Tyrus Wong, ‘Bambi’ Production Designer, Dies at 106


In an excerpt from a video included in his career retrospective at the Museum of Chinese in America, artist Tyrus Wong and others discuss the visual style Mr. Wong brought to Disney’s “Bambi.” Photo/Video: Disney Enterprises, Inc.

By Amid Amidi From Cartoon Brew

Tyrus Wong, the Chinese-American artist who was the production designer of Disney’s classic feature Bambi (1942), passed away today at the age of 106.

Wong had a brief career in animation, working at Disney only between 1938 and 1941, but made an outsized contribution to animation history with his innovative production design of Bambi. He was working as an entry-level inbetweener at Disney when he showed art director Tom Codrick his atmospheric pastel ideas for Bambi. that provided a solution to Bambi’s backgrounds by suggesting the atmosphere of a forest without describing every leaf and branch.

Codrick showed them to Walt Disney, who was equally excited by the approach. “Looks like we put you in the wrong department,” Codrick told the young artist. Wong was offered the opportunity to “key the whole picture from beginning to end, to make a painting that sets the mood.”

Wong received credit on the film only as a background painter, but wasn’t recognized for his role as the production designer of the film until many years later. Despite the low pay he received, Wong stayed inside the studio with all the veteran artists during the 1941 strike—”I was being a good boy”—but that didn’t matter. He was let go from the studio a year before Bambi was released. “I don’t feel bitter toward Disney at all, except for a few guys who I know to this day kinda resent me,” he told historian John Canemaker.tyruswong_rip_hReflecting on his work on Bambi, Wong said, “The script would say, ‘Early morning: the deer goes out onto the meadow.’ I would try to create the atmosphere of that meadow, the fog on it and so forth . . . mood sketches. My painting has always been very poetic—that’s the Chinese influence. In Chinese art, the poet is a painter and the painter is a poet. The object isn’t to reproduce photographic reality, as it is in Western painting, but to capture a feeling.”

Wong himself considered animation to be “a minor, very small part” of his artistic life, which also included twenty-six years as a live-action production designer at Warner Bros. where he worked on classic films like Rebel Without a Cause, Around the World in Eighty Days, and The Wild Bunch. He also enjoyed a long career as a greeting card designer, and in his spare time, created murals, ceramics, lithographs, and kites.

A production design painting that Wong produced for the Warner Bros. film "The Wild Bunch" (1969).
A production design painting that Wong produced for the Warner Bros. film “The Wild Bunch” (1969).

Born in Guangzhou, China, Wong came to the United States at the age of 9, where he lived with his father, a laborer. A surprisingly in-depth New York Times obituary offers some fascinating details on Wong’s early years.

Wong’s father encouraged him to practice calligraphy every night, but they were so poor that they couldn’t afford ink. “We can’t afford ink or rice paper,” Wong once said. “But he made me do it with water. That’s a good training.”

In the final decades of his life, Wong received significant attention, starting with a chapter in John Canemaker’s book Before the Animation Begins (1996). More recently, in 2014, Wong had a major retrospective “Water to Paper, Paint to Sky: The Art of Tyrus Wong” at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco.

A feature-length documentary about Wong’s life, Tyrus, was recently completed by Pamela Tom. Here is the trailer:

Wong is survived by his daughters Kim, Kay, and Tai-Ling.

Tributes have been pouring in from around the industry, including from Frozen’s head of story Paul Briggs, Zootopia director Rich Moore, Inside Out co-director Ronnie del Carmen, and visual development artist Claire Keane, among others:

Here are a few of Wong’s iconic pastel concepts for Bambi:

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Beginning in the 1960s, Wong started creating kites that he would fly on weekends at Los Angeles area beaches. Here are a few examples:

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From CBS Sunday Morning. Tracy Smith learned all about his life story firsthand:

Here is a Walt Disney Family Museum exhibition from a few years ago.

From August 15, 2013 to February 3, 2014, The Walt Disney Family Museum will present the exhibition Water to Paper, Paint to Sky: The Art of Tyrus Wong. Organized by Michael Labrie, the museum’s director of collections, the exhibition will focus on the life and work of Chinese-American artist Tyrus Wong—a celebrated painter, muralist, kite maker, lithographer, Hollywood sketch artist, calligrapher, ceramicist, and Disney Legend. At age 102, Wong is still a practicing artist today.

Tyrus Wong
Tyrus Wong at home in Sunland, CA, ca. 2004.

This retrospective features more than 150 works including paintings, sculptures, works on paper, painted scarves, kites, and more. Although he never met Walt Disney, it was the ethereal beauty of Wong’s Eastern influenced paintings that caught Walt’s eye and became the inspiration for the animated feature Bambi, which changed the way animation art was presented, and continues to be an inspiration to contemporary artists.Overcoming adversity, poverty, and racial discrimination, Wong used his passion and interpretation of the bold art of the Sung dynasty, and his experience working as a Depression- era muralist, California watercolorist, and film production illustrator, to become one of the bohemian artists whose creativity and drive helped shape the cultural, artistic life of Los Angeles during the 1930s and 40s

Bambi visual development by Tyrus Wong

In 1938, Wong took a job at the Walt Disney Studios as an inbetweener, one who goes through the tedious process of making “in-between” drawings that filled out the movement of the characters between the animators’ key drawings. He recalled “At the end of the day, I thought my eyes were going to pop out,” as he flipped through countless drawings of Mickey Mouse and stared at the light in the drawing board. When he heard that Disney’s next feature-length film was going to be Bambi, he saw an opportunity to present his work.

Wong read Felix Salten’s Bambi and “thought the story was very, very nice—the feeling—you could almost smell the pine,” and made sample sketches creating the lush mountain and forest settings, inspired by Sung dynasty landscape paintings. He had a different approach and one that had never been seen before in an animated film. He explained, “I tried to keep it very, very simple and create the atmosphere, the feeling of the forest.” Tom Codrick, the film’s art director, was impressed with his sensitive style, which was vastly different from the more ornate style of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which preceded it. Tyrus’s Chinese-inspired sketches and paintings set the look and tone for Bambi, and were some of the most strikingly beautiful art ever produced at the Walt Disney Studios.

In 2001, Wong was named a Disney Legend, and his work continues to inspire and influence the leading animators of today.

The exhibition also includes paintings, hand painted ceramics and silk scarves, original greeting cards, works on paper, and his latest work including handmade and hand-painted kites, which range in size from six inches to 100 feet.

About Tyrus Wong

Wong was born in Canton (now Guangzhou), China in 1910. In 1919, he and his father immigrated to America leaving behind Wong’s mother and sister, whom they never saw again. Arriving in the United States, they were initially held on Angel Island because of the Chinese Exclusion Act. After their release from Angel Island, they settled in Sacramento, later moving to Los Angeles’s Chinatown neighborhood.

Early Years

Tyrus Wong, self portrait

Wong’s interest in painting and drawing emerged at an early age. Though they were poor, his father encouraged his talents by having him practice calligraphy by dipping his brushes in water and “painting” on newspaper. Indifferent to school, he dropped out of Benjamin Franklin Junior High in Pasadena, CA to attend the Otis Art Institute on a full scholarship. There he received formal western art training while studying the art of the Sung Dynasty at the Los Angeles Central Library in his free time.

Despite graduating in the midst of the Depression, Wong led an active life as an artist. He exhibited work throughout the country, including a 1932 group exhibition at the Chicago Art Institute that featured Pablo Picasso. Wong and other young Asian artists including Hideo Date and Benji Okubo gained recognition by exhibiting as the “Orientalists.” Wong was also hired as part of the Federal Arts Project, a branch of the New Deal-era Works Progress Administration (WPA). His work during this period was heavily influenced by his friend, the highly regarded modernist painter Stanton MacDonald-Wright, best known for his use of rich harmonious colors (a style referred to as “synchrony”) and his integration of Chinese compositions.

The Dragon’s Den

Though he exhibited regularly, Wong and his fellow artists struggled to survive. Their answer was the Dragon’s Den, a subterranean, trendy, Chinatown restaurant that attracted Hollywood stars such as Peter Lorre, Anna Mae Wong, and Sydney Greenstreet. It stood out among the chop suey joints of Chinatown and was the brainchild of close friend Eddy See. It boasted wall to wall to murals and hand painted menus by Wong and his fellow artists. It was there that he met Ruth Kim, his future wife.

Bambi visual development by Tyrus Wong

Walt Disney Studios

In 1938, following his marriage and birth of his first daughter, Wong said he “needed a job.” It was at that time he began at Disney as an “inbetweener,” drawing hundreds of sketches of Mickey Mouse. He found the work tedious and numbing. When he heard that the studio was in pre-production on the feature film Bambi, he went home and painted several pictures of a deer in a forest. These small, but evocative sketches captured the attention of Walt Disney and became the basis for the film’s visual style.

Warner Brothers

Preproduction illustration for The Wild Bunch

From Disney, Wong headed to nearby Warner Brothers, where he switched from fantasy to realism. He was hired as a production illustrator and sketch artist where he painted and sketched concept art for hundreds of live-action films, including Rebel Without A Cause, Calamity Jane, Harper, The Wild Bunch, Sands of Iwo Jima, Auntie Mame, April in Paris, and PT 109. He was frequently loaned out to Republic Pictures where he worked on many John Wayne westerns, a genre that would become a favorite of his. He stayed at Warner Bros. for the next 26 years until his retirement in 1968.

Throughout his years at the studio, Wong continued to paint and exhibit his fine art. In 1954, he was featured in a short film produced by Eliot O’Hara demonstrating Oriental brushwork techniques. His commercial work included designing greeting cards for over 20 years, illustrating magazine covers and children’s books, and painting calligraphic style designs on Winfield ceramic ware that sold in high-end department stores.

Kite Building

Mini-centipede

After retiring, he turned his attention to designing and building hand-made kites. His dozens of designs include multi-colored 100-foot centipedes, flocks of swallow, butterflies, and panda bears. In 1990, he and his kites were featured in the short film, Flights of Fancy. To this day, Wong flies his kites every month in Santa Monica.

You can buy the book here.

 

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