How ‘Bambi’ got its look from 1,000-year-old Chinese art

In an undated handout image, a scene from the 1942 Disney classic ‘Bambi.’ — Picture courtesy of Walt Disney Productions via The New York Times
In an undated handout image, a scene from the 1942 Disney classic ‘Bambi.’ — Picture courtesy of Walt Disney Productions via The New York Times

NEW YORK, Jan 7 — The Chinese-American artist Tyrus Wong, who died last week at 106, was a strikingly accomplished painter, illustrator, calligrapher and Hollywood studio artist. But as Margalit Fox wrote in her obituary for Wong, “because of the marginalisation to which Asian-Americans were long subject, he passed much of his career unknown to the general public.”

Wong is most renowned for his essential contribution to Walt Disney’s 1942 animated classic, Bambi. While he worked a drudge’s job at the Disney animation studio during the day, he spent nights painting hundreds of watercolours to show his own vision of the film’s look. Wong’s style emphasised the film’s animal characters in the foreground, evoking the lush surrounding forest with minimal brushwork, gentle washes and slashes of colour.

It was a departure for Disney, which had earned heaps of praise for lavishly detailed backgrounds in films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which earned an honorary Academy Award for its innovations.

Wong’s work was stark, detailing just a few figures within a vast landscape, and imbued with a powerful and atmospheric sense of emotion.

Wong’s drew inspiration from Song dynasty landscapes to produce the lush surrounding forest in watercolours with minimal brushwork, gentle washes and slashes of colour — a radical departure for animation of the era. — Picture courtesy of Tyrus Wong Family/Disney via The New York Times
Wong’s drew inspiration from Song dynasty landscapes to produce the lush surrounding forest in watercolours with minimal brushwork, gentle washes and slashes of colour — a radical departure for animation of the era. — Picture courtesy of Tyrus Wong Family/Disney via The New York Times

“You could practically smell the pine,” said Michael Labrie, director of collections and exhibitions at the Walt Disney Family Museum, who was curator of an exhibition devoted to Wong’s work in 2013. “This was what they were looking for.”

“The thickets and trees Tyrus paints show less of what you would see and more of what you would feel walking through a forest,” Charles Solomon, an animation historian, wrote in the exhibition catalogue.

The spare but expressive style of Wong’s work draws heavily from the landscape paintings of the Song dynasty (AD 960–1279). In an interview, Nancy Berliner, curator of Chinese art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, called this period “the height of Chinese painting.”

Finely detailed elements, such as a gnarled tree or a sailboat crossing a lake, were surrounded by landscapes rendered in extremely subtle flecks and shades of ink. Although these works were made solely with black ink, artists at the time aimed to incorporate every shade of grey within their works, using deliberate brushwork and exquisite care.

This almost abstract style, Berliner said, was a philosophical reaction against the tradition of realism. (A sort of 10th-century avant-garde, you could say.) Artists in this mode argued that purely representational work was “seductive” — dangerously sensual.

In an undated handout image, one of Tyrus Wong’s visual development works for the 1942 Disney classic ‘Bambi.’ — Picture courtesy of Tyrus Wong Family/Disney via The New York Times
In an undated handout image, one of Tyrus Wong’s visual development works for the 1942 Disney classic ‘Bambi.’ — Picture courtesy of Tyrus Wong Family/Disney via The New York Times

By comparison, Song dynasty painting idealised the expression of the artist, and the painting as a direct connection with the heart and soul of its creator.

Wong was also innovative in his use of vivid colours, rarely seen in traditional Chinese painting.

Wong was fired from Disney in the aftermath of a labour dispute, but soon found work elsewhere in the film industry, where he illustrated scripts, drew storyboards and painted production images for more than two decades at Warner Bros. To get the job, he created a remarkable portfolio of Aladdin illustrations, which can be seen in the catalogue from his retrospective exhibition.

Labrie, the curator of the Walt Disney Family Museum show, sees a consistency throughout Wong’s work. “You don’t get just a pretty picture,” he said. “You really get a sense of being in that moment.”

Wong also painted Christmas cards and magazine covers, and made designs for dinnerware. And he spent many years building elaborate kites, which he flew on the beach in Santa Monica, California. But his signature style seems to have crystallised around the time of those Bambi drawings in the ‘30s: clearly rendered figures that are rampant, or dreamy, amid landscapes evoked by absence.

“He had such a passion for art," Labrie said, sharing a quotation from his conversations with Wong that he had committed to memory: “If you can do a painting with five strokes instead of 10, you can make your painting sing.” — The New York Times

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