Tyrus Wong, the Chinese-American artist whose lush, evocative paintings inspired and defined the look of Disney’s classic animated movie Bambi, has died at age 106. His death was announced by the filmmakers of Tyrus, a documentary about his life and work.
“With his passing, we have lost a brilliant artist, motion picture & animation legend, Chinese American pioneer, and hero,” the filmmakers said in a statement posted to Facebook. “He survived Angel Island, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Great Depression, discrimination, and the loss of Ruth, his soul mate and beloved wife of over 50 years. Yet Tyrus always faced adversity with dignity, courage — and art.”
Born in Guangzhou, China, Wong emigrated to the United States as a boy and in 1938 landed a job at Walt Disney Studios as an inbetweener — one of the artists on an animated project who fills in the many intermediate drawings between key frames.
When he heard that Bambi would be the studio’s next feature, he created sample sketches inspired by Sung dynasty landscape paintings. “I tried to keep it very, very simple and create the atmosphere, the feeling of the forest,” Wong later recalled. His work impressed the film’s art director, Tom Codrick, and came to set the visual tone for Bambi, which was released in 1942.
Wong would go on to work as a production illustrator and sketch artist at Warner Bros., where he created concept art for hundreds of live-action films, including Rebel Without A Cause, Calamity Jane, The Wild Bunch, and Auntie Mame.
Wong’s creativity wasn’t confined to film work; he was also a muralist, kite maker, lithographer, calligrapher, and ceramicist. He was named a Disney Legend in 2001 and is survived by daughters Kim, Kay, and Tai-Ling.
Watch a trailer for Tyrus above, and read the filmmakers’ tribute below.