The History of Disney Animation – Part 5 Bambi

Wikipedia, Bambi, <; [accessed 16/6/2017]
Bambi stands out from these earlier films because of its realism. It was meant to have been the second film that the studio released, hoping to have its premiere in late 1938.[1] However, Bambi was a complex project which saw production consistently pushed back and hence why other projects, like Pinocchio and Fantasia were ‘prioritized’.[2] In fact many, like Frank Thomas and Gabler, reflect back saying that Walt was ‘baffled’ and ‘couldn’t get a hold of Bambi’.[3] During this blog, we will see what how Walt worked out Bambi and crafted it into one of the most realistic and culturally impactful films of all time.

The original story of Bambi was a book written by the Austrian Feliz Salten in 1928.[4] It came to Walt’s attention through an MGM director, Sidney Franklin, who considered making Bambi as a live action story.[5] However Franklin did not believe that live action was the most suitable medium to put the level of ‘poeticism’ he wanted in and hence he turned to animation and ultimately Disney in 1935.[6] People inside the studio, including important animators such as Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, were dubious about the idea, believing it would be ‘impossible to make into a movie’.[7] However, despite Snow White not having been released yet, the even the more cautious Roy Disney (Walt’s brother) said that Walt should try to make a feature out of story.[8] This difference in opinion is really interesting personally and raises many questions. What did Roy see in the project that he felt confident to recommend it? Why were the animators so against it? Was it because of the uncertainty of Snow White?

Whatever the answer to these questions, story boarding was given to Perce Pearce and Larry Morey in 1938 with Walt staying in ultimate charge.[9] Production was initially slow because talent was taken off of Bambi and put onto the studio’s other projects but in August 1939, more full on production began albeit still slowly.[10] The story writing was completed in July 1940.[11]

There were a couple of changes done by the studios that makes the film differ from the book and lots of scenes were introduced and then cut out. For example, there was a scene where Bambi steps on an ant hill, totally destroying and causing chaos for the ants.[12] Additionally, there was a sequence where a bee got stuck in Bambi’s stomach. Characters such as Thumper’s father, a family of grasshoppers and squirrels and chipmunks were all cut from the final film despite having been developed. Thumper was made into a more central character; a guide and friend for Bambi.[13]

Two of the most impactful scenes that did not make it into the film was a scene where the audience would see the hunter on the floor, burnt to death by the fire he created.[14] The second scene was (I’m sorry in advance) Bambi’s mother’s death was going to be shown in full; showing the viewer her being shot.[15] In a way, I think that if these had been in the film, it would have made it a much darker and distressing picture. But, as many argue convincingly, by not having these on screen, the impact of both Man as the enemy and the death of Bambi’s mum is much more impactful.[16]

The key thing that Disney wanted from this picture was realism. As he said himself, ‘there was a need for subtlety in our animation, and a need for more of a life-like type of animation’.[17] At first Walt was unsure that his animators would be able to pull off the image that he had in his mind.[18] Some test sections were done by Frank Thomas and Milt Kahl (Bambi and the butterfly and Bambi jumping over the log) which were labelled as ‘pure gold’ by Disney himself.[19] So faith was restored within his team. For Bambi, Walt picked the animators very carefully with some of the more cartoony animators being left out and put onto other project.[20]

To ensure that there was realism within the animation, Walt brought in Rico Lebrun, an instructor of animal anatomy, to come in and give anatomy classes to the animators.[21] Live animals were brought in so that the animators could really study their skeletons, form, movement etc.[22] Photographers were sent out to photograph real dear and the forest environment in Maine Woods.[23] By being in the natural habitat and not in a studio setting, the hope was to catch and document the little, subtle movements of animals, to help translate these into the animation and thus make the film more realistic.[24] With all this realism however, there was a worry of how to make these animals expressive. Thanks to Marc Davis, this problem was fixed. He used a book on human baby expressions and translated them onto Bambi’s face; making him expressive, childlike and innocent.[25]

The backgrounds in Bambi were heavily influenced by Tyrus Wong.[26] Wong was an in-betweener at Disney (basically doing the animation that lies in between the main drawings).[27] When Wong brought in some background designs that he had done, Walt saw them and used his designs as a key influencer for the look and tone of the whole film.[28]

The music in Bambi was composed by Frank Churchill and Edward Plumb.[29] They were heavily influenced by a pastoral kind of sound – reminiscent of Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony.[30] Music in Bambi is so key that there are only two parts of the whole film where there is no music at all – when Bambi’s mother dies and when Bambi’s mum says that man is in the forest.[31] Bambi was a first in the sense that it was the first film to have songs sung off camera, not by any characters, which furthered the plot or narrative.[32]

Effects were once more pushed during the production of this film, especially it seems for the weather. To create the illusion of snow, cornflakes were dropped in front of a camera simply because it was impossible to animate so many.[33] To create the effect of rain, they actually filmed rain in front of a black screen and transposed this over the top of the cells to create a more realistic rain effect.[34]

However, as hinted at in previous blog posts, the studios were going through a difficult period during this time. Firstly, the studios were short of money with films like Pinocchio and Fantasia costing a fortune to make and yet not receiving any great return at the box office. As such, Walt had to pitch Bambi to the Bank of America for more funding to finish it (luckily they agreed).[35] Because of the financial difficulties, there were rumours that layoffs may happen and despite discussions between Walt and Sorrell (a notorious Hollywood union leader), many Disney animators went out on strike.[36] Although key animators on Bambi stayed loyal to Disney, and were far away from the main action in a different building, Bambi continued to struggle with a small team of 35 – 40 people working on the project.[37] As Finch has described it, it was a bare boned crew.[38]

Despite these problems, Bambi premiered in London on the 13th August 1942.[39] Despite one source, Walt Disney’s ‘Bambi’: The Magic Behind the Masterpiece, claiming that the release and the film was a triumph, everyone else acknowledges that the initial release was not good.[40] It initially lost money and there are a variety of reasons people argue as to why.[41] One was that in America, the anti-hunting feel of the film drew criticism from many hunters.[42] Another theory is that, because it was made by Disney, people were expecting a fantasy film and not one so realistic or hard hitting.[43] One that just seems to be underlying all the other theories is just simply the war. European markets were cut off for Disney and it was right in the middle of the war too. This was a period of civilian bombing and heavy violence – contrary to the anti-violent Bambi.[44]

However, despite some bad reviews from the New York Times saying that ‘Mr Disney has come perilously close to tossing away his whole world of cartoon fantasy’, Bambi was generally received very well and began to make a profit, albeit it 5 years after its initial release.[45]

Bambi, like the other early films of the Golden Age, seems to have taken its time to make a profit and gain full appreciation for them. But one cannot deny that Bambi’s mum has made such an impact on popular culture either being parodied or just making millions cry.

Seven Facts for seven dwarfs!

  1. 2 pet deer were kept permanently on the studio lot for the animators to study. They were called Bambi and Feline.[46]
  2. Bambi got 3 Oscar nominations for best sound, best song and best original musical score.[47]
  3. The film was recently restored by the Library of Congress film vaults as film can degrade quickly.[48]
  4. Animation from Bambi has been used in several other Disney films such as the Fox and the Hound, The Sword in the Stone and the Jungle Book.[49]
  5. The film cost $1.7 million to make.[50]
  6. When actually animating rain, they dropped milk from a pipette into a tank of milk and studied how the splash formed and what it looked like using slow motion.[51]
  7. Walt himself suggested the opening of the film, for having Bambi born and all of the animals gathering to see the young prince.[52]


[1] Oh My Disney, Animating Nature: The making of Bambi, <; [accessed 13/6/2017].

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.; The Walt Disney Family Museum, The Anatomy of a Motion Picture: Realizing “Bambi”, <; [accessed 13/6/2017].

[4] Youtube, The Making of Bambi, <> [accessed 13/6/2017].

[5] Oh My Disney, Animating Nature.

[6] Ibid.;  Youtube, The Making of Bambi.

[7] Oh My Disney, Animating Nature.

[8] Ibid.

[9] John Wills, Bambi, <; [accessed 13/6/2017]; Disney Wikipedia, Bambi, <; [accessed 13/6/2017].

[10] Disney Wikipedia, Bambi.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Youtube, The Making of Bambi.

[13] Oh My Disney, Animating Nature.

[14] Youtube, The Making of Bambi.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] The Walt Disney Family Museum, The Anatomy of a Motion Picture.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.; The Walt Disney Family Museum, The Anatomy of a Motion Picture.

[22] Youtube, The Making of Bambi.

[23] The Walt Disney Family Museum, The Anatomy of a Motion Picture; Christopher Finch,The Art of Walt Disney Animation: from Mickey Mouse to the Magic Kingdom, (London: Virgin, 1999), p. 75.

[24] The Walt Disney Family Museum, The Anatomy of a Motion Picture.

[25] Youtube, The Making of Bambi.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Oh my Disney, A Legend at Work: The Life and Bambi Art of Tyrus Wong, <; [accessed 13/6/2017].

[28] Ibid.

[29] Youtube, The Making of Bambi.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Youtube, Walt Disney’s ‘Bambi’: The Magic Behind the Masterpiece (Video 1997), <; [accessed 13/6/2017].

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid.; Oh My Disney, Animating Nature.

[38] Finch,The Art of Walt Disney, p. 75.

[39] Oh My Disney, Animating Nature; Youtube, The Making of Bambi.

[40] Youtube, Walt Disney’s ‘Bambi’.

[41] Disney Wikipedia, Bambi.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Oh My Disney, Animating Nature.

[44] Wills, Bambi, p. 2.

[45] Wills, Bambi, p. 1; Encyclopaedia Britannica, Bambi,<; [accessed 13/6/2017].

[46] Youtube, Walt Disney’s ‘Bambi’.

[47] Wills, Bambi, p. 2.

[48] Youtube, The Making of Bambi.

[49] Disney Wikipedia, Bambi.

[50] Wills, Bambi, p. 1.

[51] Youtube, Walt Disney’s ‘Bambi’.

[52] Oh My Disney, Animating Nature.


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