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Phillip Boutté Jr. and Michael Uwandi Talk ‘Building Character: Sketch to Screen’

At their January 20 Academy Museum presentation, moderated by Oscar-winning director Peter Ramsey, the 9B Collective co-founders discussed concept design, building great characters, and how they strive to support and inspire young BIPOC artists with the conceptual creativity that will fuel their imaginations for years to come.

For Phillip Boutté Jr. and Michael Uwandi, animation is about character. And at their January 20 talk and presentation at the Academy Museum, “Building Character: Sketch to Screen,” moderated and hosted by Oscar-winning director Peter Ramsey, they shared their expertise, experience, and enthusiasm for the work of concept artists and designers and how their craft helps build the foundation for the characters we see and enjoy on screen.

Boutté and Uwandi (along with Aldis Hodge) are co-founders of 9B Collective, the first Black-owned concept art studio, which pushes for inclusivity within the industry and is comprised primarily of BIPOC artists. Boutté, the company’s CEO, is an award-winning concept artist and artistic director for film, music video, and television, with a career that has spanned 16 years and 74 films/projects. His client list includes Warner Bros., Sony, Marvel Studios, Netflix, Fox, Disney, and DreamWorks, spanning a list of hits including Marvel’s Black Panther (2018) and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022), Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (2019), Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), Inception (2010), The Greatest Showman (2017), and Jungle Cruise (2021) starring Dwayne Johnson. He recently had his first assistant costume job on the feature film Blue Beetle (2023) for WB/DC - a production on which 9B Collective also did concept art and integrated marketing and received its first official screen credit as a studio. Uwandi is both a concept artist and an art director for live-action films and video games. Some of his clients include Netflix, Marvel Studios, Warner Bros., ILM, Disney, CBS, Sony Pictures, 21st Century Fox, MPC, Niantic, Kabam, and Mattel. His work on Moon Knight (2022), The Mandalorian (2019–), and Westworld (2016–22) was nominated for an Emmy in Outstanding Sci-Fi Costumes.

Ramsey made history as the first African American director to win an Oscar for animation for the iconic Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) and is currently executive producing the two-part movie Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (2023). He was also the first African American to direct an animated film for a major studio with DreamWorks’ Rise of the Guardians (2012). Recently, he directed episodes of Ahsoka (2023–) and The Mandalorian (2019–) in the Star Wars universe for Disney+, as well as executive produced and directed all episodes of the limited series Lost Ollie (2022) for Netflix, created by Shannon Tindle and with Shawn Levy and Josh Barry of 21 Laps Entertainment.

Boutté also devotes considerable time to uplifting young artists and giving back to his community. A frequent industry speaker, he also partners with nonprofit organizations like the BRIC Foundation and has been a seated executive board member of the Costume Designers Guild for the past 10 years. He was recently contacted by the Academy to speak on concept art and design. “I was approached about participating in a program to educate the community about different jobs within the Academy. After some discussion, we thought it would be a good thing to present the work that goes on behind the scenes, specifically with concept art and character design, and how that can be utilized across multiple platforms. We’re talking animation, video games, and live-action. Some of our work has even been exhibited in the museum, but it's next to an actual costume or something that we've worked on, but people might not make the connection that that's a whole other job. And when they asked whom we might want to moderate, Peter was our top ask, and we were very happy he said ‘Yes.’”

The program included talk about their careers, the founding of their company, examples of their work on a variety of high-profile film and TV projects, and how they go about collaborating with other designers, directors, art directors, and department heads.

According to Uwandi, he and Boutté started 9B during COVID, which he admits “was crazy.” “We really wanted to kind of change the playing field, because me and Phil, as well as many other people that we're familiar with, especially people of color, there was a weird shift within the industry that we started to notice where we’d see more and more of them, but never working together. Right? So, we would usually be one of 200 at a company. Just insane.”

“We did a Black History Month Drink and Draw at this place called the Far Bar in Little Tokyo, and it was Black history-themed afro-futurism and afro-punk,” Boutté shares. “The bar's capacity was 150, and we had 150 with a line out the door, so it was like the first big event that they had had like that. And what Mike and I noticed was historically, it was the first time that we had seen that many Black artists in one place, period. There were directors there… there were producers there. There was just a bunch of people that came, and it sparked a need for a community.”

Uwandi adds, “Something that I also have encountered is that I've gone to two art schools, one of which has like 5,000 students, and generally I was the only Black student, and the other, Art Center, where I was like the only Black person in my program. And, whenever we would see people of color, they would come in for maybe a week and leave. And when you’d ask, ‘Why'd you leave?’ usually it was because there was a paywall to begin with, so they couldn’t even afford it, but also, there was a cultural thing where they weren't getting the attention and respect that they felt they deserved.”

He continues, "And a lot of people who were really talented would leave early and just kind of give up on that dream. We’ve recognized throughout our time in this industry that a lot of times when people of color get picked for a job, they are usually a shell of their former selves, because that flame is kind of dimmed based on people not seeing their potential. They usually look at their lack of experience, and they're like, ‘Well, what have you done?’ And it's like, ‘Well, I can't get a job if you're always basing it on my experience rather than my potential.’”

Recognizing this unfortunate reality, Boutté and Uwandi want to catch artists early, not just in their careers, but at school. They devote their time to going to schools, talking to younger kids, even at the elementary school level, to make an early impact in their lives. “We recognized that when kids get to that age, they're always drawing, but then around high school, they just suddenly stop drawing,” Uwandi notes. “Maybe because it's not cool, or their parents are not encouraging them, saying, like my parents did, ‘You're going to be professionally poor.’ We're trying to help change the tide and help people recognize that there is a career in all this, and there are people who represent for them as well. We know that sometimes you just have to see that it exists to actually go and chase after it.”

Ramsey jumps in, sharing, “I've known Phil for years now and have seen him go from kind of this humble junior illustrator to working his way up to where now he's at the top of his field, pushing forward in a whole broader spectrum and in a much bigger way. So, it’s important for the audience to hear about that journey. I'm sure Mike's is very much the same. Just from my vantage point, having been able to see it from a distance, I'm really interested in other people hearing and seeing what that felt like, how he was able to do it, and how is it possible, because that's what people need to know.”

Ramsey was an executive producer on the recent Disney+ animated short film anthology series, Kizazi Moto: Generation Fire, a groundbreaking, expertly crafted project that brought the storytelling vision of a diverse group of pan-African creatives, with their tales of advanced technology, spirits, and monsters, to a global audience.

Asked about the show’s impact, Boutté brings up the important concept often heard when discussing the lack of diversity in mainstream entertainment. If you grow up watching shows you identify with, that excitement stays with you and helps fuel your imagination in later years. And the converse is also true – a lack of diverse storytelling leads to gaps in the conceptual foundations that drive artistic vision. He explains, “When you're talking about Kizazi Moto, it actually made me think about this concept that I've been trying to relay, which is that your formative years are really important, because a kid’s imagination is different than an adult’s imagination. It's a very specific thing. It grows and it changes, but for a lot of people, it breeds conceptual excitement. What I mean by that is there are kids now that will watch Kizazi Moto, which means that’s the norm for them, which means that as they become older, they remember and stay excited about that content. One thing that's been missing a lot with diverse content creation is that excitement. Even for adults now working on projects, you can see conceptual laziness when it comes to something that people don't understand.”

He continues, “So, if you're used to seeing Star Wars, if you grow up watching Star Wars, you're excited to work on Star Wars. You're like, ‘I can do all these things,’ and your imagination runs wild. When we started working on Black Panther, I remember there was this conceptual void, where some of the concept artists who didn’t know anything about the African continent didn’t have the same excitement for the project. And I mean it in the best possible way. They were well-meaning. They were excited to work on the film. But that excitement, if you switched it out to something like Thor, everyone's like, ‘Oh, Celtic knots and blah, blah, blah.’ And they have all this stuff to draw upon. Or, if you do something like The Rings, you have all this excitement to pull from. So, the key thing here is to create content that young people can grow up with and eventually, as adults, stay conceptually excited about.”

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.