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Jorge Gutierrez Talks ‘The Book of Life’

The mastermind behind Nickelodeon’s 'El Tigre' teams with Reel FX to bring a mythical love story to the screen.

The Book of Life marks Dallas-based Reel FX’s second animated feature release, following their 2013 debut, Free Birds. A more stylish and elaborately conceived film, The Book of Life is the brain child of CalArts grad and TV animation veteran Jorge Gutierrez, known for his popular Nickelodeon show El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera. Set against the Mexican Day of the Dead holiday, the film follows the story of a young man, seeking answers on his quest to find his true path in life.

Teamed with his wife, Sandra Equihua, Jorge spent years developing the ideas and designs that eventually came together in the film - their unusual and vibrant storytelling and visual sensibilities are steeped in Mexican folktales and cultural influences. I recently had a chance to talk to Jorge about his long road from student filmmaker to feature film director. He shared his insights on the challenges of moving from TV to feature film production, the inherent difficulty of sticking to your creative instincts and the risk Reel FX took in deciding to make his film.

Dan Sarto: It’s a big jump from directing an animated TV series to directing a big animated feature film. What’s the genesis of The Book of Life? How did this project get started?

Jorge Gutierrez: This movie comes from my CalArts experimental animation thesis film [Carmelo (2001)]. My short was based on Mexican folk art-inspired wooden dolls and dealt with the Day of the Dead and all these themes that I obsessed over: bullfighting, fathers and sons and the afterlife. When I graduated from school, I signed with an agent, Aaron Berger, who told me there’s nothing he could do with my short, even though it did pretty well [won the 2001 Student Emmy Award and played at the Cannes Film Festival]. He told me I should write a feature.  So I did. I went to a bookstore and bought "How to Write a Screenplay in 21 Days," sat down and tried to come up with a feature film version of my short.

Meanwhile, I graduated. So I went and pitched my film to every studio and every place turned me down, saying, “No one is interested in this subject matter. There is no audience for Latino films and frankly, we are looking for funny, talking animal movies and this movie has none of that.”  I was fresh out of school, so I took the punctures and rolled with it. I said, “OK, you guys are probably right.” I started working in animation, mostly in television.  Eventually my wife and I made a cartoon called El Tigre for Nickelodeon and sure enough, when El Tigre was at its height, big studios came calling, saying, “Hey, we want to make that movie now.”

So I pitched the same exact movie I had pitched when I had just left school. That's where The Book of Life came from. It was the same story. It's very much a love letter to Mexican folklore. It’s based on the stories I heard growing up, told to me by my parents and my grandfather specifically about how everyone had to struggle and fight to follow their hearts.

Over the years, I’d grown to love Mayan mythology, the myths of Orpheus as well as ancient Greece, so I tried to put in all the things that I love. Eventually, Reel FX got behind the film, and after some time, Guillermo del Toro became involved as a producer. Having him behind the movie really helped and eventually, here we are with a 2014 release. It was a 14-year journey for me. 

DS: Going back to your work on El Tigre, you have a unique and compelling sense of design.  How did Guillermo, who is also known for his visual design expertise, impact the film’s look and feel?

JG: My wife Sandra and I have been working together since high school. I design most of the men, she designs most of the women. Every once in a while, I'll draw a girl and she’ll draw a boy, but basically this is how we see the world. So whether its 2D, 3D or stop-motion, our style is pretty recognizable because that’s just the way we draw.  I'm influenced by a million things: from Picasso sculptures to African masks, from Mexican folk art to Guillermo’s films. When we pitched Reel FX a presentation of the movie, we showed up with wooden maquettes and paintings. We showed up with a world already designed.

That was one of the reasons they fell in love with the movie. Guillermo said, “This is a world that's already been created. This is a world that's already been conceived and I love it. I want to live in it and I'm going to come in and more than anything, help you protect it. People are going to want to change this. People are going to want to water this down.”

At that time I thought, “No, come on, everybody is going to love it!”  And sure enough he was right. He was the Ghost of Christmas Future.

DS: He knew.

JG: There were definitely a lot of discussions about this world being too unique, too different and too detailed.  There might be too many skulls, there might be too many moustaches and too many sombreros. But thanks to Guillermo, the look stayed exactly how I envisioned it when I first pitched it to him.

DS: Do you know, how lucky you are? [Laughs]

JG: [Laughs] Oh! Believe me, I count my blessings everyday and honestly, if it wasn't for Guillermo, someone of his pedigree and clout, I'm not sure this movie would have all the quirkiness and weirdness that it does. I love imperfections and this movie is full of loving imperfection. Because imperfection gives something soul. 

DS: It gives things character. On so many films from bigger studios, you see early character and background designs that are quite stunning and then slowly as the film gets made, everything tends to get…

JG: Watered down.

DS: Not just watered down, but sterilized. There is a sterility and slickness to the design. Your film is so vibrant, so stylized. I'm not used to seeing that in features.

JG: I completely agree. I collect art of books for animated movies. I'm always heartbroken when I see these beautiful concepts get sterilized and, I believe, neutered when films end up with very generic main characters and environments after the inspiration was so amazing.

So early on with The Book of Life, I gave a mandate, “We are making a movie that, when you look at the art of book, you’ll see exactly what went up on the screen. I know it's going to be a lot harder on a lot of departments, but I'm telling you guys, this is going to be worth it.” As the film’s director and main character designer, I have to protect all the designs. Department heads told me it was going to be really hard to model, really hard to rig and really hard to animate but I would just say, “I'm sorry guys, but this is the way it is. We are going to follow through with these designs.”

So in the beginning, I pretty much pissed off everybody.  But slowly, people started coming around and obviously by the end, were totally into it. But this was a big, big change for every department.  The way it usually works with a character is once it's designed it goes through this factory. The modeling department makes it easy to model. The rigging department makes it easy to animate. The animation department makes it easy to animate. So by the time you end up with a model that’s easy to animate, light and texture, aesthetically the life has been drained out of it. We didn't want that on The Book of Life.

DS: What were the biggest changes for you moving from TV to feature films?

JG: Well, for me, at first I thought if we roughly have nine months to make an animated cartoon in television, for a feature film, doing 90 minutes in three years will be way easier. No! I would say it turned out to be 10 times harder than I expected. Not only because Reel FX at that point had never made a movie, but I had never made a movie either. We were new to all this. Our budget was $50 million. It’s ridiculous for me to even say, but that was low for an animated feature.

DS: Isn’t it crazy to say that’s a low budget animated feature?

JG:  Most animated movies as you know cost double, triple or even four times that much. When I was writing the script, it wasn't like I was thinking about the money. Then someone asked me to put a price to all the things in the script. Figuring out what we could do with our available time and money compared to the intent of my original story was incredibly difficult.

With that said, having worked in television for so long got me accustomed to working really fast with no safety net. I cut my teeth in television. You turn in episodes and they air three days later. You are always at the mercy of the schedule. I really believe that thanks to my television training, I was able to hit the ground running on this movie.

Looking back, there were lots of tricks I learned in TV that I got to apply on the feature. The big one for me was this idea that the schedule was relentless. We boarded the film in three and a half months.  Most of these movies take three times that long. We did things in a speed that to feature people seemed ridiculous, but to TV people seemed normal. 

DS: I remember Genndy Tartakovsky telling me the exact same thing. In TV, the schedule is relentless and folks working on features sometimes spend more time on things than he thought was needed.

JG: Yes. I feel like it's an advantage that we have. Another thing that benefitted me was that in the beginning of the production, I didn’t dwell over every precious little thing. I tried to keep thinking about the big picture. I noticed in features, there is a lot of hyper-polishing of little things early on. I told the crew that if we did that in television, we’d never finish an episode. We've got to be smarter about how we do things.

DS: Where does your creative process start? Do you write first? Do you draw first? Do you start with characters or environments - things visually interesting to you - then start seeing how they might be worked into some sort of story? How do you work?

JG: Right now I'm working on another movie script and the way I've been approaching things is I start describing what characters and the world look like from the beginning. As I'm writing, I'm drawing. I'm designing characters. Sometimes my drawings inform the writing and sometimes vice versa.

So for me, writing and drawing are one thing. I put them together. In addition, I also try to start with something that is really personal and heartfelt. I've always found that my favorite movies, TV shows and books were always about the artist going through some personal journey. Something that happened to them. My whole life, everything I’ve ever done is very much related to personal experience.

For example, The Book of Life was about me becoming an artist and struggling to convince my family that I was doing the right thing - winning the heart of my wife, but at the same time winning the honor of her father. The Book of Life is about the struggles I faced. This new film I'm working on, which hasn't been announced yet, it's very much about making The Book of Life, coming to Texas and trying to do something different with people I've never met. All those things become nuggets. I call it the heart beat of the movie. It has to be very personal to me. I'm not someone who shies away from his culture. I'm very proud of my culture and so I try to showcase it in everything I do. 

DS: What were the biggest challenges you faced making this movie? What were the things that kept you up at night?

JG: Even though we were making a big movie, our schedule and our budget were very limited. Much like in television, many times I just had to gamble and say, “I think this is going to work. We’re going to just move forward with it.”  It got to the point where certain sequences were lit or animated and so at that point, if you wanted to change them it was really expensive.  So I had to write around the scenes and build them up. 

But the toughest thing for me was testing the movie.  Honestly. I believe in testing. I love comedians that go on the round and test their jokes. I like indie bands that go on the road and test their songs. You get better on the road. That's how I approach testing.

Testing provided a lot of heartbreak and success. There were certain parts that if the audience cheered or the audience reacted in a positive way, it reaffirmed my belief in humanity and storytelling. There were a lot of times when people didn't laugh or get a joke, or they got confused about something I thought was really clear. Those really opened my eyes. I make movies not only for me but for the audience too. Those were big lessons for me. A lot of my sleepless nights were right before screenings.  Right before our first test screening, I threw up in the bathroom. I was so nervous. During that screening, I took every laugh, every gasp and every tear to heart. We even videotaped the audience because I wanted to study them and see what they would react to. That was the hardest thing, dealing with that feedback while you're still making the film. In TV, often I would get the feedback when we were done and by then it was too late. Here, I got to make changes based on some of those reactions.

DS: I can appreciate wanting to get that input.  It must be frustrating that even with such input, there is only so much you can change.

JG: Oh yes! That was also heartbreaking. There was a lot of stuff in the movie that we could have done better if we’d had more time. But as a filmmaker you learn that you don't finish a movie, they take it away from you.

DS: Very true [laughs]. All told, from the time you started pre-production until the film was finished, how long did the production take?

JG: Well, roughly, from the time Reel FX optioned it, to the movie getting released, roughly five years. Production took roughly two and a half years. But I’d been working on pre-production, things like character designs and the main outline, for 14 years. 

DS: Though Reel FX is a veteran production studio, they’re new to the animated feature film business. They’re not your typical “Hollywood” studio. They took a big risk greenlighting your film. Tell me a little bit about the dynamic of your working relationship.

JG: Well early on, this film was optioned at a different studio. My experience wasn’t very good. Things didn't go very well. I left because of creative differences. So I became a bit hesitant because I knew my movie was different. I knew my story was a little weirder than “normal” animated movies and I had accepted the idea of it not getting made. I’d decided that either I'm going to do this right or I'm not going to do it at all. I’d known Brad Booker, a development executive at Reel FX since I was an intern at Sony. He said to me, “Hey, we're a young studio looking to do our own original films. I think your film would be perfect for us. We know we can't compete with the big studio movies so we want to do something different.”

I was living in LA at the time. I came to Dallas and pitched the movie. I fell in love with the place and this idea that I wouldn't be making the movie at a studio that had a huge legacy and where people would tell me, “This is the way we do things here so you’ll need to fit into that system.”

Coming to Reel FX, I felt I could be part of the foundation. I could be part of something different, something new. I talked to my wife Sandra and we decided if moving out of LA is what it would take to get The Book of Life made, then we were both willing to make that choice and move to Texas. And that’s what we did. We threw caution to the wind and came here.

It was ironic to me that I had to leave Mexico to make a movie about Mexico and I had to leave Hollywood to make a Hollywood movie. At that point Reel FX never made a feature, but they trusted and bet on me. They said, “If you bet on us, we will bet on you.”

It has been a beautiful, beautiful relationship. I really believe this place is magical. I owe it to them because my film is weird and they got behind it because they understood the heart and soul of what the movie was about. I could not be more thankful to the studio for their trust and for their faith.

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

Dan Sarto's picture

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

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