In 2014, film school graduate Taylor Meacham headed to Los Angeles with dreams of working in the animation industry. Shortly after his time as a production coordinator on DreamWorks Animation’s Trolls (2016), his career took a pivot when he happened upon the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to write and direct his own short film.
Meacham wanted his short to meld elements that have long inspired him: his close relationship with his father, a passion for illusion that began at the age of ten during summer magic camp, and the idea that the act of “paying it forward” via a simple gesture of kindness shown to another person can unexpectedly lead to profound results.
“To: Gerard is a love letter to my father, thanking him for everything he’s given to us and how he’s impacted our lives,” says Meacham. “My dad is 67 and still acts 14. He’s full of energy and sprightly. When designing the character of Gerard, I talked to the animators about wanting to show that he’s lighter than air. His body may reflect a sedentary job, but his heart reflects how he moves.”
Set to an original score composed by Layla Minoui and featuring a 72-piece orchestra, Meacham’s animated short tells the tale of Gerard, an elderly mail carrier and amateur magician who charms an inquisitive young girl named Jules — Gerard’s first-ever audience member — with an impromptu magic show. In that moment, these two artists — separated by decades — set off a chain reaction that will change both of their lives forever, with everything coming full circle.
To: Gerard champions the idea that inspiration can come from the seemingly mundane, as well as from the unexpected. “What I want this film to say is: you never know who you’re going to influence,” Meacham says. “Look for those moments, because they can be anywhere.’”
With training in production support and management, as well as surfacing and art modeling, Meacham understood the steps to mapping out — and the pipeline of — animation. Backed by the support of producer Jeff Hermann and a collaborative filmmaking team, he was allowed to bring this magic to creative life.
Meacham pitched To: Gerard to four-time Annie Award winner Nicolas “Nico” Marlet, who came aboard as his character designer. A week after meeting, Marlet had taken their discussion about Gerard’s soul and given him a distinct physicality.
For Jules, Meacham drew from elements of other friends and family he respects. First and foremost —as his mother is of Hispanic heritage — it was crucial to the filmmaker that Jules be a girl of color. “I am the center child of many sisters, and I have female friends from magic camp who are successful magicians today,” Meacham says. “I wanted to take all the qualities of all the women in my life whom I admire and put them into one person.”
Producer Jeff Hermann loved that, in Jules, Meacham had created an inquisitive, spunky young girl who isn’t content to just go with the daily norm. “Even though there’s a lot of Taylor in Jules, it was important to him that the character be a little girl,” Hermann says. “Jules wants to understand how everything works. During an errand with her mom at the post office, she wants to explore everything around her. She pushes her way past the lobby and encounters this older gentleman practicing magic. He provides this inspiration for her, and she’s so enamored by that moment that she continues that pursuit.”
In keeping with the spirit of sharing creativity and expertise, fellow DreamWorks animated short film director Pierre Perifel (Bilby) lent his talents as the production’s head of character animation.
Production designer Raymond Zibach embraced Meacham’s ideas for location design. Art-deco infuses the piece, 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.
Meacham was surprised to discover the passion for magic shared by a number of fellow artists and animators on his shoot — including Nico Marlet, as well as head of story Mike Lester and story artists Evon Freeman and Christopher Meinen. As the team required a study of sleight-of-hand to capture the beauty of Gerard’s motions, Meacham and Hermann took the animators to the world-famous Magic Castle in Hollywood so they could examine coin magic and fastidiously duplicate the hand motions of a magician.
With this predominantly silent film told through actions, DreamWorks story artists infused moments of character charm throughout. For example, it was Lester’s idea to have little Jules “vanish” in front of Gerard after the door to his hallway swings back open. One minute, he sees her holding her mother’s hand … the next, she’s gone. Meacham says: “It was a great tip of the hat to the audience for the magic to come.”
Producer Jeff Hermann couldn’t be prouder of the result of Meacham’s first time as writer-director. “Having started my animation career in the same production-support role as Taylor has, it was extremely gratifying to help provide Taylor with the opportunity to direct and creatively lead his vision to the screen.” Hermann says. “Taylor’s initial pitch was so clearly defined and deeply personal that each of us felt an immediate connection to his themes of hope and inspiration. It was these joyful qualities, and how well Taylor imbued his characters with them, that helped accelerate this project ahead.”