If Pamela Tom hadn’t watched past the end of “Bambi,” she might never have found the inspiration for her documentary, which will screen this week at the Newport Beach Film Festival.
The filmmaker, who lives in Los Angeles, was enjoying a family viewing of a Disney classic a decade and a half ago when a bonus feature at the end of the videotape piqued her curiosity.
“When my daughter was young, around preschool, I was watching ‘Bambi’ on VHS,” Tom recalled. “And at the end of the film, they have these little making-of documentaries, and the animators kept referring to this Chinese American artist named Tyrus Wong. I thought, ‘A Chinese American artist in the 1930s? I need to find out more about this person.’”
Tom, who is Chinese American herself, put feelers out in the community and found Wong’s contact information. She then invited the artist to her family’s restaurant for lunch, and the two stayed in touch, for more than 15 years, in fact, as Tom raised money for her documentary and shot it in increments.
“Tyrus,” which tracks its subject’s life from his boyhood in China to his latter-day recognition as a Disney pioneer, will be shown Tuesday at the Edwards Big Newport 6. The festival has long created a special berth for Disney on its schedule, and Tom’s documentary will join other related attractions on this week’s program.
The documentary “The Whimsical Imagineer,” about Disney artist Roland Fargo Crump, will also show Tuesday at Big Newport. (That film and “Tyrus” will also screen Wednesday at the Island Cinema at Fashion Island.) In addition, producers Don Hahn and Dave Bossert will host the seventh “Disney Rarities,” a compilation of little-seen artifacts from the studio’s vaults, Tuesday at the Regency South Coast Village in Santa Ana.
Like former resident John Wayne, who routinely features in Newport festival screenings, Disney has a prominent history in Orange County. According to Lohanne Cook, the festival’s director of special projects, the annual Disney offerings lure a large crowd every year — and not just from the outside.
“For Disney, we always have a solid audience,” she said. “There’s always someone who comes out, even our own employees. When they have a break — we all get one or two days off at the festival, our own time to spend for leisure — a lot of us end up going to the Disney programs, because we know it’s going to be a great time.”
Whatever Hahn and Bossert bring out of the archives, Wong’s story may be the greatest Disney rarity of all at the festival this year. The artist, who recently turned 105, endured at Disney — for a time, at least — during an era when Asian Americans were marginalized.
Wong, who emigrated at age 9 to California with his father, attended the Otis College of Art and Design on a scholarship after a teacher spotted his talent. He later had modest success as a gallery artist and, in 1938, scored a job in Disney’s art department.
At first, Wong didn’t have much opportunity to showcase his own style; his first duties were to take other artists’ images and create “in-between” drawings that would lead a character, such as Mickey Mouse, from one pose to another.
When Wong heard that the studio was beginning work on “Bambi,” however, he managed to win over Walt Disney with his nature paintings.
Those paintings, as “Tyrus” illustrates, contributed to the film’s visual look by contrasting the sharp character designs with spare, soft-focus backgrounds. In some cases, the artist’s brush strokes are even visible on the screen — a traditional Chinese style that, as Tom learned by talking to industry professionals, continues to influence animators.
Still, the documentary makes clear that Wong was far from a golden boy at the studio. Despite Walt Disney’s admiration for his work, the two never had an actual conversation, and Wong was sometimes slighted by colleagues. When many Disney artists went on strike in 1941, Wong opted to continue working, and the resulting rancor apparently led to his firing before “Bambi” was completed.
In later years, Wong drew storyboards for Warner Bros. and Republic Pictures (the documentary lists “Rebel Without a Cause,” “The Wild Bunch” and “Sands of Iwo Jima” among his credits) before he retired from Hollywood. In later years, he kept busy as an artist, designing kites and even dinnerware.
Eventually, the studio that declined to hold onto him years ago came around to celebrate him. At one point in “Tyrus,” Roy Disney is shown at a Disney Legends award ceremony declaring, “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.”
Tom, who grew to appreciate Wong’s influence while making her documentary, hopes that “Tyrus” will help to introduce its subject’s name to those outside the Chinese American community.
“He’s our resident artist, so to speak,” she said. “And then, within the Disney community, they embrace him. Artists today still look to him for influence. But outside of those two core audiences, most people don’t know who he was.”
IF YOU GO
Where: Edwards Big Newport 6, 300 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach
When: 4:45 p.m. Tuesday
Information: (949) 253-2880; newportbeachfilmfest.com
It will also screen at 5:15 p.m. Wednesday at the Island Cinema, 999 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach; tickets are $15.