Happy Birthday Wah Ming Chang

Wah Chang

Wah Chang was a Chinese-American artist and prop designer. Today he’s most recognized for his iconic designs on the television series Star Trek. He was born on this day in 1917 and with that in mind, it being Asian-Pacific Heritage Month, me planning on going to see the Star Trek Into Darkness tonight, and The Wrath of Khan on in the background, now seems like a good time to reflect on his genius.

EARLY LIFE

Wah Ming Chang (鄭華明) was born 2 August, Wah Chang as a child1917 in Honolulu, when Hawai’i was still a territory. His father, Dai Song Chang, owned an art store and framing gallery. The Chang family moved to San Francisco in 1919 and the parents opened Ho Ho Tea Room on 315 Sutter Street, which quickly became a popular hangout for artists and bohemians. Wah’s mother, Fai Sue, was an artist and graduate of the California School of Arts and Crafts. As a young child, Wah also displayed a talent for art and at seven, he began a tutelage under artist Blanding Sloan. Wah had his first solo gallery show when he was just nine years old. His mother passed away when he was eleven and his father moved to Europe, leaving the child with Sloan and his wife, Mildred Taylor. Taylor, was a feminist writer, organizer and lecturer who in the 1920s displayed a strikingly non-stereotypical interest in East Asian cultures. Taylor introduced Wah to puppet-making, a skill which he would employ when he eventually began working in film.

After attending the Peninsula School of Creative Education in Menlo Park on a scholarship, the family (including Chang) moved to Los Angeles. At sixteen, Chang worked as a set designer for shows at the Hollywood Bowl. In 1936 the family moved back to Sloan’s home state of Texas. Chang worked with Sloan before starting his own business. After the business closed, Chang returned to Hollywood. Upon news of his father’s remarrying, Chang joined him for a year in Honolulu before moving once again to San Francisco.

AT WALT DISNEY Wah Chang with the articulated Bambi model, c. 1939. Courtesy of Kevin Kidney. © Disney

At just 21 years old, Chang began working for Walt Disney in 1940, when he worked on character designs for Pinocchio and Fantasia (both 1940). After their release, Chang was contracted polio and was sidelined by extended hospitalization and the temporary loss of the use of both legs. In 1941, after regaining the ability to walk, Chang married Glen Taylor in Texas (at the time marriage between Chinese and whites was against California law). In 1942 he worked on Bambi with another great Chinese-American artist, Tyrus Wong.

AFTER DISNEY

He left Disney afterward and began a working relationship with director George Pal, beginning with the film Tulips Shall Grow (1942). In 1945, with Gene Warren, he created his own production company. In 1947 he worked as the cinematographer and producer on the animated The Way of Peace (a collaboration with Sloan) and contributed the Puppetoon section of The Variety Girl (also 1947).

CENTAUR PRODUCTIONS

Again working with Warren, Chang next formed Centaur Productions, which made commercials, costumes, props, and toys. They also worked on Hardrock, Coco and Joe: The Three Little Dwarfs (1951) and Suzy Snowflake (1953).

MONSTER MOVIES

Besides making children’s cartoons and animating Christian parables, Chang worked un-credited on several B-movies. He created the spider puppets for Cat-Women of the Moon (1953) and Tarantula (1955). Keeping with the arachnida theme, he also designed titular Black Scorpion (1958). He also designed the mutated wasps from Monster from Green Hell (1957).

PROJECT UNLIMITED & GEORGE PAL

Though its name sounds like an early ‘90s Eurodance group, Project Unlimited, Inc was another company formed by Chang, Warren and Tim Baar in 1956. Together they designed costumes, make-up, puppets, sets, and special effects, notably for George Pal’s Tom Thumb (1958), The Time Machine (1960), Atlantis, the Lost Continent (1961), and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962). The company won Academy Awards for its work on The Time Machine.

Wah Ching and an Oscar

OTHER EARLY WORK

Other key work done by Chang included on films such as The Lady Says No (1951), The King and I (1956), Spartacus (1960), Can-Can (1960), La vendetta di Ercole (1960 – released in the US as Goliath and the Dragon), Master of the World (1961), Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), Voyage to the Seventh Planet (1962), Cleopatra (1963), and 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964).

WORK IN TELEVISION & STAR TREK

Chang’s first work on television was for the sci-fi anthology series, The Outer Limits (1963-1965), where he worked for future Star Trek associate producer Robert H. Justman.

Star Trek communicator and tricorder

Chang was first hired to work on Star Trek in 1964, handling make-up and props on the (first) pilot episode, “The Cage.” He designed the look of the Talosians and the pre-phaser laser pistols used by the crew of the Enterprise. Star Trek wasn’t picked up until after a second pilot was filmed in 1965. Star Trek finally debuted in 1966. Chang was once again hired and put to work. He redesigned the phaser. He designed the Starfleet tricorder and communicator. His flip-top design was remarkably similar to my Motorola flip phones of the 1990s (my current phone, thanks to an app, looks even more like Chang’s communicator. He also designed Balok and his ship, the Gorn, the giant from “The Galileo Seven,” the neural parasites from “Operation: Annihilate!,” the Romulan Bird of Prey (and the Romulan helmets), the M-113 Creature, the Vulcan lute, and Tribbles. After “The Trouble With Tribbles,” Chang was let go.

AFTER STAR TREK

After his stint on Star Trek ended, Chang returned to film work, working on Planet of the Apes (1968), The Power (1968), Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (1968), and Big Daddy (1969).

In 1970, the Chang family left Altadena and moved to Caramel-by-the-Sea, where Chang designed and built their new home. Chang returned to production – and began directing – with Dinosaurs, the Terrible Lizards but primarily focused on sculpting. The following year he worked on The Mephisto Waltz. In 1974 he directed and produced Alphabet Roll Call. He returned to TV designing models for Land of the Lost (1974-1975). In 1985 he directed Magic Pony. In 1987, he worked as a creative artist on The Puppetoon Movie.

LATER YEARS

Life and Sculpture of Wah Ming Chang

Although most of Chang’s work had been done in anonymity, fans and film historians began to reappraise his contributions and he appeared a couple of documentaries, appearing in The Fantasy Film Worlds of George Pal (1985) and Time Machine: The Journey Back (1993). In 1987 he sculpted, on commission, four life-size bronze sculptures of Dennis the Menace. In 1989, Chang published a book, Life and Sculpture of Wah Ming Chang, co-authored with David Barrow. In 1994, Chang was awarded the George Pal Memorial Award by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror. In 1995 he was the subject of Wah Ming Chang: Artist and Master of Special Effects.

After Glen passed away, Chang began a relationship with Virginia Park. In 2003, the Chinese Historical Society of America exhibited Chang’s and Tyrus Wong’s work. Six days before the end of the exhibit, Chang passed away on 22 December,2003 (age 86) at his home.

For a far more in-depth account of Chang’s life and work, click here!

*****

Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in AmoeblogdiaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County StoreSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

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