Phillip Boutte Jr.
By Lindsay Lopez, Sept. 14, 2012
Former child stars have a reputation for long-past glory days and at best idle, if not bleak futures.
Costume Illustrator Phillip Boutte Jr. is a different story.
While testing out an acting career as a toddler and well into his teens, Boutte spent production breaks doodling in his trailer. Constant practice seeded desires for a career as a visual artist by the time he walked away from his on-camera aspirations at 17.
Boutte cultivated his technical skills in the California State University Long Beach art department. It was under artist Robin Richesson―renowned Costume Illustrator, storyboard artist, and then a member of both the Art Directors and Costume Designers Guilds―that Boutte first learned about the CDG and his interest in costume illustration was piqued.
After graduating in 2006, Boutte attended Comic Con with fellow Long Beach alums (and current CDG members) Brian Valenzuela and Oksana Nedavniaya. The trio attended a CDG panel and saw flyers for a post-panel autograph session, which they attended with portfolios in tow. Within weeks the three were recruited for their first professional gigs, with Boutte called to duty on The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor under CD Sanja Milkovic Hays.
Working on Universal Pictures’ 2008 Brendan Fraser, Jet-Li starrer (the fourth installment in The Mummy franchise) fed Boutte’s natural passion for project research and firm belief that “you can only draw what you know.” Following Hays’ initial call, the young illustrator grabbed any and all Dragon Emperor-relevant material already in his possession―such as books deconstructing Chinese art and Chinese symbols, along with what he had retained from Chinese language courses he took in college―and brought them along to their meeting. He recalls the first two weeks as a hell period, a crash course in the illustration volume required for a blockbuster franchise of Mummy proportions.
“I was very green―it was a ton of information, 10 hour days, and more drawing than I was used to,” says Boutte. Hays taught him the art of balance, he says, discouraging off-the-clock sketching, urging instead a cathartic mental break. She also welcomed his research contributions. “Sanja liked the fact that I came with my own ideas,” he says. “I definitely needed a lot of hand-holding though.”
With the exception of the 2008 family fantasy Bedtime Stories, Boutte’s immediate post Dragon Emperor projects included a string of 2009 sci-fi action flicks: J.J. Abrams’ stunning Star Trek reboot, Gavin Hood’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine and McG’s Terminator Salvation.
Boutte recalls working with CD Michael Kaplan on Star Trek as his first full experience with costume design “in action, beginning to end”—a complete immersion in the process that has proved invaluable to his identity as a Costume Illustrator today.
“I was physically working on the cutting room floor, alongside the seamstresses, the cutters, the steamers—not just drawing [remotely],” he says. “I was seeing the building and the fittings.”
Understanding the diverse roles, responsibilites and intricacies involved in the design process has made the illustrator emphatic about the team element involved in costume design, from inception to execution.
“As an illustrator, you are [in essence] supposed to protect your costume designer,” he says.
“I need to make sure that my sketch is helpful to everyone. If it’s not going to help everyone down the line—I haven’t done my job. The illustrations have to be [fully] functional.”
To ensure he and his designer’s bases have been covered, Boutte prefers to consult the skilled personnel involved in design execution, from cutters and fitters to agers and dyers, before finalizing his sketches and submitting them for approvals. Additionally, Boutte stresses the role of Assistant Costume Designers―in his experience colleagues like Stacy Caballero (with whom he’s worked on two Twilight saga installments, as well as the upcoming Man of Steel) and Ann Foley (Assistant CD on Star Trek and the upcoming twisted fairy tale flick Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters)―as incredibly valuable authorities, apt translators of the CD’s vision.
Design departments in which teamwork is a focal point make for a more enriching experience, according to Boutte. Recent work under CD Christine Bieselin Clark for the space thriller Ender’s Game, (a fall 2013 release based on the novel by Orson Scott Card), was a pleasure because “she puts together a team in which everyone trusts everyone,” he says. “She puts together a cohesive [unit], a true team, instead of plucking talents and putting them together.”
Mutual respect and a symbiotic relationship between CD and illustrator also make for an excellent working experience, says Boutte. By the time he began work on Christopher Nolan’s 2010 mind bender Inception, he’d been in the business nearly three years and was confident that his skill set and understanding of the business were finally up to par. He was able to focus his energy on absorbing Inception CD Jeffrey Kurland’s extensive knowledge of fashion, costume terminology and fabrics. The illustrator began taking heed to the way different fabrics fall, the way they react to light and gesture. Kurland’s clear direction (and strong sketching skills) paved the way for an interdependent collaboration. “So much of it he ‘mapped out,’ and he was able to provide detailed plans on where he wanted to take the designs,” Boutte says. Like a relay, where Kurland left off, Boutte would pick up―but also build upon, embellish, and circle back to Kurland for his input.
If an ideal relationship is one in which the illustrator and CD have that sort of equal codependency, the industry has a long way to go, says Boutte. “We [illustrators] can be looked at as a hand and not a brain—even though we have processes, too,” he says. “Our main job is support, but you’re also a person with an opinion.” He says he’s noticed a common intra-industry misconception that Costume Illustrators are aspiring Costume Designers simply drawing in the interim, when in fact many are satisfied with and passionate about illustration. Outside the industry (and even by his biggest champions, like loved ones and relatives) Boutte says he’s frequently mistaken as a CD. “There’s a blurred line in general between [designers and illustrators], so it’s bound to happen—especially since ‘Costume Illustrator’ is more of an unknown job.”
Looking forward, both misconceptions are fading with the explosion of concept-heavy costume design in action, sci-fi and superhero productions. Because of the interplay between story and technology in those genres, illustrators like Boutte are now more than ever concept artists, and the design process is truly shared, he says. “The [designer and illustrator] lean on each other for direction, and designers tend to trust illustrators and ask their opinion because it’s no longer a matter of a few sketches—it’s volume.” His own portfolio is a testament to the trend: aside from the previously mentioned films, recent illustration credits include 2011’s Priest under CD Ha Nguyen and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol under CD Michael Kaplan, the upcoming Beautiful Creatures and Star Trek Into Darkness, as well as non-credited contributions to Jonah Hex, Paul, Super 8, and Captain America: The First Avenger.
Aside from his contributions to action and sci-fi films, the illustrator has commercial experience and cut his teeth on illustrating for the concert stage, working with CD Arianne Phillips for Madonna’s 2008 “Sticky & Sweet” and 2012 “MDNA” tours. A wholly different, full-steam-ahead beast (“really, like 11 months in two,” he says), a concert tour means cranking out a series of detailed, hybrid ideas that need to be executed quickly. “Designing for a tour [is dynamic], it grows. One minute something is [designed in] crystal and it changes to feathers. The research and reference material is still used but the whole thing is very fashion-based and there’s a lot of styling involved.”
Of late, Boutte is collaborating (once again) with Phillips on “Truckers,” a 3D animated picture from DreamWorks. A self-described “Bryan Froud, The Dark Crystal” geek, the illustrator counts an eclectic gaggle of artists as inspiration (aside from Froud fantasy artist Arthur Rackham, Norman Rockwell and Egan Schiele), and says he’s keen to shake up his repertoire.
“I would love to work on a period piece,” Boutte says. “Also I’m often called upon to do people in clothing—I’m eager to do armor, or something [similarly] intricate.”