Tyrus is a feature length documentary by filmmaker Pamela Tom. It celebrates the Chinese-American artist known for inspiring Bambi. In 1942, Walt Disney’s Bambi was released and received rave reviews about the unique and haunting visual style. It was unlike any of the previous Disney films, and from the documentary we learn that this was due to Tyrus Wong’s Song Dynasty-inspired paintings.
Very rarely was a single artist’s style the inspiration for a Disney film, as was the case with Tyrus Wong’s work. And just like the main character, Bambi, Tyrus also experienced strong emotions as he too was separated from his mother as a child.
The director of Tyrus, Pamela Tom, is a fifth-generation Chinese-American director and producer whose work focuses on Orientalism and Feminism. It took her 20 years to realize this film and she was drawn to his story. Drawing inspiration from his life, she commented: “He is a real survivor; how did he do that?”
Tyrus experienced poverty, discrimination, and was not recognized for his artistic contribution within the Hollywood studios until the 1990s.
A young immigrant from China
Tyrus was born in 1910 in a farming village in Guangdong Province, China. As a child, he loved drawing, which was encouraged by his father. In 1920, he and his father left for America in search of a better life, leaving behind his mother and sister. Sadly, he never saw his mother again.
After four weeks at sea, they arrived at the Angel Island Immigration Station in California, known at the time to have the unwritten policy of keeping Chinese out of America. His father made it through the station rather easily, as he had traveled to America before; however, the young Wong was held there for over a month. Tyrus recalled that his experience was frightening and he was miserable and cried often.
Gen Yeo was his original name, but his father thought they needed to better fit into American society, so he changed it to Tyrus.
Tyrus went to a boarding school in Sacramento before moving to Los Angeles. They lived in a Chinatown boarding house infested with vermin. Tyrus worked after school as a houseboy for two families for 50 cents a day. Still, he was taught how to paint calligraphy by his father. They practiced on newspapers, as they were too poor to afford drawing paper.
Art education at Otis
Tyrus won a scholarship to study at Otis College of Art and Design. When the scholarship expired, Tyrus decided not to go back to school; however, his father raised $90, which was a small fortune at that time, to allow him to remain in school.
Tyrus worked as a janitor while a student to help pay for his education at Otis. It was during this time that his father passed away, leaving Tyrus completely alone.
After his graduated from Otis, Tyrus created paintings for libraries and public spaces, and with a Japanese artist, he founded the Oriental Artists Group of Los Angeles, an organization that helped provide exposure to Asian artists of that era.
Animator at Disney
He eventually landed a job with Disney as an “in-betweener” and drew thousands of intermediate images that brought animation to life. While it was a painstaking job that did not make use of his talents, it was regular income as he had recently married. It was while at Disney that Tyrus experienced blatant racism, and where people assumed he worked in the cafe, but it was also where Walt Disney discovered his talent.
He let Walt Disney know that he was a landscape painter when they were looking for inspiration for Bambi. According to animation historian John Canemaker, when Walt Disney was shown Tyrus’s Song Dynasty-inspired paintings, he went crazy over them.
Song Dynasty landscape paintings were full of nature and watercolors, grounded in ideas from Taoism, which stressed that humans were minor players in the greater cosmos.
Tyrus was promoted to “inspirational sketch artist,” but not officially.
In this video, which was shown at the Museum of Chinese in America, Tyrus discusses the visual style he brought to Disney’s Bambi:
The following is a quote from Tyrus Wong: An Appreciation by John Canemaker at the The Walt Disney Film Museum:
“He set the color schemes along with the appearance of the forest in painting after painting, hundreds of them, depicting Bambi’s world in an unforgettable way.
“Here at last was the beauty of [Felix] Salten’s writing, created not in script or with character development, but in paintings that captured the poetic feeling that had eluded us for so long.
“The remarkable paintings of Ty Wong not only inspired the other visual artists, but created a standard that was met by musicians and special effects, too.”
Unfortunately, when the credits for Bambi rolled up, Tyrus Wong was listed as a simple background artist and his name appears near the bottom of the list. He was fired from Disney in the 1940s during a strike. He didn’t hold any resentment against Disney, and carried on with his life and work within the motion picture industry.
During the remainder of his career, Tyrus was a painter, printmaker, calligrapher, greeting-card illustrator, ceramic painter, and Hollywood studio artist. He also created awe-inspiring kites throughout his retirement.
Tyrus passed away in December 2016 at the incredible age of 106. He was one of the many “hidden” great Chinese-American artists of the 20th century who should be recognized and honored.
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