Premiering today on NBC’s Peacock, DreamWorks Animation’s latest animated short brings together the director’s love for animation, the art of illusion, and his father.
Premiering today on NBC’s Peacock streaming platform, Taylor Meacham’s To: Gerard is the latest entry in the DreamWorks Shorts program launched in November 2017. A love letter from Meacham (making his directorial debut) to his father, the CG animated short brings together both his love for animation and the art of illusion.
In the film, we meet Gerard, who despite working in a post office his entire life, dreams of one day finding his audience as a famous magician, just like his childhood hero. With effortless dexterity that accompanies mastery, this delightfully overgrown kid practices magic every day with a special coin…a gift from The Great Vivonti.
When an inquisitive young girl named Jules wanders upon his practiced routine, she’s dazzled by his talents. With the help of his cherished coin, Gerard charms his first-ever audience member with an impromptu magic show. In this moment, two artists—separated by decades—unknowingly set off a chain reaction that will change both of their lives forever.
While the idea for the story had been percolating for some time, Meacham put pen to paper and banged out his original script in a single weekend. “Back when I was a kid, I used to go to magic camp because I wanted to grow up and become a magician, just like Gerard in this film,” he shares. “And the dramatic inspiration, the story’s emotional core, came from all the people in my life, and in other people’s lives, that have gone out of their way to inspire and encourage us to follow our dreams.”
For the director, that emotional core is also quite personal. “The film also evokes my love for my father, who's been a huge inspiration in my life,” he says. “And as we have both gotten older, I’ve seen that he couldn’t really afford to follow his own dreams, despite being someone who's constantly been an advocate for me. So that's where these two ideas come together. Out came a script and that's what you get to see.”
To: Gerard is produced by Jeff Hermann, who most recently produced the studio’s animated shorts Bird Karma, Bilby and Marooned, and is currently producing the studio’s upcoming feature, The Boss Baby: Family Business, scheduled for a March 26, 2021 release. When Hermann first heard the pitch, he was immediately struck not just by Meacham’s emotional story, but by how well formed his vision was for the film. “Taylor's pitch immediately struck all of us,” he says. “The first time that the development executives and I heard it, we were blown away because it was so well formed in the sense of his personal attachment to his father, his views on his father's life, and what his father's contributions to Taylor's life had meant to him.”
“I couldn't be happier that Taylor got this opportunity,” Hermann continues. “He did such an amazing job of communicating his vision, not just in the pitch, but to all the departments that were then needed to bring his vision to life.” “We were both surprised with how many people really enjoyed the story but also had a secret love of magic,” Meacham notes. “And a lot of people that worked on our movie are magicians or enjoy going to the Magic Castle.”
Due to the happy coincidence that some of the studio’s most senior artists were in-between projects, Meacham was able to tap into four-time Annie Award winner Nico Marlet as his character designer, as well as Pierre Perifel (Bilby) as head of character animation and Raymond Zibach as production designer. “The mix of people available in that window of time was part of the magic formula that allowed us to succeed,” Hermann reveals. “It allowed Taylor the opportunity to direct for the first time, having people surrounding him with decades of experience in their fields, whether it was Raymond for production design, Pierre for animation, or Nico for character design.”
In developing the short’s look, Zibach quickly expanded on Meacham’s desire to incorporate art deco into the location design. “I had a bunch of random design ideas, one of which was art deco, because I wanted there to be this antique feeling to the post office,” Meacham explains. “That set the initial foundation for the set piece of the post office, but really, the design of the world.” With Zibach working from Meacham’s initial inspiration, art-deco infuses the film - from the metal inlays in Gerard’s postal floor to the design of the tubes that carry mail throughout the room. Even the conveyor belts that slip into the walls, from a top-down view, are arranged in an art-deco pattern.
“And for Nico's character designs, I don't even think we ever discussed the art deco idea with him,” the director continues. “I had given him some one-page write-ups of each character and their backgrounds, so he could get an idea of the story, and he ended up just flipping that paper over and doing initial drawings right on the back.”
The film’s animators were able to duplicate Gerard’s “magic” to make it look as if a real person is performing. They shot reference of Meacham demonstrating Vivonti’s illusion, and studied numerous online videos, to better visualize the movement needed to make the illusion as magical as possible.
When asked if the final short stayed close to his original story, Meacham replies, “Very much so, though the finale did change. Originally, the film ends with Gerard on stage bowing to big applause. And then we would just cut to black. But in discussions with studio executives at the time, we talked about a bigger finale, something unexpected…that showed him moving on without the thing that he's felt he's needed forever.”
While the production had to pause at one point for six months, for Meacham, an even bigger challenge than picking things back was finishing the film after having moved onto a new feature film project. “At the same time, we were finishing the short, I was also storyboarding on The Croods [The Croods: A New Age]. Obviously, we know the directing role is very demanding, but a completely different job, for another director on a feature film, swapping hats constantly throughout the day, running between different meetings, that was definitely a challenge.”
Having now produced all four DreamWorks Shorts program films, Hermann notes that he and the crew were especially taken in by To: Gerard’s emotional message, which made working on the film especially enjoyable. “The whole thing was just a joy,” he says. “It was fun. Everybody believed in the message and inspiration they felt from the short, and what Taylor brought to the project. We all wanted to see it succeed.”
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.