A Tome of Vim and Vigor

Animation Magazine - - Features -

mixes mod­ern con­ven­tions with Mex­i­can tra­di­tion and brings di­rec­tor Jorge Gu­tier­rez’s pas­sion project to life. By Tom McLean.

The Book of Life di­rec­tor Jorge R. Gu­tier­rez is as en­thu­si­as­tic a fan of an­i­ma­tion as you can imag­ine and, like many an­i­ma­tion fans, he loves the “art of” books that ac­com­pany the re­lease of just about ev­ery an­i­mated film.

“I love, love, love see­ing those orig­i­nal de­signs and I love see­ing the pieces that in­spired the movie,” he says. “But then I would see what the movies would turn into, and it felt to me — many, many times — that the film looked like a wa­tered-down ver­sion of those ideas and those blasts of color and blasts of gor­geous de­sign.”

Gu­tier­rez’s di­rec­to­rial de­but, out in the­aters Oct. 17, stands in di­rect con­trast to that — so much so that the di­rec­tor hosted a pre­view in a Bev­erly Hills gallery of the movie’s pro­duc­tion art months be­fore the movie was even com­pleted. The fi­nal film shows the strength of that de­sign work, which was in­spired — like the story — by one of his na­tive Mex­ico’s most col­or­ful tra­di­tions: the Day of the Dead.

The film tells the story of three friends — Manolo, Maria and Joaquin — who are in­sep­a­ra­ble as chil­dren in the town of San An­gel, un­til a prank gone bad prompts Maria’s fa­ther to send her to school in Spain. The split prompts a wa­ger be­tween La Muerte (voiced by Kate del Castillo), ruler of the Land of the Re­mem­bered, and Xibalba (voiced by Ron Perl­man), who rules the Land of the For­got­ten, over which of the boys will end up mar­ry­ing Maria.

Years later, Joaquin (Chan­ning Ta­tum) has be­come a proud mil­i­tary leader, while Manolo (Diego Luna) has fol­lowed fam­ily tra­di­tion by be­com­ing a mata­dor, though what he re­ally wants is to play gui­tar. When Maria (Zoe Sal­dana) re­turns, the boys both vie for her hand. And with some sneaky in­ter­ven­tion by the bet­tors, the trip takes a wild turn into the Land of the Re­mem­bered and back again as the three friends try to save their beloved town of San An­gel.

Gu­tier­rez, who pre­vi­ously cre­ated and ex­ec­u­tive pro­duced the se­ries El Ti­gre: The Ad­ven­tures of Manny Rivera, says he talked to as many art direc­tors and direc­tors as he could to find out why movies look so dif­fer­ent from the con­cept art. “Since I’m the lead character de­signer with my wife, San­dra (Equi­hua), I’m go­ing to make sure th­ese de­signs never get wa­tered down,” he says. “They will be harder to an­i­mate, harder to tex­ture, harder to light – ev­ery depart­ment is go­ing to suf­fer a lit­tle — but we’re go­ing to keep a look of th­ese things at ex­actly what the orig­i­nal visual de­vel­op­ment looked like.”

The fi­nal look of the film, with vi­brantly col­ored set­tings and char­ac­ters fash­ioned to look like wooden toys, was worth the ex­tra ef­fort, he says. “Ev­ery­one’s re­ally happy with how ev­ery­thing turned out and I re­ally be­lieve that if I had not been the di­rec­tor, all of this stuff more than likely would have changed to make things eas­ier for pro­duc­tion.”

The Book of Life is a story Gu­tier­rez

has been try­ing to tell for some 14 years. Its ori­gins stretch back to his child­hood in Ti­juana, where he saw his first an­i­mated TV spe­cials and fell in love with things like the Fleis­cher brothers’ 1930s Popeye cartoons. “Grow­ing up in Mex­ico, I never thought you could do this for a liv­ing,” he says. But when he got older, a fam­ily friend sug­gested that his in­ter­est in telling sto­ries, paint­ing and mak­ing movies was the very def­i­ni­tion of an­i­ma­tion. “You get to do all three,” says Gu­tier­rez. “I found out about CalArts when I was re­ally young and it be­came my dream to go to the school — and I did.”

Book of Life be­gan as a stu­dent short Gu­tier­rez made at CalArts. After grad­u­at­ing, he signed with an agent who sent him to ev­ery stu­dio in town to pitch the short as a fea­ture film — and no­body bit. “Pretty much, I was told: ‘You’re just a kid out of school and we’re not go­ing to make this type of movie. There’s no au­di­ence for this,’” he says. “So I just worked in the (an­i­ma­tion) in­dus­try for many, many years.”

Head­ing to Texas

The project was briefly in de­vel­op­ment at DreamWorks, but it was an early as­so­ci­a­tion that proved key to find­ing a home for the project. Brad Booker, who had been an an­i­ma­tor work­ing with Gu­tier­rez as an in­tern on Stu­art Lit­tle, had be­come a de­vel­op­ment exec at Dal­las-based Reel FX. “They took a chance on the film,” Gu­tier­rez says. “They said, well, we’re a small in­de­pen­dent stu­dio in Texas and we want to take a chance on you, if you’ll take a chance on us. And that’s ba­si­cally what I did. I threw cau­tion to the wind and I moved here.”

A year into de­vel­op­ment, Gu­tier­rez pitched the film to Guillermo del Toro, hop­ing the ac­claimed film­maker would come aboard as pro­ducer. “It was a fa­mously dis­as­trous pre­sen­ta­tion,” says Gu­tier­rez. “He said, ‘That was a re­ally bad pre­sen­ta­tion, but I can tell there is some­thing re­ally cool here and I know ex­actly who you are, I know your sense of hu­mor.’” With del Toro aboard, Fox signed on to dis­trib­ute the film.

Work­ing with del Toro was chal­leng­ing and re­ward­ing. “He was ex­tra harsh on me, in a good way,” Gu­tier­rez says. “I think in the be­gin­ning when I would just agree with him on ev­ery­thing, I think he hated that. He kept say­ing: ‘You’re not telling me what you re­ally think, you’re telling me what you think I want to hear.’ But as soon as we started dis­agree­ing — I stood up to him on cer­tain things — he re­ally loved it.”

The script, which Gu­tier­rez wrote with Doug Lang­dale, evolved over time, es­pe­cially once ac­tors were added to the mix. When it came to an­i­mat­ing the char­ac­ters, Gu­tier­rez urged his an­i­ma­tors to find the emo­tion in ev­ery mo­ment.

The Heart of the Mat­ter

“I love sub­text in film, so ev­ery se­quence we’d al­ways talk about what is this scene about, what are char­ac­ters say­ing — but what are they re­ally say­ing, and what’s hap­pen­ing un­der­neath,” he says. Gu­tier­rez told his an­i­ma­tors he wanted to see video ref­er­ence of them act­ing out the se­quence them­selves. “That way, I can talk about the per­for­mance and not the me­chan­ics,” he says. “It was re­ally hard for a lot of the shot guys to do it, but ev­ery­one got into it.”

In cre­at­ing a story based so heav­ily on Mex­i­can tra­di­tions, Gu­tier­rez says he drew on his own ex­pe­ri­ences to en­sure the film would have univer­sal ap­peal. “The per­ceived dan­ger was you could end up mak­ing a move that only peo­ple from Mex­ico would get,” he says. “But I feel very lucky I got to grow up on the bor­der. I got to grow up in Ti­juana, so I got to see what hap­pens to U.S. cul­ture when it went to Mex­ico and I got to see what hap­pened to Mex­i­can cul­ture when it came up north. So I was very, very, very care­ful to bal­ance those two things out.”

He fol­lowed the ad­vice of del Toro, who quoted Hitch­cock to say that if you want a story to be univer­sal, you have to be spe­cific. “I’m re­ally proud to say the film works on a univer­sal level — but if you’re a Mex­i­can, you’re go­ing to catch a whole other level of stuff.”

Cast­ing the voices in the movie was more suc­cess­ful than Gu­tier­rez had ex­pected. He had writ­ten the script with Luna in mind for Manolo and was pleas­antly sur­prised not only when the stu­dio agreed, but so did the ac­tor. The rest of the cast was about find­ing chem­istry with Luna, lead­ing Gu­tier­rez straight to Sal­dana.

“Zoe Sal­dana and Diego have a love story in the (Steven) Spiel­berg movie The Ter­mi­nal, but they never ac­tu­ally speak in the film,” he says. For Joaquin, Gu­tier­rez wanted some­one over the top for Luna to com­pete with, lead­ing him to Ta­tum. “We told him that even though the film takes place in Mex­ico, I want ac­tors from ev­ery cul­ture in it and he kind of rep­re­sents this high school quar­ter­back Mex­i­can hero. He has the suave­ness of Brazil and the machismo of Ar­gentina and the smooth­ness of Spain — Cap­tain Latin Amer­ica! And he just went for it!”

A sim­i­lar es­thetic ruled the choice of mu­sic, with Gu­tier­rez choos­ing an eclec­tic se­lec­tion of songs rang­ing from Elvis Pres­ley’s “Can’t Help Fall­ing in Love” and Rod Ste­wart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” to Ra­dio­head’s “Creep” and Mum­ford and Sons’ “I Will Wait” — all per­formed Mex­i­can style.

“Again, grow­ing up in Mex­ico, you hear mu­sic from all over the world, es­pe­cially the U.S. and U.K., and then those songs be­come your songs,” he says. “We re­ally got to play with mu­sic in a way that I love and again, grow­ing up in the ‘90s I got to hear a lot of bands in Latin Amer­ica that em­braced this idea that you are where you come from, but you’re also who you want to be.”

The songs were put in the script way in ad­vance of any le­gal clear­ance, and Gu­tier­rez says he was fully pre­pared for the artists to say no. “One by one, each of the bands started giv­ing us th­ese songs,” he says.

And now that the film is done and about to go out into the world, Gu­tier­rez says it’s ex­cit­ing and fright­en­ing at the same time. “This is one of those movies that I could not be more proud of,” he says. “I’ve dreamt about it for 14 years, and now that it’s done I’m a lit­tle scared of what life will be like with­out it. But it’s a dish that’s been cook­ing for quite a while now and I can’t wait to serve it to the world.”

his fam­ily on the west coast of Ire­land. That’s when his then 10-year-old son (whose name is Ben, like the boy in the movie) no­ticed some dead seals in the wa­ter. “We asked the women we were rent­ing our cot­tage from about the seals, and she told us that young fish­er­man were killing seals, blam­ing them for the drop in fish stocks, which was in­sane, be­cause hu­man over-fish­ing is what is hurt­ing the in­dus­try,” says Moore. “She told us that in the older days, no-

A Band of Artists

“One of the things we learned from our first movie was how to work with other stu­dios and with our crew to­gether and get ev­ery­one to take the flame and bring it back to us,” says Moore. “We have worked to­gether with some

of the an­i­ma­tors for a while, so it’s very nat­u­ral for us to keep a unique style. We toyed with the idea of stere­oscopy with this fea­ture, but we had to change some things, and we re­ally like to stay in­de­pen­dent. We don’t have a Jef­frey Katzen­berg or John Las­seter to tell us what to do, so that helps us keep our voice. We work as a col­lec­tion of small part­ners.”

Moore says although the film cost about 5.5 mil­lion euros ($7 mil­lion), the stu­dios put in so much R&D time and ex­tra hours that the price tag should re­ally be about 10 mil­lion euros ($13 mil­lion).

Thanks in part to the ef­forts of the film’s art di­rec­tor, Adrien Merigeau, who also di­rected the stu­dio’s award-win­ning short Old Fangs, the Car­toon Sa­loon team was able to craft a new style that evolved out of The Se­cret of Kells. This style of­fers a slightly more three-di­men­sional ap­proach, and is a bit softer, warmer and water­color-in­flu­enced than the first film, while still true to the stu­dio’s rec­og­niz­able look. Nør­lum stu­dio in Den­mark, Stu­dio 352 in Lux­em­bourg and Dig­i­tal Graph­ics in Bel­gium also joined forces with the team in Kilkenny to bring the film to an­i­mated life in such a rel­a­tively short time.

Mak­ing Magic in the Emer­ald Isle

Car­toon Sa­loon’s co-founder, CEO and the movie’s pro­ducer, Paul Young, says he per­son­ally loves the movie be­cause it res­onates with fam­i­lies, es­pe­cially with brothers and sis­ters. “The fan­tasy el­e­ments are great, but the movie is also a real fam­ily drama, in the tra­di­tion of the kitchen sink dra­mas,” he says. “We had a pri­vate screen­ing for our crew, and peo­ple were com­ing out with tears in their eyes. I think Song of the Sea has a more emo­tional punch than Kells, which was a more his­toric drama.”

Song of the Sea also showcases a top­notch cast that in­cludes veteran Ir­ish ac­tors Bren­dan Glee­son, Fion­nula Flana­gan, Patt Short, Tom Kenny and the young thesp David Rawle ( Moone Boy). Adding more sparkle to the mix are Lisa Han­ni­gan (lead signer of Dead Can Dance) and mu­sic by Bruno Coulais and Ir­ish band Kila.

Now that this la­bor of love is ready to hit the screens around the world — in­die distrib­u­tor GKIDS will re­lease the pic in se­lect U.S. ci­ties on Dec. 10 — Moore says he can’t wait to see how gen­eral au­di­ences will re­spond to it. “The sec­ond movie can be a chal­lenge, be­cause you want it to be as good or bet­ter than the first one,” he says. “So you just have to put your head down and make a good movie. We had some screen­ings for the cast and crew, and it was won­der­ful to see peo­ple laugh and cry at the same places to­gether.”

Look­ing at the big an­i­ma­tion land­scape in 2014, Moore, like many of his col­leagues, ex­presses a huge level of as­ton­ish­ment and grat­i­tude. “I re­mem­ber when The Se­cret of Kells came out, we were so happy to be nom­i­nated with th­ese other great movies that were so bril­liant and eclec­tic — there were two stop-mo­tion fea­tures ( Co­ra­line, Fan­tas­tic Mr. Fox) and one hand-drawn ( The Princess and the Frog) as well as a CG movie ( Up),” he says. “This year, you have this big com­mer­cial movie from Warner Bros., The LEGO Movie, as well as Jorge Gu­tier­rez’s The Book of Life and LAIKA’s The Boxtrolls and Stu­dio Ghi­bli’s Princess Kaguya — which I’m look­ing for­ward to see. There is such a rich amount of cre­ative work hap­pen­ing all over the world.”

“I think things have changed a lot in the 14 years or so that I’ve been in this business,” Moore says. “There are a lot more op­por­tu­ni­ties, but there’s less money to be made. You can do your own cre­ative work and get it seen, but you won’t get paid very much. It has al­ways been about find­ing the right bal­ance in mak­ing a liv­ing and work­ing on your own projects. That’s the best that any of us can do!”

Both Moore and Young be­lieve that their stu­dio is now known for its styl­ized 2D fea­tures, and they are very hum­bled by the re­cep­tion their projects get in the U.S.: They were a huge hit at Comic-Con this past sum­mer. Car­toon Sa­loon has also pro­duced the an­i­ma­tion for the “One Love” seg­ment of Salma Hayek’s up­com­ing fea­ture The Prophet and is co-pro­duc­ing an adap­ta­tion of Deb­o­rah El­lis’s novel The Bread­win­ner (with Nora Twomey di­rect­ing).

Per­haps that’s why it’s not sur­pris­ing that Moore is loyal to 2D an­i­ma­tion and says he doesn’t see him­self helm­ing a CG-an­i­mated fea­ture any time soon. “As I get older, some­times I won­der if I will ever get into CG an­i­ma­tion,” he says. “I love to draw on pa­per — that’s al­ways been very im­por­tant to me. Another great thing about 2D an­i­ma­tion is that it’s time­less. You can watch To­toro and Ponyo, and you won’t know that they were made 20 years apart. You don’t see the big changes that you see in CG an­i­ma­tion. When you look at Toy Story and Toy Story 3, there’s a big dif­fer­ence and you can def­i­nitely no­tice that evo­lu­tion.” GKIDS will re­lease Car­toon Sa­loon’s Song of the Sea in New York and Toronto on Dec. 10, be­fore ex­pand­ing to Los An­ge­les and other mar­kets later that month.

Te­len­ov­ela legend Kate del Castillo voiced La Muerte, whose elab­o­rate and col­or­ful look was in­spired — like ev­ery­thing in the film — by Mex­ico’s Day of the Dead tra­di­tion.

Manolo’s jour­ney takes him to the Land of the Re­mem­bered, where he is re­united with long-gone fam­ily mem­bers but is com­pelled to re­turn to the sur­face by his love for Maria.

The mak­ers of

Sought to make a tale that cap­tured the myths of Ire­land in much the same way that Hayao Miyazaki’s films cap­ture those of Ja­pan. Paul Young

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