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Interview: Emmy-winning director takes leap into VR

Son Of Jaguar Jorge Gutierrez

Jorge Gutierrez is the kind of artist who’s always looking for that Next Big Thing, a challenge that excites him, scares him a little and takes him out of his comfort zone for something altogether new and different.

For the director of the Golden Globe-nominated animated feature film “The Book of Life,” working with Google on a new animated virtual reality short fit that bill.

He’s writing and directing the project, called “Son of Jaguar,” which is set to be released later this year and will represent a new entry in Google’s Spotlight Stories line of releases. For a few years now, Google has brought together artists and technologists to crank out immersive shorts for mobile 360, mobile VR and room-scale VR headsets, and “Son of Jaguar” is being worked on by the Spotlight Stories team as well as in cooperation with Dallas-based Reel FX.

In addition to writing and directing, Gutierrez is a voice actor and character designer for the project. His wife Sandra Equihua is helping with character designs, and “The Book of Life” art director Paul Sullivan is the production designer (“We’re getting the band back together!”).

“I can’t go too much into detail, but it’s a funny and heartfelt story about a once mighty luchador on the Day of the Dead who has to come to terms with his family, his legacy and what it means to be a part of something bigger than himself,” Gutierrez tells BGR. “These are all themes that I have become obsessed with and, I feel like the luckiest filmmaker in the world for being able to explore them in this new medium with the amazing Google Spotlight Stories team and my family from Reel FX. Hopefully Son of Jaguar will make you laugh, cry and grow a mustache.

“As I like to say, it’s a fistful of Mexploitation to the face that will make you throw up love!”

Gutierrez’s project, that colorful description notwithstanding, also represents something else —  it’s one of the latest examples of Hollywood creators sizing up the medium of VR and deciding there’s plenty of commercial and artistic potential there.

Many of them descended on Paramount Studios in Hollywood for a two-day conference in October on VR that was keynoted by X-Men director Bryan Singer. All the usual suspects and big names were there — representatives of everything from 20th Century Fox to Disney to Sony and DreamWorks, among others.

“There’s always a richer, more immersive medium to experience the world,” Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said at the Oculus Connect event in Los Angeles back in 2014. Increasingly, artists like Gutierrez are deciding that next medium is – or, at least, might be – VR.

He acknowledges the fact that he’s a “newcomer” to VR, but even approaching it as an artist, he says he began to latch on to parts of the experience with the enthusiasm of a storyteller and found himself thinking — okay, I can definitely work with this.

He acknowledges having to develop almost a new kind of film language for his project. The team, he says, has already figured out how to do things they were told you really can’t do, like cuts and camera moves (“I feel like I’m back in CalArts in the experimental animation lab!”).

“I always wanted to be a luchador, and this is as close as I’ll ever get,” Gutierrez said, referring to the iconic masked Mexican wrestlers. “I’m a big fan of the honest emotion and heartfelt empathy in the storytelling that I’m starting to see in the medium, and that really inspired me to jump in with the amazing team at Google Spotlight Stories. Plus the physical act of putting on the VR head gear really made me think of putting on a Lucha Libre mask.”

It’s interesting to see creators like him hopping onto the VR train. It’s also worth asking — is that train actually leaving the station this year, zipping along the tracks on the way toward widespread mainstream adoption of the technology?

Erin Griffith took a crack at that question over at Fortune in recent days. In a piece titled, “Will This Be the Year That VR Finally Goes Mainstream,” she mused that current VR hype reminds her of early talk around 3D printers — that these would be the wave of the future, oh don’t you see it? And that VR appears to be in the same place at the moment — cool stuff on the whole, but not yet ready to be a staple of living rooms in Middle America.

There’s gimmicky, though, and then there’s art. The latter is what Gutierrez and VR creators like him are focused on.

“I can honestly say I’m hooked,” he said. “I would love to do more Son of Jaguar stories, shorts and other completely different VR pieces. Being able to stand and walk around your animated characters is a life-changing experience for someone like me. I can finally go into the worlds I see in my head. And the most intriguing part of VR is that we’re all just getting started. The possibilities are endless.

“New limitations and strengths make you adapt to the medium. Which is a little overwhelming at first for a newcomer like me. But eventually you get comfortable. With that said, story is story. Emotion and heart work the same in every medium. I created the story first. Like anything I do for film, TV or paintings, it had to work and feel right in my head. Then I had to figure out ‘why is VR the best medium to tell this story,’ and everything evolved from that. Art should always drive the technology. But heart should always drive the art.”

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Andy Meek is a reporter based in Memphis who has covered media, entertainment, and culture for over 20 years. His work has appeared in outlets including The Guardian, Forbes, and The Financial Times, and he’s written for BGR since 2015. Andy's coverage includes technology and entertainment, and he has a particular interest in all things streaming. Over the years, he’s interviewed legendary figures in entertainment and tech that range from Stan Lee to John McAfee, Peter Thiel, and Reed Hastings.