The co-creator of the hit Nickelodeon show chats with Andrew Farago about punk rock, CalArts, Mexican folklore, and his role as "the Diego Rivera of animation."
One of my favorite Nickelodeon cartoons of recent vintage is El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera, a visually inventive, high-octane series that combines superheroes, Mexican folklore, slapstick and situation comedies into a zany slice-of-life tale of family and internal conflict.
Yeah, that sounds like an odd mixture, but series co-creators Jorge Gutierrez and Sandra Equihua somehow manage to pull everything together into one of the most unusual and entertaining children's cartoons on the air today.
I spoke with Gutierrez about his professional background, the production of El Tigre and how to combine 1980s Mexican punk rock, Frieda Kahlo and Maurice Noble into a single package.
Andrew Farago: Let's do a brief introduction. I'm interviewing you for Animation World Network... I don't know if you're familiar with the site or not --
Jorge Gutierrez: I check it every morning!
AF: Excellent. And you're the co-creator and executive producer of El Tigre, for Nickelodeon.
JG: My wife [Sandra Equihua] is also co-creator and executive producer, so it's both of us.
AF: And that's a great place to start. How did you meet Sandra?
JG: We actually met in high school. She was 17, and I was 18, and we met at a rock concert in Tijuana, Mexico, on the border. And two weeks from the day we met, I proposed marriage. And she said no. (laughs)
And eight years of boyfriend/girlfriend went on, then she finally said yes. So she put up with me when I went to CalArts, and she went off to Graphic Design University in Mexico. Eventually we got married, and I remember telling her, "We're gonna be the Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo of animation!" (laughs) And she kinda went for it, and here we are.
AF: Hopefully you don't end up exactly the same as Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo --
JG: I always tell her, "without the, y'know, cheating and the trains hitting you" part. (laughs)
AF: What was the concert?
JG: It was a punk band called "La Lupita." And that band's not around anymore. But it was great. I remember getting out of the mosh pit and seeing her, seeing Sandra, and that was it. I was in love.
AF: Mexico's music scene has been a big influence on your work, hasn't it?
JG: Oh yeah, definitely. At that point, a lot of bands -- like Café Tacuba and a lot of others, but specifically that one -- what we were seeing happen, in that scene, was that they were taking very traditional folk elements of Mexican culture and mixing them with contemporary sounds.
In our artwork, we kind of started doing that too. We would look at our favorite muralists, and our favorite folk art from Mexico, and try to bring it into the digital era. We'd say, "We're making digital folk art. We're digital artisans." And that's where a lot of the inspiration, and how we still make art today, comes from.
AF: How much of your creative process now is digital?
JG: Most of it is, now. Originally, we drew a lot on paper. But now, like a lot of people, we've become one with drawing with Cintiqs, on the computer screen. And I think that makes you a braver, more daring artist. You don't have to erase anything, and you can "undo." And I think, when you're drawing, your choices get a lot more crazy, since you can undo things, and there's no proof that you went off in a bad direction. So now, we're completely digital.
And we still paint. Sandra still has art shows, and I still paint every once in a while. Just to remind ourselves of where we came from. But for animation, I think we're all digital now.
AF: Cool. Let's backtrack a little bit, and talk about your background. You went to art school as a teenager, but I'm assuming that you were always interested in art?
JG: Yeah. Originally, when I was in high school, I wanted to be a writer, or I wanted to be a painter, or I wanted to be a film director. And it didn't hit me that animation was all three of those, until I started talking to teachers, and one of my father's friends said, "You should try to get into this school, CalArts. I never got in, but you should give it a shot." He gave me all of their literature, and it seemed really intimidating.
But I went to visit the school as a high school junior, and there were two lines -- the character animation line, and the experimental animation line. And [legendary Disney artist and CalArts professor] Jules Engel was at the end of the experimental animation line. The people in that line seemed a lot more weird, and crazy. (laughs) So that's the line I got in. I showed Jules all my drawings, and he thought they were terrible. They were just super-crappy. And I was drawing a lot of the things that 17-year-olds were drawing: barbarians, aliens and stuff like that.
But then I had my painting portfolio, which had my more Mexican folk art-style paintings, and he said, "If you can make that move, then you can do something really unique and original. So I'm going to let you in, but you can't do that barbarian/alien stuff. I want you to concentrate on making your paintings move." And that was it. I fell in love with animation.
AF: And when did you graduate?
JG: I graduated from my BFA in 1997, and then the Mexican Arts Council and CalArts gave me a full scholarship to do my master's, and I was there till 2000. So, all together, I was at CalArts for six years.
AF: What were your earliest jobs post-graduation?
JG: Well, when I graduated from my BFA, I saw the kind of jobs that were out there, and -- since I'm not a U.S. citizen, I'm from Mexico -- in order to stay in the country, a studio has to sponsor you, sponsor your work visa. And in order for them to sponsor you, you basically have to show that there's no one in the U.S. that can do what you're doing. So that gave me a lot of motivation, because I knew that if I went back to Mexico, there was no animation industry there. It was either get a job here, or go back to Mexico and do something else.
When I saw what jobs were available, post-BFA, it looked like 3D animation was coming up, and 2D animation was dying, so for my MFA thesis, I decided to just jump right into 3D animation. I just went at it like crazy, and I worked my ass off, and a year before I graduated, the Emmy internships happened, and my first professional job was as an intern on Stuart Little, as a CG animator, a character animator. And I went there, and I hated it. (laughs)
Everyone was really nice, and the movie turned out great, and it was nominated for an Academy Award, for the animation, but I could not believe -- I'm just not an animator. I'd look around, and my co-workers would be the happiest people on earth, and I was miserable just animating. I really wanted to tell stories, and I really wanted to tell the world about my culture, and I realized that being an animator was not the way to do it.
So when I went back to school, I shifted my emphasis away from 3D. At that point, the Internet was booming, and I was coming up with all sorts of little Internet show ideas. I'd go online and see all of these super-crappy shows, and I figured, "If they're buying all those crappy shows, maybe they'll buy my crappy shows." So I threw together a big pitch bible, and through the people I met at Sony, I went back there and pitched them all of my Internet ideas, and sure enough, they bought one, about a Mexican wrestler. And at that point I thought, "This is the greatest country on earth." (laughs) You graduate from school, and they just give you a cartoon.
We worked with Sony for a little while, and then the dot-com boom happened, and it exploded, and from then on... I didn't learn Flash at school, I learned Flash on the job, and started working on all these Flash shows. WB's ¡Mucha Lucha! was one of the first ones I worked on, and from there I went to The Buzz on Maggie at Disney, and at that point I was pitching pilots, and we were pitching pilots at Disney and Nickelodeon. Eventually, we hit upon El Tigre, which was, I believe, our fourth property in development.
AF: El Macho was your Mexican wrestler cartoon?
JG: Yeah, and that's the first one we did at Sony. If you watch [Jack Black's 2006 film] Nacho Libre, it's pretty much the same story. (laughs)
AF: And I'm looking over your bio here, and it mentions that in 2000, you worked for [legendary background artist and layout designer] Maurice Noble.
JG: Oh, yeah. After I graduated, and before I sold El Macho, I got a lot of job offers to work on CG projects, and I turned those down, very regretfully, but I knew that if I jumped into that world, I'd never get to do my own thing. And out of nowhere, I got an e-mail saying, "Hey, I saw one of your Internet animations. Would you be interested in working for Chuck Jones?" And I said, "Of course!" And so, Chuck Jones wanted Maurice to art-direct the cartoons. But Maurice wouldn't touch a computer, and wouldn't have anything to do with those things, so I was brought in to be the digital in-between, to get Maurice's style to the Internet.
Aaaand... it was amazing! It still feels like I got paid just to learn from Maurice. I'd go to his house, and bring him all of my personal stuff, have him destroy me, and learn as much as I could. And he really changed my life as a designer.
And he loved teaching the next generation of artists. I feel like he became my grandfather, and he really taught me a lot of things. I literally started working for him without having any real idea of who he was. The more I researched it, the more I was in awe.
AF: Did you grow up watching Looney Tunes?
JG: I did grow up with the Looney Tunes, but I never put two and two together. I always had weird feelings about Speedy Gonzales, like a lot of Latino artists. That's a very complicated character. I love the Looney Tunes, but I remember that Speedy Gonzales always rubbed me in a weird way.
AF: What other cartoons did you watch as a kid?
JG: My favorite character growing up was Popeye. That was definitely a huge influence. I remember the concept of "machismo," and Mexico, obviously, is a very "machismo" country, and Popeye spoke to me in a really amazing way. As long as you stand up to bullies, and as long as you stand up for what you believe in... It was this great, macho cartoon that I loved.
The way those Fleischer [Studios] drawings... to this day, I borrow a lot from them. And Sergio Aragonés, he's another big influence...
AF: Do the Popeye cartoons have an effect on your fight scenes, how you choreograph them?
JG: Oh, yeah. Popeye has some, you know, four-minute, relentless action sequences. We really studied those, and the camera angles, and the volumetric... the dynamic posing, and all of those beautiful things they did. I also looked at a lot of anime, specifically Dragon Ball. We looked at, not Dragon Ball Z, but the original Dragon Ball, and that beautiful mix of super-appealing, cute drawings in a very violent, action-packed setting. And El Tigre is kind of a marriage of those two things.
AF: That sounds like a good segue to me... Can you talk a little about El Tigre's origins?
JG: Well, originally, growing up, one of the things I always wondered was, when I'd watch Super Friends -- me and my friends would always argue, "Who's the Latino one?" (laughs) "Are the twins Mexican?" We'd always argue, "Who's the Mexican one?" I remember one friend saying, "Batman is clearly the Mexican one."
But growing up, there were no Latino superheroes. Sure, there was Santo, the Mexican wrestler, and to some extent, Zorro, who was kind of the original superhero. But it just seemed so weird to us that there were no Latino superheroes.
So when we started developing the idea for El Tigre, that was the other thing we thought about. All of our favorite music, all our favorite shows, they're all based on real things. Things that happened to the artists, or the creators. So, we started coming up with an idea about our families, and the superhero/supervillain stuff would be secondary.
For example, growing up, and this is in Mexico City, my grandfather was a big military general, and my father was an architect. When I was little, all my aunts and family friends would always say, "You're so much like your grandfather," or, "You're so much like your dad. What are you gonna be when you grow up? Are you gonna be an artist, or are you gonna be a general?" And that's where the dilemma of Manny being a superhero like his dad, or a supervillain like his grandfather, came from.
And that's how I saw them, as a kid. I'd go to my dad's office, and he'd draw me whatever I asked him to draw, and it just seemed like he had superpowers.
Same thing with my grandfather. I'd go visit him, and his office looked like a supervillain's lair, with all this crazy stuff in there. That's where all of that originated.
Manny's best friend is Frida, and she's based on Sandra, and Sandra's life. She's from a family of doctors, so her dad's a doctor, and her three sisters are all in medicine, and she was the black sheep of the family because she wanted to be an artist. And Frida, on the show, her whole family are police cadets, her dad's the chief of police, her mom's a judge, and she's this little troublemaker/rabble-rouser.
And that's kind of the origin of the show.
AF: And were you the initial character designer?
JG: Yeah! The way we do things is that I design all the male characters, and Sandra designs all of the female characters. And we've gotten to the point where I haven't drawn a girl in eight years, so don't ask me to draw any girls. And she lets me draw all the guys, because her guys don't look very macho. (laughs) We came up with this theory that the manlier the men look, the girlier the girls would look, so that contrast became huge for us.
AF: Yeah, like putting "El Oso" next to Manny's mother...
AF: Do you get to spend much time looking at your contemporaries? Who's influenced you?
JG: I was greatly influenced, like just about everybody in my generation, by John K. and Ren and Stimpy. That was a huge, huge influence. Just the idea of funny drawings. A lot of the crew on El Tigre was ex-SpumCo artists, so we owe the world to John and all he's taught us.
And there's obviously Maurice, and Jules Engel. To this day, I still use all of the color theory he's taught me. He was kind of harsh with me about color. At the time it hurt, but now I can see what he meant. I tend to use a lot of really bright colors, so he taught me to hold back a little and restrain myself. What you see in El Tigre is the "held-back" version of what I would usually do. (laughs)
Also, Bruce Timm and his Batman cartoons were a huge influence. Y'know, the modern superhero cartoon. And Craig McCracken, and Gendy [Tartatovsky] had a big impact on me, too. When I was in school, they came to visit, and they made it seem so... attainable. To have an idea, then go out there and make it.
AF: How much of yourself goes into Manny Rivera?
JG: It's pretty much all in there. I pretty much pour all of myself, all of my life stories, into Manny. I call my parents and say, "Tell me what I did when I was ten years old." I look at my report cards, and my old yearbooks, and try to remember all the things I did. Obviously, a lot of these things start with a small nugget of a real story, then we try to elaborate and embellish, and turn it into a superhero thing. That's one of the rules of the show. Everything that happens has to be based on something that happened to us, or the writer, or the director, or someone on the crew, so that, no matter how spectacular the story is, it always has the anchor of truth in there.
AF: And how old were you when you grew your first moustache [referring to the El Tigre episode "The Moustache Kid"]?
JG: (laughs) Y'know, when I was nine years old, my grandfather had a moustache, and I was obsessed with growing one. Unfortunately, I went to a private school, and one of the things they'd do -- if it looked like you were growing a moustache, you had to get it waxed off. They were really anti-moustache. The more they wouldn't let me, the more I wanted to.
I believe that the day I graduated high school, that's when I started growing my moustache, and I still have it today. (laughs)
AF: And now you're the executive producer of El Tigre.
AF: So what does that entail, exactly?
JG: I think it's different for every EP, but what it entails for me is that I put all my effort into designing the characters for each episode, coming up with the stories... I'd usually come up with the stories. The writers are really cool... And I try to make sure that the whole thing works together.
We keep saying that El Tigre is like a big band, and we've got all these different amazing people playing all of these different instruments. And the EP has to conduct the whole thing. The director's keeping everyone on time, and keeping everyone going, but the EP, I think, is making sure the music is beautiful.
AF: So you're into the second season now?
JG: Well, we did 13 episodes first, and then we did another 13 episodes, so it's 26 episodes for now, and they're gonna see how those do.
AF: Are kids responding to the show?
JG: Oh, yeah. In this era of the Internet, we get a ton of fan letters, from kids all over the world. It's pretty cool. And there are all sorts of websites, where you can see different kids doing fan art, and it's super-inspiring. It's a huge source of inspiration for everyone on the crew. Once those characters get on the screen, they're no longer yours -- they belong to the world. And it's great to see what the world will do with them. They have a life of their own.
AF: Are there a lot of Latino kids in your audience, or is it a pretty big mix?
JG: Oh, it's been a huge mix. We do get a ton of Latino stuff, but we've been getting letters from Holland, from Italy... it's been pretty amazing.
AF: So it's a pretty universal concept.
JG: Yeah. I think the idea of your father being good and your grandpa being evil... We always said that the show was not about being Latino, it's the story of what happened to a Latino. It's not like if you're not Latino you're not going to get it.
AF: One thing I thought was interesting, compared to cartoons when I was a kid, is that you don't overexplain every cultural reference that pops up.
JG: We'd mostly grown up having that kind of stuff spoon-fed to us. We decided that all of the cultural stuff, if you don't know it, the story still makes sense, and it's still funny. But if you know it, you'll get a whole other level of enjoyment from the show. We're not PBS, explaining the culture to you.
AF: Which is different from Dora The Explorer.
JG: (laughs) Dora opened a huge door for us. We truly believe that Dora and Diego made these kids, who weren't necessarily from Latino culture, grow up seeing Latino characters as something normal, so we really owe a lot to them.
AF: Can you talk a little bit about El Tigre's setting, Miracle City?
JG: Miracle City is a spicy cesspool of crime and villainy, and it's our love letter to Mexico City. It's everything I remember from over there. The Miracle City volcano is based on El Popo, which is a real volcano in Mexico City. It's called Miracle City because it's a miracle that it's still standing, because of all the crime and the things that happen there.
And it came from this idea that the world isn't strictly black and white. Morality's a little gray. So it's up to Manny to decide if he's good or evil. The world's not going to decide for him.
AF: Do you have any parting wisdom for the people reading this interview?
JG: I'd just say that, whatever you make, let it come from who you are, not what you like. Literally draw on your own experiences, where you come from, and be proud of how you've lived, and what you've done. That's the advice I always give animation students. Don't stay in your cubicle all day. Go outside and live, and then you'll have something to draw.
(The author would like to thank Maria Poulos of MTV for coordinating this interview, and Dave Roman of Nickelodeon Magazine for his invaluable research assistance.)