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“El Tigre” Creator Jorge Gutierrez Moves Into Features with “Book of Life”

“Book of Life” producer Guillermo del Toro (left) and director Jorge Gutierrez

El Tigre co-creator Jorge R. Gutierrez is moving into feature film directing.

He continues the recent trend of TV artists transitioning into feature animation, following Genndy Tartakovsky’s Hotel Transylvania and Rich Moore’s Wreck-It Ralph.

Gutierrez’s CG feature, Book of Life, will be released on October 10, 2014, by Fox Animation Studios. Unlike Tartakovsky and Moore who took over the reins of existing studio projects, Gutierrez is working from an original idea he’s been developing on and off since 2001.

The film, described in preliminary news reports as a Romeo and Juliet-style love story set against a Mexican Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) backdrop, will be produced at the Dallas animation house Reel FX.

Reel FX is best known for its Looney Tunes CGI shorts (I Tawt I Taw a Puddy Tat, Coyote Falls) and other service work like the two Open Season sequels. They are making a push into original animated features with this film, as well as Jimmy Hayward’s Turkeys, which has also been slated for 2014.

Book of Life was optioned by Reel FX’s Brad Booker, but the film had originally been optioned in 2007 by DreamWorks. It never went beyond development at DreamWorks. Gutierrez cited creative differences between himself and the studio, but he says that Jeffrey Katzenberg was “a total gentleman” and returned all of his rights, which allowed him to take the project elsewhere.

The distributor Fox Animation Studios, which is a distinct entity from Fox’s subsidiary Blue Sky Studios, is a new contender in theatrical animation and all eyes will be on them as they prepare Book of Life as one of their first major releases. Further pressure was added last year by Pixar’s announcement that Toy Story 3 director Lee Unkrich would develop a Day of the Dead-themed feature of his own, though no release date has been set for the Pixar film.

Gutierrez’s career in animation up to this point could be seen as one giant warm-up act for this film. Born in Mexico and a graduate of the CalArts Experimental Animation Program, he has steadfastly labored to inject a Latino flavor into American animation for the past decade.

Mexican folk and pop culture plays a central role in nearly all of his work: his CalArts thesis film Carmelo (2000) was similarly Day of the Dead-themed; El Macho (2001), an early online animated series for Sony celebrated lucha libra culture; his Nick series El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera (2007, co-created with his wife Sandra Equihua), was colorful Mexican pop made digestible for American audiences.

Book of Life gained mainstream cred when Guillermo del Toro, who is the most successful Mexican-born director working in Hollywood today, came on board as a producer. “As a true cinematic hero of mine, Guillermo del Toro has not disappointed,” Gutierrez says. “A true collaborator, he has taught me a ton. He has has been an incredible producer (he’s very hard on me and I am very thankful) and has really protected me and the integrity of the film.”

The script is being written by Gutierrez and veteran TV scribe Doug Langdale (who was the head writer on El Tigre). Gutierrez is designing all the characters with his wife and frequent creative collaborator, Sandra Equihua. Other key creative personnel include Simon Varela (Production Design), Paul Sullivan (Art Director), Ricardo Curtis (Head of Story), and Gustavo Santaolalla (Composer). The film will begin animation production this summer.

I’ll be rooting for Book of Life, not only because I’ve known Jorge for years, but because I know his capacity to handle this type of material. There is a need for authenticity and passion in mainstream feature animation, and at the very least, we can be assured that Jorge will bring those elements to the project.

Gutierrez’s arrival as a feature director also represents the inevitable, if unbearably sluggish, diversification of theatrical animation. Women, Asians, Latinos, Blacks and almost every other group of people have been underrepresented in Hollywood animation for decades. Today, the industry has no choice but to add new voices into the mix. Hispanics attend movies more often than other segments of the American population, and Latin America is the fastest-growing movie market in the world. The time is now for a film like Book of Life.