LOS ANGELES—In the late 1930s, when few doors were open to the son of a poor Chinese immigrant, Tyrus Wong landed a job at Walt Disney's studio as a lowly "in-betweener," whose artwork filled the gaps between the animator's key drawings. But he arrived at an opportune moment.
Disney's animators were struggling to bring "Bambi" to the screen. The wide-eyed fawn and his feathered and furry friends were literally lost in the forest, overwhelmed by leaves, twigs, branches and other realistic touches in the ornately drawn backgrounds.
"Too much detail," Wong thought when he saw the sketches.
On his own time, he made a series of tiny drawings and watercolors and showed them to his superiors. Dreamy and impressionistic, like a Chinese landscape, Wong's approach was to "create the atmosphere, the feeling of the forest." It turned out to be just what "Bambi" needed.
Wong, who brought a poetic quality to "Bambi" that has helped it endure as a classic of animation, died of natural causes just after midnight early Friday morning in his Sunland home, said his daughter Kim Wong. He was 106.
"Ty had a different approach and certainly one that had never been seen in an animated film before," legendary Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston once wrote of the humble artist, whose contributions to one of the studio's iconic productions went largely unheralded for years.
"His grasses were a shadowy refuge with just a few streaks of the actual blades; his thickets were soft suggestions of deep woods and patches of light," Thomas and Johnston wrote. "Every time of day and each mood of the forest was portrayed in a breathtaking manner."
Called the film's "most significant stylist" by animation historian John Canemaker, Wong influenced later generations of animators, including Andreas Deja, the Disney artist behind Lilo of "Lilo and Stitch" and Jafar in "Aladdin."
"I was 12 or 13 when I saw 'Bambi.' It changed me," Deja told the Los Angeles Times in 2015. "There was something about the way the forest was depicted that had a layer of magic to it.
"Tyrus Wong really made that film look the way it did."
Wong worked at Disney only a few years, his employment cut short by a strike in 1941. But he quickly was picked up by Warner Bros., where for more than 25 years he drew storyboards and set designs for such movies as "Rebel Without a Cause," "The Wild Bunch" and "Sands of Iwo Jima."
When he retired from Warner Bros. in 1968, he continued to paint, turning some of his work into top-selling Christmas cards for Hallmark. He also channeled his artistry into kitemaking and in his 10th decade was still flying his creations — swallows, snow cranes, a 100-foot-long centipede — at Santa Monica State Beach. He was the subject of "Tyrus," an award-winning documentary by filmmaker Pamela Tom released in 2015.
Wong was born in Guangdong province in southern China on Oct. 25, 1910. Pigs and chickens lived under the family roof, which leaked, and food was suspended from a hook in the ceiling "so that the rats wouldn't eat it," Wong recounted in "On Gold Mountain," a memoir by Lisa See.
At age 9 he said goodbye to his mother and sister and sailed to America with his father, Look Get Wong. On Dec. 30, 1920, they landed at Angel Island.
His father was free to head to the mainland because he had immigrated earlier and had his papers. Tyrus, however, was confined to the immigration station. "It was just like jail," he later said of the lonely month he spent there.
Immigration officials quizzed him about his family and home back in China to ascertain if he really was Look Get Wong's son. On Jan. 31, 1921, they issued his identification papers and he was reunited with his father. He never saw his mother and sister again.
He went to Sacramento, where his father tried to scrape by working for a cobbler. But the elder Wong knew nothing about repairing shoes, so when a better opportunity arose in Los Angeles, he moved there, leaving Tyrus behind until he got settled.
He wound up sending for his son sooner than he had planned. With his father gone, Tyrus started skipping school. Notified of the boy's delinquency after a month of absences, the senior Wong had him put on a train to L.A.
"When I got off the train," Wong told See, "my father hit me for doing so badly."
He placed a high value on education, but he was, Wong later said, "a very, very good father." He recited classical Chinese poetry to his son and taught him to paint, draw and write calligraphy. Unable to afford proper paper and ink, Tyrus practiced on newsprint with a brush dipped in water.
They lived in Chinatown but he attended school in Pasadena, where he painted posters for school events. His junior high principal was impressed by his artistic ability and helped him obtain a scholarship for one term at Otis Art Institute (now Otis College of Art and Design). Wong later received a full scholarship.
At Otis he studied the giants of Western art, such as Honore Daumier. He spent much of his spare time looking at Japanese and Chinese brush painting, particularly Song dynasty landscapes that conveyed mountains, mist and trees with minimal strokes.
"I learned that nature is always greater than man," he said in See's book. "It is the balance and harmony between man and nature that is important."
After graduating from Otis in 1935, he joined the Depression-era Federal Arts Project, creating paintings for public libraries and government buildings.
In 1938 he was hired at Disney but didn't think he would last long. Being an "in-betweener" required little creativity and a lot of eye-straining tedium.
Then he heard about "Bambi," based on the book by Felix Salten.
"I said, 'Gee, this is all outdoor scenery (and) I'm a landscape painter. This will be great,'" he recalled in a video for the Disney Family Museum, which showcased his work in a 2013 exhibit.
When "Bambi" art director Tom Codrick saw Wong's sketches, Wong recalled later, "He said, 'Maybe we put you in the wrong department.'" The rest of the team agreed, including Disney.
"I like that indefinite effect in the background — it's effective. I like it better than a bunch of junk behind them," Disney said in Thomas' and Johnston's book, "Walt Disney's Bambi: The Story and the Film." Disney later said that of all the animated films he produced, "Bambi" was his favorite.
"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," Johnston and Thomas wrote. "Here at last was the beauty of 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."
In Wong's last decades he was known for the magnificent kites he made at home in Sunland and flew on the beach to the delight of passersby.
"You get a certain satisfaction in making them, and you get a certain satisfaction flying them," Wong said in a 1995 interview with The Times. "Some are attention-getters, but that's not what I'm after. I used to go fishing a lot, and I love fishing. This is just like fishing, except in fishing you look down. Kite flying, you look up."
(Times staff writer Frank Shyong contributed to this report.)
(Woo is a former Times staff writer)