In the late 1930s, when few doors were open to the son of a poor Chinese immigrant, Tyrus Wong landed a job at Walt Disney’s studio as a lowly “in-betweener,” whose artwork filled the gaps between the animator’s key drawings. But he arrived at an opportune moment.
Disney’s animators were struggling to bring “Bambi” to the screen. The wide-eyed fawn and his feathered and furry friends were literally lost in the forest, overwhelmed by leaves, twigs, branches and other realistic touches in the ornately drawn backgrounds.
“Too much detail,” Mr. Wong thought when he saw the sketches.
On his own time, he made tiny drawings and watercolors and showed them to his superiors. Dreamy and impressionistic, like a Chinese landscape, Mr. Wong’s approach was to “create the atmosphere, the feeling of the forest.” It turned out to be just what “Bambi” needed.
Mr. Wong, who brought a poetic quality to “Bambi” that has helped it endure as a classic of animation, died Dec. 30 at his Sunland, Calif., home, his daughter Kim Wong said. He was 106. The cause was not immediately available.
“Ty had a different approach and certainly one that had never been seen in an animated film before,” legendary Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston once wrote of the artist, whose contributions to one of the studio’s iconic productions went largely unheralded for years.
“His grasses were a shadowy refuge with just a few streaks of the actual blades; his thickets were soft suggestions of deep woods and patches of light,” Thomas and Johnston wrote. “Every time of day and each mood of the forest was portrayed in a breathtaking manner.”
Called the film’s “most significant stylist” by animation historian John Canemaker, Mr. Wong influenced later generations of animators, including Andreas Deja, the Disney artist behind Lilo of “Lilo and Stitch” and Jafar in “Aladdin.”
“I was 12 or 13 when I saw ‘Bambi.’ It changed me,” Deja told the Los Angeles Times in 2015. “There was something about the way the forest was depicted that had a layer of magic to it. Tyrus Wong really made that film look the way it did.”
Mr. Wong worked at Disney only a few years, his employment cut short by a strike in 1941. But Warner Bros. quickly picked him up, and he worked there for more than 25 years, drawing storyboards and set designs for such movies as “Sands of Iwo Jima” (1949), “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955) and “The Wild Bunch” (1969).
When he retired from Warner Bros. in 1968, he continued to paint, turning some of his work into top-selling Christmas cards for Hallmark. He also channeled his artistry into kite-making. He was the subject of “Tyrus,” a documentary by filmmaker Pamela Tom released in 2015.
Mr. Wong was born in Guangdong province, in Southern China, on Oct. 25, 1910. Pigs and chickens lived under the family roof, which leaked. At 9, he said goodbye to his mother and sister and sailed to America with his father, Look Get Wong. In 1920, they landed at Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay.
His father was free to head to the mainland because he had immigrated earlier and had his papers. Tyrus, though, was confined to the immigration station. “It was just like jail,” he later said of the lonely month he spent there. He eventually reunited with his father, but he never saw his mother and sister again.
He and his father settled in Los Angeles. His father taught him to paint, draw and write calligraphy. Unable to afford proper paper and ink, Tyrus practiced on newsprint with a brush dipped in water.
Mr. Wong lived in Chinatown, but he attended school in Pasadena, where he painted posters for school events. His junior high principal was impressed by his artistic ability and helped him obtain a scholarship at what is now Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles.
He spent much of his spare time looking at Japanese and Chinese brush painting, particularly Song dynasty landscapes that conveyed mountains, mist and trees with minimal strokes. After graduating from Otis in 1935, he joined the Depression-era Federal Art Project, creating paintings for public libraries and government buildings.
In 1938, he was hired at Disney but did not think he would last long. Being an “in-betweener” required little creativity and a lot of eye-straining tedium.
Then he heard about “Bambi,” based on the book by Felix Salten. “I said: ‘Gee, this is all outdoor scenery [and] I’m a landscape painter. This will be great,’ ” he recalled in a video for the Disney Family Museum, which showcased his work in a 2013 exhibit.
When “Bambi” art director Tom Codrick saw Mr. Wong’s sketches, Mr. Wong recalled later, “He said, ‘Maybe we put you in the wrong department.’ ” The rest of the team agreed, including Walt Disney.
“I like that indefinite effect in the background — it’s effective. I like it better than a bunch of junk behind them,” Disney said in Thomas and Johnston’s book, “Walt Disney’s Bambi: The Story and the Film.” Disney later said that of all the animated films he produced, “Bambi” was his favorite.
“He set the color schemes along with the appearance of the forest in painting after painting, hundreds of them, depicting Bambi’s world in an unforgettable way,” Johnston and Thomas wrote. “Here at last was the beauty of Salten’s writing, created not in script or with character development, but in paintings that captured the poetic feeling that had eluded us for so long.”
In Mr. Wong’s last decades, he was known for the magnificent kites he made at home in Sunland and flew on the beach to the delight of passersby.
“You get a certain satisfaction in making them, and you get a certain satisfaction flying them,” Mr. Wong told the Times in 1995. “Some are attention-getters, but that’s not what I’m after. I used to go fishing a lot, and I love fishing. This is just like fishing, except in fishing you look down. Kite flying, you look up.”
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