tyrus-wong

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The glorious work of Tyrus Wong is unparalleled. It was his lush pastels that served as the driving force behind Bambi, where he was the lead artist on the film. Prior to Wong’s contributions, the logistics of managing the detailed nuance of a forest setting (millions of leaves!) was posing a problem, but Wong’s gorgeous, inventive minimalist approach was the perfect solution and provides the film its unique style and warm, textured feel.

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‘Tyrus’ is Coming to PBS!

After a successful festival run (and 10 awards), the Tyrus Wong documentary TYRUS will have its television premiere on PBS’ American Masters series on Sept 8th.

Official description: Former Disney animator and painter Tyrus Wong died in December 2016 at 106 years old. Obituaries told of a man whose life read like an epic of the 20th century. Wong was born in China in 1910. His family immigrated to the U.S., eventually settling in Los Angeles’ Chinatown. During his late teens, Wong worked his way through art school and eventually found work in Disney’s animation studio. When pre-production on BAMBI bogged down due to problems with the early background artwork, it was Wong’s new landscape sketches — modeled on Song Dynasty-style landscape painting — that took the film in a bold new direction. DIR/SCR/PROD Pamela Tom; PROD Tamara Khalaf, Gwen Wynne. U.S., 2015, color, 77 min. NOT RATED

2016 just has to drag down everyone it can with it, doesn’t it??

RIP Tyrus Wong

film designer and concept artist for Bambi, Passed away today at 106 years old.
It was his style, his concepts and artwork that I saw in Bambi at 6 years old that lit the spark of my love of animation and production. It’s why I’m here pursuing that dream today. Thank you so much for all your beautiful work.

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Here’s an amazing look at the work of Tyrus Wong in two different phases, the charcoal rendering and the final background painting used in Bambi, for which he is most famously associated. The strength of the composition is already established in the black and white rendering, but the final color version adds all the warmth and natural appeal that the forest setting lent to the film–I want to be there! Also we get a peek at the artist’s studio in his later years which proved to be as productive and prolific as his early years with Disney.

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Oh, no. It’s a rant.

I just finished reading the wonderful art book, Water to Paper, Paint to Sky: The Art of Tyrus Wong, The Disney Family Museum’s loving tribute to the master artist responsible for the ethereal look of Bambi’s backgrounds.

The book is a delight from start to finish, detailing Wong’s 106 year life (he’s still alive and creating art today!) and his many, many artistic pursuits. In addition to his brief tenure at Disney, Wong also worked as a production designer for Warner Bros. live action films, as a fine artist specializing in ceramics, paintings and pastels, and for the past few decades, as a premier maker of incredibly ornate kites.

My ONLY problem with Water to Paper, Paint to Sky: The Art of Tyrus Wong comes at the very end, and it’s not even the fault of the book. It’s in a chapter titled ‘Inspiration,’ and it is a series of quotes from various animation legends and luminaries, all of them describing how Wong’s misty, emotional, incredibly UN-detailed concept art for Bambi influenced the work they are doing today.

Awesome.

Except…

Except that there are quite a few of these quotes from Pixar people, up to and including John Lasseter. All of them describe how Wong’s “nearly abstract” (Pete Docter) approach to backgrounds effected Pixar’s approach to their films’ backgrounds.

Pixar production designer Ralph Eggleston even goes so far as to say that Finding Nemo is a “direct descendant of Ty’s incredible work on Bambi.” While Wong’s sumptuously hazy, pastel approach to concept art is definitely visible in Eggleston’s vis-dev work, it is all but lost in Nemo’s – and Pixar’s as a whole – photo-realistic approach to CG environments.

But perhaps the most jarring of these ‘Inspiration’ testimonials was Pixar CCO John Lasseter’s. Beside the now de rigueur photo of Lasseter standing in front of a bunch of Pixar merchandise wearing yet another Hawaiian shirt, Lasseter proclaims:

“What many people don’t realize…is how revolutionary [Bambi] was in its visual storytelling. When you look at most films of that era, you see that they were fairly straightforward in the way they depicted their backgrounds. Tyrus Wong took an entirely different approach with his styling on Bambi. […] Where other films were literal, using backgrounds that showed detailed objects and settings, Bambi was expressive and emotional. Tyrus painted feelings, not objects.”

This is 100% true. So why did reading it bother me so much?

Because Pixar has been almost single-handedly responsible for feature animation’s obsession with photo-realistic backgrounds – a trend I personally hate. While I totally concede that this weird need to make cartoons look less cartoony is entirely their right, that doesn’t mean I can’t bitch and moan about it every chance I get.

Please scroll up and take a look at the Tyrus Wong-influenced Bambi backgrounds (top four pics) vs. the photo-realistic backgrounds for Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur (the bottom four).

Which looks more beautiful to you?

Which looks like the product of an artist’s hand, and which looks like they may as well have just filmed a bunch of real-life locations and then dropped the cartoon characters on top à la Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

And while I’m blathering on about the way the characters interact with their respective backgrounds, please look at those stills again. Aesthetically, the hand-drawn characters of Bambi ‘work’ with their hand-painted backgrounds faaar better than the CG characters of The Good Dinosaur and their CG, photo-realistic backgrounds. Don’t you agree?

I LOVE CARTOONS.

I REALLY LOVE CARTOONY CARTOONS.

If John Lasseter and co. prefer their cartoons to look like IMAX nature films with cartoon characters photo-shopped on top, that is entirely up to them. But I find it kind of gross to read them trying to attach their burgeoning legacies onto the artistic accomplishments of someone else in an effort to – I don’t know – give their work a greater depth or stronger sense of history or whatever.

Is that just me?

In closing:

Tyrus Wong’s groundbreaking work on Bambi has made him an indelible part of animation’s DNA. As such, I have no doubt that his influence and inspiration resides inside every artist employed at Pixar. That said, it is NOT apparent in the films Pixar is releasing these days. In fact, I’d say the background art in Pixar’s films resembles the polar opposite of Wong’s influence, hearkening back to the pre-Wong days of animation that John Lasseter himself described as being “literal” and “fairly straightforward.”

But there’s hope!

(Maybe.)

Now that Pixar has finally come up with the software for realistic water, wind, hair, etc., perhaps they’ll ease up a little on their Quixotic quest for CG photo-realism. Perhaps the powers-that-be at Pixar will allow a little bit of Tyrus Wong’s (and Pixar’s incredibly talented vis-dev artists’) “expressive and emotional” influence to seep into their pictures.

Perhaps.

Here’s hoping!

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In this outtake, Tyrus Wong revisits Angel Island, where he was held as an immigrant.