Google Doodle honors Tyrus Wong, long unrecognized Bambi illustrator

His true contribution went largely unknown for nearly 60 years.

Steven Musil Night Editor / News
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Steven Musil
2 min read

For decades, movie fans were entranced by the haunting visual styling of Bambi without knowing its true source.

Unknown to many, the 1942 Disney classic's striking appearance was created by Tyrus Wong, an Asian-American artist who drew inspiration from landscape paintings of the Song dynasty when he created the lush pastels that served as the movie's background paintings.

One of the best known Asian-American artists of the 20th century, Wong created some of the most recognizable images in American culture over the course of a varied career. He worked as a greeting card illustrator for Hallmark Cards, a muralist for the Works Progress Administration, and even a kite designer.

But it's for a contribution he made that initially wasn't properly noted that Google honored Wong with a video Doodle on his 108th birthday Thursday. Wong, who emigrated from China as a young boy, was initially credited as one of several background artists for the movie, even though he had actually served as lead artist on the project -- a contribution that wasn't fully recognized for decades.

Shortly after finishing his work on Bambi, Wong was fired in 1941 by Disney in the wake of a bitter employees' strike earlier that year -- even though he had chosen not to join the strike. He went on to work as a production illustrator at Warner Bros. Studios for 26 years.

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During his time at Warner, Wong also worked on several Hollywood movies as either a set designer or storyboard artist. Some of the notable movies he worked on include 1955's Rebel Without A Cause, 1965's The Great Race and 1969's The Wild Bunch, among others.

Wong immigrated to the US with his father in 1920 at the age of 9, never to see his mother or sister again. His father would serve as his first art teacher, instructing Wong nightly in the art of calligraphy. But they were too poor to afford ink, so Wong instead painted with water on newspapers.

With the help of a scholarship, Wong attended Otis College of Art and Design, graduating in 1932 at the height of the Great Depression. Like many other artists, including Jackson Pollack, Wong found work at the WPA, painting murals for library buildings and government buildings before going to work for Disney in 1938.

Wong's employment at Disney began after Walt Disney visited a Chinese restaurant in LA's Chinatown to dine and view a mural Wong had helped paint there. In 2001, in recognition of his work on Bambi, Wong was named a Disney Legend, which honors people who have made a significant impact on the Disney legacy.

In later years, Wong could often be seen flying fantastical kites of his own design on the beach in Santa Monica.

He died in 2016 at the age of 106.

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