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A Matter of Life and Death

With The Book of Life, writer-director Jorge Guiterrez takes us on a journey into Mexicos rich folklore. We chat to him about bringing the land of the dead to life.

With The Book of Life, writer-director Jorge Guiterrez takes us on a journey into Mexicos rich folklore. We chat to him about bringing the land of the dead to life.

In the Land of the Remembered, Manolo becomes more skeletal, but the films design work is just as intricate
© Twentieth Century Fox

The Book of Life release date: 24th October 2014

The Book of Life, writer and director Jorge Guiterrezs first feature film, tells the story of Manolo and Joaquin, a pair of friends vying for the heart of the same girl, Maria. Little do they realise that they are being manipulated by Xibalba and La Muerte, a pair of god-like entities who are using them as part of an elaborate bet. Through the course of the film Manolo must travel to the vibrant Land of the Remembered, and beyond into the bleak Land of the Forgotten.

Its not your average family film, then, but Guiterrez isnt your average director his enthusiasm for film and visual storytelling spreads infectiously down the phone line all the way from Los Angeles. We chatted with him about getting the film made, working with fantasy film legend Guillermo del Toro (Pacific Rim,Pans Labyrinth) and plucky new studio Reel FX (Free Birds), and creating the dazzling characters and sets for the movie.

Book of Lifes Official Trailer © Fox Family Entertainment UK

You started out as an animator and this is your first feature how did you find the transition?

It was incredibly overwhelming and it was thrilling and horrifying every day! It was like jumping out of an aeroplane and mending your parachute as you were falling. It was everything I dreamt, but I wasn't expecting it to be so hard. But it's a dream come true now that it's finished.

The Three Amigos: Joaquin, Manolo and Maria as adults
© Twentieth Century Fox


Can you tell me about Guillermo del Toro and his involvement in The Book of Life?

Absolutely! I've been trying to make the movie for 14 years, and roughly five years ago I'd pitched it everywhere. There's a studio here in Texas called Reel FX, and they got behind the movie. After working with them for a year, they said, Who would be your big-name producer you would love to have on the film? And like all young filmmakers, I said Guillermo del Toro!

So I got to pitch him the film, and he fell in love with the project, and we started collaborating on it. As a good producer he'd be there when I needed him, and he'd disappear when I didn't. And thanks to him we teamed up with Fox, and the rest is history the movie's done!

he beautiful La Muerte and the devilish Xibalba make a pact with one another
© Twentieth Century Fox


How much input did Guillermo have in the movie?

He was very much a cheerleader. He'd suggest things, but he'd always say, Whatever I suggest, you're still the director, I'm just a friend. I will have suggestions and I will have critiques, but it's up to you to come up with the answers, and it's up to you to determine what you need to do.

It was a very respectful relationship, and there are things in the movie that are my love letters to him. So, for example, the design of Xibalba; there's little references to all his films in there. He became a really important inspiration for the film.

This obscenely cute piglet comes to play a big part in the movie
© Twentieth Century Fox


How did you find working with Reel FX?

Reel FX is a young studio, and when we started The Book of Life it was supposed to be their first film. Free Birds [Reel FX's debut] went a little faster than anyone expected and came out before us, but originally this was going to be the first Reel FX film. I'd worked at bigger studios in Los Angeles, and it felt like there were these legacies, so everybody knew exactly how films were made over there, and everybody was just plugging into that machine. Reel FX said, We'll build a machine around your story, and we'll build the machine around what's good for the film. And that's exactly what we did.

A lot of the big studios would also look at my character designs and say, These are too weird. They look too different." Reel FX had no fear they jumped in and said, "That's what you want these to look like, we love 'em too, let's do it!" I cannot be more thankful for Brad Booker and Reel FX for being so brave to support a movie like this.

3dtotal: And Reel FX really did build a machine for The Book of Life, too, using Pipeline FXs Qube! to manage their render farms 30,000+ weekly tasks. Despite being a younger studio, Reel FX recently clocked an impressive 4.5 million render jobs.

The three heroes prepare to defend their village from the evil bandit Chakal
© Twentieth Century Fox


There are times when The Book of Life feels like a stop-motion movie, with real models. Were you ever tempted to go down that route?

I love all types of animation. I wanted to use everything I think worked really well from each style. From stop motion, I really love how sets look aged, and they feel like they've been lived in, and they have this quality that implies characters are living there when we're not looking, so that's what we went for for the environments. For the characters, I love Japanese animation, I love American 1930s animation, and I love stop motion, so they were kind of a mix of all those things. I also love 2D animation Ren and Stimpy some of the more extreme graphic cartoons of the 90s. The movie is full of references to all those things.

Maria is serenaded by Manolo
© Twentieth Century Fox


What were your influences in terms of character design?

My wife Sandra is a character designer, and I'm also a character designer. So she designed most of the girls in the movie, I designed most of the guys in the movie. We've been working together since high school, since we were 17. Our styles have evolved together, and there are certain characters we worked really hard on together, and we'd get into these massive fights - but it was always for the good of the character!

With 3D, I said that I want these to look like the coolest, most amazing puppets.

I always felt when I was doing 2D animation that you have to simplify the characters, because you didn't want to make them too hard to draw. With 3D, I said that I want these to look like the coolest, most amazing puppets. Even if they don't move at all, you can tell who they are by the way that they look, and when they move it'll be an even bigger bonus. And that's what we went for.

On The Book of Life we went too far and then no one told us to bring them back!

The level of detail is absolutely amazing on the characters. Did you ever wonder if you'd gone too far?

In the beginning I was always taught, "Go too far and someone will always bring you back." When they bring you back your design will stay in the middle. On The Book of Life we went too far and then no one told us to bring them back! And as the director, I was able to say, "No no, this is exactly what we're going for!"

The Land of the Living is perhaps the most real part of The Book of Life - even if the characters are puppets
© Twentieth Century Fox


Can you tell us about the set designs?

Our art director, Paul Sullivan, and our production designer, Simon Varela, and I sat down and we figured out the shape language of the movie. We said the Land of the Living will be all squares, so if you look at the film everything is square there. When they go to the Land of the Remembered, it's all round the shapes are safe, nothing can hurt you, and they're happy. And when they're in the Land of the Forgotten, everything's triangular and there's no colour. The idea is that this world is sharp for people, and there's nothing happy about it. So we mapped that out, those are the guidelines, and we followed it through. So if you watch the film you know what the lands are the shapes will tell you that.

My first version of this movie was almost three hours long and probably R-rated!

Was there anything you had to pull in or add during the course of making the film, or did it stay as you imagined it?

Filmmaking is a collaborative process, and also there's the reality of the budget and the schedule. I dream big. My first version of this movie was almost three hours long and probably R-rated! So it took a while to realise that this is for all audiences. It was definitely difficult, but I think some of the best things happen when you're put in a place where you can't do certain things, and you come up with new creative ways to get around those. I could not be more proud of it.

Manolos heart is torn between his fathers wishes for him to become a bullfighter, and his love of music
© Twentieth Century Fox


Is there a part of the film you are particularly proud of?

The thing I'm most proud of is the whole film! The biggest thing for me is the climax of the film, where Manolo deals with his family's past, and deals with his internal struggle, and he just sings his heart out, and he sings a beautiful song by Paul Williams and Gustavo Santaolalla. I've seen that moment a hundred times, and I still cry every time I see it.

Manolo enters the bullring to prove his manliness
© Twentieth Century Fox


Have you got any tips for people who want to get in the industry?

My biggest tip is in the movie: always play from the heart. That will ensure that whatever you're making is going to come from a really good place, and I think people can tell. If you try to make things that aren't coming from the heart I think people can tell too. I say to everyone, "Dream big but keep your feet grounded, and always play from the heart."

Candles are an important recurring motif throughout the film - and they also offer some sweet lighting effects
© Twentieth Century Fox


The Book of Life is a pleasant surprise, and its obviously straight from Jorges heart. As well as featuring larger-than-life characters, it doesnt take itself too seriously, happily flitting from the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet to a mariachi take on Radioheads Creep. It looks astonishing, too, with Manolos trip to the Land of the Remembered being a particular highlight for its retina-scorching technicolor visuals.

This is a movie that doesn't look like most of the movies out there, it doesn't feel like movies out there, and it certainly doesn't sound like a lot of the movies out there, says Jorge. And the studio won't like me saying this, but if you go and see it and don't like it, I'll personally give you your money back!


The Book of Life release date: 24th October 2014

Related links

The Book of Lifes official site
Jorge R. Gutierrezs IMDb page
Reel FXs official site

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