Motion Picture Illustrators

While production designers earn public recognition – and even awards – for their film industry endeavors, this Grand Lobby exhibition highlighted an essential but rarely heralded member of the art department team: the illustrator. “The Art of the Motion Picture Illustrator” focused on the stunning artwork created for dozens of films from the late 1940s through the early 1990s, drawing from the personal collections of three outstanding illustrators: William B. Major, Harold Michelson and Tyrus Wong. As the tools available to motion picture artists continue to change, particularly with the widespread use of computer programs, the impressive skills of these three men define an era when the film industry prized art school training and an ability to paint and draw quickly at the highest professional levels.

These accomplished fine artists sketched and painted innumerable scenes for each film, drew hundreds of pages of storyboards, and illustrated key sets; they enabled production designers to convey their ideas to directors, facilitated set construction, and helped directors and cinematographers alike visualize their most important shots. Many talented artists who worked as illustrators became art directors or production designers themselves, but many more enjoyed fruitful, decades-long careers applying their talents to this fundamental task. Though it is now more common for illustrators to be hired for specific productions, in the past it was typical for them to work under long-term contracts to studios.

Major and Wong, who was born in China, attended Otis Art Institute, while Michelson studied at the Art Students League and Pratt Institute in New York. A formative early experience for both Major and Michelson was working in the Paramount art department on Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” (1956). Major spent most of his career at Paramount and Universal, with a brief stint at Disney; he passed away in 2001. While Michelson became an art director and production designer starting in the late ’60s and earned Academy Award® nominations for “Star Trek – The Motion Picture” and “Terms of Endearment,” he continued to accept illustration assignments throughout his career. He passed away in March 2007. Wong worked for three years at Disney, where his distinctive watercolor style shaped the entire look of “Bambi.” He went on to three decades of illustration at Warner Bros. and continues his personal artistic pursuits to this day.

Dick Tracy illustration

Illustration of “Dick Tracy” by William B. Major.

Star Trek sketch

Conceptual sketch by Harold Michelson for “Star Trek – The Motion Picture.”

Bambi illustration

Illustration of “Bambi” by Tyrus Wong.

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