Tyrus Wong, an artist at Disney studios and later at Warner Bros, has died at the age of 106. Deadline reports that Wong’s family confirmed the sad news on Facebook. Wong worked for Disney from 1938-41 and during that time made a key contribution to the creation of Bambi, creating art pieces that would ultimately form the basis for the film’s famously unique look. Wong would go on to work for Warner Bros. where he did concept art for film classics Rebel Without a Cause and The Wild Bunch among others. Wong also did uncredited work on Around the World in Eighty Days.
According to his New York Times obituary, the Chinese immigrant Wong got the inspiration for his work on Bambi from landscape paintings made during the Song dynasty. According to Animation historian John Canemaker, Wong’s contribution to the film went way beyond those early sketches, and that he was involved during the entire production.
It wasn’t until years later that Wong finally received recognition for his movie work. In the ’90s he finally became well known in the art community but spent most of his life poor and unknown. A 2015 documentary entitled Tyrus told the incredible story of how Wong came to America as an immigrant at age nine and went on to become an influential artist.
Wong’s legacy goes far beyond one film, but Bambi clearly is the one movie that he should be remembered for. The look and feel of Bambi were different than anything Disney had done before, and the film had a huge impact on animated movies while helping launch Disney on its path to becoming the juggernaut it is today. Bambi continues to inspire artists and moviegoers (and SNL writers), and Tyrus Wong may have been more responsible for its enduring magic than anyone else.
Bambi is for a lot of people not just a beloved movie classic, it’s a key part of their whole life-long relationship with movies. Many had their first truly emotional film experience at the movies when Bambi’s mother died at the hands of a hunter. In this day-and-age where many aspects of movie production are laid open for the public via DVD commentaries, supplementary material, and internet reporting, it’s easy to forget that there was a time when the movie-making process was even more mysterious. How lucky that historians and archivists are now willing to reach back and pluck figures like Tyrus Wong out of obscurity.