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‘Pacemaker’: A Trans-Positive Story of Hope and Acceptance

Christopher Lennertz’s 3DCG heartfelt short about a grandfather’s journey to understand his grandson’s message of love and pride stars 2023 Tony Award winner Alex Newell, the first-ever non-binary actor to win a Tony, and multi-Grammy Award winner Philip Lawrence, with ‘Nimona’s ND Stevenson serving as executive producer. 

For two-time Emmy nominee and Grammy-winning composer Christopher Lennertz, his new animated short, Pacemaker, available on YouTube and Vimeo, tells a very personal story. He wrote, co-directed, and composed the original song that threads the narrative of the trans-positive, 3DCG animated musical short that stars 2023 Tony Award winner Alex Newell (Shucked), the first-ever non-binary actor to win a Tony, and multi-Grammy Award winner Philip Lawrence (of Bruno Mars fame).

Pacemaker tells the story of a grandfather's hopeful acceptance of his trans grandson. The story is told through an original contemporary song with music and lyrics by Lennertz and orchestrations by Ella Feingold (Silk Sonic). Lennertz wrote the screenplay inspired by life with his trans son, Tobi, who also consulted on the film's story. Brian Vincent Rhodes (Spies in Disguise) co-directs with Lennertz. 

The film is produced by animation veterans Darlene Caamaño Loquet (The Bling RingA Loud House Christmas) and Magdiela Hermida Duhamel (Inside Out 2Marvel's What If...?). Alex Bedford and Ben Parkin produce for A.R.C. in London. ND Stevenson (Nimona) serves as Executive Producer. Davy Nathan (Toni Braxton) and Lawrence produced the music and sounds at the legendary Abbey Road Studios.  

Enjoy the trailer:

and the producers sharing their thoughts:

as well as a complete “The Making Of”:

According to Lennertz, the first kernel of the idea came about roughly three years ago, when his father-in-law’s health began to noticeably decline. “My father-in-law’s health was not good. He was having trouble breathing and was getting more and more unstable. My son Tobi had not yet come out as trans but had come out as gay. My father-in-law was getting more and more grumpy and wasn’t very curious or interested in understanding a young teen coming out. And then he had a pacemaker put in and instantly, like the next day, he was his old self again. He started asking questions about what Tobi was up to, whom he had a crush on, that kind of stuff. It was pretty amazing.”

He continues, “And then, over the next two years, his health started to decline again. He wasn’t getting enough oxygen, his heart wasn’t beating in proper rhythm, and he got closed off and grumpy again. He’d always been a happy, joyous person. He got a second pacemaker and once again, he was his old self, happy, accepting, and interested. I said to my wife that this is really a great story - this type of change. Sadly, he passed away just before Tobi came out as trans about a year and a half ago.”

Lennertz, who has worked with famed composer Alan Menken on a number of projects, is also a big Richard Sherman fan. “It’s really true; a spoonful of sugar does make the medicine go down,” he laughs. “And usually, if that sugar is wrapped up in dancing and music, you can have a lot of really great conversations with people that get softened to the point where they're able to understand and take in new ideas.” As a big musical theater and animated musical fan, he quickly came to the idea of making a film about a grandfather who becomes more accepting after he gets a pacemaker. “We decided to make an animated musical short that a big studio like Disney wouldn’t be able to tackle like we could,” he shares. “We took that on as our basic challenge.”

Co-director Brian Vincent Rhodes came onto the project through producer Darlene Caamaño Loquet, whom he worked with on Nimona at Blue Sky Studios. “We had stayed in touch, so she contacted me with this project that she thought I’d be good on,” he says. “I met with her, Chris, and Magdiela Hermida Duhamel [the film’s other producer] and they pitched me the story. I had never done a musical before. I’d dabbled in some feature musical development but hadn’t actually directed something like that before. And the subject matter, telling the story of the character of Cody, about his grandfather learning to relate to this individual he’s had one type of relationship with his whole life… I’m a cis male, and that grandfather represents a lot of us that have had similar experiences. But we can always find the common humanity, the common thread. I started getting into what the movie was about, got excited, and wanted to come onto the project.”

Caamaño Loquet has been friends with Lennertz and his family for 25 years. He pitched her the project not long after her “devastating” experience on Nimona at Blue Sky. “I was the studio executive at Fox Animation that brought the graphic novel in and after fighting hard three times, got them to buy it,” she shares. “I was put on as producer, and after six studio screenings, the buyout [Disney’s 20th Century Fox purchase] happened, leadership changed, and the movie was put on hold. I had already taken a job at Nickelodeon, but I was still devastated. So, reading this story touched me so much. My daughter was born a year ago, almost to the day, that Tobi was born. I felt like I understood the story really well.  But it was super important to me to also understand where a character who doesn’t accept change or difference comes from. Chris had written the character very lovingly, but I just felt like we needed to add something to the story that showed the character had gone through it themselves. Like you can't really understand what it's like to reject someone's identity unless you've been rejected yourself at some point. And if we dig deep, we've all been there. And that's where the idea of the interracial marriage came from, the judgment of the granddad’s generation.”

Working with a small budget forced the filmmakers to make narrative and stylistic decisions they all feel made for a much better short. “With the budget we had, we wanted to keep things as aesthetically simple as possible, with a lower poly, more painterly quality to the animation,” Rhodes explains. “We were fortunate to have a really strong visual development team in art director Izzy Alemu and concept artist Andy Foster. It was challenging designing the character of the older Cody, who we also had to portray younger as Rebecca. It was harder because the gender difference was a challenge, making sure we captured the face that was distinct for each but registered as these were still the same characters.”

“We had a great bunch of artists who brought such passion to the work,” Lennertz chimes in. “We had to be super-efficient because we only had so much money to cover a certain amount of ground. And by doing it as a musical, depicting characters with very distinctive and evocative emotions, we had to get a lot across very quickly.”

Pre-production took roughly six months, including storyboarding and the production of six story reels. The actual production took roughly eight months. Boarding was done using Storyboard Pro by a group of artists that included Rhodes, Lison Desfeux, Nicholas Gustafson, and Bill Frake. Rhodes laughs now, but he notes that at one point, his visa expired. He was working in London and had to head to Turkey, which was the least expensive option where he could continue boarding while the visa situation was sorted out. "Luckily, I was on the same time zone,” he laughs. “I was saying, ‘We can’t lose any time.’ I was boarding from a hotel room in Turkey for three weeks before I headed back to finish in London. We were very specific with the boards, which allowed us to move quickly once we got to animation.”

The production, as so many do these days, brought together artists from around the world using every tool at their disposal. “We wanted to go the Unreal Engine route, but decided the schedule wouldn’t allow for fixing anything troubling we encountered,” Rhodes notes. “Our compositing team was in Ukraine, and they did an amazing job. Our riggers were in Greece. Our character designer and modeler was in France. Animation was done with Maya, compositing was done in Nuke, and we even used Google Jamboard for thumbnailing.”

When asked if there has been any pushback regarding the film’s subject matter, considering there has been so much high-profile political acrimony and vitriolic anger against LGBTQ+ communities of late, Lennertz shares, “The first studio screening we had was at Disney, and it was a really powerful screening. It was the night after the first Republican debate and a couple of high-profile candidates made a lot of comments about gender identity and gender affirming care, and they got angry and ugly really quickly, which is how it’s been the last three or four years. And that's one of the reasons we felt like we needed to make this movie. I heard statements from one of those candidates that quite honestly, if they had been said about someone's ethnicity or religion, people would have been appalled. It would have been the most appalling thing ever. But for some reason, it's still OK to publicly make such comments about someone's identity or orientation.”

He adds, “If that politician had been with their child in an emergency room, or dealing with their threats of self-harm, they wouldn't spend one more day of their life worrying about pronouns, or which restroom had which label on it. They would spend every day of the rest of their life trying to tell stories about parents and grandparents who love their kids so much that they cannot help but sing and dance. They have to sing and dance about it because their love is so strong. And that's what I needed to get across because that's the only way to change the hearts and minds of people who are not willing, or even curious, to learn and grow, to put on someone else's shoes and feel empathy and understanding. And I think that was the idea with a granddad telling the story as he is answering Cody's question about how did you know it was love with Abuela? By the end of that song, the granddad realizes, ‘Oh my God, it's no different! It's actually the exact same thing. I get it now.’ And I think in eight minutes were able to do that right.”

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.