The writer and director of the renowned movie, The Book of Life, has not had an easy ride to success. The animator had to find his voice (which was very Mexican) in a highly competitive market and has had to overcome several obstacles.
Now, he is recognized worldwide for his projects such as the Nickelodeon series El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera and the film The Book of Life, nominated for a Golden Globe in 2015. He is currently working on the series ‘Maya and the Three’ for Netflix.
“My grandfather used to say that there were two types of Mexicans, the super-machos and the machos. The former had the hardest path, but they had better rewards. Every day, there are decisions to be made and the super-macho ones are the most difficult or unthinkable, but they make you better,” said the animator during his participation in the Wacom Webinar Series.
The Mexican voice
His father was an architect and he always knew that Jorge loved to draw. When his son wanted to study animation, he told him that he should prove he was good and apply to the California Institute of Arts (CalArts). Only then would he let him pursue that profession.
He went to that school with a portfolio of cartoons that looked like Bugs Bunny and Mickey, but the teacher who interviewed him told him that he “had no voice” as an artist, that he had no clear message.
“It felt like an emotional tattoo on my soul and I left. I had left a sheet of paper on his table and he saw it. They were two paintings related to Mexico. He called me back and told me that that was my voice. Not the other drawings I made because I thought that was what they wanted to see,” he said.
He entered college and got a scholarship from the Mexican government and the Institute, from where he graduated as an experimental animator. Afterwards, he was an intern at Sony and was part of the team of animators for the film Stuart Little. But he realized that he wanted to tell stories about his culture and people like him. He thought that they were not very well represented on the screen.
“I think that leaving Mexico was, at that time, the only way to be able to stand out, but as animation is now on the rise in the country, your competition is now the whole world. Now, you can also find education on the internet, on YouTube, but it’s your portfolio that will give you a job,” he added.
The “very Mexican” story
Gutiérrez worked on The Book of Life and went on to sell his idea to Disney, Fox, Warner and Dreamworks. They always told him that the story was “very Mexican.” So, he took a job at Sony to do a series about his character El Macho, but the show was canceled, which also happened with the projects Carmen Can Spell and Super Macho Fighter for Disney and Nickelodeon, respectively. He later worked as part of Warner’s Mucha Lucha team.
“They told me that the shows were very Mexican. Then I understood that culture could not be the star of the show, that the characters had to provoke empathy, so that their origin didn’t matter to the audience. This is how El Tigre was created,” he said.
This series tells the story of a boy whose father is a superhero and whose grandfather is a villain. The animation won seven Emmy Awards but was later canceled as well.
Shortly after, the 20th Century Animation production company agreed to make the film The Book of Life. After approaching Guillermo del Toro several times, the Mexican filmmaker agreed to produce it because he knew of Gutiérrez’s work on the series El Tigre.
The film, which featured the voices of Diego Luna, Zoe Saldaña, and Channing Tatum, was nominated for a Golden Globe in the category of Best Animated Film.
Against toxic masculinity
Jorge Gutiérrez realized that in his work he had always created stories in which men were the heroes. In his new project for the streaming platform Netflix, he wanted to change that approach and mix it with Mesoamerican myths.
“I want to honor the women in my life: my wife, my mom, and my sister. That’s how ‘Maya and the Three’ came to be. Mexico has too much toxic masculinity; I want to transform the gods that we know and base my stories on them,” he said.
The series purchased by Netflix Animation is still being worked on from home and the music has been created by Oscar winner Gustavo Santaolalla.
“We have seen fantasies about Greece and China a million times, but not about Mesoamerica created by people from these countries, and even less with a heroine at the helm,” he added.
Social networks as an exhibition platform
The animator recommended that recent graduates see this time and the Covid-19 situation as something positive to find a job.
“This is a magical time thanks to Covid. Now it doesn’t matter where you live, you can apply for jobs anywhere and your work is what will be considered,” he said.
Finally, he recommends that they publish their work on social media so that they can be contacted easier.
“If you love to draw, paint, or write certain things, put them out there and don’t hide them, because if what you’re doing is something that someone is searching for, they will contact you. This is how they hire you to do the things you love.”