The animals were getting lost in the forest — so the story goes.
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 old when 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 Such relatives were among the exceptions to the immigration restrictions (which were finally repealed in 1943).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!’ ”
Inspired by Chinese landscape paintings, he used watercolor and pastels to make sample sketches that evoked forest scenes with simple strokes of color and special attention to light and shadow.
“He visualized the forest as being ethereal,” Labrie says. “The sketches were more of an impression of the forest.”
Wong’s sketches caught Disney’s eye and became the guide for Bambi‘s background artists, who were later trained to mimic his style.
“This sophistication of expression was a gigantic leap forward for the medium,” writes John Lasseter, the chief creative officer for Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios, in Water to Paper, Paint to Sky, a book commemorating the museum exhibit. “Where other films were literal, using backgrounds that showed detailed objects and settings, Bambi was expressive and emotional.”
By the time Bambi hit theaters in 1942, a strike at The Walt Disney Studio had left Wong without a job after three years of working on the project. He later became an illustrator for Warner Bros., where he worked for more than two decades, drawing storyboards for live-action films including Rebel Without a Cause.
Now 104, Wong has continued to make art during his retirement, including toy animals from recycled materials and handmade kites that he regularly flies off the Santa Monica Pier in California.
“People admire his work because of Bambi, but Bambi was just a really small portion of his life,” says his youngest daughter, Kim Wong. “He considers himself not a great artist but a lucky artist, who was at the right place at the right time.”