Tyrus “Ty” Wong doesn’t get what the fuss is all about. Sure, he created “Bambi’s” distinctive look and exhibited artwork with Picasso. And yes, he illustrated scenes from “Rebel Without a Cause” and “The Wild Bunch” while designing popular Hallmark holiday cards on the side.
All those accomplishments don’t overly impress Wong, however.
“I’m just a lucky artist,” the centenarian likes to insist to his daughter Kim.
Hollywood and the Asian-American community know better. They have been showering Wong with recognition and accolades the past 15 years while he shakes his head in bemusement.
Next week the pioneering artist will be twice honored at the Asian World Film Festival. On Oct. 24, he will receive a lifetime achievement award on the opening day of the fest, sponsored by Variety. And the next day the festival will screen Pam Tom’s documentary about him on his 106th birthday.
“My dad is tickled,” Kim says on his behalf. “But he doesn’t understand the hullabaloo.”
Tom sure does. The Asian-American filmmaker spent 17 years researching and shaping her documentary about Wong, who has packed a lot of artistry into his long life. Born in China, he immigrated to the Bay Area at age 9, went to art school on scholarship, and painted murals before taking a low-level animation job in 1938.
By then, he was married with a child and needed a steady paycheck. But he yearned to do more. When he heard about Walt Disney’s “Bambi” project, he created a series of lush landscape paintings with deer in the forest.
They impressed Disney, who used Wong’s paintings as the visual inspiration for the seminal film.
Tom learned of Wong’s pivotal role while watching a “Bambi” featurette with her daughter Isabella, now 23, but 6 at the time. It seemed so implausible to her then, given what she knew of the racial climate in Hollywood and the U.S. during that period.
And why didn’t she, as a Chinese-American raised in Southern California, know more about Wong?
When she first tried to raise money for “Tyrus,” all she got were blank stares. So she did her research and conducted interviews when she could. In between, Tom had another daughter, now 15, and worked other jobs. She eventually conducted a Kickstarter campaign and landed a grant from PBS. “It’s been my life for decades,” she admits.
Tom’s research led her to Joe Musso, a legendary illustrator in his own right who learned the tricks of the trade from Wong at Warner Bros. in the early 1960s. Wong moved to that studio in 1942 after Disney’s animation strike, and served as a mentor to such newcomers as Musso during his 16 years at the studio.
“A lot of the reason I’m still sitting here is because of Ty,” says Musso, former longtime president of the IATSE local for illustrators and matte artists, who was initially recommended for union membership by Wong and two others.
He and Wong used to go to lunch frequently when they were fellow studio illustrators, but fell out of touch after Wong left showbiz during yet another slowdown in 1968.
His last two studio projects: “The Green Berets” and “The Wild Bunch.”
“Ty went out on two of the biggest,” Musso says.
By that time the studios had begun to change their approach to illustration departments, Musso says.
And while Musso continues to work at 75, recently providing illustrations for Quentin Tarantino’s “Hateful Eight,” Wong devoted his creative energies elsewhere.
He continued designing the popular Hallmark holiday cards from his Sunland studio, and he designed elaborate bamboo kites the way his father taught him.
Through Wong Tom learned more about the racial climate and restrictions Asian-Americans faced in the past century. Wong couldn’t buy property when he was creating “Bambi’s” distinctive look, for example, and never saw his mother after immigrating to America with his father in 1919, when immigration was sharply restricted under the Chinese Exclusion Act.
“It was a huge history lesson to me,” Tom says.
And while Musso knew Hollywood wasn’t always welcoming to Asians in the 1960s, he never realized the scope of Wong’s racial struggles until he saw Tom’s film.
“When I met him you would never see it. He did not mention it.”
Indeed, he describes the illustrator as revered at Warner Bros. during their shared time at the studio.
As Wong has gotten older, tributes to his work have proliferated. He was named a Disney Legend in 2001, and the Walt Disney Family Museum exhibited his artwork in 2013. Asian-American museums have also paid tribute to the artist.
But all this material about the artist that Tom unearthed posed its own creative challenge: How to shape his story into a digestible form.
“He worked so many media,” Tom says. “He took whatever work he could and elevated it.”
Tom’s first cut was four hours. Eventually she got the right mix, by using Wong’s voice to tell the story. That meant doing pick-up shots when Wong was 104, however.
“No way was I not going to finish it. It’s almost as if the story found me.”