befores & afters sits down with husband and wife creative team Jorge R. Gutiérrez and Sandra Equihua.
Jorge R. Gutiérrez’s Maya and the Three is an animated nine-chapter limited series currently streaming on Netflix. But really, it’s more like three huge animated features. There’s a rich world crafted here, largely inspired by Mesoamerica cultures, following the story of warrior princess Maya (voiced by Zoe Saldaña).
I got the chance to interview creator, director and executive producer Gutiérrez, and creative consultant Sandra Equihua (who just happens to be married to Gutiérrez), after I’d watched four of the nine eps. As I hope you’ll see, the interview was a blast, as it always is on the director’s projects such as The Book of Life and El Tigre. At one point, I shared with Equihua and Gutiérrez the fact that I had dreamt I had alligator hands like the character Cipactli, who is the Goddess of Alligators. It was that kind of interview.
Read on to hear about how Maya and the Three came to be, the early design and maquette work, and the influence of Tangent Animation, which made the series in Blender (sadly, Tangent has since shut down). Plus we explore the strong female presence in the series and some of the particular storytelling aspects like anime speedlines and playing with aspect ratio that propels things along.
b&a: You’ve created something different here. I’m not even sure how to describe this show. It’s not like traditional CG animation. It feels like stop-motion, or something else. Maybe you could both tell me about that, what you feel like you’ve created?
Jorge R. Gutiérrez: I talk about this all the time, that I discovered giant movies on television. So I discovered the Seven Samurai, The Good, The Bad, The Ugly on TV, and I feel that a kid today would discover the Lord of the Rings at home, right? Not a lot of us have access to a revival cinema. So the idea for the idea for Maya from the beginning was, let’s pretend this was a giant movie, and now you get to watch it at home. So that was the intent from the beginning. And then as far as the technique, well, we love stop-motion…
Sandra Equihua: …yes, I was going to say, not to mention that we’re big geeks when it comes to a stop-motion.
Jorge R. Gutiérrez: But we also love anime and we love the super-cartoony Tex Avery type of stuff. And I always said, no matter what the animation style, and no matter what the genre and the medium you use, at the end of the day, it’s all flat. It’s on a flat screen, so why not use our favorite thing about stop-motion, which is the way it’s lit.
Sandra Equihua: And portrayed.
Jorge R. Gutiérrez: And portrayed. Our favorite thing about anime, which is the action moments. Our favorite thing about cartoony stuff, which is cheating to camera poses, and mix it all up. Why not? We get to play with all these things. Same thing with the frame, right? Why contain ourselves? I like the 2:3:5 aspect ratio, but why not play with it as another element, to help with the story?
b&a: And Sandra, what about from your perspective, what was involved design-wise on the show?
Sandra Equihua: I mean, anytime that we’re going to do something with Jorge, I know it’s going to be extraordinary. It’s going to be big.
Jorge R. Gutiérrez: An extraordinary pain in the ass, is what she means.
Sandra Equihua: No, no, no, it’s not a big pain in the ass. It’s a lot of fun. It’s an opportunity to really learn and grow as an artist. Even as his wife, it’s pretty awesome collaborating with Jorge. It was very epic. He kept shooting out characters at me through the entire time that we were working together. First we work with the script. And then after we work in with the script, the way we usually work is, we sit down during lunch or a coffee break or something, and then he’ll just be like, ‘Tell me what do you think about this character? I really like this character doing this.’ And he just kept going and going and going. I mean, I’m just so happy that I was able to finish them, because there was just so many.
Jorge R. Gutiérrez: We’ve never not worked together, so this is just a natural back and forth. And Sandra usually designs all the female characters, I usually design all the male characters, and then we like to put them together and let the contrasts work. I always say, if you want one of her characters to look more beautiful, just put them next to a really ugly character done by me.
Sandra Equihua: No, no, no. No!
Jorge R. Gutiérrez: …just like in real life, beauty and the beast.
b&a: I’ll tell you a reaction I’ve had from the first four episodes—which are just an explosion of color, and characters, and things happening—but because of the design differences, because of the way you’ve told the story, I never felt lost. It does happen in other shows when a lot happens, and I’m sure kids are probably better at following this stuff than I am, but that’s a really big challenge, right? How do you feel that you able to include all these cultural references and so much design elements, but make it comprehensible?
Jorge R. Gutiérrez: I mean, we faced this on Book of Life, too, by the way. I would always go back and Nightmare Before Christmas. And I would go, especially for Halloween Town, this is a world that’s highly stylized and the characters are crazy stylized, yet you always know where to look. And one of the things that we’ve learned on Book of Life was, we have to help the audience focus, and that’s going to come in layout, and in editing, and the way we light things.
The idea from the beginning has always been that these worlds were created by the characters who live in them. They made their chairs, they made their buildings, they made their doors. So all the proportions have to fit that universe, and I think when you do that, then there’s a cohesiveness that happens. A lot of times I watch movies where I go, ‘These characters are beautiful, but together they don’t really work together.’ Or ‘These characters look like they all came from the same world, but then the world doesn’t fit in.’ So we go out of our way from the beginning to go, these characters need to live and exist in this world, and they need to look like they created the world.
Sandra Equihua: I got to see a lot of the storyboards that were happening, specifically the one during the battle sequence. You haven’t gotten there yet, but you think what you’ve seen is crazy, just wait until you get to the battle sequence.
Jorge R. Gutiérrez: Chapter nine is basically a time battle.
Sandra Equihua: Chapter nine is insane. First, I read the script, and as it was, I was already really confused because of so many characters. I was like, ‘What is happening?’ And I was like, ‘How are we going to make this read? There’s so much craziness happening.’ Then I got to see the storyboards, and I was like, ‘Okay, alright. I’m understanding what’s happening.’ And right there, I started seeing how to discern the action from the characters, like you were mentioning. They were working with a lot of certain angles, and a lot of perspectives, and lighting, and things that were going to be interjected later on. And I think that Jorge’s background really helped a lot, because he studied film.
Jorge R. Gutiérrez: And I’m a cutty guy, right? So I like to cut fast. I love Hong Kong movies from the nineties, and I love Bollywood. I basically love countries that are showing off, especially when there’s not as many resources, you try to make it feel like a movie. I like those ideas.
Sandra Equihua: It was beautiful. Everything is like a well orchestrated symphony.
b&a: Sandra, one thing I really liked about the character design was that it kind of felt a bit ‘odd’ sometimes and proportions were unusual, or actually probably correct. There was something about not just the human characters, but also the animals and creatures. It just seems like you decided it didn’t need to be perfect. That seems like a real design choice.
Sandra Equihua: I think that that’s our styles coming together. The way it usually works is that Jorge’s very organic in his design sense and tends to push the boundaries of the characters proportions.
Jorge R. Gutiérrez: Like the witch, for example. When I designed that nose, it was three times bigger. She dragged the nose everywhere.
Sandra Equihua: I had to, I was like, ‘No.’
Jorge R. Gutiérrez: Sandra was like, ‘Too much. Too much.’
Sandra Equihua: That’s just too much. I said, ‘This is too much going on. We are not going to have her drag it.’ She had it like on a wheelbarrow, he had a guy carrying it, and I was like, ‘That’s really funny, but that’s a no. So that’s not going to happen.’ On my end, I’m a little more safe with my proportions. I’ll still play around with it a little more, but not as much as Jorge is, so he’s been teaching me how to not be afraid.
Jorge R. Gutiérrez: It’s been a good back and forth.
Sandra Equihua: And that’s what we tried to do with the designs of the characters, just push them more and get out of the comfort zone, make them a little more original.
Jorge R. Gutiérrez: And I have to say, we also referenced things we liked. So for example, Maya, as a character, there’s a nod to Chun-Li from Street Fighter. The big, chunky legs that reflect the character that’s really grounded, that constantly gets knocked down, but like the great philosopher Chumbawamba said, gets back up again…
b&a: I bet you’ve made that joke before…
Sandra Equihua: He came up with it like I think two interviews ago, and I was like, I hope he doesn’t use it again. And he used it again, Ian! He used it again.
Jorge R. Gutiérrez: This is ‘A’ quality material, guys.
Sandra Equihua: No, it’s not ‘A’ quality material.
Jorge R. Gutiérrez: ‘A’ quality material.
b&a: Oh, dear.
Sandra Equihua: [laughs].
b&a: Jorge—I’m just moving on—in some of the presentations I’ve seen you do, you often show proof of concepts, or tests, or pitches that you’ve made, some successful and some not. Did you do that here? Did you have to do a proof of concept to Netflix, and go through and actually make something?
Jorge R. Gutiérrez: Yeah, so from when I told them about it to my first day, well, we found people we like on the internet, on Instagram and Twitter, and we just hired them to help us create maquettes.
Sandra Equihua: To give the idea.
Jorge R. Gutiérrez: So we hired this brilliant artist, Esteban Pedrozo, and so the day I showed up, literally my first day, I went, ‘Here’s what Maya looks like. Here’s what Maya looks like as a warrior. Here’s the ending to the story. If you guys don’t like any of this…’. This is my first day, Ian. “Just let me know and I’ll quit and we’ll save everybody lots of money.’ And so that’s a risk that I like to take, because if I don’t believe in my stuff, who’s going to believe in my stuff? So, I always try to go in with, here are the flavors, here’s the dish, if you’re restaurant doesn’t want to serve this…
Sandra Equihua: …it’s fine.
Jorge R. Gutiérrez: …it’s fine. It’s not your fault. I just won’t cook here.
b&a: Did that go to any kind of animation test or did you start production once you got the tick?
Jorge R. Gutiérrez: There was no pilots. It was a straight to green light. And then we made a little animatic test, and then we were going to test three different studios—we were going for a more painterly look. Then Tangent Animation at that time had done Next Gen, and I had loved the look of that thing, but I said, ‘Well, it’s all robots. They keep doing their stuff. This is really organic.’ They were also a new studio. How can they do three movies in a row? But, they did a test, and I was so blown away. I think we were all blown away by their animation test that we basically threw away the original plan, and we said, ‘Let’s make it look like this.’ And then we just all jumped in.
b&a: It is such an organic-looking production and I can see how you might’ve felt like it could be more painterly, but what do you call the final look? Because some animation directors do say, ‘Oh, this is a painterly thing.’ But as I said before, this is something else.
Sandra Equihua: Wow, that’s a great question.
Jorge R. Gutiérrez: I call it CG stop-motion, because that was kind of the approach. The way we photographed it, the way we lit it, the way we designed it, the way we textured it—the scale of textures were meant to look like a stop-motion production, but Maya and the Three as a stop motion movie, let’s say a LAIKA version of this, is impossible to make. It would’ve cost $300 million. Un-makeable. And in my career, I’ve always found the reason I love stop-motion, the thing that I connect with stop motion is…
Sandra Equihua: …I know where you’re going with this.
Jorge R. Gutiérrez: …it’s this idea that as kids, we play with toys and we imagined the toys moving, and I think stop-motion fulfils that child fantasy of objects coming to life.
Sandra Equihua: That primitive feeling of wanting to play with the toys.
Jorge R. Gutiérrez: Yeah.
b&a: Yes. That’s exactly the feeling I had out of it. Also, I was really excited for my niece and nephews to watch it, because I felt like it had some pretty powerful messages, especially about women. Sandra, I actually would love you to talk about that a bit.
Sandra Equihua: That’s a very beautifully put question. And yeah, and more so for the females, like little girls out there, empower them to become strong females, and right now we’re living through a time where women are finding their voices yet again. It’s like, dammit, I don’t want to quote Chumbawamba, but we fall down, we get back up again.
b&a: Oh my gosh.
Sandra Equihua: Damn you, Jorge. But also, to empower little Latina girls. When you’re in Mexico, or you’re in Mesoamerica, or Latin America, we have to have our voices heard, and I’m hopeful that maybe one little girl or two little girls out there get inspired, and they decide to not only go into the arts and express themselves and have their voices heard, but we have a director coming out of it. Wouldn’t that be awesome? Like a creator coming out of there, more females coming out.
b&a: Yeah, it was a big takeaway, and it’s also just so nice to look at, going back a little bit to the ‘stop-motion CG’. Now, you’ve done some complicated films and shows, but because this was a Blender show, did you feel like you needed to learn anything new technically or did Tangent really just handle that? Tell me about the technical side.
Jorge R. Gutiérrez: I was used to a traditional Maya pipeline. So, I had to kind of re-learn it with those guys. And there are things that Blender could do really well, and there were things that Blender had a hard time with, which were very different than the traditional Maya pipeline. When we say Tangent used Blender, they rigged, model, animated in Blender, like it was ALL of it. So it was very, very unique and different. Especially for me figuring out what I couldn’t afford, because the way I write is, I’m trying to write producible things. And especially after Book of Life, there’s a lot of things I wasn’t allowed to do, not because they wouldn’t let me, but because we couldn’t afford to. So on this one, it was, well, what’s my budget? What’s my sandbox? I’m going to write to the things I know we can make, and then turning those scripts into Tangent, and then they would go, ‘Well, actually…’
Sandra Equihua: ‘This is what can be done.’
Jorge R. Gutiérrez: Or, ‘Yeah, in Blender it’s going to be really hard to do this. But, if you want tornadoes, we can go crazy with tornadoes.’
Sandra Equihua: It’s not Maya and the Three. It’s The Tornado and the Three.
Jorge R. Gutiérrez: So definitely hearing what they were good at made me rewrite and re-conceive a lot of the story and go—and the audience will never know this stuff—but it was one of those, like, let’s try to use Blender and let’s try to use the strengths of Blender and Tangent as opposed to trying to shoehorn things that it’s not good at, and then you end up not making anybody happy.
Sandra Equihua: Or making it look bad.
Jorge R. Gutiérrez: Yeah, or worse, making it look bad.
b&a: In addition to beautifully rendered characters and environments, there’s a whole lot of effects, effects sims, in this that I think really adds a lot of scale to the production.
Jorge R. Gutiérrez: Ian, wait ’til you watch episode nine.
Sandra Equihua: That’s the one that I’m like … woah.
Jorge R. Gutiérrez: I mean the amount of effects, the amount of crowds, the amount of, just, scope. We had to be really smart and go, ‘All right. We know nine is crazy, but if we save everything for nine, people might not get there. We have to let them know that there’s good stuff throughout.’ And we’re not going to take an episode off, or Game of Thrones style, have an episode where people just talk for one episode because you use all that money on the next one. This thing had to be sustainable and it had to build. So it was really hard.
b&a: People are going to binge this, and that’s an interesting question now for creators—do you write differently? Do you produce a show differently when you feel like people are going to see it all in one go?
Jorge R. Gutiérrez: Absolutely. I don’t think weekly cliffhangers work. Will they die? Well, you’re going to find out next week they don’t die. So the cliffhangers become emotional cliffhangers. It’s someone died and then you end the episode, and you’re like, ‘How are people going to react to this?’ So it becomes emotion.
And then the other big one that I learned was when you watch a giant movie at home, you pause it to go to the bathroom, or you’re like, ‘Aw, I’m falling asleep. I’m going to stop. I’m going to continue tomorrow.’ We’re putting that control in the viewer, but at the same time, the work can be consumed at once or in chunks. The work is the work. It doesn’t change. It’s just the way we consume it is what changes.
b&a: I always like to ask designers, directors, anyone, are there any Easter eggs you’re prepared to reveal? Sandra, is there anything you’ve put in there that’s not super obvious that you want people to find?
Sandra Equihua: I mean, we were trying to be as vague as possible with naming cultures and stuff, because we were trying to make it universal, for starters. Two, we were trying to address all Mesoamerica, which poor, silly souls, it’s impossible…
Jorge R. Gutiérrez: …to represent all of them.
Sandra Equihua: But it has been fun to see people find these references, and say, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s the head dress in this museum.’ Or, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s a reference to this relic that exists. It’s very popular.’ So just having people tell us every now and then what they think, or they have found, has been exciting.
Jorge R. Gutiérrez: I would say, for people who have watched our previous stuff, there’s a El Tigre Easter egg in episode one. There’s a Book of Life Easter egg in episode eight. And then for anybody who loves The Wizard of Oz, Maya is The Wizard of Oz, right, Maya is Dorothy. Rico is the scarecrow. And Chimi’s the Tin Man/ Picchu is the lion. And then if you love the Lord of the Rings, you should watch this and go, ‘What if the ring was alive?’ That’s basically Maya.
b&a: Just a few quick questions about storytelling things. I love two things in particular. I love the use of, I might get the name of this wrong, Jorge, but like the anime speed lines in certain moments. Tell me a bit about those and inputting those into the show.
Jorge R. Gutiérrez: So we, obviously we love anime, and we did that a ton in our TV show. And then I tried doing it in Book of Life, and they wouldn’t let me. They said, ‘That’s too specific to that type of animation.’
Sandra Equihua: Yeah, they said, ‘It’s going to take people out of the movie. It’s too jarring.’
Jorge R. Gutiérrez: So I got to do it on this one, and I’ve got to be honest with you, early on, people were like, ‘What? You want the background to just be lines that are moving?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, yeah. The audience is used to this in anime. Why wouldn’t they accept it here?’
Sandra Equihua: You’re like, ‘Hear me out.’
Jorge R. Gutiérrez: And then I would go into my office and close the door and go, ‘Oh my God. What if it doesn’t work?’ And then we did tests and everybody immediately went, ‘Oh, that’s what you’re going for. Alright, I get it.’ And then that was it. It just happened. And then we put it in everything.
b&a: They work really well. They’re really fun breakout moments. I also loved occasionally where a piece of imagery breaks the letter boxing.
Jorge R. Gutiérrez: The aspect ratio.
b&a: They were cool.
Jorge R. Gutiérrez: So, from the beginning, again, when 3D movies were very popular, Hollywood had to figure out how to sell it to the audience on television. So they would fake them going into the black, and I remember at that time thinking, ‘Oh my God. That’s so dumb.’ And then over time going, ‘Wait a second. What if we use that for storytelling?’ And I saw, obviously Samurai Jack did a little of it, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.
Sandra Equihua: Life of Pi did it.
Jorge R. Gutiérrez: Yeah, Life of Pi did a little of it. So then I was like, ‘Alright. Why don’t we make it part of the story?’ So whenever there’s an important moment, characters break frame. And then when someone gets really powerful, they take over the frame. And then we basically used it in the fights.
Sandra Equihua: It’s kind of like cues. Visual, unconscious cues.
Jorge R. Gutiérrez: And now I’ll never go back. I want to use this all the time.
Sandra Equihua: Just don’t go too crazy.
Jorge R. Gutiérrez: I’m going to have characters walk around and like cut pieces of it.
Sandra Equihua: Don’t go too crazy!
b&a: Okay, that’s brilliant. You’ve shown me what it’s like working together, but is there something else you can say about how that partnership you have really works?
Jorge R. Gutiérrez: Oh yeah. I mean, this is a tango. We learned to dance with each other, and I’d had to cut a lot of toes off so that we can dance better. But it’s been awesome.
Sandra Equihua: If we ever go and hang out together, and you ever see us dance, it’s terrible.
Jorge R. Gutiérrez: Yeah.
Sandra Equihua: We’ll like fall on top of each other, because we have no rhythm and no coordination, but as a couple who work together, we work pretty good.
b&a: Love it. I feel like I should wrap up there just because it’s been really fun. Although, I just want to share one thing that happened the other day, which is I had a dream about having alligator hands. I totally had that dream.
Jorge R. Gutiérrez: No.
b&a: I really did. And I think I even hit my girlfriend in the bed like this [gestures hitting girlfriend in bed with alligator hands], because she said, ‘What were you doing with your hands like that [alligator gesture] last night?’ And I said, ‘Oh, I just watched this Maya and the Three thing…’. Does that ever happen to you? Do you dream about your characters?
Jorge R. Gutiérrez: I dream of you, Ian, dreaming that you have alligator hands.
Sandra Equihua: That’s even creepier. Oh my God.
Jorge R. Gutiérrez: I can’t control my dreams.
Sandra Equihua: Wait, you dream of Ian having crocodile hands hitting his girlfriend in the bed while he’s having the dream?
Jorge R. Gutiérrez: Yeah, very complex Inception-like dreams.
b&a: Whoa. This interview went places I didn’t think it would…