s one of those guys who, no matter what you’ve accomplished and how young you are, will make you feel like you’ve been wasting your time. He’s rolling in dough, he’s younger than I am, and his social life seems to be a sort of delicious blur. And on top of all of it, he’s happy with what he’s doing. As he showed me around Macquarium, I saw a different Marc than I’d seen before. He was in his element, and I could see how he’d managed to build this company and his client base.

”This is what convinced me to work here in the first place,” Jennifer said as we headed to the ground floor of the building, where they’ve got a state of the art digital screening room. This is where I got my first glimpse of many at the state of DELGO right now, which I guess raises the question for you, the reader:

Just what the hell is DELGO, anyway?

Well, it’s the culmination of Marc Adler’s lifelong dream, for one thing.

It’s also an independently financed feature-length computer animated film.

It’s a fantasy story about tolerance and understanding, and it’s a bit of a test case to see if a regionally located producer can stand toe to toe and compete with PDI, Blue Sky, Pixar, or even Disney.

It’s a Quixotic effort, a swing for the back wall of the ballpark, and as long a long shot as long shots get.

And maybe... just maybe... it’s going to work.

As I walked from room to room at Fathom Studios, the animation arm of Macquarium, I paid close attention to the desks of each of the animators. I love how creative people wear their influences, surrounding themselves with things they love or that have meaning for them, decorating their workspaces so as to kickstart the artistic impulse. One after another, the animators I spoke with talked about Pixar in the same reverent tones that were once reserved for mention of Disney’s Nine Old Men. Today, it’s guys John Lassiter and Andrew Stanton and Joe Ranft who cast long shadows over everyone else working in the medium.

I didn’t even have to look on the desk of Jason Maurer to sniff out a particular title that I mentioned to him, and his broad smile was answer enough. “Oh, man, I love THE DARK CRYSTAL,” he said, and he was able to quickly produce his DVD copy out of a stack of pretty much every major (or minor, for that matter) fantasy film from the last 20 years. DELGO’s got a surprisingly dense and alien ecosystem, one of my favorite things about their design of the world. If you take a look at the trailer for the film, it’s that ecosystem that you’ll see first. Another similarity I noticed when looking at the footage was to the ODDWORLD line of videogames. The story for DELGO, written by Adler, Jones, and Maurer, looks like it plays safely within the basic Josephy Campbell/STAR WARS archetype, but the look of the film is definitely post-Playstation-chic. And that’s not a put-down. I’m genuinely impressed by what this team is putting together with such a small staff. Hell... I’m inspired by it.

Back in the early ‘90s, Harry Lime and I worked with a pair of close friends of ours to try and get an independent animated film off the ground. We had some nibbles, interest expressed at different times to different degrees by different companies. What kept the doors closed was the inevitable moment when the numbers got crunched. No matter how excited we got them creatively, they would choke on the real figures involved, and that would be that. Even the best-case scenarios were cripplingly expensive. There’s a technological infrastructure required before a single frame of film can be created, and in most cases, that’s just too much for people to attempt.

One of the reasons Peter Jackson’s LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy was possible is because of the warm-up work WETA did on the HERCULES and XENA series. Fathom’s the same way, producing animation for broadcast and industrial clients since 1994. They took two years creating a proof-of-concept test, ninety seconds of animation that gave Adler and his team the confidence and the financial muscle to take on the challenge of making a movie completely outside the Hollywood system.

They’re just now recording the actual cast performances. Michael Clarke Duncan is the first cast member announced, and they recently recorded his work here in LA. This is an important step for Fathom. They’ve got to start thinking about distribution now and how they’re going to market the film, not only to the eventual audiences, but also to the companies they’re going to need if they’re ever going to get the film into theaters. They’re signing recognizable, bankable names, and they’re going to roll their cast announcements out gradually, trying to get maximum bang for their bucks.

Right now, the thing I would encourage you to spend time looking at, particularly if you’re interested in the technological side of animation, is the Digital Dailies. What you’ll see is a group of people all working together to do something that accepted wisdom says they shouldn’t be able to do. Normally, when people talk about independent films, they’re talking about dark, edgy material for adults. DELGO may be an optimistic fable aimed squarely at an all-audiences market, but make no mistake: it’s as risky as anything that unspooled at Sundance this year, if not more so based on the size of the stakes they’re gambling.

And if that risk pays off in the end, then maybe ten years from now, some other group of determined artists will be citing Marc Adler and Jason Maurer and the entire DELGO crew as their inspiration as they follow their own dreams.

Special thanks to Jeff Dowd and Jennifer Jones for their help in putting this piece together.

"Moriarty" out.

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