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The illustrations that inspired Disney's Bambi

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If there's a Disney film that broke our junior hearts and made our jaws drop into our tiny laps, it was Bambi. (We never quite recovered from the distressing scene where Bambi loses his mother). But not only was its story about a young deer growing up in the forest touching, it also featured a new wave of animation that was equally endearing.

A recent exhibition at The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco revealed that artist Tyrus Wong was the man who inspired the look and feel of the film while it was in its early stages of development.

Wong worked at the Walt Disney Studios as an 'inbetweener', the person who goes through the tedious process of making “in-between” drawings that filled out the movement of the characters between the animators’ key drawings. When he heard that Disney’s next feature-length film was going to be Bambi, he saw an opportunity to present his work.

He read Felix Salten’s Bambi and immediately fell in love with story. "You could almost smell the pine,” he said. Inspired by Sung dynasty landscape paintings, he made sample sketches creating the lush mountain and forest settings, which are featured here.

Wong explained, “I tried to keep it very, very simple and create the atmosphere, the feeling of the forest”.

Wong's approach to design was vastly different from the ornate style of Disney’s SnowWhite and the Seven Dwarfs, which preceded Bambi, and one that had never been seen before in an animated film. The film’s art director, Tom Codrick, was impressed by his sensitive style.

Consequently, Wong’s Chinese-inspired paintings set the look and tone for Bambi and are considered to be some of the most beautiful art to ever be produced at the Walt Disney Studios.

On the film's release in 1942, The New York Times praised the animation, inspired by Wong's designs, as "magical" while Time Magazine described the colours as striking.

Wong went onto work as a production illustrator and sketch artist for Warner Brothers, where he switched from fantasy to realism. He painted and sketched concept art for hundreds of live-action films, including Rebel Without A Cause, Calamity Jane, Harper, The Wild Bunch and Sands of Iwo Jima.

In 2001, Wong was named a Disney Legend, and his work continues to inspire and influence the leading animators of today.

(Words: Sejal Kapadia, Images: magicforces.com and Disney)

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