American Masters: Tyrus filmmaker Pamela Tom interviews filmmakers/artists Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi, who discuss their Oscar-nominated animated short The Dam Keeper and artist Tyrus Wong’s influence on their work. See their work and learn more about Wong in American Masters: Tyrus, premiering September 8 at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings) and streaming September 9 at http://pbs.org/americanmasters and PBS OTT apps.
DICE TSUTSUMI: For me, Tyrus Wong, is an artist who painted poetry in a very simple manner, that’s what his passion is, but in his presence and his placement in history, he changed the world.
MICHAEL KANTOR: director Dice Tsutsumi, one half of animation studio Tonko House.
ROBERT KONDO: I’ve never met Tyrus, I only know him through his work. But the kind of things that I gain from him I feel like is one he was definitely a pioneer. To be an Asian-American artist working in the 30’s, creating works like Bambi, is inspiring. But beyond that I feel like, in him I found a hero.
MICHAEL KANTOR: He’s the other half of animation studio Tonko House, director Robert Kondo.
KONDO: So many inspirations that I have, sit lodged in your memory as a child. And I have to say the scenes in Bambi, are just so vivid to me, it takes no effort to think about them and draw them up. And in that way I think it’s a constant inspiration because it’s always kind of present on some level. And so in that way I think for me, Tyrus is just a huge inspiration I hope that future generations of artists, I hope that work is always studied and looked at because I think it’s timeless. Yeah.
TSUTSUMI: You know, I watched Bambi when I was a kid, but I don’t think I noticed the actual presence of that background painting until I was in college and art school and that’s when I found out about Tyrus. And artistically I was just blown away by the beauty of that background, but also, this Asian-American, Asian name being a huge part of that film, really kind of was encouraging for me in college, you know, trying to make it for myself.
KONDO: I watched Bambi as a little kid, and I just remember very distinctly the forest fire scene. And I think as a kid that left a huge impression on me. I think as an adult, not even as an adult, but as a teenager learning about art, and buying books on animated film and starting to see the names behind the art. I think more as a college art student studying illustration, particularly interested in visual development and art done for animated films is when I first understood that oh Tyrus Wong was this incredible Asian-American artist who styled Bambi. I was working on some scenes of my own kind of illustrations that were natural, and I just remember always coming back to Bambi, and combing back to this book, and looking at the artwork and then seeing these beautiful pastels, and just seeing the name Tyrus Wong and I’m Like, Tyrus Wong, that sounds like an Asian-American name. And then just doing a little more research on him and realizing that he was in fact Asian-American working in the 30’s. In the Golden Era of Disney animated films. Really made my appreciation for his work and what he was doing. One I think it made so many things click as far as his aesthetic. But it also on another level made me feel so proud, even though I had nothing to do with Tyrus. I didn’t know him, but it just made me like, this moment of inspiration I would say, where you just say Oh My Gosh, here is somebody in the 30’s who is Asian-American who found a place, not just a place, but managed to influence the look of a film that definitely was a huge part of my childhood. Also, it made me think differently about what the possibilities were for me. Whether it was the work I was doing, even though I was a young artist, the fact that there was this possibility that as an Asian-American I could actually go out and make work that could potentially millions could see, was this kind of moment of zooming out and being able to see some sort of future possibility for myself that was really kind of a nice discovery.
TSUTSUMI: You know, for me, I didn’t even grow up in the States, you know I came here for college, and I lived ever since in America, and I think being a minority and not being able to speak the language as a first language, it’s always in the back of my mind, that you know, I have this disadvantage. So, knowing somebody like Tyrus who had to overcome the social disadvantage back in a day where it was not even something that is subtlely there in the background, it was very much there in everybody’s lives. Something that you can’t even imagine how it was, to work in a very much non-diverse work environment, I appreciate his patience and determination and love for art, I think the only thing that he was able to get through that is his passion for art, and without his contribution to this business as one of the first Asian-Americans to be so successful and recognized, we wouldn’t be experiencing this diverse industry or workplace, so yes, very much his influence is there everywhere. What’s really unique and very encouraging and special about Tyrus for me is that he wasn’t necessarily just Asian-American who made a huge contribution to West Hollywood films, but also he brought sort of Asian aesthetics to Western art, Western animation, so as far as I understand, Bambi was the first movie that really brought Eastern approach in terms of painting. Just sort of that absence of, the beauty of absence, you know. Just intentionally leaving out details, you know. That’s a very much traditionally Eastern approach in art. Just because he grew up in the States, he didn’t adapt to become a regular American painter, he very much kept his sort of heritage you know, through his art. And that is very encouraging for Asian artists working in the West.
KONDO: Tyrus’s work I think manages to capture the feeling of a space without having to implicitly describe every part of it. It’s like a lot of good writing, where I think it implies something between the lines, and somehow your spirit or your conscious or your brain fills in everything else. And so in a way it’ sso easy to adopt as your own experience of walking through a forest, or so many of his paintings feel like that moment where you come across a deer, like in a clearing or in the forest, and there’s that moment where you’re a part of nature, and I feel like that’s where Tyrus’s work really made me think. You know, it’s hard to say that I pull Tyrus’s work as a reference for everything that I do, but in a way, if I’m thinking about designing a scene that is in the city, I often think about how would Tyrus approach this? Like in a poetic way, without having to draw every window, every kind of moment, how do you make it feel like this busy city with just less. And I think that’s the part that is just so interesting to me. You can see the Western kind of training mixed with the Eastern influence that kind of amount to something that I think is really elegant and beautiful, and manages to say so many things with so little. And I think that in all of the work that I do and all of the work that we do at Tonko House, that both Dice and I do, that’s the highest level. Is to be able to say so much with so little. And I think Tyrus was a master of that. Even, looking at his live action work, and the way that he did production illustrations for sets, there’s a freshness to it, it feels like, all of his work feels like he sat down and sneezed it out. And it’s just beautiful artwork came out. And you know that that’s not the way it is, having struggled with art and pastels and watercolors, but even those production illustrations that are tighter than his work for Bambi is, there’s still such a freshness to it, and I really feel like it’s like handwriting to me, that just kind of flows from his hands and his being, and I think that is what Tonko House strives for in our art, is that we hope to strive for that elegance and clarity of message and feeling, where I think a lot of people look at it and agree, “Oh that feels great,” but I don’t think many people can point at it and understand exactly why, and I don’t think I know why, but that sort of feeling is what, especially The Dam Keeper, we really tried hard to say a lot with less.
TSUTSUMI: So, The Dam Keeper has so much darkness, it’s not like everything is visible, it’s not like everything is lit. We very much use darkness as much as light, and I think it’s very much how Tyrus painted his art and his paintings, he only left the necessary things in his art and leaving everything else out. You know, like you said, it’s a poetry and I don’t think we achieved that level of poetry but that’s very much what we strive to achieve.
KONDO: In kind of preparing to do our own script, we actually read a lot of different scripts, and live-action scripts do read a certain way in comparison to an animation script. And a lot of that though is because of the nature of how people view animation, and the kind of stories animation should tell. So that's one thing that I think we've witnessed as far as other people's scripts and what we've seen out there. But I feel like an animation script is different just because there's so much that relies on the visuals. We really you know pantomiming a scene writing a scene that's pantomimed it's pretty tricky like if you imagine the opening scene of WALL-E, there's no words. It's a robot kind of traveling around like I'm actually curious what that looks like in a script. And even for us The Dam Keeper, the writing we did was very limited. And a lot of it was achieved visually. Much more al a Miyazaki who boards and writes kind of simultaneously.
TSUTSUMI: But I do think writing Is a huge part of developing a story. But it may not be all literal because you know like Robert said animation is such a visual medium. And even storyboarding even painting I would think of it as writing you know if you are thinking about a story. Writing isn't necessarily just putting down beautiful words you know. I think everything is a part of story development process in a visual and literal combined.
KONDO: I also think that animation is such a planned process. You can't necessarily show up at an animator’s desk and improv dialogue. It does have to be planned out because it’s such a tedious process and there are so many artists involved. But on some level some piece of dialogue has to be written recorded put down on paper and then animated too. So there is a sort of a little bit of a difference I think when it comes to the role that a script plays in comparison to live-action. We’re so limited in our experience of kind of the world of film that for us our writing process is very integral to how we create film. There’s different attacks and much like Dice is saying we can use art visuals we can also use writing to develop story. And so all of them are pretty integral but they serve different purposes.
TSUTSUMI: Unfortunately in the American animation industry, there is still a bit of a perception of animation as a genre as opposed to a medium. So we feel like it's changing, and we very much would love to explore different types of stories in animation. Nothing wrong with what's been done but I think there's a lot of room for us to explore still in animation story-wise.
KONDO: I think internationally I'm actually curious if there's ever been this many animated films in a single year. It seems like there is a heavy saturation in demand for animation and a lot of those stories actually fall into a very, I would say into a genre like Dice said. And I think in that is also huge opportunities to do something different. And I think you know, I don't think we necessarily strive to be different but we hope to find our own voice in that world. And I think that's where Tonko House sits right now. Is just finding our own voice and trying to be not so much trying to be unique as we are trying to be sincere. I'll say this I think with the current kind of temperature of the world in terms of politics in terms of world affairs, I do sense that there is a feeling that people want to escape a little bit the reality of where we are and kind of turn the cheek and look a different way and be entertained and escape I think and I think animation is incredible in that way that it can be both things at once both you can escape the reality of where you are but at the same time the best story, the best animation actually turns the mirror on to the reality of our world. And I think that's where animation you know can affect our culture. I think in a way that is not always expected. I think people will go to the theaters to watch a family friendly film. But you know I hope that animation can also be something that forces us to look at ourselves and look at the reality of our world and our culture and see the effect and the potential effect that we have on the world around us. And I think that animation in a way, because it's perceived as sort of a kid's medium sometimes or family friendly medium that the audience in a way is going to be entertained. And I think the best films actually entertain while delivering you the audience something to think about. And that's where I think the greatest animation has the potential to change the world around us.