Animation character

“Maya and the Three”: The Power of Representation in Animation Character Design

A story of epic proportions, Maya and the three is a Netflix limited series created by Emmy Award-winning Jorge Gutiérrez and Sandra Equihua. In a magical Mesoamerican-inspired world, a warrior princess embarks on a quest to fulfill an ancient prophecy and save humanity from the vengeful gods of the underworld. Following the show’s Annie Awards wins for Best Children’s Television/Media and Best Music for Television, we revisited our chat with the husband-and-wife artist team to dig deeper into the character designs, the authenticity and power of representation in animation.

Passive perfection on a pedestal

Maya and the three tells the story of an epic quest with the highest possible stakes: to save the entire human race from certain doom. Its storyline is heavily rooted in mythology – a storyline that generally centers men as heroes, explorers, and warriors who save the day. “When we started researching all the traditions, we noticed that women were portrayed as sleeping beauties, as a prize to be won, or worse, as the victim,” Gutiérrez remarked.

Ancient myths are as much a product of their time as stories created centuries later; they spoke to their own audience and reflected the opinions of the time of their conception. Stories created today must resonate with modern audiences, and mythos must be reinvented to reflect who we are now. Gutiérrez and Equihua decided to reinvent the narrative and frame their story in a modern way, with a modern female lead.

For Maya and the three, an integral part of the reinterpretation was the honest design of each female character. Gutiérrez, as director, intended to build a female-centric narrative, but it was Equihua who led the charge of creating Maya’s visual identity, as well as all of the supporting female characters. from the Serie.

The pair have been collaborating on creative projects for over 20 years, realizing early on that their designs work best when Equihua makes the female characters their own. “When Sandra designs female characters, there is a very different truth and humanity,” adds Gutiérrez, when asked about their workflow. As the duo wrote and designed simultaneously, they made a conscious effort to avoid feeding on the standards of beauty often depicted in animation that lean heavily toward Eurocentric ideals. Instead, Equihua intended to break down barriers by maintaining features that stand out in Latin America.

“Let’s be proud of our height, let’s be proud of our form, like having big legs because there’s strength in them. I wanted to show in her stature that she is powerful and strong,” she explained. “Maya has curves, but she’s like a sturdy little pillar, and it shows when she fights. You don’t worry about it breaking.

Connection with the characters

Character design is integral to storytelling; interesting characters who are flawed and imperfect, characters who sometimes fail, are always more compelling than perfect idealized versions. However, in animation, a character’s visual identity goes way beyond that when it comes to capturing their audience. As is the case with Maya and the threemuch of the animation industry produces content aimed at children and teens: age groups that desperately need role models who speak their language verbally, culturally, and visually.

According to Equihua, “I’m not throwing dirt at anyone, but I think we’re so used to seeing this typical mold these days 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 that were obviously designed by men. As a woman and a Latina, when you’re a kid, you want to bond with someone who looks like.

Being able to relate to the characters can be a transformative experience, and character design is the cornerstone of that. A strong warrior princess can become a touchstone for young girls around the world as they discover who they want to be and how they want to interact with the world at large. It is not enough that these characters exist on the margins; bringing women’s stories to the fore, making them the hero of the story is essential to shaping the perception of future generations.

Authenticity in storytelling

The ways we consume media have undergone a dramatic transformation in recent years, and trends have evolved alongside it. With the rise of streaming and the resulting content boom, today’s viewers have an endless and increasingly diverse number of options available on demand. “For the first time, the public is expressing their desire to see themselves and to want the people telling their stories to be of their culture, of their gender, of this world,” Gutiérrez explained. “They want authenticity. At the same time, I feel like, in the history of our medium, a lot of success hasn’t come from these places, and Hollywood historically only looks at examples of success.

These examples, for a very long time, set the standard for what is done and how it is done in major studios, extending that influence down the distribution chain. However, the past few years have shown that changing this status quo benefits everyone. Productions that share the life experiences of creators embedded in the DNA of the story create a deeper connection with audiences, and viewers get more out of these stories than a few hours of enjoyment. They get relatable personas that they can see themselves in.

“I am forever grateful to Netflix for giving us this golden ticket and allowing us to portray this representation,” Equihua said in response to where she hopes the industry is heading, and how. Maya and the three is part of this course. “So the new generations can see each other and say, ‘I’m here’.”

About the Author

Kirsty Wilson is a senior content producer at SyncSketch, a real-time visual communication platform recently acquired by Unity.

Beginning her career in visual effects production at MPC Film in London, Kirsty managed post-production workflows for feature films such as Harry Potter franchise and Ridley Scott Robin Hood. More recently, she was drawn to the tech sector where she led content initiatives for Cleo, a San Francisco-based B2B start-up that supports families, with a particular focus on the success of working parents. Kirsty has a drive to disrupt outdated industries and products, and a passion for enabling creatives to experience authentic storytelling. In 2021, she joined the SyncSketch team and their mission to reinvent the way artists collaborate together – from anywhere.

Kirsty Wilson's photo

Kirsty Wilson is a senior content producer at SyncSketch, a real-time visual communication platform recently acquired by Unity.