Published: August 2, 2022

Wah Ming Chang

Wah Ming Chang did a ton of cool shit during his 86 years on planet Earth. On this, the 105th anniversary of his birth in what was then the Territory of Hawaii, let us give Mr. Chang his flowers, because if you’re over the age of 30, he almost certainly made your life at least a tiny bit more awesome.

Chang showed a talent for art as a young boy, a gift he inherited from his mother, who, after the family moved to San Francisco, would graduate from what is now the California College of the Arts in Berkley. Around this time, his family ran a tea room popular with the artsy crowd, including James Blanding Sloan, an accomplished set designer, who fostered the boy’s talents after discovering his drawings on the back of the tea room’s menus. When Chang’s mother died, Sloan and his wife agreed to take the boy in, becoming first a mentor and later a business partner.

By the time Chang was 9, he’d had an art show in downtown San Francisco. By 16, he was designing sets for shows at the Hollywood Bowl. By the time he was 21 he was the youngest member of Disney’s effects and modeling team, contributing to some of their most timeless films: Pinocchio, Bambi and the granddaddy of them all, the great stoner classic Fantasia. Around the time he was at Disney, he managed to contract polio, landing in the hospital for three weeks before regaining use of his legs.

He made some of the masks worn in the Yul Brenner-Deborah Kerr classic The King and I, and in 1960, his titular model for the film adaptation of HG Wells' The Time Machine won the Oscar for Best Special Effects, though he got screwed out of proper credit due to clerical BS. He built models for the development of the Pillsbury Doughboy. He provided headdresses for the sweeping epic Cleopatra, worked on Spartacus, did props and costumes for The Outer Limits. In 1968 he did some of the props on the most racist anti-racism film ever made, Planet of the Apes, and in 1970 he did a stop-motion film called Dinosaurs: The Terrible Lizards, that led to him helping design monsters and props for Land of the Lost.

By this point you’re thinking, yeah, this dude’s covered all the bases: musicals, sweeping Hollywood sagas, beloved animation… All of that doesn’t amount a hill of bean when you consider that Wah Ming Chang also designed two of the most iconic props in science fiction history: the tricorder and the communicator from the original Star Trektelevision series. He also designed the Gorn, the Tribbles, and the Balok, among other other-worldly delights.

Chang more or less left Hollywood in the mid-seventies, going into semi-retirement with his wife, Glenella, in Carmel, California, where he put most of his artistic energy into sculpting. Chang passed away on December 22, 2003.

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