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Exclusive: Director Jorge R. Gutierrez, Composer Gustavo Santaolalla, and Reel FX Creative Team Explain Story, Music and Mexican Heritage in ‘The Book of Life’

The Book of Life_CharactersBack in August, writer/director Jorge R. Gutierrez gave a small presentation to select local press outlets at Reel FX studios. While there, we got to hear all about his film – from its humble beginnings to the nearly finished product – which is a co-production between the Dallas-based animation studio and 20th Century Fox. Last month we posted an article about our exclusive tour of the Reel FX studio, as well as our 1 on 1 interview with Gutierrez and his team.

This follow-up post will take a closer look at The Book of Life and explain the design of the film, give insight into the symbolism in the story, as well as touch on the music by composer Gustavo Santaolalla.

The story for The Book of Life comes from Gutierrez and his wife, Emmy-wining designer Sandra Equihua, and is based on, “the cookbook of my family“. There are many stories about how people fell in love, and other things Gutierrez grew up loving. Before getting started, he told us simply that this a big movie, but one that comes from very personal place.

Jorge R. Gutierrez
Jorge R. Gutierrez

“I grew up hearing many, many stories told to me by my grandfather. He would say to me, ‘Jorge don’t you ever let the truth get in the way of a good story’. Now my grandmother hated that saying and it got me in trouble a lot, but The Book of Life is about one of my grandfather’s stories – only embellished just a bit.

The film is funny and heartfelt and, stylistically, it’s a love letter to Mexican and Latin-American folk art. It’s the kind of art you can see in a museum, but you can also have in house. It’s art by the people, for the people, but the great thing about it is that it’s about the people, and a reflection of who they are.”

Another inspiration for the film is, obviously, the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos – the Day of the Dead. Not only is it part of Gutierrez and Equihua’s culture, it is also the day they got married; they wanted all their family to be there, not just the ones that are alive.

People love the aesthetic of the holiday, but Gutierrez finds the message beneath that all the more beautiful. “As long as we tell the stories of those who came before us, as long as we sing their songs, cook their dishes, and tell their jokes, they’re here with us and inside our hearts. The moment we don’t talk about them, say their names, or acknowledge them, then the really are dead.” It’s a remembering of the past, and, in a way, it’s a way for kids to connect with the previous generation. Further it cements this ideas that “I better do something good in my life so someone will remember me” which Gutierrez sees as a nice moralistic sort of checks and balances system.

The whole film was made in Dallas so, by talking to Gutierrez and others involved in the film in the studio, the team felt like we were “coming into the kitchen while we’re still cooking“.  It’s an amazing film, and even more amazing are the talented storytellers and animators who came together to make it a reality.


Guillermo del Toro (above) is a producer on the film and has been an influence on Gutierrez for years. After The Book of Life found a home at Reel FX, del Toro himself became attached after what Gutierrez claims is probably the most unsuccessful presentation in film history. But hope was not lost. The visionary director of films like Pacific Rim and Hellboy in fact told him, “Jorge, that was the worst pitch I’ve ever seen” yet, after they both shared a laugh, he continued, “But I know your cartoon El Tigre. I have two daughters, and every Saturday morning we would watch your cartoon. So I know your sense of humor, I know your artwork, and I know your version of Mexico is really funny and really unique, so of course I’m going to produce your movie“. Del Toro then he took Gutierrez under his wing and frequently jokes that Jorge is “the love child – without the love – that he always wanted“.


Mexican heritage is a big part of Gutierrez’s life, but so is his love of movies. The Princess Bride is one of Gutierrez’ favorites and that classic had a huge influence on the story he has always wanted to tell. Like Rob Reiner’s film, The Book of Life has a similar framing device that starts in present day. It follows kids on a museum field trip, and then delves deep into history and tells the story of “The Book of Life”. Even though it takes place in the past, it still is very current and very modern with snappy timing and a lot of subtext in the story. The film also has a multitude of stars from all avenues of the entertainment industry – Kate del Castillo, Ron Perlman, Ice Cube, Hector Elizondo, Channing Tatum, Zoe Saldana, Diego Luna, and Gabriel Iglesias, even Plácido Domingo and more.

Aside from jokes, a great cast, and wonderful visuals (which we’ll get to later), The Book of Life has a huge musical component. There are beautiful songs on the soundtrack, some reproduced to fit the style of the film, but there’s also a magical score by one of the fathers of the rock en Espanol movement of the 90s, Oscar-winning Argentinian musician Gustavo Santolalla (check out his amazing bio here).


Years ago there were numerous bands who were taking the music they heard from their parents and grandparents and mixing it with music they were hearing from the US and the UK. The result were unique styles like punk cumbia, electro-tangos, and all sorts of wild hybrids. It defined the generation as one that embraced both the past and the future. In a similar style, songs by Café Tacuba, Rod Stewart, Mumford & Sons, Radiohead and more are all reinterpreted in this eclectic soundtrack.

The Book of Life was a 5 year process from start to finish, and, to add auditory color to the wonderful visuals, Gustavo Santaolalla came aboard in the final two years as composer and songwriter. A legend in his own time, Santaolalla is known for his trademark guitar, his compositions and numerous producing credits. Yet, in comparison to the economic and minimalist sounds in films like 21 Grams, this was his biggest endeavor to date. Composing the film, which he calls “a departure from anything I’d ever done before“, took a lot of work, and while it’s wall-to-wall music, it is still very distinctive.

Santaolalla has a strong relationship and background with Mexico, as far as music and the films he’s scored. It is that experience he draws upon while working with orchestrator and conductor Tim Davis to handle the 70-plus piece orchestra, choirs and other musicians who give his music such a rich, catchy, and worldly sound.

Most of the selections in the film’s soundtrack (those reinterpreted songs by the above mentioned modern artists) were decided upon by Gutierrez. It was no easy job to write something that rivals the popularity of such famous songs like “Creep” and “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?”, but Santaolalla managed to rework them so that they “connect with the originals but are really truly unique and different“.

Gustavo Santaolalla

Beyond those re-imagined tracks, and the score, Gustavo teamed up with Paul Williams who, among other things, wrote “The Rainbow Connection” (for the score from The Muppet Movie). They co-wrote two original songs, “The Apology Song” and “I Love You Too Much” for the film. The tricky thing was not to write heartfelt and meaningful songs, but there are both English and Spanish versions written for the film.

A lot of work went into that collaborative writing process. “It’s really hard because you want to keep the content of the song. It’s got to have rhyme, and have poetry, etc. It’s got to mean the same thing but it’s not just simply translating the words.

You can hear some samples from the soundtrack below…

The film sports highly stylized, ornate and dazzling visuals. What helps sell the story is not how amazing the graphics are, but what they represent. Gutierrez, Equihua and Art Director Paul Sullivan worked very, very hard to come up with the idea of “shape language”. This philosophy breaks everything (characters, costumes, buildings, etc.) down into three key elements which Sullivan explains as such,

Circles are good  – clouds and round things that can’t hurt you. Squares are solid and can’t move – stubborn things. Triangles are things that hurt you  – sharp objects. Translating that to the characters means that good, funny guys are all round. Beyond that, everyone is made out of wood except the bad guys. They are made out of metal because metal can hurt the wood. One bad guy in particular is shaped like a skull, so he is like death coming at you.

The_Book_of_Life_Conept_Art_Illustration_Manolo_Serenades_MariaEven the colors of the characters do more that just make them stand out. There are deeper meanings to the blue that Manolo wears. It’s meant to show how characters are already siding with each other on a deeper level. Guiterrez and Sullivan hope that even if the audience doesn’t notice these details, they still feel them.

For some characters, their design eludes to the fact that they are destined to be together. For others, based on the corresponding colors in the eyes for instance, it means that they only have eyes for each other, and more ideas like that are presented in every frame of the film. Much of that dynamic between the characters comes from designs created by Gutierrez’ wife Sandra who spent a lot of time designing the women in the film.

The Book of Life_Concept Artwork
Images from ‘The Art of the Book of Life’

Working together with Sandra, the characters are based on the principles of opposites. Not conflicting, but contrasting and actually quite complimentary. The character of La Muerta has been envisioned in a way that gets away from being solely skeletal and finds her as more affectionate, even motherly. Art director Paul Sullivan tells us that “she’s a character with sugar candy skin and hair made of licorice. She represents everything sweet and her counterpart, Xibalba is the opposite of that“.

The Book of Life_La MuertaA closer look at La Muerta (one of the film’s numerous highly detailed characters) will find that her hat is adorned in flowers and vegetation. So, even as the symbol of death, she’s covered in symbols of life. It’s that duality that makes things all the more intriguing and, further, something exciting to explore on repeat viewings. Trust us, you are going to want to see this more than once.

The_Book_of_Life_Conept_Art_Illustration_The_Cave_of_SoulsIn the presentation, Gutierrez shared some of his earliest sketches Manolo and described the many struggles the character faces in the film – some very obvious and others less so. He struggles for love, he struggles with doing what he is supposed to do (as a bullfighter), and what he wants to do (be a musician). Also his name was chosen because it has the word “man” in it; Gutierrez says that Manolo’s journey is the struggle of an everyman. If that’s not enough, Manolo even looks like the letter ‘M’, so there are lots of subliminal messages that the team worked tirelessly to put in the film to help sell the message.

Still, it was a lot of fun seeing how detailed they could be. The symbolism of hearts and skulls, for instance, are purposefully implemented in clothing, adornments, character shapes, even buildings. Click the image below to see the hi-rez version of this concept artwork to see what you can spot…

The_Book_of_Life_Conept_Art_Illustration_The_Land_of_the_RememberedBefore finishing the presentation, Sullivan went on to talk about the different worlds in The Book of Life,

Jorge had this idea the he wanted every world to be represented by a shape and a color. At the most basic and visceral level we see that Land of the Living is square, Land of the Remembered is circle, and Land of the Forgotten is triangle shapes.

Each of the colors are also specific and help sell the idea of the shape we chose. Land of the Living is an homage to Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western movies so the town is beaten down by the sun and has a warm, sepia toned color palette. Land of the Remembered helps set us up for the very vibrant saturation and Land of the Forgotten is devoid of color, so it’s grey and it’s sharp.


Another thing that was done, design-wise, was to make the environments match the characters. Manolo is a blocky character with tiny peg-like legs, so he’s top-heavy. The designs of the buildings in his hometown are clustered together with the idea that the town leans on and supports itself – if you take one building away it will all fall down. They also made the buildings top-heavy to relate to Manolo’s design and tie everything together.

We’d love to keep giving you more info but it’s best that you just experience the film for yourselves. There are lots of ideas, talents and trades that have come together in this one-of-a-kind film and it really is, as the trailer states, like nothing you’ve seen before. So, if you somehow have missed the impressive marketing campaign, check out the trailer below and then make plans to see Reel FX and 20th Century Fox’s The Book of Life as soon as you can.

Manolo, a young man who is torn between fulfilling the expectations of his family and following his heart, embarks on an adventure that spans three fantastic worlds where he must face his greatest fears.

20th Century Fox has slated The Book of Life for release this Fall on October, 17th, 2014.


  • Mary Ann Thompson-Frenk

    I’d love to know more about the chanting in the beginning of the “El Libro De La Vida – El Aparato / Land Of The Remembered” composition. It sounds Native American and I have heard Aztecs, Toltecas and others sing similar songs in the temazcal. Were the indigenous cultures of Mexico inspiration for the beginning of this song?