Bambi (1942), Disney Studio Artist, Story Sketch, coloured pencil and graphite on paper. © Disney
Bambi (1942), Disney Studio Artist, Story Sketch, coloured pencil and graphite on paper. © Disney
Stories & Ideas

Mon 10 May 2021

How Bambi changed Disney's animation

Animation Disney: The Magic of Animation Film
Matt Millikan
Matt Millikan

Senior Writer & Editor

From its vivid animation to the coming-of-age story at its centre, Bambi changed the way Disney approached animation and established one of its signature looks.

The little prince of the forest needs a little help. Luckily, when Bambi is born, all the nearby animals flock to see him and witness his first shaky steps. Leading the charge is Thumper, the cheeky rabbit who observes that Bambi’s first steps are “kinda wobbly”. Not only does Thumper help Bambi find his feet, he also helps him find his voice, teaching him the basics like ‘bird’, ‘butterfly’ and ‘flower’. Like a lot of newborns, Bambi doesn’t get it all right immediately. Digging his nose into a bed of flowers, young Bambi’s met by the twitching nose of a skunk, who he immediately labels “Flower!”, much to Thumper’s delight. But the skunk doesn’t mind being called flower, in fact, it becomes his name.

This is the first time the trio of best friends meet in Walt Disney Animation Studio’s Bambi (1943), and an early story sketch of the moment is featured at the top of the page. It’s just one of over 1 million drawings, as well as approximately 250,000 cels, brought to life during the development and production of the film, which had been underway since 1936. Adapted from Viennese author Felix Salten’s 1923 novel Bambi, a Life in the Woods, Walt Disney had planned on releasing Bambi as the studio’s second feature film after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). There were a number of factors that made it the studio’s fifth animated feature instead: the difficulty adapting an elliptical novel about the cycle of life into a family-friendly film, Walt’s other pressing projects like Pinocchio taking priority, his aspirations for the animation for Bambi, and the impending world war.

Like 1967’s The Jungle Book, based on Rudyard Kipling’s book, the source material for Bambi was considerably darker than what ended up on screen (though some would say the film is dark enough). The structure of the book was also not as straight-forward as the fairytales Disney had previously adapted, which made the animators nervous about how to adapt the story. Ideas explored included an episodic, travelling roadshow version and a live action version explored by the original rights owner, MGM director Sidney Franklin, who later helped the Disney team visualise the masterpiece we know today.

To his credit, Walt always understood the difficulty of adapting the original book and never wanted to create a word-for-word copy of the story. It was the characters that drew him towards the story (even though icons like Thumper and Flower don’t actually appear in the book), and part of getting the characters right was to get the animation right.

“To retain the charm of these creatures, our… drawings must fully capture the natural movements and attitudes of living animals,” Walt said in a promotional film featured in the documentary Bambi: The Magic Behind the Masterpiece (1997).

This was another aspect of the production that took some time. Though the Disney animators had tried their hands at deer in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, supervising animator Eric Larson later compared them to “big flour sacks” in The Making of Bambi: A Prince is Born (2011), meaning they may not have achieved the realism Disney was after. To help his animator, Walt Disney famously had two fawn (baby deer) brought into the studio for the animators to study. Naturally, they were named Bambi and Faline, Bambi’s love interest in the film. Of course, Bambi is set in the wild, and pet fawns tend to behave like, well, pets. To capture the way they interacted with their natural environment, the team filmed a variety of animals in the wilderness in Maine, as well as at zoos – a process that continues today on films like Zootopia (2016). The crew also worked with Italian artist and art educator Rico LeBrun, whose detailed anatomical studies highlighted the deer’s skeletal structure.

But for anyone who has seen Bambi and fallen in love with its loveable characters, there’s obviously a human element to the range of facial expressions. When Bambi first encounters Flower and the skunk bashfully explains, “He can call me a flower if he wants to”, it’s unlikely a real skunk was the inspiration for so much coyness and cute. And after all, Bambi himself literally has large, doe eyes. According to Bambi: The Magic Behind the Masterpiece (1997), it was animator Marc Davis who “opened up the door for how you get human expressions on a deer”. The way he did it was to study a book on the behaviour of babies and adapt the facial expressions that he found onto illustrations of young deer. “I think that was a turning point… for the creation of the character,” he said.

Film historian John Culhane goes even further, saying: “They worked out the essence of Disney animation on Bambi, that’s continued to this day, which is animals who are caricatures of human beings and at the same time move and behave like animals… The art of animation never was the same again.”

Another artist who had a huge impact on the film’s aesthetic was an inbetweener working on Pinocchio who wasn’t even assigned to Bambi. (An inbetweener illustrates the drawing between the ‘main’ drawings in an animation – it’s very repetitive). Chinese American artist Tyrus Wong submitted pastel drawings reminiscent of East Asian ink paintings that caught Disney’s eye. Other artists on the project were creating immensely detailed and realistic portrayals of the forest, while Wong’s minimalist approach emphasised atmosphere and emotion through vivid colour, which contributed to the overall spirit of the film. The impact of Wong’s aesthetic was also bolstered using a multiplane camera, which layers images on sheets of glass to provide depth. When the crew saw Wong’s paintings, they agreed that maybe they’d put him in the wrong department.

One sequence in the film that embodies Wong’s transcendent, expressionist style is the climactic forest fire, which sees the animals cast as dark shapes against blazing hues of orange and red that’s heat you can almost feel. Thematically, as well as stylistically, it’s one of the film’s most vital scenes, showing the destruction caused by the human hunters who have not only preyed on the forest’s animals, but threaten the entire environment. Prior to this, the film charts the life cycle of birth, life, death and renewal through the seasons, with man’s cruelty interrupting the natural order of the forest. The hunter, known only as Man, is even on the AFI’s 100 Years 100 Heroes & Villains list, coming in at number 20, even beating Dracula. Considering the film came out in 1943, it could easily be considered one of the world’s first environmentalist films, which led to Walt Disney receiving hate mail (from avid hunters) and what’s now known as the Bambi effect, which was inspired by the death of Bambi’s mother.

Yet Walt Disney was making Bambi in the waning days of the Great Depression and in the looming shadow of Nazism and fascism in the 1930s, even into the early years of WWII. Parts of the studio and its resources were devoted to helping the war effort by making films to boost morale, and instead of shy away from the film’s heavy themes (including that infamous scene), Walt embraced the reality of the world.

“Life is composed of lights and shadows and we would be untruthful, insincere and saccharine if we tried to pretend there were no shadows,” Walt later said.

And in the end, the film does end on a positive note. Bambi’s old friend from the concept sketch above, Flower, has even had a baby and named it after the fawn who gave him his name. The cycle of life continues. Bambi and Faline have twins and the forest comes alive.

A time of trouble is just like Bambi’s mother told him during his first winter: “It seems long, but it won’t last forever.”

– Matt Millikan

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