Ever since he was a little boy, Jorge Gutierrez has been obsessed with Mexican wrestling. And as long as he can remember, he’s had a soft spot for the losers who leave the ring beaten, bruised and humiliated. “I always wanted to follow the wrestlers when they lost,” said Gutierrez during a recent interview with Variety. “And, you know, the losers look like me.”
So when Google approached Gutierrez, who is perhaps best known as the director of Disney’s “Book of Life” about making an animated short film for the company’s Spotlight Stories project, he naturally thought of the losers of Mexican wrestling first. The result of that cooperation, a virtual reality (VR) short dubbed “ Son of Jaguar,” was released for the HTC Vive VR headset Monday. A mobile phone version became exclusively available on Google’s Pixel 2 a week ago, and will come to additional devices soon.
“Son of Jaguar” is the story of an aging Mexican wrestler who sticks with the sport, despite having lost a leg during a previous defeat, to support his financially struggling family. The short film begins in a small boiler room that embodies the whole down-on-their-luck situation down to the very last detail.
“Because the wrestler is so big, the room feels really small,” said Gutierrez. Even the boilers seem to moan and frown. “Everything in there is sad.”
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What follows is a slow and dramatic walk through a tunnel to the arena. Painted faces of famous luchadores — including his own father — are looking down on the “Son of Jaguar.” And in the arena, he faces off against a much more powerful and seemingly unbeatable adversary — until a fateful moment allows the hero to turn the tables.
Gutierrez has been working as an animator for close to 20 years, but “Son of Jaguar” was his first virtual reality piece. This also meant that he had to relearn a lot of things, and figure out how to work in a medium that’s very different from traditional animation, and allows the viewer to look wherever she or he wants.
“It was really hard,” said Gutierrez, jokingly adding that it was a bit like having a baby: “It was a pleasure making it, and the delivery was really hard.”
Part of the challenge was that “Son of Jaguar” wanted to take the viewer in the middle of it all — which brought up an important question for Gutierrez: “Who are you in the piece, and why are you watching it?” The answer doesn’t reveal itself to viewers until late in the story, but turns out to be a clever play on agency and immersion that allows Gutierrez to keep control of the action.
Google has been producing Spotlight Stories as a way to push the boundaries in new media storytelling ever since the company acquired its ATAP research and development unit as part of the Motorola acquisition in 2014.
Initially, Spotlight Stories were squarely focused on mobile viewing of 360-degree videos. Viewers could explore these stories through a kind of magic window, and pan back and forth simply by moving their phone left and right. Spotlight Stories have since launched on Google’s Cardboard and Daydream VR viewers as well, and even developed a full VR version for Patrick Osborne’s “Pearl,” which recently won an Emmy and has been nominated for an Oscar.
But “Son of Jaguar” has been the first Spotlight Story that was developed from the onset for high-end VR headsets. It’s also the longest piece to date, lasting between 8 and 10 minutes, and the first one that includes extensive dialogue.
Dialogue, one should add, that features Gutierrez himself voicing his star, and his own wife Sandra Equihua voicing the wrestler’s wife. With those strong family ties at work, it’s no accident that “Son of Jaguar’s” unlikely perseverance in the ring also comes down to family. In fact, Equihua had been joking that the whole story is a metaphor of Gutierrez’ own success in Hollywood.
“It’s been very rewarding,” said Gutierrez. “I cannot be more proud of what we did.”