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Jorge Gutiérrez & Sandra Equihua Make Mesoamerican Magic for ‘Maya and the Three’

Zoe Saldaña stars as Maya (left), while series creator Jorge Gutiérrez and creative consultant Sandra Equihua voice King and Queen Teca in Maya and the Three.
Zoe Saldaña stars as Maya (left), while series creator Jorge Gutiérrez and creative consultant Sandra Equihua voice King and Queen Teca in Maya and the Three.

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Jorge Gutiérrez & Sandra Equihua Make Mesoamerican Magic for ‘Maya and the Three’

***This article originally appeared in the November ’21 issue of Animation Magazine (No. 314)***

Ever since acclaimed animation auteur Jorge Gutiérrez (El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera, The Book of Life) announced details of his new project with Netflix a few years ago, fans have been buzzing about the debut of his epic limited series Maya and the Three. The beautifully crafted four-and-a-half-hour project (nine episodes) centers on a rebellious teenage princess who embarks on a quest to save her people from the schemes of the gods of the underworld. We had a chance to chat with Gutiérrez and his frequent collaborator Sandra Equihua (a.k.a. his muse/wife), who is character designer and a voice actress on the show. Here is what they told us about their ambitious miniseries:

Jorge Gutiérrez and Sandra Equihua

Jorge Gutiérrez and Sandra Equihua

Animag: Congrats on the delivery of your beautiful animated baby. Can you tell us a little bit about the origins and inspirations for the show?

Jorge Gutiérrez: I have had this idea about a warrior princess from Mesoamerica for the longest time. I remember when I was six years old, my father showed me this painting of St. George fighting a dragon in a book, and he said, “That guy is St. George and your name is Jorge, just like him. Jorges kill dragons and you, Jorge, are going to kill dragons.” I became obsessed with fantasies, warriors, dragons and witches. Then later, I visited the Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Mexico. The guides were talking about these crazy gods, and wizards and serpents. That’s when it dawned on me: That’s our version of that. But for the longest time, I felt like I wasn’t ready and there was too much weight attached to telling the story about Mesoamerica. As the years went by, eventually I came to the point where I told Sandra, “I have an idea about this warrior princess.” She is always the one who hears ideas before anyone else. She suffers no fools.

Sandra Equihua: I have to say, one of the reasons that I love Jorge, other than the fact that he gave me a child, is that he has always been very pro-female and always considering the female gender. I think it’s because of his family. He has very strong females in his life — his mother is very loving and kooky. There are lots of inspirations in his life. So, I loved the fact that he said, “How about this Mexican culture of ours, and how come almost all of the mythologies are all male?”

Sketch of Maya and Chiapa by Jorge Gutiérrez

Sketch of Maya and Chiapa by Jorge Gutiérrez

Color sketch of Maya and Chiapa by production designer Paul Sullivan

Color sketch of Maya and Chiapa by production designer Paul Sullivan

Jorge: And it’s all made up. So why not go into that culture and hack mythology? One of the most iconic figures is the Aztec eagle warrior — it’s always portrayed as a man who is rescuing this woman and carrying her on his back. So, I said I want to honor my wife, my sister and my mother, which I saw as warriors, and take on very, very sexist Mexico. This is the backstory … As I was trying to come up with this stuff, I kept thinking, well, this is too big for a movie and needs to be serialized because it’s a very complicated story.

Then, I got invited to this pizza party at Netflix where they had brought together all these crazy show creators, and Melissa Cobb [VP of Kids & Family] asked me the greatest question any creator could ever be asked: “Pitch me something that you love, your passion project.” At that moment, the tombs of my ancestors began shaking as they started to dance and rejoice. Out of my mouth came, “I want to do this epic, Mesoamerican, epic, three-movies-at-once.” To her credit, Melissa said, “OK, let’s do it!” I remember driving home and telling Sandra, and she said, “Are you nuts?”

Sandra: I thought the three-movies-in-one, stretching it out was pretty epic. I knew it was coming, and I thought I was prepared for it, but wow!

Jorge: Well, I thought we’d done a TV show (El Tigre) and a movie (The Book of Life), so really how hard can this be? But holy cow, it was so crazy hard! I remember I put it in my contract that I wanted to start on Cinco de Mayo, 2018.

Maya and the Three

Maya and the Three

"Chiapa" pose sheet by character designer Carlos Luzzi.

“Chiapa” pose sheet by character designer Carlos Luzzi.

Where was the animation produced?

Jorge: I got to give a thousand percent credit to the now-defunct Tangent Animation, the studio in Toronto and Winnipeg who had done the movie Next Gen. This was more than a collaboration — it was a true marriage, creatively. The crew was from all over the world; I stopped counting after we hit 40 different countries. We were so in sync. I am super hands-on and generally love collaboration. I’m a terrible dancer, but if the person who is dancing with me leads, I can do it.

Sandra: [Laughing] I am a witness to that!

Jorge: This was a real dance. My producer brain and artist brain had to work in sync. Feature animation has over one-and-a-half to three seconds a week quota: We are doing 10 to 12 seconds a week quota, so we all had to be on the same page and be very smart with it. Our journey was always, what can you do with the time allowed and the budget we have? So we had about 40 people here in L.A. and about 400 people in Toronto and Winnipeg. Half the boards were done in Canada by House of Cool and half the boards were done here in L.A. by various freelancers. I tried to hire as many El Tigre and Book of Life rock stars as we could find, and scoured for new talent on Instagram and Twitter.

Is there a certain sequence or character of which you’re particularly proud?

Sandra: Oh, I don’t know where to begin. Everything is so pretty!

Jorge: I am a huge fan of Paddington 2. My favorite thing about that movie is that everything that gets set up in the beginning pays off in the end like clockwork. So, everything that is set up in Maya in the beginning pays off in Chapter Nine! Everyone should get a box of Kleenex because that last chapter is just crazy!

Ariel Award winner Diego Luna (voice of Zatz) is part of a star-studded cast which also boasts Gael García Bernal, Alfred Molina, Kate del Castillo, Danny Trejo, Cheech Marin, Rosie Perez, Queen Latifah, Wyclef Jean, Carlos Alazraqui, Eric Bauza and Rita Morena.

Ariel Award winner Diego Luna (voice of Zatz) is part of a star-studded cast which also boasts Gael García Bernal, Alfred Molina, Kate del Castillo, Danny Trejo, Cheech Marin, Rosie Perez, Queen Latifah, Wyclef Jean, Carlos Alazraqui, Eric Bauza and Rita Morena.

Concept art of Zatz and Maya on their respective mounts, Maya and the Three.

Concept art of Zatz and Maya on their respective mounts, Maya and the Three.

Please talk a bit about the visual cues and inspirations for the show.

Jorge: Absolutely. When we started researching Mesoamerican culture — specifically Aztec and Mayan and Incan cultures and the modern-day Caribbean influences — I realized that I don’t want to do a documentary. I don’t want to make this super historical, because there are a lot of schools of thoughts on the history of these things. Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Rufino Tamayo and others gave us the artists’ interpretations of those cultures. Just like El Tigre was our version of superheroes and Book of Life as our version of Day of the Dead, this was our version of Mesoamerican mythology.

Sandra: There is so much richness all over Mesoamerica, so much color and mythology. Sometimes you just want to bunch it up together and make your own milkshake.

Sandra, how did you and Jorge work together on this project?

Sandra: As Jorge already mentioned, I am the first person to kind of look inside his head. I am not always that mean. I tend to be very receiving of what he tells me. I’m also technically the character designer. Most of the time, he tends to design and develop the male characters, and I tend to lean towards more feminine and kids characters, animals and the cute stuff. I do like to dip my toes once in a while in designing the males, but I’m so much better at the other stuff.

Jorge: She just wants to take over!

Sandra: [Laughs] I had the great opportunity to develop Maya first. Jorge will come up with a concept. He will flesh it out in the script. Then, we’d sit down and have this back and forth as every artist will do. We actually doodle. Jorge showed me this very rough version of Maya. I think we were having ice cream with our son, and he drew it on the napkin, and we went on from there, back and forth. The same with the rest of the characters. He would describe them and tell me about their personalities and motives. I would whip something up and he would tell me, “Oh, I love it. Keep going in this direction.”

A page from Jorge Gutiérrez's sketchbook, showing character concepts for Maya and the Three.

A page from Jorge Gutiérrez’s sketchbook, showing character concepts for Maya and the Three.

Jorge: She is the first one to read everything I write. I get an unfiltered reaction from her. And with the voice acting, she does scratch for all our projects. She didn’t want to play a character on Maya, so I had to trick her, for the good of humanity!

Sandra: Jorge told me, you have to do some scratch voices for me because you are the only one who can speak the English and the Spanish. I looked at him like, you’re not going to do that to me again, are you? He said, “Oh no. Don’t worry, we’re going to find the actress later on.” The project kept developing and I noticed that the right final voice wasn’t being added. I really started freaking out when they started bringing in the actual voiceover actors, and I was still dubbing for the ‘real actress.’ In the end, they started using me.

Jorge: [Laughing] Seeing the character designed by her with her voice coming out of her yelling at a character that is voiced by me was quite jarring!

What do you think of the state of animation and the growth of diversity and representation in the business?

Jorge: It has never been better for minorities and for people who didn’t usually get to have their own series or movies, but it can still be better. But it’s the best it’s ever been. I’m meeting a lot of creatives and witnessing their journeys. We are seeing so much more diversity behind the scenes now. That’s having a big impact on a lot of things getting greenlit.

Sandra: We have had a lot of champions along the way, both male and female.

Character development sketches for Lord Mictlan by Jorge Gutiérrez for Maya and the Three.

Character development sketches for Lord Mictlan by Jorge Gutiérrez for Maya and the Three.

Full-color rough shot of Lord Mictlan battling Maya and her companions.

Full-color rough shot of Lord Mictlan battling Maya and her companions.

Jorge: A lot of times people used to ask us, “Who is the audience for your work?” Now we see that the audience is demanding to see themselves. And analytically, the executives note that the movies and shows that are diverse, they are now getting better ratings and bigger box office numbers, so it’s almost like if you don’t want to make money in Hollywood, then don’t do diversity!

Sandra: We are beginning to realize that a lot of people in the Latino-American community are older now and they show episodes of El Tigre to their kids. When we meet them now, they tell us, “You have no idea what a big impact you had and you opened our eyes. You guys were the only ones who portrayed us the way we were as Latinos, and we were so proud to have that series representing us.” That is so nice to hear.

Jorge: We meet people who tell us they grew up with El Tigre, and I tell them, “Oh, I grew up making El Tigre!” Sometimes people ask me, “Don’t you want to do a non-Mexican thing?” And to me that’s like someone asking me, “Don’t you not want to be you?” I understand why other directors and creators do that, but for me, the way I see it is that I’m a musician and this is the music I love: These are my rhythms and my flavors. This is our happy place. We don’t live in Mexico: Mexico lives in us. Wherever we go, we carry our culture with us.

Sandra: Our house looks like someone threw up colors all over the place. It’s about nostalgia, too — not just about us leaving Mexico and living here. Whenever we go down to Mexico, we are constantly looking for visuals, tastes, sounds, everything to bring back with us and use it in the work that we do.

Concept paintings of an enchanted forest deer (left) and a painted plaza detail from "Luna Island," a key location in Maya and the Three.

Concept paintings of an enchanted forest deer (left) and a painted plaza detail from “Luna Island,” a key location in Maya and the Three.

Enchanted forest concept art by production designer Paul Sullivan.

Enchanted forest concept art by production designer Paul Sullivan.

What are some of the early reactions to Maya?

Sandra: I feel like we took a bomb and left it in the middle of the field and we ran and hid in our bunker. We’re just waiting to see what happens next!

Jorge: The trailer had over 25 million views in its first week of release. Because of the stuff we made over the years, we didn’t exactly get a lot of marketing. When El Tigre and Book of Life came out, they weren’t gigantic hits. We were like an indie band. This time, the spotlight and love that we are getting from Netflix to help promote it is very different. We’re shocked. I couldn’t be prouder of the stuff that we have made and the brilliant work that our team has done. When people watch the whole thing, it’s a full meal. Every dish is delicious and connected. That’s what I’m excited about. I can’t wait for people to consume it all.

Sandra: It’s like a symphony where all these instruments and musicians came together and now they’re playing this beautiful melody.

Jorge: We joke all the time: Now that we’ve made El Tigre, Book of Life and Maya, if we never ever get to make anything else, we’re good!

Maya and the Three premieres on Netflix on October 22.

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