For over a decade, producer Adi Shankar has been fearlessly blazing a trail all his own in Hollywood. The early entries in his now-iconic “Bootleg Universe” laid the groundwork for the modern superhero films that have become box office behemoths. From “Dirty Laundry” to “Truth in Journalism” to “Power/Rangers” to “Castlevania” and beyond, all have made an undeniable impact on the pop culture landscape. With each new project, Shankar and his team of dreamers continue to up the ante. His latest project is no exception to the rule. This time around, Shankar once again set on the superhero genre but as a satire with some significant twists.
Over six and a half years in the making, Adi Shankar’s ‘The Guardians of Justice’ is like nothing you’ve ever experienced. It builds upon what fans have come to know and love about ‘The Bootleg Universe’ but fearlessly launches us into exciting new territory. An absolute visual spectacle, this captivating work of art delivers a mind-bending mix of live-action with traditional animation, claymation, cut-out paper animation, and 8-bit video game footage centered around an eclectic group of superheroes in “a kaleidoscope of pop art insanity.” Its DNA is closer to that of a theme park thrill ride than any traditional television/streaming series you may have consumed. Engaging on every level, ‘Guardians of Justice’ is one of those once-in-a-generation projects that sear deeply into your psyche — a testament to the blood, sweat, and tears that made one man’s vision a reality.
Already destined for “cult classic” status, the buzz about ‘Guardians of Justice’ and its creative team grows exponentially with each passing day. Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with the always captivating Adi Shankar for a quick Q&A on his artistic evolution, latest projects, and a revealing look at the state of his ever-evolving Bootleg Universe.
You recently reemerged from a self-described “1.5 year soul-searching hiatus.” I know I speak for so many people when I say that we were excited to see you reemerge happier and healthier. Can you tell us a little bit about your journey?
I was addicted to chaos. I was addicted to making things more difficult for myself. There was some underlying guilt from how easy the first act of my journey was relative to most people who move to Los Angeles and subconsciously I was trying to dig myself into a hole to climb out of. ‘Guardians of Justice’ was in many ways a big part of that hole.
You are a creator who has been in the spotlight for over a decade at this point and you have a lot of eyes on you. Did you have any reservations about letting your guard down a bit and sharing your experiences with the world?
Yes, by getting in touch with my feelings I’m able to engage with people and the world emotionally. Emotions are powerful and because they are unquantifiable, in my youth I felt like I had no need for them.
What stands out to you as the key to finding balance, both personally and professionally?
Find your team. Build a tribe. It’s not about glory, it’s about community.
I feel like we are moving into an exciting new era when it comes to your career and the art that you are making. Is that a fair statement to make? If so, how would you describe this evolution?
When I first broke into Hollywood in 2009 there was very little content being made relative to the number of people making content. As a result, if you tried to do more than one thing, i.e. write and act, or direct and edit, or write and edit, it was frowned upon.
The advent of digital technology, the growing vacuum of content required, and the plummeting cost of making things has created a world where people can be auteurs without facing the scorn of the industry. Also, artists can make things differently with a distinct identity and have a shot at getting it distributed and seen.
‘The Guardians of Justice’ is very much a by-product of the era we’re living in and being able to and being encouraged to wear so many hats is what makes this feel so unique, it’s because I got to make something deeply personal to me.
You caused quite a stir last year with the announcement of “Captain Laserhawk: A Blood Dragon Remix.” Were you surprised by the fan reaction?
Yes. Very surprised.
What led to the initial creative spark for your approach to this series?
In 2017, after ‘Castlevania,’ became a hit I realized it was going to quickly go from being this one outlier that few executives understood into a full-fledged business model. The marketplace was going to become flooded with animated video game adaptations geared towards adults. I saw a future for myself where I could become a factory pumping out similar high-quality anime-styled adaptations of AAA IP. As I visualized that future it felt depressingly corporate to me, like I was like a hamster on a wheel constantly running in place. That future felt a little too Nickleback for me.
‘Captain Laserhawk’ was and is an artistic attempt to make something different, distinct, and disruptive while also being a love letter to video games. I wanted to take everything that worked about ‘Castlevania’ and throw it out the window and not be part of a pipeline of similar “content.”
Bobby Pills, the animation studio for ‘Captain Laserhawk,’ have taken this ethos and expanded it, compounded it, and we are making ‘Captain Laserhawk’ into something better than I could have hoped for. I feel lucky to have been able to hand the baton to Mehdi Leffad (director) and Balak (creative director) because they are crushing.
As you mentioned, Bobbypills is working on the amazing animation for “Captain Laserhawk: A Blood Dragon Remix.” How did you originally cross paths with the studio and what have the highlights of this collaboration been so far?
Hugo Revon, a wonderful friend, collaborator, and executive at Ubisoft’s Motion Picture and Television group brought Bobby Pills to me. Hugo has great taste and we have worked together for 5 years.
‘The Guardians of Justice’ is your latest series. What did you set out to do?
You’ve spent years pouring your heart and soul into this project. What does it mean to you personally?
In a lot of ways making The Guardians of Justice was the single worst experience of my life. Simultaneously, seeing it through by the sheer force of my will, despite the pain, in spite of the frustration, was also the most rewarding thing I’ve done in my 37 years on this planet. Spending 6.5 years making something is an interesting experience … it just becomes part of your life and once I embraced the loneliness of that journey it became fun.
At the end of the day, I really value the tribe that was assembled as a result of making and finishing this.
The core team includes:
Graham Hughes (VFX designer & Executive Producer) and I developed a brain sync when it comes to making off the wall bespoke feeling VFX. Graham and I worked tirelessly to bring a language into the VFX. Explaining what I was going for was an uphill battle, and Graham was the first person who I felt intuitively got it.
Samuel Laskey’s (Writer & Producer) knowledge of film history and theory is unrivaled. This show would not exist without his relentlessness. There is a reason they call him the Adi Shankar whisperer.
Kenlon Clark (Director) has this amazing ability of translating what I’m trying to say back to me in a more coherent way than I said it.
Erick Geisler (producer) has a talent for nurturing artists and helping them achieve their potential. I first met Erick in 2009 when I walked into his office and said I was going to one day make adult cartoons. Erick decoded so many aspects of the creative and business process for me. He’s a fabulous creative producer.
I wouldn’t have gotten through the editing process without Noah Berlow (editor) and Nik Voytas (editor) because the two of them really helped me find my voice.
I was listening to music by Jon Wide aka Oscillian (composer) when I wrote several of my favourite sequences in the show and would often listen to his music when driving to set, so when Oscillian came on board to make original music for the project I was ecstatic!
In addition, given the sheer volume of animation in this project that exists in a myriad of formats and styles, this project would simply not exist without the Junquera Brothers (animation directors) and their studio Angry Metal. Angry Metal’s presence in my life is a gift.
There are countless other artists who contributed to this tapestry who I will acknowledge at a later date but what I’m trying to communicate here is that the relationships derived from this project are what mean something to me. This project allowed me to meet some very talented people very, very deeply.
‘Guardians of Justice’ looks visually distinct. Can you talk about some of the choices you made?
I personally love the “B” movie aesthetic. In ‘The Guardians of Justice,’ I used the B movie aesthetic as a stylistic choice. I don’t feel like it’s any less or any more difficult to deploy an “A movie” aesthetic over a “B movie” aesthetic. As a filmmaker, then, it’s confusing to me that the general public associates the A movie aesthetic as “good” and the B-movie aesthetic as “bad.” So with ‘Guardians of Justice,’ I wanted to confront and challenge that notion, and I wanted to make something philosophically deep, politically layered, and morally nuanced but painted with the B-movie veneer to create a feeling of ‘trashy fun.’
Was the B-Movie feel one of the first choices you made? How else did it affect the project?
Yes! The first choice I made in approaching this show visually was strategically using camp and a B movie vibe as a tool to infuse surrealism into the piece. The B movie vibe acts as a spoonful of sugar to contrast the biting social commentary and makes the dark subject matter play as dark humor. This project is at its heart a social satire. I didn’t want this project to feel self-important or tonally macabre and the intentionally low budget feel was a brush in my tool kit to counteract those feelings.
What are your biggest takeaways or lessons learned from the process of bringing this project full circle?
It’s okay to let things evolve into what they want to be. I spent a lot of time being angry at myself that finishing ‘Guardians of Justice’ was taking so long.
What were you trying to capture in making Guardians of Justice?
I was trying to capture the vibe and feeling of what it felt like when I first experienced America at the age of 8.
Can you offer us an update on “The State of The Bootleg Universe,” so to speak? It seems like a very exciting and productive time for you and your team.
The last few years has been a process of formalizing the Bootleg Universe into a media entity and evolving past its YouTube roots while retaining the raw “I’m bad I’m bad I do what I want” energy in the company’s DNA.
Samuel Laskey, my co-writer and Producer on ‘Guardians of Justice,’ explained a bunch of very smart things to me about how I have a creative rubric. I’ve been implementing that creative rubric into a business model.
More on this soon … but here’s how I look at the company.
There’s the “Unauthorized” line – which are the satirical short films for YouTube. These are works of art and I want to keep them pure and never attach a business model around them.
There are the “Remixes” – While they are still expressed through the Adi Shankar lense these are more “faithful” adaptations of IP.
Then there are the “Originals” like ‘Guardians of Justice’ and ‘Captain Laserhawk.’ These projects capture the Bootleg Universe pirate/street art spirit, but ultimately are stand alones.
What do you find yourself looking for in the projects you take on at this point in your career?
I’ve pretty much exclusively been self generating at this point. I like self generating because it’s easier for me than the alternative.
Where do you find yourself looking for inspiration these days?
The process of healing myself and others.
You often wear your influences on your sleeve when it comes to film and television. However, I’m curious to know about the music that has impacted you as a creator. What springs to mind when you think of the albums or artists that have had the biggest impact on you?
The band Gunship, the artist Oscillian, and the group Power Glove have really influenced me personally and the synthwave genre heavily influenced ‘Guardians of Justice.’ Oscillian was kind enough to be our series composer. He also made several original tracks with vocals that are darkly funny. We also have a Power Glove track for the EP3 end credits.
What artists would you be eager to collaborate with in the future?
I want to work with Flying Lotus. He really seems to understand me.
I would like to work with Kanye again at some point. I’m grateful to him for what he taught me.
David Dutton is an awesome Pixel Art genius. He made so many epically fantastic shots for ‘Guardians of Justice’ and I’d love to work with him on something else.
I love Mike Diva‘s work. I’d love to collaborate with him someday.
Chris Jericho is awesome and a generational talent.
I really loved the GREY CAFÉ short you produced with director Mahmut Akay. He’s got some great stuff and I can’t wait to see what he does next. Scout Taylor-Compton and Billy Ashworth both had great performances, which is impressive for the short only being two and a half minutes long!
I love Mahmut. He’s a talented dude.
The pop culture landscape is always changing but you seem to have your finger on the pulse, more than most. You and your team are producing some captivating work. What is the best way for fans to help support the art and keep the Bootleg Universe growing?
To help me keep the Bootleg Universe growing all you have to do is find peace within yourself.
For even more insight into the world of Adi Shankar, check out the debut episode of the ‘Bootleg Universe Podcast: Episode 001 — Video game Adaptations & Breaking Into Hollywood.’
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.