Meet an original Bambi artist, 104

Updated: 2014-12-04 12:13

By Amy He in New York(China Daily USA)

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When Pamela Tom first found out about Chinese-American painter and artist Tyrus Wong, she knew she had to make a film about his life.

Tom had been watching the Disney movie Bambi with her young daughter and noticed that a Chinese-American painter was mentioned repeatedly as someone responsible for the look of the film.

"I just thought, 'What? A Chinese-American painter? At Disney? In the 1930s?' I was intrigued and surprised and curious, so I did a little research on him and found out that lo and behold, he was still living in Los Angeles," she said.

This was in the late 1990s and Wong was nearing 90 years old then, but Tom reached out to him and began filming interviews with Wong for what would become a feature-length documentary on the artist.

More than a decade later, with Wong now 104, no longer giving interviews and living in Los Angeles with his children, the documentary - Brushstrokes in Hollywood - is in final production. Tom expects it will be completed by the spring or summer of next year.

A fifth-generation Chinese American, Tom got an MSA in film from the University of California in Los Angeles. She has worked as a producer for California's KCET TV channel, but when she started getting funding for the Wong documentary, she concentrated on it full time. Getting money to make the film has been difficult, she said, because Wong had been a relatively unknown name.

"When I first started this film, very, very few people knew who Tyrus Wong was," Tom said. "He was well known in the Chinese-American community in Los Angeles because that's where he grew up and started his career. Only a really small handful of the old timer Disney people really admired him, but on a broader level, he was not well known. In some sense, it hurt me in that it was hard to raise money and convince people that this was a project that was worthy of being funded, that it had a national audience."

Taking a long time to acquire funding for the film ended up being somewhat fortunate because Tom got to film Wong after he began getting recognition for his early work. "One of the ironies is that because it took so long, I was able to really document his later years," she said.

Wong started his career at Disney as a background artist in his late 20s, working on Bambi, designing the look of the film. Impressionist paintings of forests he had done were shown to the Disney studio's best-known artist, who then made Wong the film's art director. He worked on the film for three years, and shortly after it was completed, he was fired by the studio in the aftermath of a Disney's animator strike in 1941.

Wong later went to work at Warner Brother's Studios, doing production illustration and concept art for films like Rebel Without a Cause, staying at that company for 26 years. He also did design for John Wayne films for Republic Pictures, an American production-distribution company.

After his film career, Wong went on to design holiday greeting cards and ceramics, some of his best work being for Hallmark.

"Tyrus is one of the first artists to bring Chinese aesthetics into mainstream culture. If you look at his Christmas cards, if you look at his ceramics work, they all have the influence of calligraphy and the Song dynasty, which he was highly influenced by," Tom said. "Not only was he a Chinese artist working in America, but he was a Chinese artist bringing Chinese aesthetics to American culture, including Bambi."

 Meet an original Bambi artist, 104

Pamela Tom with Chinese-American artist Tyrus Wong, who worked as a concept artist at Disney Studios on the film Bambi. Provided to China Daily

(China Daily USA 12/04/2014 page2)