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Tyrus

People worldwide have seen the Disney animated classic Bambi and been deeply moved by it, but few can tell you the name of the artist behind the film. Even fewer are aware of this pioneering artist’s impact on American art and popular culture. Until his death at the age of 106, Tyrus Wong (1910-2016) was America’s oldest living Chinese American artist and one of the last remaining artists from the golden age of Disney animation. The quiet beauty of his Eastern-influenced paintings caught the eye of Walt Disney, who made Wong the inspirational sketch artist for Bambi. Filmmaker Pamela Tom (A Tribute to Sir Sidney Poitier, Two Lies ) corrects a historical wrong by spotlighting this seminal, but heretofore under-credited, figure in American Masters: Tyrus, premiering nationwide Friday, September 8 at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings) in honor of the 75th anniversary of Bambi (August 1942). After the film, in a new, exclusive interview, filmmakers/artists Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi discuss how Wong influenced them and share an excerpt from their Oscar-nominated animated short The Dam Keeper (2014). This segment and the documentary will be available to stream the following day via pbs.org/americanmasters and PBS OTT apps.

Born in Canton (now Guangzhou), China, right before the fall of the Chinese Empire, Wong and his father immigrated to America in 1919, never to see their family again. American Masters: Tyrus shows how he overcame a life of poverty and racism to become a celebrated painter who once exhibited with Picasso and Matisse, a Hollywood sketch artist, and ‘Disney Legend.’ Previously unseen art and interviews with Wong, movie clips and archival footage illustrate how his unique style – melding Chinese calligraphic and landscape influences with contemporary Western art – is found in everything from Disney animation (Bambi) and live-action Hollywood studio films (Rebel Without a Cause, The Wild Bunch, Sands of Iwo Jima, April in Paris) to Hallmark Christmas cards, kites and hand-painted California dinnerware to fine art and Depression-era WPA paintings. The film also features new interviews with his daughters and fellow artists/designers, including his Disney co-worker and friend Milton Quon, Andreas Deja (The Little Mermaid), Eric Goldberg (Aladdin) and Paul Felix (Lilo & Stitch), and curators and historians of Wong’s work.

“Tyrus Wong’s story is a prime example of one of the many gaping holes in our society’s narrative on art, cinema, and Western history,” said Pamela Tom. “By telling his story, I wanted to shine light on one of America’s unsung heroes, and raise awareness of the vital contributions he’s made to American culture.”

“When I met Tyrus, I knew very little about his astounding work, which I then saw displayed prominently at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco,” said Michael Kantor, American Masters series executive producer. “This beautifully realized film is a reminder that there are many American Masters who are not immediately recognizable, but when you learn about their stories, you’ll never forget them.”

Launched in 1986, American Masters has earned 28 Emmy Awards — including 10 for Outstanding Non-Fiction Series and five for Outstanding Non-Fiction Special — 12 Peabodys, an Oscar, three Grammys, two Producers Guild Awards and many other honors. The series’ 31st season on PBS features new documentaries about filmmaker Richard Linklater (September 1), author Edgar Allan Poe (October 30) and entertainer Bob Hope (December 29). To further explore the lives and works of masters past and present, the American Masters website (http://pbs.org/americanmasters) offers streaming video of select films, outtakes, filmmaker interviews, the American Masters Podcast, educational resources and In Their Own Words: The American Masters Digital Archive: previously unreleased interviews of luminaries discussing America’s most enduring artistic and cultural giants. The series is a production of THIRTEEN PRODUCTIONS LLC for WNET and also seen on the WORLD channel.
American Masters: Tyrus is a production of New Moon Pictures, Apricot Films, Lux Mundi Productions, and Stone Circle Pictures in association with the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) and THIRTEEN PRODUCTIONS LLC’s American Masters for WNET. Pamela Tom is writer and director. Pamela Tom, Gwen Wynne and Tamara Khalaf are producers. Linda Barry is co-producer. Don Hahn, Robert Louie, David W. Louie and Buck Gee are executive producers. Michael Kantor is American Masters series executive producer.

Major support for American Masters and Tyrus is provided by AARP. Additional support for American Masters is provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Rosalind P. Walter, Ellen and James S. Marcus, The Philip and Janice Levin Foundation, Vital Projects Fund, Judith and Burton Resnick, Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, The Blanche & Irving Laurie Foundation, and public television viewers. Additional support for Tyrus is provided in part by The Louie Family Foundation, The Walt Disney Company Foundation, Buck Gee & Mary Hackenbracht, the National Endowment for the Arts, County of Los Angeles Board of Supervisors, Bill Yee, East West Bank, and Women in Film.

Transcript Print

♪♪ Announcer: Major support for Tyrus and 'American Masters' [ Wind chimes tinkling ] ♪♪ Narrator: This is Tyrus Wong, Chinese-American painter, at work in his Los Angeles studio.

Here are his brushes, palette, and Chinese ink.

♪♪ Tyrus: What drives me to painting is something I can't explain why because something I just love to do, you know?

See: In the '20s and '30s, in Chinese-American communities, what could you hope to achieve?

Maybe you could become a laundryman, be a houseboy, or work in a restaurant.

To be an artist was not a remote possibility.

♪♪ Leong: Can I get a hug?

See: So, Tyrus, are you still coming down here every day to work?

Tyrus: Yeah.

Not down here. I just work in the small house.

See: In the small house?

Tyrus: Yeah.

See: Thank you. Wow.

Tyrus: This is the studio. See: Oh.

Tyrus: It's oil.

Harrington: He's a quintessential 20th century artist, working with different media in very different areas.

Tyrus: This is from the motion picture 'Harper' with Paul Newman and so forth.

So this is some sketches.

Remember, let's see, Bambi fell in love with Faline.

-See: Oh, yes. -Tyrus: Strange, you know, so I try to create his feeling of real happy and gay.

Harrington: He's primarily a fine artist who spent three decades of his life working as a motion-picture illustrator.

♪♪ Tyrus: I love to paint.

Anything else, I'm no good at all.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ See: This was time of tremendous turmoil in China and great poverty.

He did not come from a wealthy family.

Wong: I never saw my mother again.

[ Horn blows ] [ Laughter ] [ Laughter ] ♪♪ See: Angel Island was in the San Francisco Bay to be a kind of Ellis Island of the West.

♪♪ Although, at Ellis Island, we think of it as being a very welcoming place.

The purpose of Angel Island was to keep the Chinese out.

Duggan: What season did you arrive? What month?

Tyrus: Oh, gee. I forgot.

In fact, I was just worried about my father.

Whether I can get the chance to see him again, but, you know?

Duggan: So, the first day, you were separated?

Tyrus: Yeah, separated.

All of a sudden, he's gone.

See: His father had already been here and so was able to go through easily.

But Tyrus had to stay on Angel Island as a small boy, 9 years old.

Tyrus: I just cry, you know?

They went, 'Oh, don't cry.

You will see your father maybe today or maybe a month.'

See: Some people, when they arrive, were able to pass through in maybe two days.

Some people stayed as long as two years.

Wong: So, I just suffered, you know?

Whatever day I stayed there was -- Every day was just miserable. Miserable.

I hated that place.

See: The immigration inspectors had these interrogations.

And the goal of the inspectors was to trick a person to make a mistake so that you could just automatically be deported.

Tyrus: They asked you about your village, who lived next to you on your right-hand side, your left-hand, how many windows you had in your house.

'What about your village? Do they have a fish pond?

Who lives in front of you?

Who lives in back of you?' and so forth.

Very trick questions, you know?

Maybe something wrong with the papers that they kill themselves.

Very sad. I remember the stories. Very sad.

♪♪ ♪♪ You don't have to work, anything like that.

See: In Sacramento, Tyrus' father was working for a cobbler.

And so, Tyrus' father went down to Los Angeles, leaving behind his son by himself, 10 years old.

Tyrus: He said, 'You be a good boy and go to school.'

The typical father, wants you to be a good kid.

Woman: Were you a good kid?

Tyrus: Uh... No.

♪♪ See: Tyrus, you know, in those days, I think he must have been kind of naughty.

He would go fishing, or he would go running around in the street.

Wong: And run like hell, you know?

♪♪ I don't like schools at all.

Every time I go to arithmetic class, why, I can almost sweat I'm just killing myself, you know?

So, I started playing hooky.

One day, two days, three days.

And then, finally, over a month.

What kind of excuse are you gonna make?

omachache for a whole month.

He said, 'You take the first train, come in to Los Angeles.'

When I get off the train, before I got a chance to say, 'Hi, Father,' it's just... You know, slapping me in the face, and so forth.

'I'm very, very disappointed in you,' and so forth.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ In school, I do all the drawing like, you know, like fire-prevention week and so forth.

Do all the things, and then the teacher finally said, 'Gee, you like to draw and paint.'

And I said, 'Yeah, that's the only thing I like to do.'

And I said, 'What's a scholarship?'

'That means if they accept you, you can go there for free.'

'You mean for nothing?'

'For nothing.'

I said, 'Gee, this is great.'

♪♪ The first time I paint in front of a nude model.

♪♪ That was really a lot of fun.

Dean said, 'Well, Tyrus, your term is up.

You go back to finish your junior high school.'

Said, 'No, I don't want to go back there.

This is what I want to do.'

He said, 'Well, I'm sorry, but this scholarship has ended.

You have to pay for a term.'

You know, a term was 90 some-odd dollars.

It was like going to college.

So, I told my father about it.

See: His father was working in a gambling den.

They're living in utter poverty in a boarding house for men -- a butcher shop on one side, prostitutes on the other.

No one had $90 a year to spend on something as seemingly frivolous as art school.

♪♪ Tyrus: Said, 'Well, you really like to draw and paint.'

♪♪ See: Tyrus' father recognized in his son that he had a talent, and that this should be nurtured.

Tyrus: So, he borrowed about 90 some-odd dollars.

See: It wasn't just that his son was doing something kind of crazy, but he had to go out and ask people to support his son who was doing something different and crazy.

♪♪ Mak: Art school was a very different world than Los Angeles' original Chinatown where he lived.

It was a very important set of formative years because it enabled him to become part of a broader arts community.

It was, in many ways, a place where he could nurture a talent that he innately possessed.

Wong: Every minute, I was, you know, either painting or drawing.

♪♪ I look at all the masters, you know, Michelangelo, Whistler, Picassos, Turners, and George Bellows... all different artists.

[ Indistinct conversations ] [ Camera shutter clicking ] Woman: What would you say had the greatest influence on you as an artist?

♪♪ Tyrus: My father wanted me to be an artist.

Mak: His father was very strict and insistent that Tyrus be committed to studying his calligraphy.

Tyrus: So, every night before I go to bed, I had to get old newspaper, and then we can't afford ink, so we using water and a brush.

Just paint it. You had to leave an impression.

He'd say, 'Oh, this is could be a little bit this and little bit that.'

My father, he doesn't want me to, you know, play baseball.

And he said, 'Well, what if you break your finger?

Ruin your fingers, it will ruin your whole career.'

♪♪ See: This practice of that calligraphy would really evolve for Tyrus into what came to be known in the Chinese style as ink-and-brush painting, this kind of wash, this very fluid kind of calligraphy.

♪♪ ♪♪ Tyrus: When I went to Otis, I had to pass a library, the downtown library.

Every time, when I passed that, I'd go to the research department.

Go to the Chinese art department, look at painting.

I studied painting, Sung Dynasty, especially.

♪♪ Chinese is always very poetic like landscape, you know?

Way big, wide space.

Some tiny figure compared to the universe is nothing.

The painting is very powerful, feelings See: There's a kind of melancholy... a loneliness... the starkness and desolation.

You see this over and over again in Tyrus' work.

Canemaker: There's a quote by Gombrich, who wrote a book on art.

Talked about Chinese art and said that the reason that Chinese artists don't like a lot of detail is that they consider it childish.

What you should really be putting in there is the artist's enthusiasm.

And I thought that was a lovely description of what Tyrus' art does.

♪♪ Tyrus: Yeah.

Yeah.

♪♪ ♪♪ When my father died, I think something really died in me because he was such a great father.

♪♪ [ Horns honking ] [ Bells ringing ] See: In the '30s, there were three sort of art places.

There was Otis Art School. There was Chouinard Art School.

And then there was the Art Students League, which at that time was being run by Stanton MacDonald-Wright.

Tyrus: I admired him.

Here's a Caucasian man who was interested in Chinese art.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ He said, 'Tyrus, you have a great tradition, so don't forget it because you can combine your tradition with modern art, you know?

Then you will become a great artist.'

See: What do you do if you want to become a famous artist?

You go to New York. You go to Paris.

Los Angeles was not on the art map.

Wong: After that, I went to Eddy.

I get acquainted with Eddy See.

See: It was my grandfather who had a Chinese antique store down in Chinatown.

And everybody sort of congregated around him.

So, there was Tyrus Wong and Hideo Date.

There was Benji Okubo, who was a Japanese-American artist at the Art Students League.

And Gilbert Leong, who went to Chouinard.

My grandfather, at one point, thought, 'Well, we have a mezzanine above the antique store where I could put a gallery.

He put together what is believed to be the very first Asian-American art exhibition to have been held in the country.

♪♪ ♪♪ McLelland: They were open. They were young.

Most of these guys were like 18 to 22 years old.

Mak: These Asian-American artists were actually drawing on something that they already felt a sense of ownership about, cultural ownership.

It was a time in which people's attitudes about Chinese were beginning to shift.

They were fueled by the broader public interest of exoticizing Chinese culture.

Woman: I love the movement.

Tyrus: Oh, yeah, and the brushstrokes.

I painted it really fast.

The brush is about this size.

-Woman: Really big brush. -Tyrus: Uh-huh.

Woman: Do you remember doing that one?

See: There was an exhibit that included artists not just from Los Angeles, but also from the San Francisco Bay Area.

These were the very first exhibits anywhere of these artists as a group, as a movement.

Mak: It was an exciting time for artists like Tyrus and the California Orientalists to be gaining ground, gaining visibility.

Again, this is all taking place while Chinese immigration is illegal.

Chinese people couldn't testify in courts, especially against a white person.

They couldn't own property, and they couldn't marry outside of their race.

It was a hostile environment.

Johnson: These artists created a sort of synergy by coming together to exhibit their work and a great reputation that led to these museum invitations.

I think of it as a renaissance because there were so many different things happening all at the same time.

Woman: Hey. 'Artists such as Okubo, Hideo Date, and Tyrus Wong advanced the stylistic approach by showing together as oriental artists in several high-profile museum exhibitions.

Their work during this period reflected their interaction with Stanton MacDonald-Wright, a major figure in the Los Angeles art scene.'

Tyrus: I was exhibiting all over the place.

Man: 'Tyrus Wong has a landscape with water and a cliff, a marvel of living stillness.'

Woman: 'Only 22, he gives a Chinese twist to a Michelangelo figure.'

Man: 'He had mastery enveloped in an atmospheric harmony of color.'

Wong should have a great future.

Tyrus: I was busy painting.

I didn't want to accept, you know, wondering where the next meal would come from in that time.

Depression, you know, it was terrible.

See: Everybody was broke.

I mean, they were just broke.

And somehow the idea came up of what is the one thing people need even if it's the height of the Depression?

Food.

♪♪ So, my grandfather decided to open a restaurant in the basement of the store.

Wong: Gee, down in the basement.

How about we can make a restaurant out of it?

So, his brother Ming said, 'A restaurant down in the basement?

You're crazy. Who the hell would want to eat down in the basement?' you know?

See: Brick, a bunch of pipes, exposed pipes up on the ceiling.

All the rafters were open.

Everything was just this dark, dank basement.

So, they decided to paint murals.

One area was the Eight Immortals.

Tyrus: And then one corner, they had painted a dragon.

And it was fighting one of the immortals.

See: He used ink and pencil to do the monkeys in the trees in that kind of Sung Dynasty style.

Quon: He did the great sign outside.

His great brush lettering which showed the Chinese characters.

Oh, he was so great in his lettering.

See: He designed the matchbook covers.

He designed and hand-painted every single menu.

Quon: It turned out to be a big hangout for Hollywood celebrities.

♪♪ See: And this became Dragon's Den.

Tyrus: One of the girls who used to work up in See's house by the name of Ruth Kim.

I seen her before.

There was something -- What is that -- attracted to her.

Passing the drug store, and I saw Ruth sitting in there.

I said, 'Gee, I got to ask that girl whether she want an ice-cream cone or not.'

I was a big spender, you know?

So, I went in there, and I said, 'Ruth, can I buy you an ice-cream cone?'

She smiled. She said, 'Oh, no, thank you.'

My friend, Jackie, said, 'See what I tell you? Dumb jerk.

You go didn't even go through junior high school, and she went to UCLA.

She is not interested in you. You are crazy!'

See: She spoke beautiful English.

He's still very embarrassed about his English.

She was very cool, very elegant.

Tyrus is pretty emotional.

Tyrus: Boy, I was really feeling so bad so long.

See: So, he kind of gave up for a while, but he didn't give up completely.

Pres. Roosevelt: My most immediate concern is in carrying out the purposes of the great work program just enacted by the Congress.

Its first objective is to put men and women now on the relief rolls to work.

♪♪ Canemaker: He was eking out a living by doing paintings, you know, classical watercolor paintings.

He was doing some commercial work, as well.

But it wasn't enough.

Man: In the early '30s, when Roosevelt was elected, George Biddle came to him, and he said, 'Listen, you know, you need to set up an art program.'

Narrator: The sensitive fingers of artists are poorly suited to manual labor, and in finding suitable work for musicians and other artists, the WPA has contributed greatly to the culture of America.

Tyrus: They pay you about 90 some-odd dollars a month, and then you just bring in one painting.

So, I did lithograph and watercolor.

Man: ♪ I put on my walking shoes again ♪ Sometimes, I think the road's my only friend ♪ ♪ Open highway or an old great car ♪ ♪ Don't know where, but I'm going far ♪ ♪ I put on my walking shoes again ♪ Tyrus: They exhibit the painting all over the place, for libraries and so forth, public building.

♪♪ ♪♪ Good thing we had the WPA, because otherwise, a lot of artists would have starved to death.

One day, I was with Eddy and so forth.

Eddy said, 'Well, gee, Tyrus.

How would you like to be a waiter?

Help us out for a while?' I said, 'Okay.'

I think that pay was just working on tips.

See: When my grandfather was looking for people to be waiters and waitresses, Tyrus said, 'You know, there's that Ruth girl.

I'm gonna go ask her.

Maybe she'd like to come and work here.'

Tyrus: So, we worked there for a little bit, and finally I got enough nerve to ask her again.

And said, 'Gee, they're playing 'David Copperfield' over in the Million Dollar Theatre.

Would you like to join me?'

She said, 'No, I don't mind.'

Micawber: In short, I have arrived.

Wong: So, that's the first date.

Fong: He said he remembers they were walking.

That he, all of a sudden, leaned over and kissed her real fast and really caught her off guard.

And I guess they started laughing after that.

♪♪ Tyrus: I believe in fate.

I think I am very lucky.

Woman: What moment in your life gave you the most joy?

[ Laughs ] Tyrus: When I got married.

♪♪ ♪♪ See: It was just beginning to come out of the Depression.

He was just married, just had his first baby.

Fong: I figured, in Chinese, if you were in married, you had to support your wife.

So, I had to find a job.

I didn't know what I could do, except I just loved to paint.

Fong: My mother was very good about steering him in the right way.

You know, 'Maybe you should try this.'

Fong: So, I take my painting in there and show it them.

He said, 'Well, you know, we could give you a scholarship as an apprentice.'

I think $29 a month or something like that, you know, to learn the trade.

♪♪ Solomon: Hollywood, and animation in particular, was very much an old boys' club during the '30s and '40s and even into the '50s.

The number of minorities working in the whole film industry was fairly small then.

There were not a lot of Asian or Asian-American actors or Africa-American actors who played much beyond villainous Fu Manchu characters or servants.

Katrin: Take it away, please.

The plate, take it away.

Solomon: You find this prejudice is repeated in a lot of the cartoons of the era.

There are lots of jokes about things being stamped kosher, although there were a lot of Jews working in Hollywood then.

Italians had big noses and ran food stands.

Chinese jabber incomprehensible syllables and run laundries.

[ Imitating speaking Chinese ] It's not a pretty picture, but it is one that reflects a good deal of the attitudes there.

Canemaker: When you joined the Disney Studio in those days, you had to begin to learn the craft.

Even though Pinocchio was in production at that time, 1938, Tyrus was assigned to the Mickey Mouse shorts.

They always put people, even with a wonderful artistic background and very special skills like Tyrus Wong, they would throw them into the inbetweener pool.

The inbetweener pool was a pretty rough place to be.

You had to take the rough animator sketches and clean them up very precisely.

You had to do the in between drawings between the main poses that the animators put there.

It was almost a mechanical process.

Solomon: He said his eyes were turning into tennis balls, that it was just staring at the light box and altering drawings a little bit.

And I don't think he liked working with other peoples' drawings that much.

Fong: I hated that job, so I come home, and I told Ruth about it.

She said, 'Well, what are you going to do, then?'

I said, 'Well, I don't know.'

So, I discovered they were making 'Bambi,' about the deer in the forest.

So, during the weekend, I told myself, I can do tiny little sketches.

Hahn: Here was a guy that was painting in a really loose, atmospheric style.

And detail wasn't as important as shape and color and composition.

Canemaker: And he brought his own sketches to Tom Codrick, who was the main art director on the film.

That is where Codrick discovered Tyrus Wong.

Fong: He said, 'Gee, what department?'

I told that I had been an inbetweener.

'Maybe put you in the wrong place.'

After Walt saw Tyrus Wong's sketches for Bambi, he made the go-ahead to Codrick to hire him.

-He said, 'Gee, 'Snow White' was very ornate.

This is really simple.

I kind of like that unusual style.

Had a little bit of oriental influence to it.'

So, he liked that. Now I could get started.

Thank you, Walt.

♪♪ ♪♪ Canemaker: Tyrus was what they called an inspirational sketch artist, and it was concepts that he came up with that then could be taken on by anybody on the crew, not just the directors but also the layout people and the animators.

It was like a domino effect.

Fong: My job was, you know, to paint as many sketches as I could, set an atmosphere.

♪♪ Early in the morning when, you know, very foggy.

I also had snow, and then the fire.

♪♪ Goldberg: Because it is so impressionistic, his use of light and his use of softness helps you focus on the characters who are, by their nature, drawn on the cells, sharp.

♪♪ His use of color is very, very adventurous.

He was using color to really raise the emotional stakes of what was going on in the story.

♪♪ Solomon: 'Bambi' stands out for being just so singularly beautiful and having a style that is as unique and strong as any of the great Disney features.

Part of that is Tyrus' personal style, and part of that is drawing on the traditions of Chinese art.

Deja: You could actually see brushstrokes on the screen.

It sort of gave you the idea of a whole bunch of leaves or a bush.

But they were brushstrokes.

Canemaker: Bambi is rather an experimental film.

It has a poetry to it, a lyricism that we don't see very much today.

Goldberg: It's only really happened a few other times where the entire studio will cleave to one artist's style.

It happened on 'Sleeping Beauty.'

Walt said, 'Okay, we're doing Eyvind Earle.'

But it happened on 'Bambi,' as well.

You know, 'Okay, we're doing Ty Wong.'

Tyrus: The funny thing, you know, I never met Walt.

Of the 3 1/2 years, I never.

I would just see him come in for a story meeting and so forth, but I never -- Nobody introduced me to him.

Maybe because they think I am Chinese.

I don't know.

Solomon: Though he doesn't like to talk about it, Tyrus has said there were people who did treat him differently because he was Chinese, because he had an accent.

He wasn't a good WASP.

Canemaker: There was jealousy, as well, that he had moved up so quickly.

Tyrus said that there were some people that, you know, they didn't know why they were taking orders from him.

Indirect orders through Tom Codrick.

Wong: He's very, very nice to me.

He said, 'Tyrus, don't get discouraged.

You know, some guys, you know, this and that, so don't pay attention.

You just do your own work, do your work, and so forth.'

You know, 'As long as Walt likes your work, it's okay,' you know?

Canemaker: In May of 1941, about 300 employees went out on strike at Disney.

They were striking for a number of reasons -- job security, money.

Solomon: Some of the artists didn't feel they belonged in a union.

That they were artists, not workers.

And many of the artists believe that hey had a relationship with Walt that was more important than any contract or union agreement could possibly be.

Tyrus: So, I asked Travis Johnson, I said, 'Are you going to go in or go out?'

So, Travis said, 'I think I will stay in.'

So, I stayed in with him.

Solomon: Although the Disney strike took place in 1941, it was one of the watershed moments in animation.

Even in the early 2000s, there were still artists who held grudges over that strike.

It was that bitter and that deep.

[ Cheers and applause ] When the strike vote finally came, it was, again, a very bitter division.

The artists who stayed in didn't forgive the strikers in many cases, and vice versa.

Canemaker: Tyrus said that when the strike was over, that there was resentment, even more resentment toward him because he hadn't gone out on strike.

Tyrus: I think I went back one day, it was something like that.

And know that I'm out, and that's it.

Canemaker: Even though there was a year to go on 'Bambi,' he was let go.

He was fired.

♪♪ Tyrus was credited as one of the background painters, but that's not what he did.

He was that film in terms of the design, and he was not properly credited for it.

[ Explosions and klaxons blaring ] Announcer: The attack was carried out by Jap torpedo planes.

The far-eastern double-crossers had their ships and planes on the way for the sneak punch.

♪♪ See: The Japanese being sent to interment camps, this is a terrible blot on our history.

But it was very difficult for the Chinese at that time, too, particularly in the West.

People would stop Chinese in the street, throw them in the street, you know, beat them up.

Tyrus: I am afraid that somebody might mistake, you know? Yeah.

So, I had my button.

Usually wearing one that says China, or that I was Chinese or something like that.

See: One of Tyrus' very closest friends, Benji Okubo, is sent off to the interment camp.

Although he taught painting and did some painting in the camps, once he got out, he never painted again.

They never really came together again as a group or as a movement after the war.

So, whatever momentum they had had just completely melted away.

♪♪ Tyrus: I did a lot of work that I didn't particularly care for, but I had to do it.

I used to pick asparagus and so forth.

It's hot, and I think I was itchy.

It's terrible.

See: Tyrus had a couple of commissions that he did, one for $5, one which was a lot of money, $50.

But you're not going to live off of that.

Tyrus: I was painting a dragon down in Chinatown.

Dick Kelsey, he was lead artist at Disney.

He was down in Chinatown, he yelled, 'Hey, Tyrus!

Come out! I want to talk to you!'

He said, 'How would you like to design Christmas cards?'

I said, 'Design Christmas cards?

I don't know a damn thing about Christmas cards, you know?'

So, he had to explain to me. He said, 'Well, Christmas cards.

You think about, you know, Christmas and stockings, and gifts and so forth and snow.'

♪♪ And they zoomed up.

They really sell like hotcakes.

And, every year, I put out 20 designs.

Kim: My mother would do a lot of the research, come up with ideas on what he would paint and what kind of theme it would be or the story that would go with it.

Tyrus: I was happy, really happy, through Christmas time.

It was all on my own, I can go over there and paint.

I was designing for about 20 years.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ I think maybe, each card, I think I got about 3 or 4 cents.

♪♪ Travis Johnson, I called him up.

He said, 'Oh, I'm working at Warner Bros.

Why don't you come into Warner Brother?'

And I told him, I said, 'No, I'm not familiar with live actions.

I don't think I could cut the mustard and go in there.'

He said, 'I think you can do it. You know, you can do everything.

Why don't you bring in your sample?'

♪♪ I had about 12 sketches, so I bring it in to Warner Bros., to the live action studio, to the art department.

And Ralph Gilbert is the head of it.

And then they look at it and say, 'Yeah.

Young man, I like your work.

I will give you two weeks' time.

If you can cut the mustard, I will hire you.

I will pay the top salary.

But if you can't cut the mustard, you go and shake my hand and no hard feeling.'

Okay.

Announcer: Warner Bros. First National Studios.

Back in the air again, we look down on one of the largest studios.

Musso: Known for its James Cagney gangster films, its Errol Flynn swashbucklers, and high-profile war dramas... Rick: I was willing to shoot Captain Renault, and I'm willing to shoot you.

Musso: ...Warner Bros. was worlds apart from Disney.

Harrington: Since the beginning of the established studio system in the 1920s, there were art departments that were physically located on the lots of the motion picture studios.

They hired professional artists to be on hand throughout the year.

It was a full-time job.

And all of the scripts that were being developed by the studio would come through the art department.

Musso: We would take the written words of the script, and we would illustrate it with either big conceptual illustrations, or we would block out the shots within those scenes by a series of storyboards.

It would be a very accurate representation of, say, what the set or scene was going to look like.

Woman: Oh, Judge, you're not walking out on us.

We have got to get married.

Man: got to get married?

Everybody is this room has got to get married.

Tyrus: Before they built the set, you had an architect to draw up the floor plan and blueprint and show it to a director.

He can't read it.

You know, it is pretty hard to read.

A blueprint doesn't mean a thing to a director.

So, they either built a model called a scale model, or they also made a sketch.

And my job was to paint the sketch.

Musso: There was formula that they used where they could actually lay camera angles, triangles down on blueprints.

Plans and elevations, quarter-inch scale or eighth-inch scale, depending on the size of the set.

Tyrus: I was scared to death, you know?

We don't know what, you know, how to go about it and so forth.

Man: Come closer. I want to talk to you again.

Tyrus: My first picture was 'Background To Danger' with George Raft.

♪♪ ♪♪ Barton: Hey.

♪♪ Miss Ramsey?

Ramsey: Mr. Barton!

Tyrus: For the first few months, I really struggled.

So, that was quite a challenge to quickly learn anything new, you know?

But taking time, take time.

This is a sketch for the picture 'Harper' with Paul Newman.

Showing this, you know, I had to make this sketch to show to the director, you know, so he can go in and build the set.

Woman: This is the astrology bit, but obviously without much success.

Harper: Any astrologist in particular?

Tyrus: This one is from 'The Wild Bunch.'

By Sam Peckinpah, the director.

Musso: For the most part, you really had to work on everything.

We just didn't question what they gave us.

We just did it.

Harrington: He has got some incredible beautiful drawings for an unrealized Warner Brothers motion picture that was meant to be a musical that was influenced by Salvador Dali.

Very surreal, very unusual colors.

He was trained to be able to do anything, and he could do anything.

And he followed his assignments.

And his assignments were to be flexible, innovative, and work to the service of that screenplay.

And that is what he did.

Man: I hope I haven't inconvenienced you.

[ Explosions ] Helen: ♪ Someday he'll come along ♪ The man I love [ Dogs barking ] Woman: Four!

[ Laughs ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Harper: Hey!

Woman: Oh, I'm sorry, baby!

Judy: He needed you, maybe. But so do I, Jim.

Harrington: When you look at work by Tyrus Wong and some of the other really, you know, talented motion-picture illustrators, they almost end up making the look of the movie because they are the ones who are getting the first crack at it and saying to the director, 'Here's a group of concepts, and here's a group of ideas. Do you like this?'

And, sometimes, people would really get hooked on the visual that they were seeing, and that would help dictate what the atmosphere and the environment would actually end up looking like.

♪♪ ♪♪ Tyrus: I had more fun over in Warner Bros. than Disney.

We got a bigger lot.

I could go down to visit where they paint the backgrounds and so forth.

One of the guys said, 'How's the food, you know, at the café?' I said, 'I don't know.'

He said, 'What do you mean?

Didn't you work in the cafeteria or the restaurant?'

I said, 'No, I work in the art department.'

He was surprised.

He said, 'You work in the art department?'

Musso: Every once in a while, Jack Warner would say, 'Hey, we're going two or three years.

We've got all these shows in a can.

Why am I paying this big staff?'

And he would shut down the studio for three or four months.

Harrington: Tyrus was loaned out to Republic Pictures on occasion and worked on a number of John Wayne movies.

♪♪ Kim: I just remember him telling stories more recently that Republic was really bad, that they weren't very nice to him.

Tyrus: The very, very first day, the head of department, he come in here.

He introduced himself.

He said -- You know what he said?

'I'm a Swede. You are a Chink.'

I was shocked.

I was really shocked.

I couldn't -- 'Did I hear that right?'

It finally dawned on me -- He called me a Chink.

Woman: How were you able just to keep on going?

Tyrus: Well, because, you know, you had a family to support.

Yeah.

We had three girls.

They're very wonderful daughters.

That is my greatest achievement, I say.

When we are looking for a house, they look at me.

You know that we are Asian.

She said, 'Oh, I'm sorry. The house is already sold.'

And then, in a month, go back there.

The sign was still there.

Stern: In Los Angeles, deeds were allowed to say no blacks, no Chinese, no Jews, no Armenians.

I mean, this was all utterly explicit.

See: The Chinese, for a long time, could only live in Chinatown.

It wasn't until 1948 that the laws were changed that someone who was of Chinese descent could own property in the state of California.

Kim: Before we moved out to Sunland, he had the Realtor go knock on doors of the neighbors and ask them how they feel about a Chinese family moving in because if they don't want us to move in then, you know, obviously wasn't going to move there.

They both said, 'No, we don't have a problem with that.

We have Chinese friends.'

So, we moved in.

Not that the whole neighborhood was that way, but those two people were.

♪♪ Kay: So, once we moved out to Sunland, of course, we were far removed from any Asians.

So, once a year, we would go to the Chinese congregational church.

Kim: I think, in those days, they wanted you to meet other Chinese kids so you might marry another Chinese kid.

Somehow, that didn't click.

When they sent us to Chinese school to learn Chinese, I was, like, so bored.

I didn't want to do it.

I think I only got to page 9 in the book, and I was over it.

Fong: One time, we walked as a family up into the town of Sunland.

And I remember a car driving by, and they yelled out some sort of racial something.

I remember my dad just turning around and giving them the finger.

I don't know if was Tai-Ling or Kim that said, 'Well, what was that?'

And I said, 'Oh, they were just waving at us.'

My dad always taught us, and my mom, too, that whatever you do is going to reflect on all Chinese.

And so, you have to be on your best behavior.

One of the driving trips that we took, when we were in a motel, they would always have us clean up.

You know, not make the bed, but at least straighten it up because they said, if we make a mess, they are going to think that all Chinese people are messy.

I think my mother was very good about keeping us occupied so that he could do his art.

And I think she was very supportive that way, you know, that whatever he had to do had to be done.

And we weren't to bother him at that time.

Tai-Ling: He did work a lot.

I mean, when he wasn't working at the studios, or even when he was, he was working on Christmas cards.

So, he was working -- After dinner, he would go work.

I don't remember that he spent a lot of time with family.

Stern: Well, we can look at more things maybe you haven't seen in a long time.

Something else, which I think you may have forgotten.

When Tyrus was a student at Otis, one of his classmates went to work for the Winfield Pottery in Pasadena.

She asked Tyrus if he would paint dinnerware for the company.

In the early post-war period, they developed a style of home decor called Chinese-modern.

And Tyrus' dinnerware would fit perfectly in a home with that style.

♪♪ This style of painting, it's like watercolor.

You can't go back and correct it.

So, every stroke is the first go.

It's not just skill.

There's something really beyond it.

It is skill and inspiration.

♪♪ Tyrus: I was still working at Warner Bros. and the job, sometimes paint on Saturday, or it was at night.

After I filmed with Warner Bros. Studio, I went over and painted until about 10:00 at night or something.

Stern: This came from Mark Peterson in Fort Worth.

Tyrus: Geez.

Boy, they've really traveled a long way.

[ Laughter ] I didn't realize that I had done so many of them.

♪♪ Stern: There is, in Tyrus' work, a grace and an ease that made his work really accessible to a large part of the American public.

It is clearly from another culture.

At the same time, it doesn't seem strange or foreign.

Woman: I was wondering if you could sign it for me.

Stern: I have seen dinnerware in advertisements for silverware where what the ad is selling silverware, but the dinnerware is Tyrus' painted work.

So, you know that his work was seen as part of the American experience.

Yeah, do you remember any of this?

Musso: This was the New York street.

Tyrus: Oh, yeah.

I think I remember that thing.

Musso: Yeah, well, this theatre right here they used in 'Yankee Doodle Dandy.'

Tyrus: Yeah!

Yeah, I think that's about same.

Musso: I was hired by Warner Bros. around November of 1964.

And, of course, I was a new kid on the block.

The first person I got to know was Ty.

Ty was really a mentor to me.

Around 1967, Jack Warner started negotiating to sell Warner Bros.

And he sold it to Seven Arts.

And, in so doing, there was a big layoff.

-Tyrus: My desk was about here. -Musso: Yeah, right.

And you had a gallon of water about here with all your brushes.

Tyrus: Yeah. Yeah, right.

Musso: With fewer films shot on the lots, the studios began to downsize all their departments.

Studios were making deals with independent producers, and it was up to the producers to hire their own production staff.

So, consequently, you were much more of a freelancer than you were before.

Ty never got into that.

Ty took the layoff and never really came back to the studio.

♪♪ Harrington: When you look at this work, it is kind of remarkable that one person is actually responsible for that body of work.

♪♪ ♪♪ Tyrus: Disney asked me to work on 'Mulan,' you know?

I said, 'No. I'm not interested anymore.'

Even at Warners, they asked me to go back there.

I don't want to go back there if they ask me.

It doesn't mean anything to me anymore.

♪♪ ♪♪ Mak: Tyrus tells a story about his wife telling him to go fly a kite because he was bugging her one day.

He was retired. He didn't have anything to do.

Woman: What attracted you to the kite-making?

Tyrus: Well, because it is different.

Yeah. Different medium.

Mak: He actually got books from the library about Chinese kite-building, and so he just kind of taught himself how to do it.

He not only learned how to build the kites in a traditional vein, but he also learned to reinterpret it through his own creative sensibilities.

Tyrus: I built this butterfly.

It just flies up and stands still.

I said, 'Gee, that doesn't give me a feeling of a butterfly.'

So, I put elastic in front of it so that when the wind hits it it springs back, you know?

It bounces back like that, so that thing would flapping like that.

So, the butterfly would be flapping like that, see?

So, it catches the character of a butterfly.

Mak: When I look at Tyrus' kites, I think, 'Of course somebody who is an artist made these kites,' because he thought about the mechanics of what he was making and how they would look when they are animated by the wind.

How they would look against a blue sky.

♪♪ ♪♪ See: He loved Ruth -- loved, loved Ruth.

And they had such an incredible marriage.

Fong: I can remember them kidding around a lot together and laughing.

They would go out with friends.

Tai-Ling: In beautiful weather, they'd like to get in the car and drive someplace.

Fong: He and my mom would talk a lot.

My mother was more articulate about things.

Kim: She would be the one to type the letters, do the communication.

She would organize my dad's stuff and take charge of his affairs.

It was great because my dad could be allowed to paint and be creative.

He really valued her.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ My mom was sick for a long time.

She had a type of dementia that was related to strokes.

And my dad just took care of her on a day-to-day basis -- everything.

Tai-Ling: He was working so hard to try to help her, and we actually had to have a hospital bed in there so he could help lift her off.

He had to physically lift her off the bed.

Sometimes she would be cross with him, and so then he would feel very hurt.

We had to keep telling him that it's not her.

It's the stroke that is talking.

Tai-Ling: She didn't recognize any of us.

We would call him Dad, so she would call him Dad.

♪♪ We went to the convalescent hospital, all of us together to see her, and she had already died.

[ Voice breaking ] And to see him crying there, that was a really sad moment.

♪♪ Tyrus: You know, when you're living with a person so many years, you know, I still miss her.

Yeah.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Tai-Ling: When my mom passed away, I thought, 'I don't know if Dad's every going to recover from this.'

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Tyrus: Well, I hope it flies. [ Laughs ] Kim: You ready to go, Dad?

♪♪ Tom: One of the most outstanding pioneers of our Chinese-American community here in Los Angeles was Tyrus Wong.

Not only was he noted here in our Chinatown community, but he bridged the gap of the old culture with the new culture and broadened it to the film industry, where it has gone all over the world.

And thank you again, and congratulations.

[ Applause ] Tyrus: I wish my pa and ma were here.

[ Laughter ] See: In recent years, especially after he turned 90, Tyrus started being recognized by many, many different groups.

♪♪ Kim: He's probably proudest of the fact that he was successful, and he was Chinese, and that he managed to fight through the racial barrier that existed back then.

Tyrus: I have gone through so many different things, like, you know, different presidents and so forth.

But I think, well, what the heck.

I mean, you know, I'm not going to be thinking about it.

That's not good for my health.

♪♪ I think luck and hard work.

Luck and hard work.

I wouldn't say talent.

I am not that talented.

You know, hard work.

Disney: Our next legend had a brief but impactful Disney career.

His name is Tyrus Wong, and he only worked at the studio for three years, and during that time, devoted himself to just one movie, 'Bambi.'

But what a film it was.

Felix: For that one contribution, he is legendary and constantly on the minds of everyone here.

♪♪ Labrie: This exhibition is exciting and poignant for this area.

He came to the United States through Angel Island, which is right across the bay.

Amongst his colleagues and many artists to this day, they consider his art as some of the most exquisite and beautiful art that was produced at the Disney Studios.

♪♪ Solomon: He is very, very much admired.

He has been much more influential than he would ever acknowledge or probably even realizes.

Docter: Pretty good work. I think you have a future. [ Laughs ] Mak: Tyrus' story is like an incredible flower growing amidst concrete and stone.

It is so unlikely, and that is what makes it so valuable.

Hahn: I think sometimes we get blinders on, and we think, 'Oh, I have to be a great painter,' or, 'I have to be an amazing animator,' or something like that.

When you look at Tyrus Wong's work, there is tremendous diversity to it.

You know, his ceramic artwork, his greeting cards or his painting at Disney or his Warner Bros. work or his kite-building.

I think all of those are hand-and-glove, and I think all of those relate to each other.

It's almost a philosophy of how he wants to live his life.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Narrator: Stay tuned for an interview with directors Dice Tsutsumi and Robert Kondo, artists inspired by the work of Tyrus Wong, followed by an excerpt from their Academy Award-nominated animated short, 'The Dam Keeper.'

Listen to the 'American Masters' podcast at pbs.org/AmericanMasters, featuring a blend of original interviews and selections from our archive.

Subscribe now.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Kondo: I've never met Tyrus. I've never -- I only know him through his work.

But in his work, I feel like I found a hero.

Tsutsumi: 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: In all of the work that I do and all 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 at that.

♪♪ Tsutsumi: The moment of them drawing together in a bathroom, it's a different execution, but I think the way we let the background just fall off, you know, because just emotionally, they're in it together.

They're not necessarily thinking about anything outside of their friendship.

And I think Tyrus is just the master of letting things fall off that are not important to the story or the characters or the emotion, and that very much is an influence that I can see.

We definitely think about what he was able to achieve in his paintings.

♪♪ Kondo: The fact that there was this possibility that as an Asian-American, I could actually go out and create work that potentially millions could see was this kind of, like, moment of, like, zooming out and being able to see some sort of future possibility for myself.

♪♪ Tsutsumi: Tyrus Wong is an artist who painted poetry.

He wasn't trying to change anything.

He was simply a pure artist, but his presence, his placement in history of animation, he changed the world.

♪♪ ♪♪ Pig: [ Oinking ] [ Giggles ] [ Oinking ] ♪♪ [ Indistinct chatter ] ♪♪ [ Laughter ] ♪♪ [ Oinks ] ♪♪ [ Indistinct chatter ] ♪♪ [ School bell rings ] [ Indistinct chatter ] Bear: [ Snorts ] [ Laughter ] ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Children playing in distance ] [ School bell rings ] [ Indistinct chatter, laughter ] ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Indistinct chatter, laughter ] [ Horn honks, brakes hiss ] [ Chatter stops ] ♪♪ [ All whispering ] ♪♪ [ Brakes hiss ] [ Indistinct chatter continues ] ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Vehicle thuds softly, brakes hiss ] ♪♪ [ Indistinct chatter ] Dog: [ Barks ] [ Chatter stops ] [ Chalk scribbling ] ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Laughter ] ♪♪ [ Laughter ] ♪♪ ♪♪ [ School bell rings ] [ Indistinct chatter ] [ Children playing in distance ] Turtle: Ah.

[ Laughter ] [ Playing continues in distance ] [ Light switch clicks off ] [ Birds chirping ] ♪♪ ♪♪ Pig: [ Giggles ] ♪♪ [ Giggles ] ♪♪ [ Brakes hiss, door squeaks open ] [ Indistinct chatter ] [ Laughter ] ♪♪ [ Brakes hiss ] ♪♪ [ Indistinct chatter ] ♪♪ [ Laughter ] [ Both snorting ] [ Both laughing ] ♪♪ Pig: [ Grunting ] [ Both laughing ] ♪♪ [ Both laughing, toilet flushes ] [ Water trickling ] [ Water splashing ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Pig: [ Giggles ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Fox: [ Giggles ] ♪♪ [ Giggles ] ♪♪ [ Both giggle ] [ Giggles ] Pig: [ Chuckles ] Fox: [ Gasps ] [ Chuckles ] ♪♪ [ Giggles ] ♪♪ [ Both giggling ] ♪♪