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 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

Oct. 25, 2015  -  Happy 105th Birthday, Tyrus Wong!

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 knows how truly appreciated his wonderful work is.

Happy 105th birthday, Mr. Wong!

still your gushing fan,

Ju-osh M.

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The Chinese ‘Paper Son’ Behind the Evocative Art of Bambi:

A year after Walt Disney made history with the release of his studio’s first feature-length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, his artists were struggling to find the right design for the woodland backgrounds of Bambi, the coming-of-age tale of a young deer.

“They were trying to do too much detail,” explains Michael Labrie, director of collections and exhibitions at The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. The film’s production team realized they needed an alternative to the ornate style that highlighted almost all of the leaves, flowers and mushrooms in the woods of Snow White.

Their inspiration came from Tyrus Wong, whose work is on display at a new exhibit at New York City’s Museum of Chinese in America. (The exhibit debuted at The Walt Disney Family Museum in 2013.)

An immigrant from Taishan, China, Wong was 9 years oldwhen he first arrived in California with his father in 1919. The two were what was known as “paper sons”: To enter the U.S. under the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, they used forged documents to claim they were relatives of Chinese-American citizens. Such relatives were among the exceptions to the immigration restrictions (which were finally repealed in 1943).

Wong eventually settled near Los Angeles, where he developed his passions for art and drawing and trained at the Otis Art Institute, now known as the Otis College of Art and Design.

In 1938, The Walt Disney Studio hired him 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!’ ”