Co-executive producer Jeff Ranjo and production designer Paul Sullivan share how creator Jorge R. Gutiérrez’s unique vision, where Rankin and Bass meet ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ served as their guide in developing and producing the epic worlds and characters of Netflix’s 9-chapter tale of a Mesoamerican warrior princess and her quest to save humanity.
Jorge R. Gutiérrez, the incredibly imaginative, Annie and Emmy Award-winning creator of The Book of Life and El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Ramirez, finally got to share his vision for a Mesoamerican “Lord of the Rings” with audiences around the world, and in the process, took his unique and well-respected character design skills to a whole new level.
Gutiérrez’s epic Maya and the Three, now streaming on Netflix, is a nine-episode mini-series that follows a young warrior princess named Maya and her three magical, battle-ready friends as they prepare to face the lord of the underworld, save humanity, and fulfill an ancient prophecy. No pressure.
“Jorge has always had his own voice,” says Jeff Ranjo, co-executive producer, head of story and storyboard artist for Maya and the Three. “When it comes to his designs, Jorge likes to throw the kitchen sink at them. He just loves to add on so many things, so many details, and there were times where I thought, ‘I don't know if we can do that.’ I had my doubts going in, worried we might have to cut some things for time and budget. But, in the end, it adds to the depth of this whole story. It makes for a more flavorful soup.”
The story takes viewers through five very different worlds - from cities in the sky to deep in the jungles - as Maya, in classic Wizard of Oz style, gathers her battle pals for war. The show pays homage to various facets of Mesoamerican culture and mythology, showcasing a diverse range of familial dynamics and adventures through the deep, psychological forests of identity and believing in oneself. The series is produced by Maya Entertainment, Mexopolis, Netflix Animation and Tangent Animation, with Gutiérrez’s creative partner, character designer, voice of Queen Teca, and wife Sandra Equihua serving as creative consultant.
“We hope you love it because we really love it,” says Ranjo, who also voices the character of Zapote in the series. “Some people, when they look at it, they're like, ‘Ah, this is just a cartoon for kids.’ And the look of it is a little kid-ish. But I love that look. It feels like stop-motion to me. If you combine Rankin and Bass with The Lord of the Rings, that's Maya. And there’s a lot of deep stuff in there that’s going to hit you pretty hard. And then you might look at cartoons a little differently.”
Ranjo, known for his story artwork on films like Frozen and Moana, was one of the first to join Gutiérrez’s production team for Maya and the Three, and says that getting to watch the show put together now - in all its literal golden glory - has been a breath-taking experience.
“It's like a whole other movie,” says Ranjo. “When we see it as storyboard artists, it's just flat. The story is all there, and the dialogue is all there, but it's like having a balloon that's just not blown up. Then, when you inflate it - via animation and music - it becomes this amazing, fully-realized creation. Especially with all the gold and all the effects, it’s just mind blowing. I’m watching the series with my family right now and I’m trying not to jump ahead. I just sit back and enjoy it like it’s the first time. I’m finally getting to see what Jorge saw in his head that birthed in front of me.”
Ranjo was Gutiérrez’s Character Design teacher - or “maestro” as Gutiérrez refers to him - back when the director studied California Institute of the Arts. And though it didn’t surprise Ranjo every time Gutiérrez wanted to add more detail, more features, and more elements to his character designs and story, Ranjoy says it was a pleasant surprise how well it worked together.
“His characters always have everything on them, and that's what his storytelling is like too,” he shares. “Everything just kept getting more gigantic and epic as we went along. For animation these days, because there's so much coming out, it's hard to really stand out. And I think you have to put more in there to get an audience and, when you do that and have this rich story behind it, it'll stand the test of time.”
Maya certainly has tremendous depth and detail, with characters fashioned in gold jewelry, colorful garments and intricate armor and headdresses. The show’s landscapes, backgrounds, and five main story settings - the Golden Mountains, Jungle Lands, Luna Island, Teca, and the Underworld - are inspired by Aztec, Mayan, and Incan history.
Needless to say, it required a lot of research on the part of Paul Sullivan, Maya’s production designer, visual development artist, and character designer. While Sullivan had worked with Gutiérrez before on The Book of Life, Maya proved to be a much larger undertaking. But it was a challenge Sullivan was anxious to tackle.
“I had worked on many other projects that had an Aztec or Mayan theme,” Sullivan notes. “But in this case, because Jorge was talking about epic scale and huge worlds and wanting to really showcase the vastness of this universe, it seemed like an opportunity to delve further into the design. It seemed like a really great challenge to me as a production designer to help solidify and differentiate the iconography of each of these inspired worlds by their respective cultures.”
He adds, “I personally did my own deep dive in research because, not being from Mexico or any of these cultures myself, I wanted to be really sensitive to the cultural history behind Maya and make sure that I was educated. Picasso once said, ‘Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.’ So, I did my best to learn as much as I could about the different cultures that were inspiring each of the lands that we were creating so that when we introduced the fantasy and lore, it was believable.”
And adding more and more detail was a key step in creating a series of worlds that viewers could get lost in. From bedroom wall decorations to the texture and pattern of a character’s hair ribbons, if there was a chance to add cultural detail somewhere in the scene, Gutiérrez and his team took advantage.
“Our goal was always that the viewer would have something that looked culturally rich in the background of these characters who are all very intricate, and really well designed,” says Sullivan. “Each background was strategically designed to have sculptural elements that were architecturally accurate to history. Even if it's just a tiny thing, you still see all of that love and care that the team put into all the designs.”
“When you dig deeper, you can really make things sing,” Ranjo adds. “Every background, and the little background characters, make this a better project. It just hits you right in the soul.”
Seeing Maya and the Three all put together, it would be easy, and correct, to assume that it was an intimidating series to design for. But Sullivan says that giving these worlds simple foundations to build from was an immense help. “It was daunting, but I did my best early on to condense everything to its core, looking at the main shapes, main colors, and main feelings of each of these worlds and cultures, and then building the details on top of that,” he explains. “For example, the kingdom of Teca is very rigid. King Teca has a very firm organization to his city. And the Aztec civilization was actually newer than the Mayan civilization. Those were convenient inspirations for making that particular world look newer, clean, and serene with lots of squares and crisp features, like well-groomed trees. Whereas the Mayan jungle lands have more of a haphazard kind of a layout.”
And each setting has its own assigned symbol or animal, such as the pumas of the Golden Mountains, the skulls of the Jungle Lands, the roosters of Luna Island and, of course, the eagles of Teca. “Jorge really loves to use color symbolism and shape symbolism,” says Sullivan. “So we were able to lean into that and allow history and anthropology to inspire us on how to fill in the rest.”
The show’s extensive use of vibrant, but varied colors was designed to help elicit certain emotional responses at certain times in the story. “This show is also designed to evoke intense emotion,” notes Ranjo. “And color was a great tool for that. When the characters are fighting, we use a lot of red colors, so you feel passion or anger. When there's a slower moment, we use calmer greens, blues, and other more organic colors. We call that color timing, where you take the timeline of the movie and slowly change the colors to imitate the emotions of each scene. And same with the music. Everything from visuals to audio is all hitting you hard to get that maximum emotion.”
But ensuring Maya’s believability through detailed design and cultural authenticity were just some of the many challenges the show’s creators faced as they worked to achieve their ultimate goal: to entertain and inspire. The details, the colors, the symbolism, the epic scale that is Maya and the Three serves a powerful story steeped in love, and deep respect, for Mesoamerican people and their stories.
“It’s human history, so there's a connectedness to the ancient Mesoamerican cultures for everyone,” says Sullivan. “That's my way of allowing myself to jump into this universe and help reimagine it within our fantasy and lore.”
“Along with that, it's a representation of life,” adds Ranjo. “There’s a gamut of birth, life, death, happy, sad - we wanted to put every emotion in there, so that when the characters are feeling these emotions, you're going on that journey with them. Hopefully, if we’re doing this right, the audience will feel like they went on this great journey of life and felt the pain, the sorrow, the happiness, the friendship, the love, and even a little hate. Because that’s what life is.”