The lush colors and ornate design that helmer Jorge Gutiérrez featured in his film “The Book of Life” makes one thing clear: he’s a romantic.
“It’s true, I’m an optimist, a romantic,” laughs Gutiérrez, who is Variety’s Creative Impact in Animation honoree this year. “I’ve never had my heart broken. I married the first girl I fell in love with.”
Gutiérrez’s keen skills as an animator and particular voice as a filmmaker led him from his childhood in Mexico City to CalArts, collaborations with industry giants including Guillermo del Toro, and such developing series as the beloved “El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera.” In 2021, Gutiérrez’s latest project, “Maya and the Three” will premiere on Netflix.
Underlining Netflix’s commitment to Gutiérrez and to animation, the streamer on Oct. 14 unveiled an expanded partnership with the animator and his production company Mexopolis for original content. Gutiérrez will write, direct and produce new animated films, series and interactive projects aimed at the preschool, kids and family and adult animation sectors.
“Dang! I could not be more thankful to extend my creative love affair with my beloved Netflix! [Vice president of original animation] Melissa Cobb and the entire Netflix Animation team match my endless passion for diversity and inclusion in front and behind the camera,” Gutiérrez said in a statement released by Netflix. “After all the kindness that has been shown to me, I look forward to mentoring and empowering diverse storytellers from not only North America, but also Central and South America. My mustached heart has a six pack and I can’t wait to create new stories and bold new worlds. What a time to be alive!”
On Oct. 19 at 4 p.m. PT/7 P.M. ET, Nickelodeon presents a one-hour special on the future of animation that includes the work and interviews with
Gutiérrez and Variety‘s 10 Animators to Watch honorees on the Nickelodeon YouTube channel (youtube.com/user/Nickelodeon) and the Variety YouTube channel (youtube.com/user/Variety).
As an animator, Gutiérrez, who was heavily influenced by Pablo Picasso and Jean-Michel Basquiat, early on staked a claim as a dramatic, expressive voice for Latinx culture and art. His goal has always been to share what’s universal in stories — no matter how specific they may be to a particular legend or part of his upbringing.
“It’s more than where he comes from geographically, although that’s really important — there are precious few Latinx filmmakers in any medium — but it’s that the way he draws is totally unique,” say producers-writers Chris Miller and Phil Lord in a joint statement. Miller and Lord had engaged
Gutiérrez to direct “The Billion Brick Race,” one of the films in the Lego franchise, but Gutiérrez parted amicably from the project.
“There’s no such thing as too much. Every character is tense with coiled energy right down to their fingernails. The characters’ cracked and twisted flaws are tragically visible for all to see. The totality of it shouldn’t work. There’s detail everywhere, like the relentless filigree of an Aztec sun-stone — but by some magic it coheres into a bold singular vision.”
Gutiérrez isn’t afraid to re-create Latinx legends as he develops the upcoming series “Maya and the Three”: “I love ‘Lord of the Rings,’ which is inspired by medieval Europe. So I thought, let me make something inspired by Mesoamerica, the Incas, the Mayans and the Aztecs and the Toltecs, let me make my ‘Lord of the Rings.’ And when I looked into the folklore, I found that women are often the object of desire, the witch or the prize. Machismo is rampant in Latin culture so I decided to hack our culture. Let me create a female hero and a legend because, frankly, all mythologies are made up. It’s been a big lesson for me as a male creator. I realized I have to be better, I have to change. I used to say before that we can’t change the past, but we sure as hell can change the future. But I think now we can hack the past.”
Gutiérrez committed to having a more diverse workforce behind the scenes, where crew of all backgrounds are able to give feedback on stories or ideas and help shape the narrative. The helmer believes it’s better for the art since so many kids will be “making up their minds about the universe” and using the stories they see in animation as a guide.
The helmer was one of those kids who watched animation obsessively, viewing many of the same shows over and over. When he watched, Gutiérrez says he would catch little micro moments of brilliant animation or emotion that fascinated him.
“My parents just thought I was really into it like a lot of kids,” says Gutiérrez. “I’m 45 now, and I was diagnosed with autism when I was 40, and I did not know growing up that I was on the spectrum. But that obsessiveness, it’s my super power. I was told not to talk about it publicly because it would hurt my chances of getting work. Honestly, it seemed like if people don’t want to work with me because I’m on the spectrum, then I don’t want to work with them. I’m very open about how it has been an advantage. I think I was told it would be considered a weakness, but it has turned out to be my strength.”
Gutiérrez can also count his way with actors as one of his superpowers. Voice actor Carlos Alazraqui says he’s one of the best at communicating precisely what he needs for a scene while still making space for actors to contribute their perspective and way of working.
“He’s doing for Latin culture in animation what Robert Rodriguez did in in film,” says Danny Trejo, who worked with Gutiérrez on “The Book of Life.” “He’s an actor’s director, so you know you’re going to have a great time and feel like you’re there to play.”
Veteran actor Hector Elizondo agrees. “He knows what he wants when you work with him,” says Elizondo. “He tells you what he’s looking for, and then he stands back and trusts you do to your work. I loved working with him.”
CalArts professor Pixote Hunt says Gutiérrez’s work brings audiences into Latinx culture and rewrites some expectations.
“Historically, there’s been a default setting for such a long time, especially in my career, and having someone of that culture share from the inside out is a wonderfully fresh perspective,” says Hunt. “Usually we get to see another culture from the outside and that can come across sometimes as cliché. But when you have that person actually living and breathing and touching that culture, they can invite us all in on a journey from the inside out.”
Gutiérrez takes a long view on his art and career. And, always, he’s hopeful about what he can accomplish.
“Before the unrest and before COVID, I would say we live in such cynical times where especially because of the internet it’s so easy to be negative,” he says. “It’s so much easier to criticize and so much easier to attack and people are getting a lot of enjoyment out of trolling. But as artists we have to have the heart of poets, but we have to have the endurance of boxers.”
Gutiérrez’s Animated Favorites
“My father took me to see ‘Pinocchio’ in Mexico City. It was my first movie. I’d never seen a movie in the theater. It was dubbed in Spanish obviously because it was in Mexico, and I was terrified and I cried and I laughed. I feel like I aged a year. I was 5 years old and I think I walked out a 6-year-old with a mustache. It really, really affected me. My parents said I would dress up like Pinocchio and I would quote the movie and I would say I wanted to be a real boy. It was very impactful for me. If you had told 5-year-old Jorge in Mexico City that one day you’ll get to make a movie, my little brain would have exploded.”
“Visually it’s an incredible movie, and I adore Henry Selick. He’s one of my favorite filmmakers of all time. I love that character because he’s good at a thing but then he gets fascinated by something else and then kind of destroys the thing he became fascinated with. And then he realizes, ‘what I had was great and I’m not giving up and I’m going to be even better.’ To me that journey, that character arc, that is every artist. He’s a hero artist.”