Jorge R. Gutierrez gives a presentation during "It's Not Just a Cartoon 2019: A Celebration of Diversity in Animation" at the Television Academy on June 29, 2019, in Los Angeles.
Creating career pathways for diverse young talent is the main mission of the Television Academy Foundation, and one alumnus from two of its student programs shot to the very top of the animation industry with his groundbreaking Latin-infused, visual masterpieces.
Born in Mexico City and raised in Tijuana, Jorge R. Gutierrez is an animator, painter, writer and director who, along with his wife character designer Sandra Equihua, created the multiple Emmy Award-winning animated television series El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera for Nickelodeon.
Gutierrez was a 1999 Television Academy Foundation intern in non-traditional animation and a 2001 College Television Award winner in animation. He credits the Foundation with propelling his career forward and opening doors in an industry he dreamed of being a part of.
A Foundation for Success
Did you know you wanted to be an animator since you were very young? Was that your dream?
Yes, but I'm originally from Mexico; and in Mexico to say you wanted to be an animator was like saying you wanted to be the Pope or Batman (laughs). So, this was not a normal career to pursue. Thankfully, when I found out about CalArts (California Institute of the Arts), I kind of made it my life's mission to get into that school. I worked really, really hard. But I always knew this was my passion. I couldn't believe it back then, and I still can't believe it now, that they pay us to make cartoons! We get to be kids forever.
How did you first hear about the Television Academy Foundation's Internship program, and why did you want to apply?
I found out about the internship program while attending CalArts; it was considered one of the Rolls-Royces of internships that everybody wanted. It was a huge deal. I researched it as much as I could, I talked to past interns who had done it, and I tried really hard to get in. I'm not going to lie; when I was informed I got it, that was the happiest day of my life. It was the beginning of something, and it literally changed everything for me. I ended up as an animation intern on the movie Stuart Little, and I loved it.
What was it like when you first started your internship in 1999 on Stuart Little?
Oh, it was very scary. I was very intimidated to be working with professionals. But at the same time it humanized all these people who I so admired; they were just regular people like me. And it gave me that hope that if I worked really hard, I could be one of them. There's nothing like being in a studio and seeing how movies are made … to realize yeah, it's magical; but it's a job and it's attainable.
How did the internship help you achieve your career goals?
My first job out of school was thanks to that internship. Someone I worked with on Stuart Little became the producer for the digital entertainment division of Sony. They were starting internet cartoons; and because I had met him in my internship, he contacted me when I graduated. And that was my first job out of school. It was thanks to that internship.
I also learned that being really hard-working is important; but also networking, meeting people, that's how this business works. If you're a good person and you work really hard, people start noticing; and then you start getting those calls and find out when opportunities are happening before others. Basically, everybody that helped me back then I'm still friends with now, so these relationships are for the future.
When I went back to school after the internship, it really focused me and allowed me to concentrate on the things that I knew would make the biggest difference for me career wise. So when I got back to school, I worked on finishing up my student short film Carmelo and entered it into the College Television Awards and won! It was an animated short about a kid in Mexico who wants to be a bullfighter on Day of the Dead. It was the beginning of what would eventually evolve into my film Book of Life—it dealt with all the same themes.
The Television Academy Foundation's programs changed my life -- I mean they literally changed my life! I got the internship based on some of my initial drawings for Carmelo. Then I won the College Television Award for that film, which was also the beginning of my feature film Book of Life.
Which garnered you a 2015 Golden Globe nomination for Best Animated Motion Picture.
Yes, I am a literal product of the kindness of the Television Academy Foundation. So thank you.
Breaking Barriers and Paying it Forward
Your work reflects your Mexican heritage and love of pop folklore. It has broken a lot of barriers in the business, what were some of the challenges you faced in your career while pursuing your distinctive animated vision?
In school, when I started, no one was doing stuff about Latin America and Mexico. And I felt like, "Oh, there's this giant hole in entertainment where we're not seeing stuff inspired by Mexico." All of my teachers warned me and said, "Jorge, if you keep doing all this Mexican stuff, you're not going to get a job because there's no movies or shows like this." And they were right.
And then one producer at Nickelodeon sat me down and gave me wisdom that helps me through to this day. He said, "Jorge, if you want to keep designing this Mexican stuff and you want to keep writing these Mexican stories, you have to sit where I'm sitting. You have to create your own cartoons and your own books in order to showcase this stuff. It's going to be on you. You're going to get a million 'no's,' but at some point someone is going to say 'maybe.'"
It only took 20 years, but now my phone is ringing off the hook.
You are very active helping students from diverse backgrounds who aspire to careers in entertainment and animation—tell me about this work.
I volunteer to mentor all the time. Specifically, I've been mentoring mostly Latinx, up and coming talent, either kids in school or recent graduates. Any opportunity I have, I try to hire as many people as I can, especially women, Latin women, because they don't have enough in animation.
The struggle that has become apparent from the many schools I have worked with is that Latinx communities feel that the entertainment industry and animation is such a risky job, because they don't see anyone of our culture there. So especially first-generation kids are being told, "Hey, we came to this country. What do you mean you're going to take a chance and study this career; they just don't do it." So we almost have to convince the parents first.
With that said, the more Latinx show creatives there are—in front of and behind the camera—the more it will become a normalized career. But it's taking time.
What advice do you have for students who want to pursue careers in animation?
I would highly recommend putting their work up online and going on social media; that's where we're all finding young talent. I would follow all your favorite show creators and all your favorite directors on social media because they're giving great advice nonstop. I find myself online reading every day thinking, "Wow, I can't believe my favorite director just said this, or recommended this movie, or recommended this talk." It's super inspiring.
One of the big things for me starting out was the resilience needed to be successful. I've become friends with Guillermo Del Toro (two-time Oscar winner for The Shape of Water) who became my mentor and helped me basically produce the Book of Life. He said something to me about this industry; he said, "Jorge, in order to succeed, you need to have the heart of a poet and you need to have the endurance of a boxer." And that is a balance. You can't be too much of one or the other.
He also encouraged me to pay it forward. He said, "You know, Jorge, I'm helping you. You have to pay it back and help others."
What animated series are you currently working on?
A limited series for Netflix called Maya and the Three, which is set in a mythical Mesoamerican-inspired world. The main character, Maya, is a warrior princess who embarks on a quest to recruit three legendary fighters to help save the world of men and gods. I wanted to have a hero who is a half-god, half-human, warrior princess because I didn't see any lead females in Mesoamerican mythology. It's like my Mesoamerican version of Lord of the Rings. My original pitch was, "It's Lord of the Rings with brown people."
There will be nine, 30-minute episodes; and it will premiere on Netflix in the winter of 2021. Thankfully, we had recorded 90% of the dialogue, so we had stockpiled a lot of material to work with during this time.
Artwork from Maya and the Three
Drawing a positive path forward in challenging times
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your work life?
I feel guilty admitting this, but COVID has been wonderful for us because it has allowed me to work from home and therefore spend more time with my family. I have lunch with my son every day, which is such a luxury. Because the animation production process is kind of built to be remote, we never stopped working. Plus, we can continue to create new animated programming, which is in high demand both domestically and internationally—so we're booming. I feel the pain of my brothers and sisters in the live-action world, but I am thriving right now.
In response to recent protests against police brutality and systemic racism, Hollywood has been called upon to make significant changes within our industry. What, in your opinion, are some immediate actions that the entertainment industry can take to facilitate change?
I can definitely help by hiring more. I looked at my crew and looked at my crews in the past, and I have to do better as a creator and as a writer. So, I'm putting that on myself. I volunteered to help more up-and-coming black animators and black writers. I am now in a position where I get to hire people, and I want more choices; and if there's people who aren't as experienced, we need to help them. We need to give them those experiences. People took a chance on me. I have to take a chance on up-and-coming talent. In the past I've focused more on supporting Latinx talent, but I don't think that's enough. I think I have to help everybody else more, including Afro-Latinos.
*This interview has been edited for clarity and length.