Recent years especially have seen an increasingly widespread willingness to adopt innovative tech solutions into internal pipelines. However, this time it wasn’t only the big studios who benefitted; the scalability and accessibility enabled by cloud-based tools coupled with the rise of on-demand streaming have opened up the floor to creators everywhere. For the husband and wife artist team behind Maya and the Three, this emerging new landscape brought the chance to truly experiment with storytelling, and move beyond the confines of traditional animated feature films. Jorge Gutiérrez and Sandra Equihua’s latest production, Maya and the Three, was released last year to much critical acclaim and has since won two Annie Awards in Best TV/Media for Children, and Best of Music for TV categories. The limited Netflix series features a warrior princess embarking on an epic quest to save humanity in a Mesoamerican-inspired fantastical world.
Staying true to the intricacy of design
Maya and the Three boasts some wonderfully intricate designs, interweaving the rich mythology of Mesoamerica with modern influences and pop culture references. Equihua describes the end result as a “visual cornucopia of folkloric artwork.”
“We are both designers at heart, and we worked on enough stuff where our designs would get watered down or simplified,” – explains Gutiérrez when asked about the character design process. “I designed characters that are too hard to model, to texture, to rig, to animate. And by the time every department has had a say in it, and the characters are now easy to animate, easy to light, et cetera, they don’t look that great.”
The conversation had to change in order not to lose the intricacy of the design that makes it stand out in the first place; collaboration across departments was the key to achieving the balance everybody was striving for. “We treated the designs like sculptures that were going to move, and the question became – how do we animate, rig, or light this without having to change the design? At first, people were scared. But I think, after Book of Life, everybody who worked on Maya realized that it could be done,” he added.
Reinventing ancient stories for a modern audience
Part of this incredible level of detail stems from the rich lore that serves as the background for the story. Taking inspiration from Mesoamerican culture has been a long-standing interest of Gutiérrez’s, starting with his Mexican roots and the fascination with the displays in the Museo Nacional de Antropología. “I was already in love with warriors, witches, and dragons, but there I also fell in love with Mesoamerican mythology,” he tells us.
Reinventing these myths and making them ring true and relevant for a modern audience has been a unique challenge for the artist duo. In an effort to stay respectful to the research, there’s always a danger of losing the charm ingrained into a story that compels the audience.
“What liberated us thematically was looking at all the amazing Mexican artists that reinterpreted and paid homage to that era, like the muralists, or Frida Kahlo, and Covarrubias. Then we went all the way to the present and looked at graffiti murals all over Mexico and LA with eagle warriors and Mayan princesses,” shared Gutiérrez. Their process was such that they were writing and designing simultaneously, collaborating creatively in real-time while the story and the visual identity took shape.
Introducing a whole new world: narrative techniques for better understanding
Modern media has the potential to reveal entire universes that have remained untapped for the longest time and to share them with a new international audience. However, the viewers’ unfamiliarity with the source material carries its own set of challenges. The story needs to relate beyond cultural boundaries and imbue familiarity with unfamiliar cultural iconography: a task that’s especially challenging to achieve in the time a typical feature-length film allows. Within less than 90 minutes, the audience must be familiarized with the subject material well enough to be immersed in the story, whilst the plot unfolds. Since Maya and the Three was produced for a streaming platform, the time constraint considerably eased. Gutiérrez and Equihua were able to weave their fantastical tale of warrior princesses and ancient gods over nine episodes, using cold opens to dive deeper into the backstories of the characters.
“One of the limitations that movies have is that the backstories often get left out, especially in animation. With Maya, I went back and looked at a lot of my favorite movies, especially the sequels. And when I looked at Lord of the Rings, parts 2 and 3, they start with cold opens. You get to see a little flashback of what Gollum was like before he turned crazy. This is when it dawned on me, that I finally got to tell everybody’s backstory. I wanted the audience to see where these characters came from and the advantage of a cold open is that I could do that, without having Maya know their story,” Gutiérrez expands, when asked about the narrative techniques.
Given the space and opportunity to truly experiment, Gutiérrez and Equihua committed not only to creating in-depth backstories to immerse the audience in the world of Maya and the Three, but also – inspired by spaghetti westerns – populated the plot with title cards.
“I find this such a great way to tell the audience that this is an important person. Some of the names are ridiculously hard to say, so we had to figure out how to share them with the audience in the most digestible way. The idea just came together, using an idea from one of the really cool spaghetti westerns to get around the problem of unfamiliar names and lore,” Gutiérrez continued.
On-demand streaming has been a game-changer for many creators, and the team behind Maya and the Three has been no exception. Providing a space for these movies to live and giving the opportunity to audiences around the world to tune in and explore them on their own time has had a profound impact on the industry as a whole.
“We’re in the golden era of animation. And when I say that, I mean that there’s never been more animation being consumed worldwide. Adult animation, preschool animation, movies, series, interactive, mobile. But the real reason I think it’s a golden era is because, for the first time ever, the people who are getting to tell those stories are everyone,” – he expands. “So people of color, women who, in the history of animation were never allowed to be the person in charge or the creator, are now getting those opportunities. And I think that is thanks to technology.”
About the Author
Kirsty Wilson – Senior Content Producer at SyncSketch
Starting her career in VFX Production at MPC Film in London, Kirsty managed post-production workflows for feature films such as the Harry Potter franchise and Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood. Most recently she was drawn into the tech-sector where she led content initiatives for San Francisco-based Cleo, a B2B start-up that supports families, with a particular focus on enabling working parents to succeed at work.
Kirsty has a drive to disrupt antiquated industries and products, and a passion for enabling creatives to uncover authentic storytelling. In 2021 she joined the SyncSketch team and their mission to reinvent how artists collaborate together – from anywhere.
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