Skip to main content

AMERICAN MASTERS: Tyrus

Airs Saturday, Aug. 17, 2019 at 7 p.m. on KPBS 2

Portrait of Tyrus Wong. Filmmaker Pamela Tom spotlights this seminal, but her...

Credit: Courtesy of the Tyrus Wong Family

Above: Portrait of Tyrus Wong. Filmmaker Pamela Tom spotlights this seminal, but heretofore under-credited, figure in AMERICAN MASTERS “Tyrus.”

⁠—Discover the art, life and enduring impact of the Chinese American painter behind “Bambi”⁠—

People worldwide have seen the Disney animated classic “Bambi” and been deeply moved by it, but few can tell you the name of the artist behind the film. Even fewer are aware of this pioneering artist’s impact on American art and popular culture.

Until his death at the age of 106, Tyrus Wong (1910-2016) was America’s oldest living Chinese American artist and one of the last remaining artists from the golden age of Disney animation. The quiet beauty of his Eastern-influenced paintings caught the eye of Walt Disney, who made Wong the inspirational sketch artist for “Bambi.”

Filmmaker Pamela Tom (“A Tribute to Sir Sidney Poitier,” “Two Lies”) corrects a historical wrong by spotlighting this seminal, but heretofore under-credited, figure in AMERICAN MASTERS “Tyrus.”

Tyrus - Trailer

Until his death at the age of 106, Tyrus Wong was America’s oldest living Chinese American artist and one of the last remaining artists from the golden age of Disney animation. The quiet beauty of his Eastern-influenced paintings had a pioneering impact on American art and popular culture.

Born in Canton (now Guangzhou), China, right before the fall of the Chinese Empire, Wong and his father immigrated to America in 1919, never to see their family again.

The film shows how he overcame a life of poverty and racism to become a celebrated painter who once exhibited with Picasso and Matisse, a Hollywood sketch artist, and ‘Disney Legend.’

Tyrus Wong's detention as a new immigrant

As a young boy, Tyrus Wong came to the United States with his father, but as part of a grueling immigration process, was detained for a month before being allowed into the country.

Previously unseen art and interviews with Wong, movie clips and archival footage illustrate how his unique style – melding Chinese calligraphic and landscape influences with contemporary Western art – is found in everything from Disney animation (“Bambi”) and live-action Hollywood studio films (“Rebel Without a Cause,” “The Wild Bunch,” “Sands of Iwo Jima,” “April in Paris”) to Hallmark Christmas cards, kites and hand-painted California dinnerware to fine art and Depression-era WPA paintings.

How Tyrus Wong got the job to animate Bambi

When he began working for Disney, Wong's role was minor and technical. Then, when a supervisor noticed his work, he was asked to create the atmosphere for the film "Bambi." Wong would go on to paint hundreds of pastels that would define the impressionistic, colorful forests throughout the film.

The film also features new interviews with his daughters and fellow artists/designers, including his Disney co-worker and friend Milton Quon, Andreas Deja (“The Little Mermaid”), Eric Goldberg (“Aladdin”) and Paul Felix (“Lilo & Stitch”), and curators and historians of Wong’s work.

Tyrus Wong's atmospheric work gave "Bambi" its unique style

Tyrus Wong spent years honing a soft, atmospheric painting style that relied heavily on lighting and creative use of color. This unique approach gave "Bambi" its groundbreaking impressionistic style.

“Tyrus Wong’s story is a prime example of one of the many gaping holes in our society’s narrative on art, cinema, and Western history,” said Pamela Tom. “By telling his story, I wanted to shine light on one of America’s unsung heroes, and raise awareness of the vital contributions he’s made to American culture.”

“When I met Tyrus, I knew very little about his astounding work, which I then saw displayed prominently at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco,” said Michael Kantor, AMERICAN MASTERS series executive producer. “This beautifully realized film is a reminder that there are many American Masters who are not immediately recognizable, but when you learn about their stories, you’ll never forget them.”

See Tyrus Wong's work in classic Warner Bros. movies

After leaving Disney, Tyrus Wong joined Warner Bros. and began painting scenes based on screenplays. He would continue working for Warner Bros. for 26 years, helping set the stage for thousands of films.

Watch On Your Schedule:

This full episode is currently available to stream on demand with KPBS Passport.

Episodes are available to stream on demand for a limited time after broadcast. Extend your viewing window with KPBS Passport, video streaming for members ($60 yearly) using your computer, smartphone, tablet, Roku, AppleTV, Amazon Fire or Chromecast. Learn how to activate your benefit now.

Subscribe To The American Masters Podcast:

Listen to new interviews with contemporary artists, along with previously unreleased interviews from the series' award-winning documentary films. Subscribe now

Join The Discussion:

AMERICAN MASTERS is on Facebook, Instagram, tumblr, and you can follow @PBSAmerMasters on Twitter. #AmericanMastersPBS

Credits:

A production of New Moon Pictures, Apricot Films, Lux Mundi Productions, and Stone Circle Pictures in association with the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) and THIRTEEN’s AMERICAN MASTERS for WNET. Pamela Tom is writer and director. Pamela Tom, Gwen Wynne and Tamara Khalaf are producers. Linda Barry is co-producer. Don Hahn, Robert Louie, and David W. Louie are executive producers. Michael Kantor is AMERICAN MASTERS series executive producer.

FEATURED PODCAST

San Diego News Matters podcast branding

KPBS' daily news podcast covering local politics, education, health, environment, the border and more. New episodes are ready weekday mornings so you can listen on your morning commute.

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or sign up for our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.