The Ins and Outs of Character Design

Maya and the Three, a limited Netflix series created by Jorge Gutierrez and Sandra Equihua has just been nominated for the Annie Awards in Best TV/Media for the Children category. In a fantastical world filled with magic, a Mesoamerican-inspired warrior princess embarks on an epic quest to fulfill an ancient prophecy and save humanity from the vengeful gods of the underworld. We sat down with Jorge and Sandra to talk about their sources of inspiration, the ins and outs of character design, and where the industry is headed.


Could you introduce yourselves and tell us a bit about your roles for this project?

Jorge: We are Sandra and Jorge Gutierrez, a husband and wife artist team. We created a TV show called El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera for Nickelodeon, and then we made a movie called The Book of Life, and most recently, a new limited event series for Netflix called Maya and the Three.

Sandra: We both come from a design background, and we’re yin yang when it comes to a lot of things, including our work. When we first started doing CG animation with Book of Life, I would be very scared to go into detail, while Jorge was the complete opposite. Again, I like saying this, he is from the school of “more is more” and I am “less is more.”

We would love to hear more about the inspiration behind Maya and the Three and how it came into being. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

Jorge: The inspiration is sitting right next to me, I call her the muse.  I met Sandra when she was 17 and I was 18 at a punk rock concert in Tijuana, Mexico, and I fell in love with this crazy rebel girl. Her father was a doctor, her three sisters wanted to be doctors and she wanted to be an artist, so I just thought she was incredible. 

I also grew up in Mexico City and I got to go to the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico which is the greatest museum for Mesoamerica, and the Aztec and Mayan cultures. They also have wings for the Incas, and for other parts of Latin America. I was already in love with warriors, witches, and dragons, but there I also fell in love with Mesoamerican mythology. I went home and I told my dad and he got really excited because I was into it. He said something that really stayed with me: “Jorge, we come from the blood of warriors.”

Sandra: One of the nice things about working with Jorge is that he’s always looking for a way to bring female characters into their empowerment, to have strong representation. He’d been saying for a while that he really wanted to do something where the main character is female but imperfect; that she would have flaws to make her feel more human. So going by what Jorge was saying about the strong impression the anthropology museum left on him as a child, we went on to assemble an odyssey together with a flawed heroine and female-centric narrative.

Jorge: When we started researching all the lore, we noticed that women were portrayed as sleeping beauties, as a prize to be won, or worse, as the victim. It was 2000 years ago, so the stories reflected those views. So we said with all due respect to mythology, it’s all made up! Mythologies should reflect the times, and we are the storytellers of our own time. So why don’t we tell a tale that reflects today?

Sandra: We tried to make it as clear as possible that this is our mix, his vision; it’s a combination of myths, pop culture, and history. It’s like a big soup and we just stirred it up. And while it is centered on Latin America, we also believe that it’s very universal and that anybody anywhere is going to be able to latch on.


What about the different regions that you explore in the series? You seem to go beyond the Mayans and the Aztecs and show a huge variety of different influences. Why was this important for the story?

Jorge: One of the things that I think happened to us early on was we were almost too respectful of the research, and it started feeling very dry and I started realizing: ‘whoa, we’re starting to lose the fun and we’re starting to lose the charm’. 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. Taking it one step further, we then looked at how other countries perceive this. We got to be true to who we are.. to reference the past, but… include everything I love – so video game references, Bollywood, Kurosawa, various paintings. There’s a Last Supper scene when you first meet the gods and so many others.

Sandra: We were really trying to be as truthful and honest as possible with the cultures but it’s hard because there’s so much to choose from. We’re not only talking about Mexico, we’re talking about South America, Central America, we’re talking about the Caribbean. It’s a cornucopia of visual, tactile, just so much folkloric artwork, the music… obviously, we tried our best to represent as many cultures as possible, but it’s an impossible task.

Can you discuss how you approached the character design in terms of gender and appearance?

Jorge: We’ve been working together for 21 years and we learned very early on that at least in our case, if I design a female character, as a lot of male designers do, you basically design an idealized version. 

Sandra: ​​​​I’m not throwing dirt on anyone, but I think we’re so used to seeing nowadays that typical mold with female characters, where they have a certain head shape with an elongated, perfect body. And I grew up with that, too. I grew up seeing a lot of characters on TV which obviously were designed by men. As a female and a Latina, when you’re a kid, you want to relate to someone who kind of looks like you. Then it eventually hits you: even toys back then didn’t really look like me in any way. I remember I gravitated towards this one doll that was given to me as a kid. She had dark red hair, it was almost brown. But she was also very pale, she was an Irish doll I think. And I realized that this is the closest I’m going to find, this is me. It was so sad because as a kid, you try so desperately to create a relation to what you have available. 

So with Maya, we decided that she’s going to be a teenager and retain all the characteristics that really stand out in Latin America. Let’s be proud of our height, let’s be proud of our shape, like having stout legs because there is strength in them. I looked at a lot of indigenous characteristics. The more South you go, the more indigenous we are, the more North you go, the more mixed. My family is from a place called Michoacán, and I grew up with a lot of cousins that look very similar to this. I also wanted to portray in her stature that she is mighty and strong. She has curves, but she is like a little stout pillar, you know, and you can see that when she’s fighting. You don’t worry that she’s going to break. That’s Maya in a nutshell; we tried to create a strong female character whose strength doesn’t only appear in her personality, but also in her shape.

Jorge: This might have been unconscious, but one of the things Sandra did with the character design is she made Maya look like her club. And then the archer, she made her long and lean like an arrow. At that point, I decided that I’m going to make the wizard look like his staff, and the barbarian will look like his ax. 


What is your perspective on the animation industry and how it’s changed, especially when it comes to diversity and accessibility to content like Maya and the Three?

Sandra: I mentioned earlier that I grew up in Tijuana. We had no internet, didn’t have a TV in color until I hit like 4th grade. The only way that you would get your movies and cartoons was to watch the TV and whatever they decided to show. And if you were lucky, you got a TV guide. And sometimes they wouldn’t show the cartoons, just the typical bonanza. When I went to university, my final thesis hit almost exactly this issue. I wanted to show how cost-effective animated shorts are utilizing animation-friendly software, which was Flashback then. So I did it, and the teachers were like, ‘God, what are you doing now?’

It’s crazy because I did it thinking about the representation of Mexico, and I based it on one of the predominant legends in Mexico, with a Mexican woman as a protagonist. We are fortunate that the change did take, and now it’s not only Flash but more programs and more content. Now there’s just so much to pick and choose from. And I think that we’re just at the very beginning of it. I am eternally grateful to Netflix that they gave us this golden ticket and enabled us to portray that representation. So new generations can see themselves and say, ‘there I am’. 

Jorge: When Sandra designs female characters, there’s a truth and a humanity that’s very different. 

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, movie 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. It’s been opened. 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. 

It’s also thanks to the audience because, for the first time, they’re being vocal about seeing themselves and wanting the people who tell their stories to be of their culture, to be of their gender, to be of that world. They want authenticity. At the same time, I feel like in the history of our medium, a lot of the successful things didn’t come from those places, and Hollywood historically only looks at examples of success. So I think for a long time, they kept going because all those Disney movies that were made, were made so well, and the people behind them were absolutely not from those cultures. So clearly it works. And it’s not to pick on Disney, it was every studio.

Sandra: If anything, we’re thankful that our heritage was celebrated. But as Jorge said, we love it more when it’s authentic. 

Jorge: I always point to Wonder Woman which had a female director, and that’s a huge success worldwide. Black Panther had an African-American director, and that’s a huge hit worldwide. So now Hollywood can take note that this works even better and can keep building on that. 

Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us, Sandra, Jorge, it’s been a pleasure. Congratulations on winning the Annie Awards – we can’t wait to see what other amazing projects you’ll be creating in the future!

Maya and the Three is now available to stream on Netflix. You can learn more about how Jorge and Sandra use SyncSketch within their workflow, from character design to editorials in the upcoming second part of the interview.