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Wah Ming Chang, 86; Special-Effects Master Worked on 'Time Machine'

Obituaries

December 30, 2003|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Wah Ming Chang, one of Hollywood's top special-effects masters who was part of the team whose work on the 1960 science fiction film "The Time Machine" won an Academy Award, has died. He was 86.

Chang, an environmentalist and artist whose bronze sculptures reflected his interest in wildlife, died of undisclosed causes Dec. 22 at his longtime home in Carmel Valley, Calif.

In partnership with Gene Warren Sr. and Tim Barr, Chang established Project Unlimited in 1956. The company produced special effects, masks, props and animation for many TV shows and films, including "Tom Thumb," "The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm," "The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao" and "Spartacus."

Chang also made creatures for the TV series "The Outer Limits" and "Star Trek." His "Star Trek" credit includes making the model for the phaser, and designing and creating the tricorder and communicator -- a hand weapon, mini computer and cellphone-like device.

He also made masks for the ballet sequence in "The King and I" and created the massive headdress worn by Elizabeth Taylor in "Cleopatra." And he sculpted a series of heads to animate the first Pillsbury Doughboy.

For "The Time Machine," producer-director George Pal's adaptation of the H.G. Wells story starring Rod Taylor as the Victorian-era time-machine inventor, Chang built the miniature model of the time machine.

Using stop motion, he and his colleagues illustrated the passage of time by having the sun soaring across the skylight of the inventor's laboratory, a snail racing across the ground, flowers opening and closing and fashionable dresses on a mannequin in the window of a women's shop changing styles as the years pass.

They also made a volcanic eruption for the film, with the blazing lava running through a town. They created the effect by using 250 gallons of oatmeal colored with red dye and photographed under special red lights; the miniature town was built on tilted ramps to ensure that the faux lava flowed smoothly.

"I think for their time, the special effects were spectacular. They had no computers in those days. They had to do it all by hand," Bob Burns, a Burbank film historian and a longtime friend of Chang's, said last week. "The whole budget on that film was only $750,000. Even for then, that was an incredibly low budget for a special-effects film."

Burns said one of the film's most spectacular effects comes after Taylor is shown fighting a Morlock, one of the menacing underground dwellers he encounters in the future.

After knocking out the Morlock, Taylor climbs into his time machine and, as he accelerates into time, the creature disintegrates to just a skull and bones in a matter of seconds.

"It was beautifully done and looked extremely realistic," Burns said. "It's a very short scene, but one everybody remembers in the film."

"The Time Machine" earned Warren and Barr Oscars for special effects. But because of the way the credits were submitted, Chang was left out.

"He was up there with them on stage, and he got a plaque for it, but he didn't actually get the award," Burns said.

The oversight rankled many. But, according to Burns, Chang took it in stride.

"He said he was just doing his job," Burns said. "He was the most humble, gentle man I've ever known in my life. He never boasted about anything he did, and he just did remarkable stuff."

The son of two artists, Chang was born in Honolulu and grew up in San Francisco, where he showed an early talent for art and studied under artist Blanding Sloan. After Chang's mother died when he was 11, his father left him under the guardianship of Sloan and his wife.

At 21, Chang joined Walt Disney Studios' effects and models department, where he carved a model of Pinocchio for the 1940 animated feature film and made articulated deer models for "Bambi."

After recovering from polio in the early 1940s, Chang became head of the model department for the George Pal studio, which produced the Puppetoons(stop-motion puppet shorts). During World War II, he made training films for the Army and Navy and later produced educational films and designed toys.

After Project Unlimited closed down in the late 1960s, Chang and Warren opened a studio that created costumes for Ice Capades and the Ice Follies and made television commercials.

In 1970, Chang and his wife, Glenella, moved to Carmel Valley, where Chang sculpted and sold his work in local galleries. One of his pieces, a 3-foot bronze statue of "Dennis the Menace" commissioned by cartoonist Hank Ketchum in 1987, is displayed in Dennis Park in Monterey.

Chang's wife died in 1997. He is survived by a half-sister, Lana Price, of Carmel.

A public memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Jan. 17 at Community Church of the Monterey Peninsula in Carmel.

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