As it’s Asian Heritage Month, I thought it would be the perfect time to look at the life and career of an Asian American (Chinese American, to be specific) special effects artist who I feel hasn’t gotten the wide recognition he truly deserves: Wah Chang.
Wah Ming Chang was born in the summer of 1917. Although born in Hawaii, it was not until his family moved to San Francisco two years later that his passion for sculpting developed. This was due to his parents’ business, the HoHo Tea Room, becoming a popular hangout for artists.
Although his IMDB profile and Wikipedia entry both list a plethora of films that he is claimed to have worked on, much of them are marked as him having done uncredited work. Sadly, given the relative lack of confirmed information about Wah Chang online (even on Google Books), it is hard to tell fact from fiction. Adding to the confusion is Chang’s own humble nature. When his firm won an Award for its special effects work, Chang was not named on said award due to an issue with the credits submission process. He did not raise a fuss over the matter, apparently content with the fact that everyone else was named. According to his friend Bob Burns, Wah Chang was always humble and never one to boast. As a result, it’s highly possible that he really did work on all of the above-mentioned projects without credit and never went out of his way to change that.
The earliest claimed example of Chang’s genre work is from 1934, when Chang created (and apparently wore) a dinosaur costume for The Lost Island, an uncompleted film best known for starting the rumor that Charles Gemora played King Kong. He sculpted animation reference models at Disney in his early 20’s. It is also known that he worked on several of George Pal’s Puppetoons in the 40’s, which is also when he befriended fellow employee Gene Warren. This lead to them forming their own special effects company, Centaur Productions, in the early 50’s.
One such project was the creation of the spider puppet seen in Cat Women of the Moon. There are claims that he also designed the puppet used in Tarantula, which allegedly was reworked and reused in Missile to the Moon. However, some argue that this wasn’t quite the case. When Centaur Productions closed, the two started up Project Unlimited in the late 50’s by partnering with Tim Baar. Whereas Centaur Productions tended to focus on humorous stop-motion animation work and certain effects for low budget films, Project Unlimited provided a variety of special effects for bigger, more serious projects: everything from stop-motion to props. In fact, famed animator Jim Danforth got his start as part of the Project Unlimited team! Chang and the Project Unlimited team handled the effects work on films like Dinosaurus (a prop from this was later reused in an episode of The Twilight Zone), The Time Machine (Chang created the titular machine and the “Sphinx”), Master of the World, The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, replacement effects work on Journey to the Seventh Planet, 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, The Outer Limits, and many others. Jack The Giant Killer was one of their more interesting (to me) projects. The film’s two-headed giant was originally designed by Luis McManus, had its armature built by Marcel Delgado (who worked on the original King Kong) and had its body built up by Wah Chang!
But the good times didn’t last forever. The fantasy-themed films that were Project Unlimited’s bread and butter were falling out of fashion. By 1966, the decision was made to close the company. However, they decided to auction off their old props and advertised the event in magazines like Famous Monsters of Filmland. The response was so overwhelming that they had to raid the trash for more props to auction!
But the closing of Project Unlimited did not stop Wah Chang. That same year, he designed the puppet for the children’s show Shrimpenstein and went on to do some amazing work on the original Star Trek series. In addition to designing aliens like the salt vampire, Gorn, Balok, Tribbles and ape men from The Galileo Seven, he also designed the Romulan Bird of Prey ship, Vulcan harp and the communicator (which resemble modern flip-top cell phones).
He returned to special effects work on films after leaving Star Trek and even went on to produce, direct, and special effects work on the 1970 educational short Dinosaurs, The Terrible Lizards. Interestingly enough, he supposedly repurposed the Cormoran armature from Jack The Giant Killer to create the film’s Tyrannosaurus Rex! I say”supposedly” because there is some debate over whether or not more than one Cormoran prop existed. It’s also been rumored that he either reworked or reused props from the film in his work for the 70’s series Land of the Lost. It should be noted that the foam puppets used for close-ups of dinosaurs like Dopey were not intended to be used onscreen. Instead, they had been created only so that the cast would have an easier time pretending to interact with the stop motion creations that would be added in post-production. Despite not matching up with the onscreen dinosaurs, along with lacking certain details, the budget-conscious Kroffts apparently decided to use them as a way to cut down on expensive stop motion scenes.
The last genre-related credit I could find in his filmography is his work directing 1985’s Magic Pony, the sort of lighthearted fantasy work that started his cinematic career. Later in life, he created wildlife sculptures. Sadly, Wah Chang passed away in 2003 due to an extended, very painful battle with polio.
This article only scratches the surface on Mr. Chang’s life and career, but I hope it is enough to increase awareness of his work and encourages people to look into his work further. In addition to online resources, there are also several books dealing with his work that are worth seeking out. The earliest is The Life and Sculpture of Wah Ming Chang by David Barrow and Glen Cahng, followed by Gail Blasser Riley’s Wah Ming Chang: Artist and Master of Special Effects. Wah Chang is discussed several times by his friend Bob Burns in both It Came from Bob’s Basement and Monster Kid Memories. 2011 brought us a CD ebook called Dinosaurs, Dragons & Drama:The Odyssey of a Trickfilmmaker Vol. 1 from Jim Danforth. Similarly, Webster Colcord offers a biographical DVD devoted to Chang. I only wish I had access to these during the creation of this article, as I would have loved to know for sure if he really had provided uncredited work on cinema classics like Spartacus, Cleopatra, and The Planet of the Apes.
Special thanks to Jim Aupperle for his suggestions regarding further reading!