Tyrus Wong, Legendary Disney ‘Bambi’ Artist, Dies At 106

Tyrus Wong, the pioneer whose sparse drawing style inspired the classic children’s film Bambi, has died at the age of 106. On Friday, the New York Times and CNN reported that the artist passed away with his family lovingly gathered around his bedside. The general public was unaware that the film’s unique appearance was created by a Chinese immigrant artist. Wong took his inspiration for the landscape paintings from the Song dynasty (A.D. 960–1279). The full extent of his contribution to Bambi would not be known for decades. The news of Wong’s death was announced on his Facebook page.

“With heavy hearts, we announce the passing of Tyrus Wong… Tyrus died peacefully at his home surrounded by his loving daughters Kim, Kay and Tai-Ling. He was 106 years old.”

The Walt Disney Family Museum acknowledged Wong’s death on their official website. Wong only worked at Walt Disney Studios for just three years, however, “his influence on the artistic composition of the animated feature Bambi cannot be overstated,” the museum said in a public statement. When Bambi opened in 1942, critics praised his work. His graceful style was completely different from anything Disney did before.

Wong was born in China in 1910, and later moved to the United States with his father. Tyrus Wong endured a traumatizing separation from his mother. Tyrus also faced incredible hardships as a child. He weathered incarceration, isolation, and rigorous interrogation as a young boy, according to the New York Times.

In 1938, Wong started working for Disney and began drawing “hundreds of sketches of Mickey Mouse.” Wong worked tirelessly on the sketches before pre-production on Bambi started, the museum said.

“He went home and painted several pictures of a deer in a forest… The small, but evocative sketches captured the attention of Walt Disney and became the basis for the film’s visual style. Walt Disney saw that Tyrus was able to produce exquisite artwork that did not necessarily look like the forest — but rather, felt like the forest.”

Wong was newly married and needed secure and steady work. Upon joining in 1938 as an “in-betweener,” he created thousands of intermediate drawings that brought complicated animation sequences to life. According to the New York Times, one of Wong’s co-worker fired a racial epithet at him. Another assumed on sight that he worked inside the company’s cafeteria.

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Wong's unique drawing style was unlike anything Walt Disney had ever seen. [Image by Chris Dorney/Shutterstock]

The in-betweener’s job was repetitive. The New York Times referred to it was “the assembly-line work of animation.” Mr. Canemaker said the job was a terrible use of Wong’s “talents as a landscape artist and a painter.”

While working as an “in-betweener,” Mr. Wong learned that Disney was adapting the novel Bambi, A Life in the Woods, by the Austrian writer Felix Salten. The 1927 novel was about a fawn whose mother is killed by a hunter. Riding on the heels of the success of the 1937 animated film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Disney reached a halting point while trying to animate the Bambi book.

Disney wanted to use a detailed and meticulous drawing style for Bambi just as they did with Snow White. Walt was set on having a beautiful landscape in which the details in the flower petals and bushes were accurately represented. Unfortunately, the style didn’t translate with Bambi. Disney discovered the details camouflaged the deer and other forest creatures. This was Tyrus’ saving grace.

“I said, ‘Gee, this is all outdoor scenery… I said, ‘Gee, I’m a landscape painter!'”

Tyrus immediately created incredible landscape paintings which were reminiscent of the Song dynasty. The Disney artist used a light flurry of pastels and created nature scenes that were quite moody, yet sparse. Canemaker wrote about Wong in his book, Before the Animation Begins: The Art and Lives of Disney Inspirational Sketch Artists and said Walt went crazy over the paintings. This is what ultimately led Wong to be promoted in ranks as a Disney sketch artist.

“Walt Disney went crazy over them… He said, ‘I love this indefinite quality, the mysterious quality of the forest.'”

John Canemaker, an Oscar-winning animator and a historian of animation at New York University, said in an interview for Wong’s obituary in March that the artist was extremely hands-on.

“He was truly involved with every phase of production… He created an art direction that had really never been seen before in animation.”

In 1941, Wong left Disney and worked as a concept and story artist at Warner Brothers for 26 years before he retired in 1968. During his retirement, he created hand-made kites. In 2001, he was appointed the title of Disney Legend and the museum exhibited his work in 2013.

“But he was more than that… He was the designer; he was the person they went to when they had questions about the color, about how to lay something out. He even influenced the music and the special effects: Just by the look of the drawings, he inspired people.”

[Featured Image by Rook76/Shutterstock]