tyrus-wong

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.

R.I.P. Tyrus Wong  (Oct. 25, 1910  - Dec. 30, 2016)

still your gushing fan,

Ju-osh M.

10

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.

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.

9

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 as a whole’s – 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!

3

Tyrus Wong’s expressive paintings caught Walt Disney’s eye and became the visual guide for Bambi. Born in China, Wong — now 104 — used forged papers to enter the U.S. under the Chinese Exclusion Act.

In 1938, The Walt Disney Studio hired Wong as an “inbetweener” to draw the frames between the main drawings of the animators. Wong soon learned that the studio was trying to turn Felix Salten’s novel Bambi into an animated film. After reading the story, he saw an opportunity to break out of his humdrum job.

“I said, ‘Gee, this is all outdoor scenery,’ ” Wong recalls in a video featured in the museum exhibit. “I said, 'Gee, I’m a landscape painter. This will be great!’ ”

The Chinese 'Paper Son’ Who Inspired The Look Of Disney’s 'Bambi’

Image credits: (From top) Tyrus Wong/Courtesy of Mike Glad, Tyrus Wong/Courtesy of the Tyrus Wong Family, Tyrus Wong/Courtesy of Ron and Diane Miller

2

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.

7

Tyrus Wong (Wong Gaing Yoo)
Painter, Film Production Illustrator, Kite Maker

Wong is best known for his contributions to Walt Disney’s featured animation “Bambi.” He emigrated from China and settled in Southern California. His pastels landscapes captured Disney’s attention and became the film’s main visual style. Wong focused on creating the atmosphere and spirit of the forest and kept his work simple. He credited this to his study of chinese art.