Blue Beetle Design Studio Founders on Creative Inspirations on Film

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9B Collective founders Phillip Boutté Jr. and Mike Uwandi talk to Bleeding Cool about the art designs of WB’s Blue Beetle & studio’s origins.

Phillip Boutté Jr., Mike Uwandi, and Aldis Hodge are well aware of the uphill climb it can be as POC artists trying to succeed, which is why they founded 9B Collective. Each brought their expertise to help provide opportunities for new talent trying their hand at Hollywood, with Boutté specializing in costuming, Uwandi in costuming and concept art, and Hodge in acting. Boutté and Uwandi spoke to Bleeding Cool about the origins of their studio, how they operated during the COVID pandemic, and design inspiration for Warner Bros’ DC superhero film Blue Beetle. The film follows Jaime Reyes (Xolo Maridueña), who becomes an alien symbiotic host through a mysterious artifact, bestowing the recent college graduate with a suit of armor capable of extraordinary powers, forever changing his destiny as he becomes a superhero.

New Blue Beetle Trailer Teases A Reluctant Hero Plus 4New Blue Beetle Trailer Teases A Reluctant Hero Plus 4
© 2023 Warner Bros. Ent. All Rights Reserved. TM & © DC. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/™ & © DC Comics. XOLO MARIDUEÑA as Blue Beetle in Warner Bros. Pictures’ action adventure “BLUE BEETLE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

How 9B Creates Opportunities & Blue Beetle Inspiration

What went into creating 9B Collective?
Boutté Jr: We started the company in 2020 at the height of the pandemic. We had a drink-and-draw with the Concept Art Association, where artists come together, and they all drink at a bar and draw models for practice. The key catalyst for starting the company was Mike, and I talked to other artists, and we found that they all had a similar story. The first thing was a historic drink-and-draw that took place in honor of Black History Month. It was the first time we had seen many black artists, specifically in L.A., in one place. These were artists from the live-action, animation, and video game worlds.

When you talk to the artists, they have a similar story: “I work at a large video game company. There are 400 employees and only two black people. We never work on the same project.” Across the whole BIPOC spectrum, artists of color are sitting there and saying, “I’m isolated,” “I’m the only one,” or something of that nature. It caused me to look at my career. I realized I had started doing concept art in 2007, usually working with two to three other artists at a time on big tentpole projects. The first time I sat next to another black artist was in 2019. Knowing that was an issue, we wanted to change that. Talking with Mike and Aldis [Hodge], we formed The Collective around June 2021.

Blue Beetle Costume screencap courtesy Jimmy Leszczynski.Blue Beetle Costume screencap courtesy Jimmy Leszczynski.
Blue Beetle Costume screencap courtesy Jimmy Leszczynski.

How did you guys organize during the pandemic? A lot of Zoom at first?
Boutté Jr: We made a lot of Zoom calls. We did a lot of recruiting remotely, looking for artists that needed an opportunity and people that wanted to work with us. Mike can speak more about this in terms of education or background.

Uwandi: One of the things that we noticed, I’ve gone to our schools intuitively, is there was a struggle with finding other BIPOC artists. One of the schools I attended had 10,000 students, and I was the only black person in my program, which says a lot. Usually, when we see one, they should fly off, right? Unfortunately, they either can’t afford the school or get no attention from the teacher. They’re like, “What’s the point?” We recognize within the industry that there are often projects with cultural stories but not those people representing those said cultures. We wanted to do things correctly by saying, “We recognize that there’s a link that’s missing here, and it needs to feel authentic.” When we recognize artists, we don’t hire them based on their experience, which is usually how this industry works. Either you hire based on experience or familiarity. We’re hiring based on potential.

If we see someone who’s a BIPOC artisan, we say, “You have a lot of potential, but maybe you haven’t been getting the chances due to lack of experience, and we’ll give you that. We’ll also pair you with other artists with experience so you can get the ropes faster.” One of the things we also recognize in this process is that it’s not just artists holding each other back or the lack of education; it’s also the parents, which is what my situation was. I have foreign parents, and usually, you must be a lawyer or doctor. We’re like, “Let’s educate the parents and help them.” We do many different things, helping artists and going to schools, domestically and internationally, like South Africa. We try to inform people that this job exists. Most of the time, they’re not aware.

New Blue Beetle Trailer Teases A Reluctant Hero Plus 4New Blue Beetle Trailer Teases A Reluctant Hero Plus 4
© 2023 Warner Bros. Ent. All Rights Reserved. TM & © DC. Photo Credit: Hopper Stone/SMPSP/™ & © DC Comics. XOLO MARIDUEÑA as Jaime Reyes in Warner Bros. Pictures’ action adventure “BLUE BEETLE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

As far as networking goes, how do you get projects? Do studios seek you out, or do you have to reach out?
Uwandi: It’s a little bit of both. Initially, it started off with Phil, Aldis, and I combining our connections in different parts of the industry. Phil was primarily in live-action, me in video games and animation, and Aldis was an actor; we bring other things to the table. One benefit is that we can’t always take every job, right? We made sure that, like, “We can spread the wealth in that regard.” Sometimes, it’ll be that, but now it’s getting to the point where it’s even-keeled, and we attract those people based on our own individual network. Also, people find out about the company and our track record and give us a chance to work with them.

You guys have a long work history in the comic book film realm. When it comes to Blue Beetle, can you break down the design inspirations? Did you incorporate the other incarnations or focus on the Jaime Reyes version?
Boutté Jr: It was more Jaime Reyes and more modern lore but with Easter eggs. We hint at the past and go back to the core of it all. That was the initial thing that gave him a platform, a space to be a hero, and centering it on the core root of his family. That’s one of the things that separates him is the fact he is so connected to his family. His family’s right there when he gets his powers for the first time. It’s also giving some representation to the Latino community in terms of a superhero that they could relate to, someone who’s younger and has the core of the culture. That was the main basis. With Ángel [Manuel Soto] being Puerto Rican, it was essential for him to. He wanted to ground it in culture and make it a prideful movie. It was the core knowing that they have plans for him, more so in the DC Universe in general with the comics, expanding on the character in that way. It was a no-brainer to start there.

New Blue Beetle Trailer Teases A Reluctant Hero Plus 4New Blue Beetle Trailer Teases A Reluctant Hero Plus 4
© 2023 Warner Bros. Ent. All Rights Reserved. TM & © DC. Photo Credit: Hopper Stone/SMPSP/™ & © DC Comics. ELPIDIA CARRILLO as Rocio, GEORGE LOPEZ as Uncle Rudy, XOLO MARIDUEÑA as Jaime Reyes, BELISSA ESCOBEDO as Milagro, and DAMIAN ALCAZAR as Alberto in Warner Bros. Pictures’ action adventure “BLUE BEETLE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

What were some of your inspirations for the designs of the film?
Boutté Jr: We were looking at a lot of comics and a lot of comic covers. From there, we steered the ship regarding the references we’re looking at. In terms of him and Garreth [Dunnet-Alcocer], the writer, taking different parts of lore and the location, they knew in DC, every hero has their own city, right? Like in the comics, he’s from El Paso, Texas, and coincidentally, a lot of my family still lives there. They wanted to give [Jaime] his own city, so they gave him Palmera, a mix between Miami, a little bit of Tokyo, and New York. It’s got that flavor to it.

It’s mainly Jaime in Palmera to give him a broader sense of a universe, like Superman has Metropolis, and Batman has Gotham. They wanted to have something along the lines of that. The concession gave him his family that lived on El Paso Street, which was like saying, “We haven’t forgotten you, but they wanted to expand it and make it bigger,” that was the inspiration where it started from that point. Other stuff, like anime, played a massive part with references and tried to make it excellent in his fighting styles. Also, they called on the ‘Injustice’ video games with the combos and fighting styles. It had a mixture of things but with culture at the core.

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Blue Beetle, which stars Adriana Barraza, Damián Alcázar, Raoul Max Trujillo, Susan Sarandon, and George Lopez, is currently in theaters.

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