Film

A Documentary on Tyrus Wong, a Long-Ignored Illustrator for Disney and Warner Bros

Wong spent 30 years in the film industry, though racial attitudes of the time kept his contributions unacknowledged until the 21st century.

Tyrus Wong in his studio, Sunland, CA, 1997 (photograph by Irene Poon Andersen; all images courtesy of Museum of the Moving Image)

Walt Disney’s 1942 film Bambi relies heavily on suggestion. One of the most famous moments in cinema — imprinted deep into the childhood memories of most Americans of a certain age — is the murder of Bambi’s mother at the hands of hunters. The recollection of this trauma burns so brightly that the viewer might be surprised to learn that the matriarch’s demise is, in fact, never shown on-camera. Instead, Bambi searches frantically in a snowy forest in low visibility until his father appears and tells him, “Your mother can’t be with you anymore.” When bare-bones visuals carry a narrative, a film gives the viewer’s imagination room to roam.

The style of Bambi mirrors the philosophy of the artist whose work most informed its visuals: Chinese American painter Tyrus Wong, who died late last year at the age of 106. Although racial attitudes of the time kept Disney from overtly acknowledging his contribution until the 21st century, Wong’s landscapes, rendered in watercolors and pastels suggesting lush forests and green meadows with simple brushstrokes, provide the basis for the film’s abstract background art. Explaining his preference for abstraction, Wong once said, “If you do a painting with five strokes instead of ten, you can make your painting sing.”

Tyrus Wong, visual development, Bambi (1942), watercolor on paper
Tyrus Wong, visual development, Bambi (1942), watercolor on paper

This quote opens director Pamela Tom’s 2015 documentary Tyrus, which the Museum of the Moving Image will screen on Saturday, June 24, with an appearance from Tom, as a part of its ongoing diversity-focused series Changing the Picture. Tom could learn quite a bit from that quote regarding the power of subtlety.

A low-fidelity charm suffuses Wong’s output as a fine artist, kite designer, muralist, and motion picture illustrator, which draws inspiration from the art of the Song Dynasty as well as esoteric Western painters like Picasso and Whistler. Of all his pursuits, Wong’s 30-year career in the film industry — first at Disney, then at Warner Brothers — rightfully receives the brunt of the film’s attention. Based on a script, his conceptual pieces boast brilliant hues and striking compositions. When discussing his film work, Tom first employs a frame holding Wong’s drawings next to the cinematic shots they influenced, showing how the artist’s static work translates to movement. She then drives this point home with match cuts that move from concept to execution. This cinematic grammar shows the viewer that Wong’s involvement in classic films like Rebel Without a Cause and The Wild Bunch was perceptible but not overpowering, as befits a master of the abstract.

Tyrus Wong, pre-production continuity sketches, The Wild Bunch, Warner Bros. (1969), opaque watercolor and ink on board
Tyrus Wong, “Self-Portrait” (1920)

Tyrus is unlike Tyrus, though, in the film’s seeming discomfort with the ambiguity that its subject so treasured. Tom relies on narrative crutches that deny the unique elements of cinema. Narration can be the most uncinematic of storytelling devices, often needlessly repeating what is being shown. Interview subjects offer obvious, melodramatic descriptions of the circumstances of Wong’s life that Tom includes rather than leaving on the cutting room floor like the filler they are. When Warner Brothers conceptual artist Joe Musso explains 1970s studio politics, he provides a dispassionate recounting of history that sounds like he’s reading a prepared statement. Judging by Tom’s often-leading questions that are sometimes heard before subjects answer, the director likely sought these canned, momentum-killing statements as the film took shape.

Still from Tyrus

Her reliance on captions is likewise off-putting. Eras in Wong’s life are sometimes bridged with text explaining major events. Tyrus’s most emotional passage involves the passing of his wife Ruth. The artist refused to produce work during the final 15 years of Ruth’s life — a significant sacrifice by one so brimming with creativity. This pivotal event deserves to be introduced into the narrative in a way that reflects its import; however, the viewer first learns of Ruth’s poor health after a montage of Chinese vacation photos appears onscreen. For this reveal, the camera zooms in on the couple at the center of one picture, vibrant music ends abruptly, replaced with maudlin piano, and as the image of the two blurs, the screen displays the sentence: “Shortly after they returned, Ruth suffered a series of strokes.” Tom’s decision to break this news with a sudden shift to a cold, emotionless caption leaves the viewer suffering a bit of tonal whiplash that fosters disconnect with Wong’s compelling story.

The flaws in narration and text are symptomatic of Tyrus’s primary problem. At 77 minutes, the film devotes insufficient runtime to 106 years filled with singular achievements. Its conclusion constitutes another brusque tonal shift, as Tom inexplicably makes a quick transition from Wong’s grief as a widower to the painter’s current respect and acclaim. An expanded, in-depth discussion of the former could have made the latter rewarding for the audience, but Tom remains content to sprint through Wong’s milestones, forsaking the nuance that made him so beloved. While an abstract approach helped make Wong’s style so memorable, Tyrus’ use of the same in exploring the painter’s life shortchanges a marginalized figure in film history who deserves the recognition he was denied for most of his career.

Tyrus Wong and Pamela Tom (photograph by Ildiko Laszlo)
Tyrus Wong painting in his studio (courtesy of the Tyrus Wong family)

Tyrus screens at Museum of the Moving Image (36-01 35th Avenue, Long Island City) with director Pamela Tom on June 24.

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