'Bambi' Artist Tyrus Wong Dies At 106
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Tyrus Wong, the artist behind the design of "Bambi," died on Friday. He was 106. Wong was a Chinese immigrant, and his vision for "Bambi" was inspired by landscape drawings from the Song Dynasty. The film's art was praised as a breakthrough when it came out. But Tyrus Wong's work wasn't widely recognized until he was in his 90s.
Joining me now is Pamela Tom, writer and director of a documentary called "Tyrus," and she knew him for almost 20 years. Welcome to the program.
PAMELA TOM: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
CORNISH: So I think it's best to start with Disney's "Bambi" movie (laughter) because I want to get a sense of what was groundbreaking or what was distinctive about his style at a time when Disney movies were really popular - right? - that golden age kind of window.
TOM: Yeah, yeah. What was so distinctive about "Bambi" was his approach, this very spare and very poetic approach. Prior to "Bambi," they had released "Snow White." And if you look at the forest in "Snow White," you see every detail, every twig, you know, every leaf.
Tyrus took an entirely different approach, you know, with the less-is-more. He had a very painterly style. It was just - you see the - literally the brush strokes in the paintings and in the backgrounds. And he - you know, he was just trying to evoke the feeling of the forest rather than the forest itself. And so when Walt Disney saw some of his sketches, he said, that's it. This is going to be the look.
CORNISH: It's interesting because he was actually a pretty low-level animator there at first, right?
TOM: That's correct. He had gotten married in 1938 and decided he needed a full-time job. So Disney was hiring artists, but they often hired even the most skilled and talented artists like Tyrus Wong as a lowly in-betweener. Those were people who drew the sketches in-between the main drawings. And it was very tedious work. He hated it. You know, he said his eyes felt like ping pong balls.
So when he heard that "Bambi" was in pre-production, he went home, and you know, he read the book and drew these little thumbnail sketches and brought them back to the studio and showed them to the art director.
CORNISH: He also had a very interesting journey to America. As we mentioned, he's a Chinese immigrant, and he left his village when he was 9 years old. What was distinctive about that move?
TOM: Well, a lot of the immigrants to America were coming during that period. There was poverty. There was drought. There was great political turmoil. So like many immigrants even today, you know, he and his father left for better opportunities. What was distinctive about it is that he was coming to America during the height of anti-Chinese the sentiment.
The Chinese Exclusion Act was in effect, which essentially barred all laborers except for a small, narrow class of Chinese. And so they came under assumed identities as the son of a merchant, and he had to memorize these details of a person he was not and was detained at Angel Island for almost a month while being interrogated.
I like to call it the original extreme vetting, but the purpose of Angel Island was to really have Chinese return back to their country, to trip them up.
CORNISH: Yeah, you're talking about an interrogation and detention. He was 10 years old...
TOM: That's right.
CORNISH: ...When he did all this on his own. I mean talk about "Bambi."
TOM: Yeah, exactly, and he never saw his mother again. And he was scared to death. He didn't know where his father was. He was the only kid in Angel Island at the time of his detention. And I think that early experience really informed his life. He became very resourceful, you know? He was a survivor. He knew how to overcome that adversity. And you can imagine that was his first introduction to the U.S.
CORNISH: Today, he has such a reputation among animators, many who cite him and his influence. What do you think his legacy will be?
TOM: Tyrus' legacy will definitely always be connected to "Bambi" for having created such beauty and poetry and lyricism, the likes of which we have really never seen since then. And he continues to influence animators and artists today. You know Pete Docter, Ronnie del Carmen, Ralph Eggleston - all these people still look to his work for inspiration today.
CORNISH: That's Pamela Tom. She's the writer, director and co-producer of the documentary "Tyrus" about the animator Tyrus Wong. He died on Friday at the age of 106. Pamela Tom, thanks so much.
TOM: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF ASAF AVIDAN SONG, "ONE DAY/RECKONING SONG")
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