The director of The Book of Life and animated shows for Nickelodeon and Netflix discusses being autistic, mixing Mexican culture with sci-fi and kung fu, and how he stays positive in the face of cancelled projects. I interviewed him at THU 2018 in September, my favourite conference of 2018 – and tickets for THU 2019 have just gone on sale.
“Autism is my super-power.”
This is the most striking thing Jorge Gutiérrez says to me as we’re sitting in a small chamber in the Mediterranean Conference Centre in Valletta, Malta – a bland name for a grandiose 15th-Century building originally built as an infirmary for soldiers.
It’s the new home of the boutique digital art, animation and VFX conference/festival Trojan Horse Was a Unicorn (THU to attendees). This intimate 'digital rave' combines workshops from intense life-drawing by Nadezda to VR painting with now-Facebook-employee Goro Fujita with talks from fantasy art heroes like Cynthia Sheppard to game studios like The Last of Us developer Naughty Dog.
Jorge kicked off the talks on the first day proper of THU, detailing not only his career as an artist, animator and director on a succession of shows including the Emmy-winning El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera for Nickelodeon – with its highest point so far being his Golden Globe-nominated feature film The Book of Life. All of these draw on the visual motifs of his native Mexico, where he lived until going to CalArts too study experimental animation under legendary Disney animator Jules Engel.
Jorge is an incredibly open and engaging speaker, telling us a series of funny and affecting tales about the moments of failure from his career and personal life that lead to his proudest successes.
This story arc recurs through how in his youth, he convinced Jules to let him into CalArts – and convinced acclaimed director Guillermo del Toro to be a producer on his feature film. For Jules he had prepared a derivative portfolio of the type of characters he thought Americans were looking for. The great animator’s response was characteristically blunt.
"Why do you poop in my eyes,” he said, before saying the worst thing a young creative can hear.
"You are not an artist. A copy machine could make this.”
Crushed, Jorge ended up leaving his office without his other portfolio, as featuring his personal work that was entirely based in Mexican culture. Jules happened to open this and called Jorge back to both berate him for not showing this portfolio to begin with – and invited him onto the course. While studying, Jorge created the CG animated short Carmelo, which won the 2001 student Emmy award for animation – prompting Jules to praise him with the words, "Maybe you’re not an idiot.”
A similarly nightmarish interview almost ended his chance at getting The Book of Life (below) made. He had managed to get in front of Guillermo del Toro to pitch the film but had to contend with doing in outside in the LA sun, so he was sweating profusely and had to do the pitch in less than a third of time he’d practised to. While almost being drowned out by the booming sounds of leaf blowers from the house next door. Using a script of the film he’d managed to spill tequila all over.
Luckily, the Pan's Labyrinth/Hellboy director was already aware of Jorge’s talents and backed the project.
Jorge has a thousand of these stories, and an infectious exuberance that brings you into their highs and lows, but there was one thing he mentioned that didn't have a story to go alongside it - that he's autistic and that he's found this beneficial to being an artist and director. Like me, he also has a nine-year-old son who’s autistic, so when we sat down the following day for an interview, this was something I wanted to explore with him (after first checking that we was happy to discuss this part of his life).
With the high interpersonal skills necessary to direct feature films and TV shows – as well as appear on stage to give his talk – Jorge doesn’t match the preconception that many neurotypical people (as some within the autistic community use to refer to non-autistic people) have of how an autistic person behaves: introverted and made anxious by the disconnection they feel from most of the rest of the world.
For that reason, Jorge wasn’t diagnosed as autistic until he was nearly 40 - it was only when his son was diagnosed that a connection was made.
“My parents said, ‘well that's weird. If he has autism, I think you have autism too’.
“I asked them why and they said ‘everything your kid does is what you did. You didn't talk until you were five; all you did was draw very specific things.”
Lost in creation
Hyperfocusing – getting caught up in a task to the exclusion of nearly everything else - is a common trait in autistic people. Jorge has found the ability to hyper-focus to be advantageous when working the long hours and to the tight deadlines required by animation production.
"If I'm told [that] we have to get this done by tomorrow, I can [hyperfocus] and just work and draw for hours without even getting up,", he says, "to the point that my wife gets worried, saying 'you should go to the bathroom'."
"So to me, autism has been a very positive thing. My wife says I've managed to take it and put it to work for me ... You have to figure out how to harness its power. "
Jorge says he isn't alone in finding that the animation industry suits - and benefits from - his form of autism.
"Honestly, maybe 60% of the directors in animation are on the spectrum," he says. "Most are just not public about it. I would say half my crew on The Book of Life and El Tigre [below] are people on the spectrum that either weren't diagnosed, or they just didn't know."
Another ability that Jorge has that he sees as one of the positives of being autistic is his exact and complete memory when it comes to his own creative projects, and those of others.
"I remember movies completely," he says. "I can tell every shot, every actor, every writer. The same [is true] with music. When I'm writing a script for anything, I'm basically digitising the whole thing."
Not everything about being autistic has been positive for Jorge, of course. He has the same difficulties with social situations as many autistic people. While he's an accomplished speaker both on stage to a thousand people at THU - where he received a rapturous response - and to teams of animators and production crew, he freely admits he hates it. After his talk, he took a long nap due to feeling overwhelmed
He's modest about his speaking skills, but from the way he explains it, he knows that to make the shows and films he wants, this is something he has to constantly work on.
"As a film director, you talk to big crowds of people all the time," he says. "In the beginning, it was very scary and I would have to convince myself that I have to do this stuff I don't want to do in order to get the stuff I want. And so I made it into a game and I trained myself socially.
"Meeting new people is also something that again is a little challenging for me, but I make it happen. I want to get better at it."
This drive to succeed is something that Jorge got from his parents and especially his grandfather, from whom he acquired a mindset that Jorge calls being 'super-macho' - not the usual macho bullshit but a willingness to fight for what you want and take the difficult path if that's how you get what you want.
"If you suffer, you earn the things that are most delicious," he had said in his talk earlier, also remarking that "any success comes from taking chances."
This outlook is necessary in the world of film and TV animation, where - with the exception of completed feature films - every project ends in failure. Every TV show is cancelled in the end - if it ever makes it to the screen in the first place. Jorge is currently working on projects with Netflix that he can't discuss, though he does mention that he might do a show with them called Kung-Fu Space Punch [title card below] that combines his love of Mexican culture, kung fu movies, westerns and sci-fi. But even with Netflix's famously 'let's try it' policy, shows that don't find an audience don't continue to get made.
Kung Fu Space Punch brings in elements from a wide range of sources, but is still rooted in the culture of his native Mexico. For him, it's not only because he has such an affinity to his familial culture, but because he wants to improve the representation of Latino people in animated movies and TV.
"I'll tell you a story that happened to me when I saw Star Wars as a little kid," he says by way of explanation. "I'd been excited to see this movie, but on the way home I was super sad.
"He said 'Did you not like the movie?'. I said that I loved it. It was my favourite thing I've ever seen. So he asked me why I was sad.
"I told him, 'did we not make it Papa? No one looks like us in the future'.
"His reply, "Chewbacca is Mexican'," Jorge laughs.
But from here, he really began to notice the lack of representation of people like him in movies - and when there were Mexicans on screen, it was in negative roles.
"I looked at sci-fi movies and there were no brown people," he says. "In Westerns, usually the Mexicans were the bad guys. So now I want to retell my version of that."
Even though diversity has improved in mainstream genre cinema - both in terms of the number of non-white, non-male, non-straight roles that are on screen but also where on the spectrum of good to evil they sit - there's still a lack of Latino people.
"We live in a post Wonder Woman/Black Panther world," he notes. "But when I walked out of Black Panther, I said 'Why is there no Brown Panther'? There are no Latino Marvel superheroes. I'm bummed by this. I think we need new heroes."
So Jorge wants to create those heroes. In space. With kung fu. And the results will be, in the words of his grandfather, "Super Macho".