The Chinese-American who brought Bambi to life
Tyrus Wong 1910–2016
Partway through making his 1942 animated masterpiece, Bambi, Walt Disney realized the movie looked like a mess. The forest background was so elaborate, with every twig and leaf drawn in painstaking detail, that it camouflaged the titular fawn and his animal friends. Tyrus Wong, one of the lowly “inbetweener” artists responsible for filling the gaps between the principal animator’s key frames, spotted an opportunity. Inspired by the exquisite landscape paintings of his native China’s medieval Song dynasty, Wong used watercolors and pastels to create simpler, dreamlike backdrops. Disney loved them, saying they evoked “the mysterious quality of the forest,” and Wong was tasked with applying the same look to the whole film. Yet because of widespread anti-Chinese prejudice, Wong’s name appeared far down on the final film’s credits, as “background artist,” and it would be decades before his contribution was recognized.
Wong was born “into a poor rural family in China’s Guangdong province,” said The Times (U.K.). “The family shared the house with pigs and chickens.” When Wong was 9, he and his father left his mother and sister at home and sailed to the U.S. under false identities. The pair settled in California, where Wong’s father “taught him to paint, draw, and write calligraphy,” said the Los Angeles Times. He won a scholarship to Los Angeles’ Otis Art Institute, and after graduating joined Walt Disney. On his first day, a colleague addressed him using a racial slur; another assumed he worked in the canteen. Wong spent two years painting the illustrations for Bambi, but was fired in 1941 in the wake of an employees’ strike he hadn’t joined.
He was quickly hired by Warner Bros., said The New York Times, and spent the next 25 years drawing storyboards and set designs for movies, including Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and The Wild Bunch (1969). Wong also designed Christmas cards for Hallmark and in retirement became “a renowned kite maker, building and hand coloring astonishing, airworthy creations—butterflies, swallows, whole flocks of owls.” Wong, who was named a Disney Legend by the company in 2001, often flew the kites on the beach near his California home, delighting passersby. Kite flying is “just like fishing, except in fishing you look down,” he said. “Kite flying, you look up.”