As some of you may know, I am what my girlfriend affectionately calls a “Disney nerd.” I don’t deny it. Especially when it comes to the classic Golden Age films of the 1940’s and 50’s. That was Disney at its height, and their most beautiful film of that time was arguably 1942’s Bambi. Much of the beauty of that film comes from the gorgeous impressionistic backgrounds – based on the work of the incredible Disney Legend, Tyrus Wong.
Yesterday afternoon I was browsing Facebook updates (while I should have been working) and stumbled across Nancy Beiman’s update that Wong was going to be at the Disney Family Museum in San Francisco that day. “WHAT?!” I said to myself. You see, Wong is 100 years old, and likely the only surviving Bambi crew member. Honestly, I didn’t think he was even still alive. I was delighted to hear otherwise, and immediately looked up tickets – to an event that started in exactly one hour. I purchased my ticket and dashed out the door, across the Bay Bridge, through San Francisco, and was the last person to arrive at the event just as they were closing the doors to the auditorium.
Unfortunately, Wong was not actually speaking at the event, though he was in the front row of the audience with his daughter. He had come up from LA and spent the previous day wandering around Pixar. (I heard he was so impressed that he asked for a job.) I understand that he was not up for speaking in front of a crowd (I was amazed he was there at all) and we were extremely lucky to have Charles Solomon as a moderator and Paul Felix (Art Director of BOLT) and Ralph Eggleston (Art Director of Toy Story and Finding Nemo) as guests.
Lucky for you, I live-tweeted the entire event over on my Twitter. Here are the highlights, with some of Wong’s work interspersed.
It’s true – Wong got a standing ovation and looked very happy to be there. During the Q&A at the end, multiple people thanked him for his work on Bambi and the effect it had on them as children, as well as on their own children.
Solomon also mentioned that in most Chinese painting, as in Bambi, human presence is insignificant. Nature really takes center stage.
Eggleston added that “what is left out is just as important as what is left in.” It’s not a lack of detail, it’s a suggestion. You should often ask yourself, “Where can I get away with less?” Wong organizes things tonally and in an abstract pattern very well. His skill lies in playing warms against cools and use of neutral colors.
Eggleston explained that a lot of the detail in the midground is lost – the are that would usually frame the characters. More detail can be found in the foreground and background elements and help directs your eye.
These studies are pretty small – just a few inches square, but packed with beautiful composition, color, and energy.
I thought Felix’s comment about personal color choice was great. Wong’s work is very obviously his own, but has gone on to inspire other generations of filmmakers. Eggleston showed a variety of clips from Finding Nemo where he tried to apply things he had learned from Bambi to the underwater world. The challenge is that the computer creates perfection, which must be fought every step of the way.
Felix presented a few images from Bambi development art before Wong was involved. The style was much more like the classic storybook look of the day – what you would see in Pinnochio or Snow White. Wong went in a completely different direction. Soft, misty backgrounds that relied on tone and color shifts over line. His artwork was mostly done in pastel, but the final backgrounds for the film were done in oil, a time consuming and difficult technique that was quickly abandoned on other films.
Felix talked about the effect that Bambi had on other Disney films, most notably in the art direction that Hans Bacher gave to Mulan. Look closely and you will see some incredible similarities, which makes sense for a story set in China.
It turns out that Wong only worked for Disney for about 3.5 years, and that Bambi was the only animated film he spent much time on. He left for Warner Bros, where he spent his time doing preproduction art (in vastly different styles) for live action films. Wong was inducted into the Disney Legends program in 2001 for his work on Bambi.
The talk was terrific, and a once in a lifetime opportunity to be in the same room with that level of talent and history. On a side note, if you have never been to the Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, you really should try to make it. It’s a great place to learn about Disney history, as well as see events like this one. They have rotating art in some of their galleries, with a display of Wong’s work on Bambi currently up in one of them.
If you’d like read more about Tyrus Wong and Bambi, Frank and Ollie wrote a book about the making of the film. Also, Hans Bacher has multiple posts about the backgrounds and this terrific one on style.
Also, the museum has Mary Blair’s painting desk!!! (And a crazy hat?)