When it comes to pioneers in the history of animation, there are a lot of artists who have flown under the radar.

Yes, there are the big names like William Hanna, co-founder of the animation studio and production company Hanna-Barbera, or Jay Ward, who created the animated cartoon show Rocky and Bullwinkle. But looking back on the Golden Age of American Animation (roughly from 1928 to 1973), many of the behind-the-scenes artists were largely unrecognized during their lifetimes.

An exhibition on view at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles pays tribute to these creators. Inventing Worlds and Characters: Animation, which is permanently on view for gallery-goers, features over 300 items across three rooms — from old animation cells to drawings and puppets — that celebrates the intricate detail that went into creating animated films in pre-digital times.

"It’s over 100 years of animation filmmaking, and the stories they have told," Jenny He tells A.frame. He is the exhibitions curator at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.

Concept illustration for environment Bambi (USA, 1942). Tyrus Wong. Pastel on paper. Walt Disney Animation Studios and Walt Disney Animation Research Library.

The exhibit, which is part of the Academy Museum’s sprawling Stories Of Cinema, showcases a wide range of animation arts, from multiple heads of Jack Skellington from Tim Burton's 1993 The Nightmare Before Christmas to an original glass plate used in the filming of the 1940 Disney film Pinocchio. It also houses elements that audiences have never seen, from illustrations and concept designs that helped envision the characters and worlds to maquettes created as models for drawn characters.

"It walks us through animation, from earliest innovators, like Winsor McCay, to the present day," He said. "It looks at the format, the craft, and the genres, where the only limits are the filmmakers’ imaginations. There is the genre of horror, fantasy, and science fiction in this exhibition."

The exhibit takes visitors through the step-by-step process of how films were made in pre-digital times with hand-drawn, and handcrafted maquettes, puppets, and drawings. 

"I wanted to bring to the forefront the people behind the story and the concept, to take a look behind the scenes of these beloved, classic movies. Every person involved in creating the puppets, storyboards, and models was important," He explained. 

According to He, there are also two Asian American talents featured in the exhibit whose contributions have often been overlooked: illustrator Tyrus Wong and maquette maker Wah Ming Chang.

Both of these men just happened to have worked on one of the most influential animated films of all time, the 1942 Disney classic Bambi.

"What I wanted to demonstrate by including Tyrus Wong and Wah Ming Chang is how important production design is in creating the tone or feel of a movie," He said. "It’s interesting how animators get top billing for effects and animation, but all the craftspeople who work with animators are just as important in these amazing movies we know today."

Photo courtesy of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures

Wong was born in China and immigrated to the United States as a child. After studying art at Otis Art Institute, he was hired by Disney in 1938 as an “in betweener” — an animator who draws the frames between key action images of a film.

Wong brought an influence of Chinese landscape paintings to Disney films, without the audience really noticing. In Bambi, there are scenes of cherry blossom trees, minimal landscaping, calling to mind Song dynasty-era paintings, highlighting mountains and wispy trees.

On view at the museum are his concept illustrations for the environment of Bambi, including his watercolor, pastel and gouache paintings, and drawings on paper, which are courtesy of the Walt Disney Animation Studios and Animation Research Library. Wong was not only a background artist, but also a film production illustrator and sketch artist at both Disney and Warner Brothers until he retired in 1963. Today, Wong is one of the most celebrated Asian American artists of the 20th century.

"When you think about how many people work on creating films today, there’s many below-the-line folks that are not as heralded as they should be,” He noted. “I think that’s what is so great about the [Academy] museum. We have a space now to dedicate stories to different craftspeople for the making of these movies."

Part of He’s work as a curator is not just to showcase interesting objects, but to place them in context so that visitors can learn more about them. To do so, she showcases Wong’s work alongside other background artists from the same era. "I’m contrasting Wong’s work with Eyvind Earle, a Disney background artist who worked on Sleeping Beauty (1959)," He explained.

"When you look at these original artworks by both storied illustrators, you can tell the look of a film is defined by a background artist. These background artists helped influence these two distinctly different films," she continued.

"It’s about creating a world that can elicit emotional reactions from people, and living in that world," she added. "We all cried whenever we saw Bambi the first time. It’s the world he built. I'm so glad we’re able to resurface his contributions. It wasn’t well known at the time. He wasn’t foregrounded, but his talent was recognized."

Photo courtesy of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures

The artistry of Wah Ming Chang didn’t show up on-screen, but was no less important to the success of Bambi and the development of 2D animation as an art form. A designer, he made a deer model out of wood to help Disney’s animators get a better 3D view of the animal when animating. Chang’s wood and metal deer model, used for anatomical reference of a deer’s limbs and joints, is included in the exhibition courtesy of the collection of Theodore Thomas. It helped Disney’s top animators — including Milt Kahl and Ollie Johnston — create the young deer for Bambi.

"The reason I wanted to show various aspects that go into creating an animated film is that I wanted to look at not only the director and the chief animator, but the illustrators, and facets of pre-production to post-production, maquettes and model makers," He said. "I wanted to give visitors various, inspiring inroads into how movies are made. This exhibition is really for visitors to peek behind the curtain and see what goes into making a movie."

Reporting by Nadja Sayej 


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