Tyrus Wong, whose watercolors helped define the look of Bambi, died Friday, Dec. 30. He was 106.
Like most animation fans, I first heard of Tyrus Wong via his work on Bambi. Legend has it, that’s the first time Walt Disney heard of him, too!
Okay, so the story goes…
Walt was chomping at the bit to make Bambi, only he was having trouble finding the ‘look’ he wanted for the film. He’d tried ultra-realism, but nixed it. He switched to super cartoony, but again, nope. It was beginning to look like the film would get shelved until late one night, while wandering through his studio, Disney happened upon a small stack of unusual watercolors. They were by a fella named ‘Wong,’ and they were…well, different.
What do I mean by ‘different’? Well, for one thing, these watercolors were tiny. Most of them measured no more than 4″ x 5″. And where the rest of the studio’s painters tried to pack as much detail into each picture as possible, Wong’s paintings were sparse, vague — almost suggestions. Wong would later say, “I tried to keep the thing very, very simple and create the atmosphere, the feeling of the forest.”
It worked. Walt was so impressed with what he saw that the very next day he promoted Wong from his job as an in-betweener (kind of like an animation line cook) to concept artist (think: Michelin rated chef)! Not only that, but Wong’s watercolors came to define the look of Bambi‘s backgrounds, providing the film with its sensitive, poetic and often ethereal mood.
After working at Disney, Wong moved on to Warner Bros. There he provided production art for quite a few live-action classics, including Rebel Without A Cause, The Wild Bunch and Sands of Iwo Jima. He also did freelance commercial work, where his gorgeous watercolor and calligraphic art came to adorn everything from greeting cards to high end pottery.
After retiring, Wong began making kites. Not your typical, four-cornered diamond shaped kites, but HUGE, ornamental, multifaceted kites in the shape of dragons, centipedes, flocks of birds and swarms of butterflys.
Upon first discovering Wong’s work fifteen years ago, I wrote him a number of gushing — and probably pretty embarrassing — fan letters. Wong responded to each and every one of them graciously.
I still have the envelope from his first response, where he drew a small, singing bird in pastels, sitting atop my name. (See above.) Another time, I literally teared up when I opened my mailbox to find a Christmas card that Wong had designed decades earlier. It was a winter scene, featuring a mother deer and her young buck. Inside, Wong not only signed it with his English name, but also embossed it with a red stamp bearing the Chinese characters for his name! Needless to say, I treasure both of these items to this day.
All of this rambling is really just my way of honoring a man whose work has meant so much to so many. I hope he knew how truly appreciated his wonderful work was.