Jorge Gutierrez' Design Journey

Emmy-winner Jorge Gutierrez is interviewed by his wife and fellow animation designer Sandra Equihua about how showcasing his roots helped him overcome his greatest obstacles, how the animation world has changed, and why, when the unexpected comes your way (like a show cancellation) it should be embraced as a challenge rather than defeat.

Sandra Equihua: Jorge, what obstacles did you face in becoming an animation designer and director?

Jorge Gutierrez: Well, the big one for me was that I'm a foreigner. I was born in Mexico and there was no animation industry in Mexico. So in order for me to pursue this path I had to come to the U.S. for university and it was very expensive for someone like me, from Mexico. It was very, very, very difficult. That was basically the first wall that was put in front of me that I had to get over and I did it through hard work and scholarships.

Tacos of success

SE: How did you overcome those obstacles?

JG: Well, I found myself using the thing that people thought would be my weakness, which is my culture, and I turned it into my strength. I concentrated on showcasing where I was from. I got to stand out because no one else was doing it so it really made me unique.

“I found myself using the thing that people thought would be my weakness, which is my culture, and I turned it into my strength.”

SE: Okay. I think you named one, but can you name at least three key obstacles that you faced?

JG: The first one was when I graduated from school. I had a B.F.A. and M.F.A. in experimental animation. I would show my portfolio and people would say, “this Mexican stuff is really cool, but we don't have any shows that look like this so we can't hire you.” Everywhere I went people would basically tell me how much they loved the work but that they didn't have any shows or movies that I would fit into.

A producer at Nickelodeon took me aside and said, “I'm not going to hire you, but I'm going to give you a piece of advice because you seem like a good person.” He said, “The only person in this industry that will hire you is you.” I didn't know what he meant and he explained that you have to pitch your own TV shows and your own movies and your own projects and that's how you can hire yourself to design. I took that to heart. I went back and I really concentrated on trying to develop my own creations and my own voice.

Jorge Gutierrez high school graduation

The second obstacle was my wife and I–who is interviewing me–had a show at Nickelodeon called El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera. We were cancelled after one season although we were winning lots of awards at that point, including Annies and Emmys. So we had two choices; we could just let it crush us or turn it around, use it to our advantage, and let it open other doors. El Tigre getting cancelled allowed me to present The Book of Life. And so, if El Tigre had not been cancelled there'd be no movie. I always look back to those days as a giant obstacle but it gave me enough time and enough fear of failure to concentrate on trying to get a movie made and we got The Book of Life.

The third obstacle is the situation we're in today: we have a son who was diagnosed with autism. I believe that, in a weird way, his diagnosis has made our family stronger. It's made us work even closer together and it's fueled me to try to really focus my time and energy on projects that are worth the time and effort because this is time that I will not be able to spend with my son and with my wife. It's really sharpened me into a samurai sword that can cut through steel and hone in my focus.

El Tigre character mood board
Mood board for main character of original animated series, El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera. The series premiered on Nickelodeon in 2007.

El Tigre Miracle City Character designs
Character designs for El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera.

SE: How did your family feel about your choice to go into animation?

JG: My father's an architect; my mother's a full time Bohemian, lover of the arts. When I said I wanted to be an animator—in Mexico that didn't exist—they didn't quite know what that was. My father took it upon himself to try to learn a little bit and take me to film festivals. He would walk out of there going, “you want to do that? That's what you want to do?” I think he was a little shocked. I think my father was worried that I was going to starve, but he somehow kept it together and believed in me enough to allow me to pursue this education. I'm very thankful to both of them.

SE: When you were 10 years old how would you have answered the question, “What do you want to do when you grow up”?

JG: When I was 10 years old I was asked by lots of my family members what I wanted to do. In my family there were a lot of very successful men who did a lot of great things, including my father and my grandfather. The bar had been set really high by them. When I would be asked what I wanted to do, I would say that I wanted to be a movie director or a painter or a writer. Little did I know that those three things are basically animation. You get to tell stories, and you get to make paintings move. Ever since I was a little kid I always knew that's what I wanted to do.

SE: How has the animation design world changed since you became a professional?

JG: When we first started out (I graduated from school in the year 2000), there were not a lot of shows that reflected cultural diversity. Honestly, there weren't a lot of main characters that weren’t white and there weren’t a lot of shows with creators of different ethnicities. Even though the subject matter dealt with culture, the creators weren't of the culture. What's changed now is that authenticity seems to matter a lot more and people are, to some extent, demanding to see themselves on the screen. They want those voices to sound and feel authentic. So, it's a lot easier for a Latino or Latina show creator and designer to get to do characters of our culture, which was very difficult when I started out. I'm thankful for the times we live in.

Jorge Gutierrez Sandra Equihua Emmys
Gutierrez and his wife Sandra Equihua after receiving Emmys for their series El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera.

SE: Having said that, does your ethnicity, race, gender, or condition influence your work?

JG: Absolutely. The news that most people see out of Mexico tends to be scary, sad, or depressing. I made it my life's mission to try to make work that celebrates our culture and the beauty and power of its uniqueness. Mexico is a perfect example of a country that might not have as much money or as much industrialized infrastructure, but is a place where people are happy, creative, and do a lot with very little. I feel like I'm a cultural ambassador. Our son is a first generation Mexican-American and so we want to make him proud of where he's from and proud of his roots.

“I made it my life's mission to try to make work that celebrates our culture and the beauty and power of its uniqueness.”

SE: Do you agree with being labeled a minority? Why or why not?

JG: I was born in Mexico City, a city of 22 million Mexicans, so I was not born a minority. I was born a majority. I grew up in Mexico City and then moved to the border, to Tijuana, when I was nine years old. I lived there until I was 18. I went to school in the U.S. and I would cross the border every day, so I got to experience life growing up as both a majority and a minority at the same time.

When I started working in the film industry, I officially became a minority again. I always like to joke that I didn't know I was Mexican until I left Mexico. People see my artwork and say, “Oh, he's a Mexican animator.” I've never taken the description of Mexican animator, Mexican filmmaker, or minority filmmaker as any sort of offense. I proudly take that under my wing because that's who I am. In Mexico, no one says I'm a Mexican animator, they just say I'm an animator. Outside of Mexico, I guess I am a Mexican animator, so I'm okay with it.

The Book of Life Maria sketches Jorge Gutierrez
Mock-up sketches for a character in the feature-length animated film The Book of Life, which Gutierrez directed. The film was produced by Guillermo del Toro.

SE: Is animation design lacking diversity? Why or why not?

JG: As I was saying earlier, I think a lot of it has to do with the people behind the scenes. Most people tend to pitch movie or show ideas about experiences they’ve lived through. If most of those people come from the same ethnicity, and it's a majority, you don't see other voices. Now that times are changing, I feel like there's a lot of different representation with women creators, directors, writers, and producers. Same thing with minority creators, producers, directors, and writers.

A lot of it has to happen in film school, when people are starting out and seeing examples of people who've made it. Now, in film industry, we're seeing success from creators of all kinds; from different voices, such as Ryan Coogler or Shonda Rhimes. These are creators who are not from the mainstream white creator pool that you're used to seeing. These are people coming from different places and they're having success with their own voices and representing something that we didn't see before; other views of the cultures in the United States. So I think we're in a really good time.

SE: What is your next adventure?

JG: My wife (you) and I just finished a virtual reality short for Google called Son of Jaguar about a Mexican wrestler who has to have a final fight with the love of his family next to him. It's a pretty crazy. I'm super proud of the work we all did. It's available on the Google Spotlight Stories App and it's free so everybody should check it out. And I’m bursting with excitement since we’re about to start a brand new miniseries for one of the new streaming services out there!

The Book of life still Jorge Gutierrez
Still from Gutierrez' feature-length animated film, The Book of Life.


  • 1975 Born in Mexico City and raised in Tijuana, Mexico
  • 1994 Founded the production company Mexopolis with his wife Sandra Equihua in Tijuana, Mexico
  • 2000 BFA & MFA in experimental animation from California Institute of the Arts (CalArts)
  • 2001 Won Student Emmy Award in animation
  • 2001 Began creating El Macho, an animated web series for Sony Pictures
  • 2007 El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera airs on Nickelodeon. The show received two Annie Awards and seven Emmy Awards, with Sandra and Jorge each winning for individual achievement in animation
  • 2012 Moved to Dallas, Texas, to work at Reel FX Creative Studios
  • 2014 The Book of Life, directed by Gutierrez and produced by Guillermo del Toro, received five Annie awards and a Golden Globe Award nomination for Best Animated Feature Film
  • 2018 Publishes children’s book Border Bang, with an introduction by Guillermo Del Toro

Jorge Gutierrez headshot Jorge Gutierrez is a Mexican animator, painter, writer, and director who, along with his wife and muse Sandra Equihua, created the multiple Annie and Emmy Award winning animated television series El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera for Nickelodeon. 

 Born in Mexico City and raised in Tijuana, Gutierrez has completed various films, cartoons, illustrations, and paintings exploring his love affair with Mexican pop and folk culture. Gutierrez attended the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), where he received his BFA & MFA in experimental animation under Jules Engel. There he created the 3D short Carmelo, which won the 2001 Student Emmy Award in animation and was screened at various festivals around the world, including Kodak’s Emerging Filmmakers Program at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival. In 2000, Gutierrez worked under animation legend Maurice Noble, for the art direction of Chuck Jones’ Timberwolf for Warner Bros. In 2001, he began creating Jorge Gutierrez’ El Macho, an animated web series for Sony Pictures.

 Gutierrez has also done character design for many animated series including Nickelodeon’s Chalk Zone, as well as WB’s ¡Mucha Lucha!, and Disney’s The Buzz on Maggie for which he was nominated for a 2006 Annie Award in character design. As a writer, he’s worked on Scholastic’s Maya & Miguel as well as Disney’s Brandy & Mr. Whiskers.

 Gutierrez won two Annie Awards (Best TV Animated show & Best TV Character Design) and one Emmy (Best TV Character Design) working on El Tigre. He also created some of the sketches in Cartoon Network’s MAD.

 Most recently, Gutierrez co-wrote and directed the animated feature The Book of Life for Reel FX and 20th Century Fox. The film was released on October 17, 2014. He earned his first Golden Globe Award nomination for Best Animated Feature Film in 2014.

Sandra Equihua headshot Sandra Equihua was born and raised in Tijuana, Mexico. She received her BFA in Graphic Design at IBERO University Tijuana, Mexico only to discover her true passion was in illustration, through Art Center at Night under Rafael Lopez. Her illustration clients have included McGraw Hill and Simon & Schuster. Her paintings have been exhibited in various galleries in both Mexico and the U.S.

Equihua has worked as a character designer for Sony’s El Macho, WB’s Mucha Lucha, Disney’s The Buzz on Maggie and Nick Jr’s Wow Wow Wubzy! She won an Emmy and Annie Award for her character design work for Nickelodeon’s El Tigre, The Adventures of Manny Rivera, the highly-acclaimed animated television series she co-created with her husband, Jorge R. Gutierrez. In 2015 she won an Annie Award for her character designs for the animated feature film The Book of Life. Most recently she designed character for the VR short Son of Jaguar for Google.

Read more from AIGA Design Journeys.

Learn more about AIGA Diversity & Inclusion.

The 2018 Design Journeys series is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts.