The Creator's Story
Wah Ming Chang (Aug. 2,1917 - Dec. 23, 2003) was one of the great unsung heroes of Star Trek. He was not listed in the show's credits, but everyone certainly knows his work: the communicator, tricorder, phaser, the Gorn, the first Romulan ship, tribbles, and more. Wah Chang was an artist, sculptor and animator who worked in Hollywood for decades and left his mark on many a classic film and TV show. His work even won an Oscar for Special Effects, in 1961 for "The Time Machine," though he is not named among the award's recipients due to a clerical error in the submittal form.
His first contribution to Trek came when he designed the prosthetic heads of the Talosians for the first pilot "The Cage." When early designs of the phaser were not acceptable to producer Robert Justman, he asked Chang to take a crack at it, and he delivered the perfect prop. There after Chang agreed to design and create the tricorder and the communicator. Justman said, "Wah's work was always of the highest quality and very high creativity, and certainly he made it possible for us to do what we were doing on Star Trek. He made our jobs possible."
- edited excerpts like the above from the official Star Trek website are in yellow
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The following text is from the 1989 book “The Life and Sculpture of Wah Ming Chang” written by his wife Glen and by a cousin David Barrow. ©1989 Wah Ming Chang, Carmel, CA; used by permission. Since this was written by family, it is Wah’s story as he likely wanted it told. Some revisions have been made to account for changes that have occurred since then. Added material comes from Webster Colcord's (now-closed) StopMotionAnimation.com thread in pink, Wikipedia in blue, Don Colman's "Time Machine"-related Wah tribute in green, the book "Wah Ming Chang - Artist and Master of Special Effects" by Gail Blasser Riley in orange, and from us in grey. Movie and personnel links reference "The Internet Movie Database" (IMDb).
PART 1 - THE MAKING OF A MASTER
Wah Chang’s career as an artist, toy designer, special effects technician, filmmaker, and costumer spanned nearly seven decades. Many of the projects to which he devoted his talents over the years are well-known to television and movie audiences, while other work demonstrated his commitment to social, educational, and environmental causes. The bronzes Wah created during his last thirty years reflect both the diversity of his artistic background and the joy and imagination of a man who never lost touch with his sense of play and possibility.
Wah was born in 1917 in Honolulu to Dai Song and Fai Sue Chang. Song Chang’s interests included architecture and etching and Sue Chang, a graduate from the California School of Arts and Crafts at Berkley, was known for her fashion designs, sketches and etchings. Early in the 1920s, the Changs moved to San Francisco and took over the management of the “Ho Ho” Tea Room at 315 Sutter Street.
The “Ho Ho” became a popular retreat for much of San Francisco’s Bohemia, but above all, it was Sue Chang’s reputation for kindness and generosity among San Francisco’s artists which attracted to her and her family a circle of talented friends.
Among the artists and writers who frequented the tea room were Blanding Sloan, a native of Texas, and his wife Mildred Taylor, a newspaper journalist and early advocate of equal rights for women.
Blanding was a newcomer to the West Coast from New York where he had designed sets and lighting for a number of Broadway productions, including Flo Ziegfield’s “Follies” and Earl Carroll’s musicals. Sloan's was an eclectic talent. He pursued painting, etching, puppeteering, and the cultivation of other artists. He and Mildred had started on a proposed trip around the world, sketching and writing about their adventures along the way, and had come as far as San Francisco when the spell of that city and a shortage of funds prompted them to stay. Blanding had a studio on Polk Street, and he and Mildred formed the nexus for a group which included such notables as sculptor Ralph Stackpole and painter Maynard Dixon.
To Blanding's Polk Street studio came artists, would‑be artists, and interested bystanders. They all received a sympathetic and encouraging hand with their problems, or simply a warm place out of the fog. Blanding did his own work there, scratching away at copper plates or running off impressions of etchings on the massive press which occupied one corner of the studio. He paid the rent somehow, and managed to keep on hand the best art materials available.
It was at the "Ho Ho" that Blanding found Wah sketching pictures and portraits on the backs of his mother's menus one afternoon, and he was caught fast by the solemn brown eyes which observed an adult world from beneath a thatch of black hair.
The three Changs were soon an integral part of the group of regulars at the Polk Street studio, and Wah spent all of his after-school time there. He was adventurous with the materials given him, and Blanding encouraged him at whatever he wanted to try.
Seven‑year‑old Wah was accepted on equal footing with a hard‑working group of serious artists. A regular student in the life-sketching class, Wah learned the techniques of the etcher's craft and was comfortably at home with oils and canvas.
Those who followed the arts soon began to watch for announcements of shows at the Palace of The Legion of Honor, or at The City of Paris, or Gump's Department Store. Reporters who covered these affairs discovered a copy bonanza in the small Chinese boy in a cowboy shirt who demonstrated the big etching press with such poise. School children were invited in special groups to watch these demonstrations by one of their peers. Still, with all the special attention that came his way, Sue Chang saw that Wah kept on an even keel. He was never jostled out of the quietly alert dignity he seemed to have been born with.
Then suddenly in 1928 Sue died after a brief, intense battle for life in a San Francisco hospital. It was Blanding who took the small boy for a walk in Golden Gate Park, and while they rested on a bench in the warm sunshine, he told him he would not see his mother again and tried to comfort him as best he could.
His father Song Chang (right), too, turned to the Sloans for comfort. Without Sue he had no heart for the tea room. He wanted to travel as far away from the hurt of his loss as he could possibly go. Would Blanding and Mildred keep the boy with them for a while? Thus, the Sloans became Wah's guardians and took him to live with them. Until his death in 1975, Blanding was a lasting influence in shaping many of Wah's attitudes toward his profession, while Mildred gave him the comfort and security of an affectionate family.
In the time that followed, Wah forgot all but the remnants of his Chinese vocabulary. He no longer attended the after-hours Chinese school. Although he now had some responsibility looking after his younger foster brother who shared the attention of his foster parents, there were still hours of delight when he worked silently side-by-side with Blanding in the studio on Polk Street.
Every now and then, Blanding would gather enough creditable examples of work from the group to make up an exhibit. Many of these included Wah's work. Eastern galleries asked to show his prints without knowing his age, and bought them for permanent collections. In 1927, one of his prints, submitted to the Annual Exhibition of the Brooklyn Society of Etchers, was shown alongside the works of Frank Duveneck, the elder, and James Whistler. Later that year his work was exhibited at the annual show of the Philadelphia Print Club.
The year after his adoption by the Sloans Wah received a scholarship to the Peninsula School (then the Peninsula School of Creative Education) in Menlo Park, outside of Palo Alto. Each day he rode his bicycle from Palo Alto out to the old Victorian building in which the school is still housed. Josephine Duveneck, its founder and director, established the Peninsula School as the first Progressive Education facility on the West Coast. The school was then, and is still, a unique institution. There was great variety and flexibility in the program, which was far from traditional. Each child was encouraged to flex muscles and curiosity as far as was comfortable, and then a little further. If, in so doing, exceptional abilities were exposed, these were cultivated at individual levels. Wah remembered this as a very happy time in his childhood.
In her autobiography, Life On Two Levels, Mrs. Duveneck describes one of the activities of the school's art department.
The high white walls of our building offered marvelous backgrounds to carry out large-scale imagery. Equipped with big brushes and jars of poster paint, the youthful artists painted sweeping landscapes and brightly arrayed figures directly on the walls... These pictures were allowed to remain only for a year, and then they were all washed away to allow for fresh inspiration to fill the space. Only one picture in the Assembly Room was allowed to remain for many years. It was by our gifted Chinese pupil, Wah Chang. He painted a life-size portrait of a great buckskin mare with flowing mane and tail, standing with her newborn colt in front of an old wooden barn which everyone recognized as the "Hidden Villa" barn. When this masterpiece had to be washed away, some of us had tears in our eyes.*
* Life on Two Levels by Josephine Duveneck, William Kaufmann, Inc. 1978
After Peninsula School, Wah rejoined his adopted family in Hollywood where Blanding was designing sets for a number of productions at the Hollywood Bowl. He put Wah in charge of the set construction for one of these.
Wah remembers, "I was sixteen at the time Blanding gave me the job of building the set for 'The Victory Ball Ballet'. The ballet performances followed those of the symphony orchestra and the sets for the ballet had to be either moved into place or assembled in the dark by the dancers themselves; a difficult maneuver."
During summer vacation before his last year in high school, Wah worked on a W.P.A. Federal Theater puppet project under Sloan's direction. During that year he also received leave from school to work on a short puppet movie produced and directed by Leroy Prinz. On this job he worked with a puppet maker, Charles Cristadoro, who a few years later would introduce him to the Walt Disney Studios.
In 1936, Texas was planning the celebration of its Centennial Fair. One of the attractions was to be an outdoor spectacular, a portrayal of one hundred years of Texas' colorful history. "The Cavalcade of Texas" was two months behind schedule when Blanding was called to Dallas to take charge of the lighting for the massive historical pageant. Eventually he assumed the direction of the whole production. There was work for Wah, and having finished high school, he followed Blanding to Dallas to do publicity art for the show.
For Wah, the most significant development from this experience was that he met a young woman from nearby North Texas State University. In her second year as an art and education major, Glenella ("Glen") Taylor was one of a score of college students recruited from the art and drama departments to serve as members of the cast. During rehearsal breaks, she watched the skilled drafting of the pastel portraits of the play's leading actors which Wah was making for display at the entrance of the amphitheater. The two began a friendship that would lead back to Texas five years later when they would be married.
In 1937, Wah, then nineteen, returned to Hollywood and soon heard from his father who had remarried and was on his way to China. Wah met with his father (who lived until 1974) and several aunts and cousin in Honolulu. He stayed on as art instructor for the Honolulu Recreational Department. After a year in the Islands, receiving a letter from an old friend offering him work at the San Francisco World's Fair, Wah returned to do work on two animated commercial advertising films and displays to which he applied his skills as a puppet-maker and animator.
Here he learned a great deal about the technique of stop-motion photography. This new skill fitted him perfectly for a job at the Disney Studios which now came his way through his old friend from Federal Theater days, Charles Cristadoro.
Disney Studios had just finished "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," and the popular success in 1939 of this first feature length film had spurred Disney to hire artists from all over the country to complete a number of other animated film projects. Wah at age 21 was signed on as the youngest member of the Effects and Model Department to work under Bob Jones first on "Pinocchio," and then on "Fantasia" and "Bambi." Wah was making wooden models of the characters so the animators could study body movements. During Wah's summer vacation he went to Indiana to pick up a car he had bought and drove to Texas to visit Glen.
Wah had been at work at Disney Studios for about a year and a half when one day he fell ill with what the attending doctor diagnosed as a bad case of the flu. Several days later he was checked into the hospital where he was told he had polio. When he was asked to move his legs and found this impossible, he realized the seriousness of his condition.
Wah was kept at the Los Angeles County Hospital for 21 days until the danger of contagion was past and then was moved to a sanitarium in San Gabriel. In the sanitarium, he celebrated his twenty-second birthday. On one of his visits to see Wah, Blanding developed a plan to help with the rehabilitation. A work bench and art supplies were brought in and each day Wah would use his wheelchair to convey himself to the bench and work at creating art projects. Then, after nine months, he was fitted with leg braces, and with the aid of crutches he managed to get back on his feet.
Wah spent that summer of 1941 working and recuperating at the Sloan's house in Eagle Rock, California. He also saw a great deal of Glen Taylor, who was visiting her aunt in near-by Van Nuys, and before the summer was over the two had decided to marry the following spring at the end of her second year of teaching. The bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 dramatically changed their plans as travel within the country became increasingly difficult. They decided to marry in Texas as California law at the time forbade a Caucasian and a Chinese to marry. They then returned to California and got their own apartment.
In the meantime, Wah had gone to work for the George Pal Puppetoon Studio as the head of the model department. In addition to producing a number of animated "shorts," the company produced training films for the military. Some of the films required miniature sets and special-effects photography, tools which Wah incorporated into his growing set of skills in the film medium.
Wah spent a year and a half at Pal's. By then, ready to use his skills in the production of his own films, he and Glen invested their total savings in camera equipment (primarily a Kodak 16mm "cine special") and struck out on their own. They made a number of medical films. One was on oral surgery and another on a new Caesarean Section surgical technique. A third, which was animated, illustrated a new treatment to stimulate the regrowth of motor nerves in polio victims.
In 1945 Blanding and Wah collaborated to form a production company called "East-West Studio." Among their projects they made a film of the folk singer, Huddie Leadbetter. "Leadbelly" was the legendary singer and composer of many familiar songs including "Good Night, Irene." The film was never completed but was later re-edited by Pete Seeger, and this rare footage was incorporated into a film with several other folk singers. It has since been called a minor classic.
A major project for Blanding and Wah during the "EastWest Studio" period was their production of "The Way of Peace," an animated puppet film commissioned by the American Lutheran Church at the end of the war as a commentary on the Atomic Age.
The film premiered in 1947 at Constitution Hall in Washington D.C. before a distinguished audience, including President Truman and Albert Einstein, invited by the Washington Federation of Churches.
In the August, 1948 issue of the Saturday Review of Literature, The Film Forum concluded its review of the 19 minute film stating:
“Lew Ayers narrates the story of man's saga through the ages. Presented by means of puppets and miniature sets, a lavish production has been made possible; by sheer artistry budgetary problems have been annihilated. The story opens with the Creation and ends with the earth dissolving into the cosmos. Now man has invented the means of total destruction. There is a scene of full-scale atomic warfare which is brilliant and unforgettable. This is a great picture and should not be overlooked.”*
*Saturday Review of Literature, August 8, 1948
In 1948 Wah and Gene Warren, an associate from earlier studio days, were approached by Norval Krutcher to form a company called Centaur to do television commercials. Wah recalls, " We opened up a little studio on Melrose in Hollywood, but most of the time we sat around the studio waiting for any work to come in. During this time, I did some free-lance designing. One of these jobs was working on one of the first models of the 'Barbie' dolls for the Mattel Toy Company. I also did some designs for a novelty company and had the idea for doing a small novelty using a bent wire inside a plastic figure to animate it. The first of these was a little harem dancing girl seated on a cushion. When you turned the crank on the bottom of the base she did an exotic dance. We sold this to novelty companies and it became so successful overnight that we ended by hiring round-the-clock crews. We couldn't make them fast enough. Then we decided to use the idea for a more suitable toy for children. I designed a series of animals... rabbits, bears, elephants, dogs... all with the same principle of the crank underneath which would animate the soft plastic animal figure. These were instantly popular. Moving into a larger factory in Burbank, we had at the height of production some 70 or 80 people assembling toys, which we shipped all over the United States.
"Not only did we design the toys, but we had to design and build the machinery to cast the flexible plastic. We licensed 'Bozo, the Clown' from Capitol Records and made 'Bozo' toys. This was the familiar red-haired clown figure molded around a pipe cleaner armature which you could bend and pose in any position.
"Then we attempted to incorporate sound in the animated crank toys by means of a miniature player underneath. The idea was fine, but we ran into a mountain of difficulties with production problems and after spending thousands of dollars the company folded."
It was during this period that Gene and Wah did some stage designs for the Curran Theater Company. The costume designer for one of these productions, a musical called "Magdalena," was Irene Sharoff, who remembered Wah's work and later commissioned him to do the masks for the ballet sequence in the film version of "The King and I" with Yul Bryner (at right). This film was followed by his fabrication of the masks for the ballet sequence in "Can Can" with Shirley McLaine and Frank Sinatra. Through Sharoff, Wah began a long-term working relationship with the Western Costume Company, for whom he executed a number of special designs and properties over the years.
HC note - we conclude Part 1 around 1956. Next up starts with Wah's ground-breaking work in movies and television...
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