By Jack Egan
Within studio art departments, the job of motion-picture illustrator has become an endangered specie. Technological advances such as computerized previsualization increasingly substitute for the hand-drawing skills of the best storyboard artists.
A new exhibit at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences celebrates the traditional artistic talents and careers of three of Hollywood’s most gifted sketchers and painters: William B.Major, Harold Michelson, and Tyrus Wong.
Some 200 works, many from the private collections of these illustrious illustrators, are part of the show, which runs until Dec. 16. They span the period from the 1940s to the 1990s, and feature storyboards and other work done for films including The Graduate, Walt Disney’s Bambi and Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments.
“The Art of the Motion Picture Illustrator” focuses on two aspects of illustration. First, was the practical task of producing detailed drawings and watercolors that depict key sets and scenes in a film. These were used by production designers to show directors what they were working on and also assisted in the construction of sets. Second is the aesthetic pleasure of the illustrations themselves.
Major spent the early part of his career at Paramount during its golden age when Hans Dreier ran the studio’s art and production design department. He moved on to Universal and also had brief stint with Disney. Psycho, The Graduate, Rosemary’s Baby, Jaws and Dick Tracy were some of the films for which he produced drawings. A book containing many of the top illustrations by Major, who died in 2001, is in preparation..
Michelson worked on 150 films providing storyboards for epics like The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur and Cleopatra. He worked with directors Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, Mike Nichols and Robert Wise among numerous others. He went on to become an art director and then a production designer, but continued to take on sketch assignments. He received Oscar nominations for his work on Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Terms of Endearment. Michelson died in March 2007.
Wong, now in retirement, is known for his luscious watercolors during his period at Disney, especially his early concept illustrations for Bambi. Later in his career, he moved to Warner Bros., where his storyboard work was the visual benchmark for Rebel Without a Cause, Harper and The Wild Bunch. Born in China, Wong came to Los Angeles in 1919 and attended the Otis Art Institute on scholarship. After graduating, he worked for the government’s Works Progress Administration.
Admission is free for the show. The Motion Picture Academy is at 8949 Wilshire Blvd. in Beverly Hills. Exhibit hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m Tuesday through Friday, and 10 a.m.to 6 p.m. on weekends. It’s closed Mondays.
Written by Jack Egan