Tyrus Wong, Unsung Inspiration Behind ‘Bambi,’ Dies at 106
Walt Disney exerted an almost dictatorial command of the authorship behind the early films of the Mouse House; they were all to be Walt Disney productions, unmistakable for any other. But plenty of phenomenally talented artists went unrecognized for years, even as their handiwork became world famous and molded the childhoods of millions of viewers. Tyrus Wong was one such artist. The New York Times confirms that he died at the age of 106 on Friday, leaving behind a legacy woven into the fabric of children’s entertainment.
Wong came to America from his home of China in 1919, settling in San Francisco before moving onto the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles on a full scholarship. He took up work as an “inbetweener” (a term referring to the artists mainly responsible for reproducing the infinitesimally different frames between different “shots” of a cartoon) for Disney in 1938, where he got word that the studio would be producing a film adapted from the Austrian fairytale book Bambi. On his own, Wong whipped up several drawings of a deer serenely posed in a wooded area and brought them to supervising artist Maurice Day, who appointed Wong the unofficial art director for the film. Wong spent two years working on many of the illustrations that shaped the film, his soft watercolors and light shadows making it the treasured nostalgia object it is today. Wong, however, was credited as a mere “background artist” on the film, the specter of racial bias in the industry not too far off.
Readers curious about this unsung virtuoso’s impact on his industry would do well to start with the Pamela Tom’s 2015 documentary Tyrus, the trailer for which has been embedded below. It details the life of a multifaceted artist, remembered for his work with Disney but also a printmaker, calligrapher, and creator of wondrous and whimsical kites.