Commentary: No cute animated talking animals in 'Delgo'

Action adventure takes broader approach to storytelling

"Delgo" discussion: Animated features often follow a formula based on cute talking animals, familiar childhood stories and comedy.

That's not the always case, however, now that the animated genre is starting to take a broader approach to storytelling. A case in point is "Delgo," the CGI action adventure opening Dec. 12 via Freestyle Releasing at 2,000-plus theaters. There are no cuddly animals prancing about here. The film's story is a serious take on the human race and its problems, but the setting is a non-human fantasy world where two very different cultures are at war.

Directed by Marc F. Adler and Jason F. Maurer, the Fathom Studios production was written by Adler, Scott Biear and Maurer and was produced by Adler. Its voice talents include Freddie Prinze, Jr., Chris Kattan, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Val Kilmer, Anne Bancroft, Malcolm McDowell, Louis Gossett, Jr., Eric Idle, Michael Clarke Duncan, Burt Reynolds, Kelly RIpa and Sally Kellerman.

The movie's mythical land of Jhamora is inhabited by two competing tribes -- the winged Nohrin and the terrestrial Lockni. Although they're definitely not humans, these two battling peoples are driven by some very human-like weaknesses and character flaws. In the movie's divided land a rebellious youth, Delgo, who's secretly in love with a princess of a rival race, must prove his innocence of a crime he's been falsely accused of and must then rescue his princess, unmask a traitor, end a war and unite Jhamora.

After enjoying an early look at "Delgo," I was happy to have the opportunity to focus recently with Marc Adler on the making of the film. "It kind of breaks the mold of (animated films with) comedy, talking cute animals that are furry with big eyes and based on some known story or comic strip," Adler told me. "We wanted to create something fresh and original. We wanted to do something that was an action adventure and we wanted stylistically to do something that was a little older, more akin to the look of a video game, not be afraid of using sheer blacks (and not having) to stay with pastels, which other studios may do for a younger audience."

In terms of the film's story, he added, "We wanted to tell a sophisticated story that was still for all families, but we think kids are very sophisticated today and they can relate to more complex material. We told a complex story that would appeal to all ages, combining this magical world with heart pounding action and a forbidden romance. We have something for the girls and something for the boys."

Asked how the project came about, Adler explained, "It basically started as a hobby. We're in Atlanta. We're obviously an unknown studio nowhere near Hollywood. We were doing commercials for years and years and we have a sister company that does interactive design (and) web development for large organizations. We really wanted to do a movie and so years and years ago we were toying around with movie concepts.

"It was a hobby that every Monday night we'd go to a restaurant and draw pictures and talk about story ideas and character development and whatnot. Finally, we pushed ourselves to go past the hobby stage and to actually try our hand at this thing. Hollywood wasn't extremely receptive to (having) some unknown studio that had never done a film before jump in and try to compete with Disney and DreamWorks in a non-formula film."

While developing the film's screenplay, he said, "one of the things we were realizing is that a lot of the formula (animated) comedies are very U.S. pop culture centric. When we submitted our film internationally to the top three animation festivals of the world we were accepted by all three. The largest festival in the world for animation is called Annecy and it's in Annecy, France. The second largest is Anima Mundi in Brazil. And the third largest is in Korea and is called SICAF, an acronym for Seoul International Cartoon and Animation Festival.

"Anima Mundi is an interesting one because most of these film festivals (have) a jury panel that decides on the winners. But at Anima Mundi the audience actually decides. There were a hundred thousand people that voted on the best animated feature of 2008 in Rio and they selected 'Delgo.' We were really enthusiastic that we got such a great response from an international audience to the film and the audience is about three times larger than at Sundance. So outside the U.S. animation is a little broader in scope. We were delighted that our film was accepted in these other cultures."

Casting posed its own special challenges: "With casting we had to do a whole other level of design. We put together, in essence, a short but in a trailer format with a whole kit for these actors because we were unknown directors, an unknown studio and we needed to do something that would be more than a faxed offer letter to these (actors) who get offers every week. So we put together this whole kit for all of the cast that would have a map of the (movie's) world and sample sheets of character designs.

"Of course, at the level of the actors we were going for they don't do auditions. So we went down the street to Blockbuster and rented videotapes and closed our eyes and listened to the voices of the actors as we were looking at pictures of the characters to make sure that they meshed. It was a long process to bring these actors on board and to get them to make the plunge. Everyone asked, 'Who else is in it?' That's the first question. Well, you can have a dozen people that are interested, but no one has said yes yet -- but no one has said no. Eventually, we had a couple people who said yes and everyone seemed to follow suit. You know, (we had) nine months of nothing and then in about six weeks (there were) 12 celebrities signing on."

Recording the voice tracks was done in multiple locations because, he pointed out, "We had to make it easy for the actors. So wherever they wanted to be, whatever was comfortable for them, we would go to them. Sometimes it was in New York. Sometimes it was in L.A. Sometimes they would actually come to Atlanta. Burt Reynolds came to Atlanta. He was fantastic. He was really doing this out of the goodness of his heart because he loves Georgia production. He grew up here and he did a bunch of movies here. He always hoped there would be a big Georgia film production center and he was trying to help us in making more of a digital film production center in Atlanta."

Reynolds was the last voice talent cast for "Delgo" and, Adler said, "He was cast in mid-2003. That was really in the pre-production phase. The movie, itself, took us five-plus years of production (and we were) a studio that hadn't done it before. Even if we knew what we were doing it would probably have taken four years. We had to put together systems and technological architecture that would allow for collaboration and decentralized production and coordination, which we didn't have for our 60 second spots. We created a new management system online that we called the Digital Dailies. That allowed us to decentralize production and allow for collaboration and coordination with the staff."

With this approach, he noted, "people from all over the world logged into the system -- from Italy, from Denmark, from different parts of the U.S. Different people would log into the system and they would upload their dailies. We would have this as an information repository for all things 'Delgo.' We had what we called the bible, which was the ways things must be done in terms of the look, the file nomenclature, etc. That's how we reviewed the material. Wherever I was I could log in and approve shots or make comments and what was really cool was, so could anyone else on staff."

As for the challenges of production, Adler explained, that about two years ago "the passing of Anne Bancroft (who voiced the film's evil Empress) was a major blow for us -- not only from a human standpoint, but from a production standpoint. It really set us back because she's the antagonist in the movie. She had recorded about 75% of her lines. Some of the lines we had to try to clean up because the recording quality wasn't at its best. We recorded her at a not-so-great studio that's now defunct where she lived. We flew up to New York and then drove to Bridgehampton to record in this little cabin. Their recording booth was extremely small -- like the size of a phone booth -- and she didn't like small enclosed spaces.

"So we left the door open and we could hear toilets flushing in the background! Some of the lines we couldn't use, but we cleaned it up to do the best we could because we really wanted to get her voice. But you can imagine just trying to get those remaining lines (to sound like Bancroft was difficult). Trying to mimic a 70-something year old Academy Award winning actress that smoked for 45 years is no small feat!"

So how did they manage to get it done? "We talked to a bunch of different agencies," he replied, "and we got a lot of reads and nothing was really working even with trying to EQ (equalize) and balance and everything. Finally, there was a woman (Melissa McBride) who was a local (casting agent and actress) here in Atlanta who has done different voices for the Cartoon Network and whatnot and was actually two other voices in our film. She asked if she could have a shot at it and I said, 'Why not?' She said, 'Can I borrow the videotape of her recording?' We handed her the video. She came back two days later and we played the line from Anne Bancroft and then we had her read the same line."

McBride, he added, "would basically put her nose to the air, her chin up as high as possible, squeezing her neck and contorting her face to a point where I don't know what she was doing, but it was indistinguishable between Anne and her without even doing any EQ. She did an unbelievable job. We got extremely lucky that Melissa McBride was able to pull those remaining lines. Most of the lines in the film are truly Anne, but there were a couple of scenes we hadn't finished yet that she hadn't read for us."

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