Tyrus Wong and Walt Disney
The forgotten artistic soul of American Cinema
Everybody knows Bambi, the famous Disney Classic, but not everybody knows that the main artist behind that movie was Tyrus Wong.
The incredible, long life of this man is an interesting mirror of the Twentieth Century American history – a story of immigration, war, discrimination, love and art.
Immigration and first years in the US
Tyrus was born on October 25th 1910, in China, under the name Wong Gen Yeo. In 1920, he and his father embarked for the United States. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 made immigration from China very difficult but an earthquake and a fire in 1906 destroyed many documents, including birth and immigration records. This event was an opportunity for many newly-arrived Chinese immigrants to declare that they had been born in San Francisco before the earthquake.
Gen Yeo arrived in San Francisco with his father in 1910, under the name of Look Tai Yow. The little child was detained for a month at the Angel Island Immigration Station, separated from his father and interrogated by the officials, where just one mistake could mean deportation. After the interrogations, he joined his father in Sacramento, and started school, where his name was americanized into “Tyrus”.
When he was a child, his father instilled a passion for drawing in him. Moreover, his American middle school teacher encouraged him to attend the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. He studied there for at least five years, working at the same time as the school janitor, and he graduated in the 1930s. After his father’s death, Tyrus and some of his friends founded the Oriental Artists’ Group of Los Angeles. In 1937, he married the great love of his life, Ruth Kim, a second-generation Chinese American from a Californian family of farmers.
One year later, Tyrus started working for Walt Disney. Nobody could have imagined how much his art would have influenced the history of animation at that time.
Bambi and the work for Disney
Disney archives are a treasure trove of information about the making of many movies.
From the transcripts of a series of meetings from 1937 to 1940, we learn a lot about the creation of Bambi, the most innovative animated movie of those years.
The previous Disney movies, such as Snow White and Pinocchio, were characterized by a strong realism and an obsessive attention to detail. Bambi was an opportunity to try something new.
The main problem was the creation of the setting; the forest where all the characters lived. At that time, Tyrus was working as an “in-betweener”, doing the thousands of intermediate drawings used to create every animated sequence. It was alienating and mechanical work. When he heard about the making of Bambi, he painted some watercolors, taking inspiration from the landscape paintings of the Song dynasty, and showed them to Tom Codrick, art director of the movie. Codrick was impressed by the beauty of those paintings and brought them to Walt Disney. Suddenly, Tyrus’ drawings started to shape the whole style of the movie.
Thanks to his talent as a landscape painter, he created settings using simple lines, and giving great expressivity with the colors – delicate colors to represent the spring, lifeless colors for the autumn, strong shades of red and black for dramatic scenes.
He spent two years drawing the illustrations for Bambi. Mr Canemaker, author of the book Before the Animation Begins: the Art and Lines of Disney Inspirational Sketches Artists, wrote:
“Tyrus was the designer, the person they went to when they had questions about the color, about how to lay something out. He even influenced the music and the special effects: just by the look of the drawings, he inspired people”.
The war, the fall and the belated recognition
Everything vanished with the war. In 1940, there was no more time for art, Disney Studios was hit by a terrible crisis and, after a big strike, many employees were fired. Tyrus was one of them, and his important contribution to the movie was quickly forgotten. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, racial discrimination was really strong, and Tyrus began to wear a lapel button proclaiming his heritage, lest an angry American beat him up on the street.
After the war, he worked for Hallmark, designing Christmas cards, and painting decorative motifs on dinnerware. He also worked as illustrator for the Warner Brothers, drawing set designs and storyboards for several movies. After his retirement, he started to design and build kites, interrupting this activity only to care for his wife Ruth, who was ill with dementia, until her death in 1995.
Recognition for his work arrived after many decades, in the latest years of his life.
In 2001, he received the Disney Legend Award for outstanding contributions, and in 2003 a retrospective of his work was curated for the inaugural exhibition at the Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles. In 2015, Pamela Tom directed the documentary Tyrus, examining his life and work.
Tyrus Wong died on December 30, 2016, at the age of 106.
With his work for Bambi, he deeply changed the visual style of Disney animation, creating something completely new. Despite this, as a Chinese immigrant, his life was marked by discrimination and suffering. Maybe, in a more tolerant society, his contribution would have been more evident and recognized. For this reason, the recognition of his talent should also be an opportunity for American artists and scholars, as well as ordinary people, to revisit their perception of US culture, to understand that a fair and open society is essential to create the conditions for the realization of the free expression of human individuality and the “Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” claimed in the Declaration of Independence.
The hand, the wand and the star that characterize the statue of the Disney Legend Award represent the union between imagination and personal skills; a harmony that has the power to turn dreams into reality. Tyrus Wong’s story shows how art and the passion of a man can inspire us to improve the society and the reality in which we live.