The creative team shares insights into their exciting, funny, and gorgeously designed 9-part CG animated series about a Mesoamerican-inspired warrior princess’ epic quest to fulfill an ancient prophecy and save humanity, now playing on Netflix.
Back in summer 2019, I had an opportunity to interview Jorge R. Gutiérrez before he took the main TV Academy stage to talk about the seemingly insurmountable career challenges he faced once accepted to Cal Arts as a non-English speaking 17-year-old from Tijuana. I titled the piece, Jorge Gutiérrez Shares His Inspirational Path of Most Resistance. It’s aptly named because if you’re familiar with The Book of Life, Son of Jaguar, and El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera creator, you know of his passionate perseverance in forging a career fraught with every conceivable, and plenty of inconceivable, obstacles. It’s truly inspirational to hear him talk about gauntlets encountered, without complaint, just resignation he’d have to work even harder to succeed, his love of animation and embodiment of the phrase, “That which doesn’t kill me just makes me stronger.” His unbridled enthusiasm, and eternal optimism, is infectious; he remains one of the most jovial, gracious, and genuine people I’ve ever met – one of his hugs makes me feel like I’m his most treasured friend.
At the time, when I asked what he was working on, he replied, “Man, I am living in heaven at Netflix. I can’t talk about the project officially, but it’s an epic story along the lines of a Mexican Lord of the Rings but based on a Mesoamerican warrior princess. Right now, at Netflix, it’s crazy. I feel like it's a magical time. We're not going to see the fruits for a while, but the stuff that's cooking is crazy over there.”
Well, fast forward to late October 2021, and we can now finally experience the quite tasty fruits of his animated labor. Along with creative partner, character designer, voice of Queen Teca, and wife, Sandra Equihua, Gutiérrez and Netflix have delivered a true storytelling masterpiece, Maya and the Three – An Animated Event Told in 9 Chapters. The series, set in a fantastical world filled with magic, tells the story of a Mesoamerican-inspired warrior princess who embarks on an epic quest to fulfill an ancient prophecy and save humanity from the vengeful gods of the underworld. It’s funny, it’s poignant, it’s sumptuously designed, and beautifully animated. If you haven’t seen Maya and the Three, find time to watch it.
I had a chance again a few short weeks ago to speak to Gutiérrez and Equihua about their new series, universally praised by fans and critics alike since it premiered this past Friday. Modest to a fault, they both spoke of their desire to tell an inspirational tale, steeped in their own heritage and cultural upbringing, with a fresh look and even fresher voice, which the entire world could relate to and enjoy. It’s safe to say, mission accomplished.
Dan Sarto: The breadth and depth of your storytelling, how you comfortably weave Mesoamerican cultural history with contemporary notions of character and how we identify ourselves and our motivations, you’ve made it feel so effortless. Watching the show, I always felt like I was looking over your shoulders as you told the story to each other, not sitting back and watching a show produced to entertain me and hopefully resonate. It’s such impressive work! How did this incredible warrior princess’ journey begin?
Jorge R. Gutiérrez: Honestly, Dan, from the beginning, as a lover of myths from everywhere, I read as much mythology as I could find. I began to see parallels… I said, ‘Hey, every ancient culture has stories about a mortal going to the underworld. Every ancient culture has stories of Gods coming down and having children with humans.’ You find that everywhere. So, my starting point with this was always, we're going to tell a story that could be found in other cultures, but it's going to be very specific to the themes of Mesoamerica. At the same time, I'm going to reference The Wizard of Oz, right? Because Maya is basically the Wizard of Oz. I'm going to reference The Lord of the Rings. What if the ring was a person? Right? Cause that's basically Maya. She is the ring.
But in all this mythology we read, all the women are sleeping beauties, or victims, or you know, the prize for the warrior. Women weren't exactly the heroes. And with all due respect to the history surrounding various mythologies, myths are made up; they reflect the times when they’re invented. So, for us, we were going to hack the mythology. We’d reflect the past, but also reflect our point of view as artists today. You know, in a lot of the lore, the word “sacrifice” kept coming up. To me, it was how do I break down this idea that we all sacrifice things, right? People sacrifice things to become artists, become parents, or to attain something they prize. That became sort of the guiding star. What does it mean to sacrifice?
Sandra Equihua: I also would like to add, the amount and variety of culture you find in Mesoamerica is infinite. It's like a cornucopia of things, you know? So obviously we did our research, but there's also so much more that we didn't touch because there's just so much. We try to be as respectful as possible. We made a mix with common culture that you find nowadays as well as pop culture to bring a little more fun into it. I mean, we're not anthropologists. We're not historians. Let's have fun with it. Let's make our own thing.
JRG: It's our birthright [laughs].
SE: Let's make it universal.
DS: Well, it’s definitely culturally expansive, and it’s definitely fun. I felt the modern touch without anything feeling cheapened or somehow misrepresented. Which I know wasn’t easy. As far as the story, it’s a big, epic tale. At what point in development were you satisfied that you’d nailed the narrative? Or were you fighting the good fight up till the last pixel was fixed?
JRG: Uh, people are going to hate me, but I started with the ending. The day I pitched this, I pitched Chapter 9 and said, “Here's what happens to the hero. No one's going to see this coming.” And here's how I had it figured out. And from that point, it was just filling stuff in and connecting it. You might not know, but I'm a huge fan of Paddington 2.
SE: We love Paddington 2.
JRG: I love how everything's set up and pays off. So that was our guiding light. And then, honestly, it was The Lord of the Rings. It was, “Hey, Peter Jackson did three movies in a row, all at the same time. If he can do it, I can do it!” That's how naive I am.
SE: [Laughs] Jorge, if I may add something. Much like how Jorge embellishes and doesn't know when to stop with his character designs, I think the story could have kept on going.
JRG: Dan, I would still be working on it if they would let me. I’d just keep chipping away, adding and finessing little things. But honestly, this one, this one felt… because of the format, I was allowed to tell a story that I've never been allowed to tell before. Animated movies are usually 90 minutes, two hours tops. Here, I got to play with a new format. It felt so freeing to have backstories and cold opens and these sweeping… knowing how it was going to end kind of liberated me.
DS: The show’s designs are rich and intricate, yet never seem to overpower my eyes or pull my attention away from the story. You both are legendary designers, going back to El Tigre. Every one of your projects speaks boldly with Latino culture-based designs. But this show is an order of magnitude more expansive and elaborate in every aspect of design. From the expansive architecture to the gorgeous terrains featured in Maya’s journey, you’ve created a myriad of vibrant characters and worlds each more varied than the previous. How did you approach the show’s lookdev, the mélange of Mesoamerican designs, color schemes, costumes, and environments?
JRG: Well, Sandra usually designs our female characters, and I usually design the male characters. Sandra is a lot more graphic and wants things to be cleaner and less busy. I like busy, crazy. Now, because Maya was set in Mesoamerica… when you go to museums and see the ridiculous amount of ornamentation on everything [Mesoamerican]… this was one of those moments where I said, ‘I found my tribe!’ [laughs] These people are just like me… unleash the insane details!
SE: Unleash the hounds!
JRG: And people on the crew would go like, ‘This is too busy. This is too crazy.’ Then I would show them the museum references and say, “We are simplifying! This is even crazier in real life.” For our design approach, honestly, we looked at pieces in museums, especially sculptures, and said, “Those are [made by] character designers of those days representing what they were seeing. So, let's not look at what historians were looking at. Let's look at what the artists of the time we're looking at.” And again, that freed us completely. Then we looked at our favorite artists interpreting that time. For example, Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo. Seeing their murals. And seeing Migel Covarrubias’ version of those worlds. That kind of freed us up. And we realized, this is our fantasy version. Just like The Book of Life is our fantasy version of Day of the Dead, this is now our fantasy version of Mesoamerica.
And then the other big one, at least for me, was this idea that we as Mexicans, and as designers, we finally get to show this world in animation! We've seen other points of view. We've seen other versions. But they're always with eyes from the outside looking in. And sometimes looking down. So, here's our take! We get to be more whimsical. We get to be so much braver, you could say, because it's our past.
It’s because of where we grew up and because of our life experiences. Anime is huge in Mexico, right? So, to me, that's ancient history to Mexicans. As a kid, I watched all that stuff. I would say there's more anime references than any other type of animation in Maya. And I get to do action scenes with gods and humans. I'm going to have reference video games because that's where the best action is happening visually, at least to me. So, it was an interesting mix of things. And the same thing with the music. When we started, we tried, “All right, what would this sound like with traditional historic music?” And it was like a documentary. It was boring.
SE: It was predictable. And we were going for unpredictable.
JRG: I'm a huge fan of Ennio Morricone. He reinvented Westerns. Westerns didn't sound like they do now until he showed up. We got an opportunity to do our take on Mesoamerica and have it sound like something no one's ever heard.
DS: The depth of the animation is tremendous. The scene composition, the elaborate action sequences, the pacing… the production design… the series looks fantastic. How did you develop the style and tone of the animation?
JRG: All the credit should go to Tangent Animation in Toronto and Winnipeg. The team we had was remarkable. It was incredible. They approached everything like it was real, like it was photorealistic. I love stop-motion. I'm a huge stop-motion fan. And unfortunately, there was no way to do Maya in stop-motion. It would have taken us 30 years. So, from the beginning, I said I want to use the best stylized 2D tricks, you know, some actiony things and cheats from anime, and I want everything to feel like stop-motion. All the sets, we’re going to light them like they’re miniatures. We’re going to treat the characters like stop-motion characters. And try to make Maya as a love letter to all types of animation.
And then one of the coolest things that happened was everybody got it. Instantly! We were off and running. Those guys had never made three movies in a row. I’d never made three movies in a row. No one had made three movies in a row. Some people joke that animation is like jumping out of a plane, then having to make a parachute. We were jumping out of the plane and having to make three parachutes.
DS: The volume of high-quality animation you produced is astounding. As you say, you made three movies. At what point in the production did you finally feel, “OK, this is the look I want. Now we just have to keep executing?”
JRG: Honestly, it wasn’t the look that was the concern. It was the story. The scripts were the most important part. When I finished the final chapter, Chapter 9, and we had a big table read and people started crying, and Sandra read it and started crying, that’s when I knew, “If the script is making people happy, making them laugh and cry, I think we're going to be OK.” And that was maybe two years before we finished.
SE: It was very, very solid from the start.
JRG: And I know it's sacrilege a lot of times in animation to say, “Oh, it was the script,” but for me, that's where directing starts. And that's where my vision honestly gets figured out. In the script. Cause we're designing as we're writing.
SE: I was going to say the character designs have to flow from the script. If the tale is well told, then you already know your characters, their mannerisms, even how they eat!
DS: Well, it the animation production wasn’t as difficult as the writing, what were the biggest challenges for you overall?
SE: Well, when the pandemic hit, it really scared us. Like we were OK, but we encountered lots of problems recording the voice acting. We had no idea how we were going to do that. We were set up for computers and animation, all that stuff. And even with that, we still had problems because we had to keep work flowing fast. But with the voices, like Jorge and I found ourselves going into a closet at home, using whatever blankets we had, trying to make the best of it, but it was horrible. So that was trial and error. That was one of the first things I thought, “Oh my gosh, are we going to be able to get this done?”
JRG: And I know it sounds crazy, but COVID also hit something for us. There’s a saying that all Mexicans have death in their ear, whispering “Live!” And COVID really motivated me to go, “All right. People I love might pass away. I might pass away. I’ve got to make this count. If this is what we're pouring our heart and soul into it, then it better be damn worth it.” It also allowed us to escape what was happening in the world. We dove into the work and kind of went with Maya on her journey, working with artists from all over the world. We used Blender, which is open source software. There are a lot of people all over the world who use it. So that was remarkable to get to interact with people from everywhere.
DS: Netflix is putting your nine-chapter epic in front of the entire world. How do you hope Maya impacts audiences? What do you hope people come away with after watching the series?
JRG: My dad took me to see Seven Samurai when I was nine years old. And after the movie, I was so moved, I told him, “When I grow up, I want to be a samurai!” Even though I knew many of the seven didn’t make it. And that's my dream. That Maya will be shown all over the world and that kids, like maybe a kid in Japan, nine years old, will talk to their parents and go, “When I grow up, I want to be an Eagle warrior.” That's my dream.
DS: Sandra, last question is for you. While trying to develop a story with a strong female lead, you researched mythology that was quite male centric. Back when you started this project, what impact, what outcome were you hoping to achieve as a creator and storyteller, and was there a point where you said to yourself, “If we can achieve just this, then I will consider this project to have been a success?
SE: Excellent question. I think of two things. One is trying to connect with a younger audience that's Latino, and two, trying to connect with a younger audience that's Latino that's also female. Create an entire new wave of female artists that hopefully one day will choose to not say it's impossible to become a female director or creator. Because we need them. We need more. Not only women, but more Latino women, in the animation world. That will take a long time. But if one day, like Jorge says, a young woman says, “When I was a little girl, I watched Maya and the Three and it inspired me to become what I am today,” that’s when I'll know it was worth it.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.