Phillip Boutte Jr. and Michael Uwandi recently took the stage with Director Peter Ramsay at the Academy Museum. The trio had an inspiring chat about the work of Concept Artists and ways to break into the profession for creators who may have not had opportunities in the past. Boutte and Uwandi spoke fluidly about the joys of research and the ability to visually tell a story by character to create the visual blueprint for film/TV, video games, etc.
The conversation also covered their beginnings and how that could be applied to and inspire a new generation of artists. The path to getting your foot in the door is especially hard, and the duo did provide some valuable insights on how they made it through hard work, luck and perseverance. The skill of taking constructive critiques and diversifying your portfolio, for example, so you have multiple directions for potential clients and the important ability to adapt your style from job to job.
The realities of the job market now is much harsher than it was for previous generations but there are certainly still plenty of opportunities and Boutte and Uwandi’s organization (with Aldis Hodge) 9B Collective was founded for precisely that reason, to provide hope for underrepresented groups, particularly black artists who have historically not been hired for key production jobs. With 9B Collective, they aim to educate at younger ages to offset career burnout.
Often, talented people exit the industry before their career ever begins. 9B Collective has now worked with 180 artists and they are expanding, creating their own IP, and new opportunities for those they seek to help. Below the Line recently caught up with Boutte and Uwandi to elaborate further on their experiences and wisdom. This conversation has been edited for clarity.
Below the Line: Please, introduce yourselves. How’d you both get started as artists?
Phillip Boutte Jr.: I’m Phillip Boutte Jr. I am a concept artist. I’ve been a concept artist now for the last 16 years that I’ve been in the industry. I’ve worked on a variety of projects including Black Panther, Wakanda Forever, and Inception. I’ve done three world tours with Madonna. I’ve been able to take my art to a lot of places.
My start in entertainment came actually at three years old as an actor, so I’ve been in the industry since I was three. I was a working actor until 17, then went to college, became a production designer, and started doing big music videos and then that eventually led me to show my portfolio at Comic-Con and to some costume designers. And then, I started working in costume and film, which is what I’ve been doing for the last 16 years. So that’s my kind of origin.
Michael Uwandi: My name is Michael Uwandi. I’ve been in the industry for about eight years. I also started when I was three years old. Funny enough, I was just wanting to create stories, and so I would write a lot and I would draw a lot, but it was predominantly to actually create stories and just see them come to life in front of me.
Eventually, I started working in animation. Then I started working on video games and I wanted a little bit more. So I went to Comic-Con as well, similar to Phil. I was fortunate to walk upon Sonja Hayes, who then connected me to Phil and let me know that working in film was possible. I then started working on things like Star Trek and Star Wars, and then working at Marvel on things like Moon Knight as well, and a few other features that aren’t out yet.
Below the Line: How did 9B Collective come about?
Boutte Jr.: 9B came about because the Concept Art Association has an event every month called a drink and draw. There are models dressed up and artists come to sit down and draw and practice their skills. In 2020, they asked us to do an event for Black History Month and we did Afrofuturism, Afro Punk theme. It was at a small bar in Little Tokyo and it was at capacity with 150 artists waiting outside to get in. They had never had that happen and Mike noticed specifically that was just kind of like something we hadn’t seen there were so many black artists all in one place.
We walked around, talking to artists, and they all had a very similar background or a similar story of working in the industry and not working alongside any other black artists. This sparked the idea of 9B, we’d do more drinking and draws, and people seemed to want this. After the events of the summer of 2020, we realized it could be bigger. We realized that we could start something to make sure that artists were diversified behind the scenes and give them a place to be.
Uwandi: Schools are really expensive. Paying up to $250,000 for an art degree, that’s a hard sell. I recognize that this must be a constant issue, not just with me, but with other people who look like myself, where if you don’t have the support of the parents, it’s very difficult to pursue it and so we want to help educate and inform but also inspire young kids as well as adults and letting them know that yes, there are several things that you can do, and just because you don’t draw doesn’t mean that you aren’t creative or that you can’t find a career in being creative.
So, that’s one of the bigger things that we want to do is make sure that we’re not just letting people know that we exist, but also letting mothers, fathers, whoever let them know that hey, there’s a career. And that if they even see us and recognize that we have careers that are kind of off the beaten path but are still relatively successful, then their kids can be as well.
Below the Line: Can you tell us a little bit about fostering a community?
Uwandi: One of the big things that we’ve noticed is more artists get hired for what they’ve done than their potential. And we banked on reversing that because there have been so many times when artists who have extremely amazing potential just are not getting a chance.
People usually get jobs through connections and by networking, and they’re going to give it to their friends first and their friends typically look the same. So we want to make sure that in this regard, building a community is so important because when people get into the industry, they usually feel alone.
Below the Line: It sounds like a matter of how many people can you inspire.
Boutte Jr.: I think that mainly we want to inspire people to get into the industry. We want to inspire them to create artists like ourselves earlier, and we want to give them an insight into what these jobs are and what’s possible and to show them. I think that a lot of people don’t know that our job exists or don’t know that we’re there, and they also would be surprised at how hard we work and then how much we can make a living doing this job, and how much of a viable career it is, especially for a creative person. You can be creative.
Below the Line: What are your thoughts about AI?
Boutte Jr.: I think I worry about artistically the conceptual side of what happens to people’s brains and what happens to our consumer as an art consumer, what do you value? Do you value the fact that this person came up with this style and studied and went to this place and it’s this beautiful, wonderful thing? Or do you value that they typed something in, and as you get older, as those new consumers get older, it changes, right?
That’s when you start sounding like the old man, get off my lawn. Because you’re saying it used to be this way and it’s changed at the same time. I do think that we need to question how it changes things because I do think that it is, to me, it’s completely, it feels like almost like an assault on creativity or imagination. It’s something that I just feel doesn’t necessarily need help in that way.
Uwandi: Mean, out of all the things, it’s like if AI can figure out creativity, then it can go backward and figure out everything else that was once believed to be the untouched. I believe it can never recreate that.