If you haven’t heard of or seen Marvel Studios’ Black Panther by now, you’re probably a hermit. If you’re not a hermit, then you not only know the names of the stars and the director, you also know the names of a few members of the talented design team. But I recently had a chance to chat with someone whose name you may not know, costume illustrator Phillip Boutté, Jr.
Boutté is one of the subjects of Xfinity’s Black Film & TV’s Groundbreakers: Heroes Behind the Mask, playing throughout Black History month, which tells the stories of some of the trailblazing producers, designers, illustrators, and other creatives behind some of the biggest superhero blockbusters on the big screen.
As successful as he has been at his craft, Boutté started out in the film industry as a child actor. With two involved parents, he was kept out of the kind of trouble child actors sometimes end up in, and instead spent his spare time on set in his trailer drawing.
“I was always drawing, no matter what. My dad would bring me big reams of paper and would just sit and I would draw superheroes and I would draw characters…that was just like my thread line, the thing that was underneath it all.”
Eventually, Boutté was inspired to switch from actor to illustrator when he transitioned from playing child roles to teenaged roles because the roles he was offered frustrated him.
“It was always like a gangbanger or a kid who was on the wrong side of the law and everyone comes and sand saves him and turns his life around…no matter what I’d get offered, I was literally playing the same person.” Though young, he remembers being angry and frustrated that Black people were never pictured as coming from a background similar to his own, upper middle class, two parents, etc. He started thinking, “Where are those Black people? That’s who I want to play. Not that I just want to play myself, but I’d like to see more of them on TV.”
So he left acting, went to school, and majored in illustration, with a minor in film. This led him to character design and costume illustration. After graduation, on a whim, he and a friend decided to take their portfolios to San Diego Comic-Con to see if they might pick up work in video games of children’s books, but they ended up attending a panel put on by the Costumer’s Guild. After showing his portfolio, a couple of weeks later he interviewed to work on The Mummy.
“I showed up to the interview in a suit, and had all these books…it was really funny. We still laugh about it now. I had on a full-blown suit and a satchel. Because normally it is completely the opposite. People just show up in whatever…I really wanted to make a good impression.”
The industry floodgates opened for him once he landed The Mummy in 2008 and he hasn’t stopped working since, and he now has over fifty films under his belt. But a few things have changed about being a costume illustrator in that time, for instance, the title which is sometimes referred to as the costume concept artist.
“As we’ve gone along, the job of costume illustrator has changed slightly in that it is much more conceptual because concept art now is industry standard. The costume designer can’t sit and design every little piece, so it’s one of those things where they give you a general direction, and I’m conceptualizing things based on their direction.”
Describing his role in relation to the costume designer, he offered the following example:
“[The costume designer] might say, “’We’ve got Tom Cruise and he’s on an alien planet and he’s dressed all in white and I think I want it to look or feel like this.’ That might be all I get and from there you flesh out four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten different versions of what that might look like.”
A real-life example from his work on Black Panther was what he did to bring the armor of the Jabari tribe to life. The initial references he got from Ruth Carter, the film’s costume designer included her desire to “make their armor sculptural, but also traditional. Also, not too overly done because we wanted to keep with an African aesthetic. And she knew she wanted to add some kind of hair or fur or some kind of element mixed with the wood and make it feel a little a bit more fierce and warrior-like…And she had a general color palette of browns…but we tried different things.”
Taking it from there, he began work with the concept art team, which included other illustrators, to figure out what that would look like. They researched at African art and carvings and how that might be integrated into the armor.
The other example he gave from Black Panther was coming up with much of the casual looks for the character Shuri. Young, brilliant and funny, Shuri has quickly become a favorite character in the wildly popular film. Her style is definitely a part of her appeal. Carter’s direction on the character was that, “She knew she wanted to make her feel young, but also funky and hip and kind of have a strength to her.”
Finding that balance was a fun and interesting challenge for Boutté. For instance, the orange vest Shuri sports at one point in the film, came with the direction from Carter for a pop of color in her look to show that she might be smart and powerful, but she’s also young. At my comment that Shuri’s looks were wonderfully fun, but understated, Boutté elaborated, “On the one hand, she’s got this bright orange thing on, on the other hand everything else is toned down because that’s enough, that’s enough to sell that idea.”
This led to my next question concerning the movement happening within the entertainment industry covering everything from changing who has the power to create and tell stories, to challenging sexual violence. I asked if, within his discipline, when designed and led by women of color, what looks different about this movement for change?
“As far as design goes, when you’re led by somebody like Ruth [Carter]. She has an understated strength to her. She’s very conscious of what’s she’s putting out, but she also tries to make little statements that make people think. Take the Dora Milaje [for example]. We had a great initial phase of concept design by a [visual development artist] named Anthony Francisco, so he gave us that and that was from Marvel. What Ruth did was to imbue that with African history but she also knew that she wanted to take things that were powerful to us, like what beads mean to us or what beads mean to certain tribes and infuse those into the costumes to make the women feel more powerful…but also gives them underlying meaning so that if you know that tribe you know that that stands for fertility or power or beauty. A lot of that was beauty. Like, the more beads, the more adornment you have, the more adored you are.”
He also touched on Ruth’s aesthetic as far as trying to empower women, which was making sure that, “If you are a warrior, you are covered up. You’re not out, you’re not overly sexualized. That’s something she was aware of, and that she was very keen on talking to us about from the jump.”
We talked a little more about how this same movement informs his choices as a costume illustrator he said it wasn’t unusual for a design team to be in the middle of fleshing out an idea only to have to rethink in light of world events. “It happens all the time. Specifically, climate-wise, there are a few things you might think about a little differently. Sometimes, you’ll be in the middle of a project and a scandal happens. So now you’re worrying that [the film] is going to come out a year from now and whatever…this scandal brings, it’s going to change the way people think, so right now it was fine, but now it’s not.”
He also pointed out that production teams are always looking to the future when thinking about audience response to a film, but because of the changes happening now, there is a sense that they have to look further down the way. “You might be working on something that might have a violent rape scene. Now, because of the climate, you have to look even further and say, ’This might not be a good idea’ or ‘People might not be able to handle it the way they handled it before if the context is not correct.’”
He continued that a character may change or be completely cut from a film, for instance, if its inclusion seems irresponsible, is putting out a bad vibe, and/or it has no redeeming qualities.
“From a design standpoint, the costume [design team] is trying to make choices to make sure the character is represented in a way that is true to the story. A lot of the time that won’t necessarily include what’s going on in the world, but the greater picture of the film will. It’s difficult because you can’t switch gears in a way, whenever something happens, you have be conscious of what decisions are being made and what you are putting out.”
Boutté quit acting because there were so few choices available to him as a young Black actor. It is fitting that he now helps to design characters in the ever-expanding universe of Black characters in film and TV that are available to today’s Black actors. Being a father to a seven-year-old daughter, Alina, also a budding artist, he’s proud of that role. Even more so, since he is also a costume illustrator on Ava Duvernay’s upcoming Disney film, A Wrinkle in Time, especially since the film’s main character is a young Black girl.
“The best thing about it is seeing her be able to see characters that look like herself and knowing that she’ll never know the difference. She won’t have the same fight I had.”
Interview by: DaVette See
DaVette See lives in Inglewood, CA with her husband, Rob, her mother, and her seven (yikes) kitties. She has a BA in English and Theater and a Law degree. When not writing, reporting, and video editing for BGN, she operates Running Lady Studios and produces animated short films and the web series Afro Bites! She was a geek before geek was chic. She loves books, plays, movies, and more than anything, she loves telling stories.