A Tome of Vim and Vigor
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.