5 Underappreciated Creators Of All Your Favorite Shows And Films
You're surrounded by things you take for granted, never sparing a thought for those who made them a reality. Who designed your chairs? Who made your toilet? Who left that in your toilet? Pop culture is like that. No, we don't mean the last question -- after all, this is a family site, Ron with the conspicuous paper on his shoe.
We mean that some great artists are known only by hardcore fans, even though their work is a big part of your cultural landscape. To do our part in fixing this outrage, here we bring you some people who aren't household names but should, as they changed the world (or at least the part of the world that fits in a screen).
David Wise Created Everything You Love About The Ninja Turtles
You might be aware that Teenage Mutant Etc. started off as a gritty comic book (that was pretty much Daredevil fanfiction). What you may not know is that the creators, a couple of guys named Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman, did only two things: They came up with a crazy idea and then got rich off of it. Nearly everything you think about when you think turtles came from David Wise's mind.
If you grew up in the '80s or '90s, Wise's name should ring a bell. If it doesn't, then you weren't paying a lot of attention:
Jot down a list of your favorite childhod cartoons, and you'll have Wise's resume. Dude knocked out scripts for He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, The Smurfs, Jem, My Little Pony, Chip n' Dale Rescue Rangers, Batman: The Animated Series, and several more no one remembers but you. He penned more Transformers G1 episodes than anyone else. So yeah, he was already a friggin' cartoon legend when he was hired to write a five-episode pilot for this weird property about kung-fu geckos or whatever.
Wise happened to know about the TMNT comic -- that's how he realized right away that this gig wouldn't cut him no slack. The comic didn't waste time on silly things like "story" or "characterization" that could get in the way of chelonian ass-kicking -- he had to come up with all that himself. The first thing he did was give each turtle a distinct personality -- Donatello was a nerd, Raphael was snarky, Michelangelo smoked his nunchucks, and Leonardo wore a blue mask. Shredder looked badass, so he went from one-shot baddie to the turtles' main foe -- while April O'Neil became a plucky, yellow-suited reporter and the green gang's sidekick.
Other characters weren't even in the original -- Krang, for example, was Wise's (literal) brainchild, created to supply Shredder with robot ninjas (this was a children's show; you couldn't have the heroes slicing and dicing living people). The list goes on: Bebop and Rocksteady, the Technodrome, the turtles' love for pizza ... in short, whenever you say "Cowabunga, dude!" you should pay David Wise royalties.
Except that no one paid him any royalties -- ever. He was not a millionaire when he passed away in March 2020, even though his work was (and still is) central to a huge franchise. Just as it happened to Bill Finger long before him, all the credit and the glory (and the money) went to other people -- in this case, the same people who thought that dressing April as a streetwalker was a good idea.
John Chambers Created The Apes' Makeup In Planet of the Apes (And Also Worked With Spies)
You should know who John Chambers is. Have you seen Argo? Chambers was there.
Well, yeah, sure, that's John Goodman, not John Chambers. They're different Johns. And it also couldn't be Chambers in a Goodman mask, Mission: Impossible style -- but only because Chambers died in 2001, not because he couldn't pull it off. He was very good at masks, is what we're clumsily getting at. How good? So good that he was rumored to have created the Bigfoot suit in that footage.
It's funny that we just mentioned Mission: Impossible (what are the chances?), as he did prosthetic effects for that series (the one before Tom Cruise, we mean). He also worked on Beauty and the Beast (the one before Disney, with George C. Scott sweating under the Beast's makeup) and The Island of Doctor Moreau (the one before Marlon Brando and utter chaos). But the work that earned him wide acclaim (and an Oscar) was on Planet of the Apes.
As impressive (and expressive) as his monkey makeup was at a time when CGI only stood for "Catholic Guides of Ireland," the really awesome part is what you don't actually see on the screen. There was a lot of science to the sumptuous simian semblances. For starters, there was zoology -- Chambers studied apes at the Los Angeles Zoo, the better to replicate their poo-flinging grins. There was also materials science, as his team developed a new kind of foam rubber that allowed the actors to sweat through the mask. And there was gastronomy, as the performers were able to eat with the makeup on (or, this being the '60s, smoke). These rubber appliances were much more sophisticated than, say, Spock's ears (which were also Chamber's work, by the way).
But wait! Why did John Goodman play Chambers in Argo? Isn't that movie about spies or something? Indeed it is -- Chambers was involved in the "Canadian Caper" the movie is based on (along with Jack Kirby, no less). As it happened, Chambers worked for the CIA for years in addition to his Hollywood career. He didn't just make masks for Martin Landau in Mission: Impossible -- he also designed a top-secret makeup kit for real spies. You can even get your hands on it -- provided you first become friends with Peter Jackson and ask him to show you the one in his collection.
Harry Lange and Frederick Ordway Designed The Spaceships For 2001: A Space Odyssey Like They Were Real Ships
When Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke came together to make the most realistic movie about monkeys with huge alien iPhones that could be made, they had to decide what space travel would look like on the screen. The silver dildos on the covers of old-timey sci-fi magazines wouldn't do -- the Space Race was in full swing, and spaceships were real now. Unlike so many things, this was rocket science.
Frederick Ordway was, conveniently enough, a rocket scientist. And not just any rocket scientist -- he had worked for NASA even before it was NASA alongside Wernher von Braun, and had also published books about space stuff illustrated by his work buddy, German artist Harry Lange. Both Lange and Ordway certainly knew their way around the new hot toys that were being shot into orbit every other day. And Ordway happened to be friends with Clarke.
Acting as the world's nerdiest wingman, Clarke hooked up Kubrick with the two NASA guys -- and Kubrick, being the world-class asshole that he was, started out by negging Lange: "I can get better illustrators than you," he told him, "but they don't have your scientific background." And it worked, as Lange and Ordway signed up to work on the movie.
While Lange sketched all the ships and the Grand Bike Wheel Space Terminal, Ordway reached out to all his contacts in the industry to get every last detail right, up to the labeling of individual buttons and the info displayed on computer screens. It wasn't just an annoyingly fastidious set design gig -- Kubrick kept pestering Ordway about stuff such as the inner workings of the ship and the stages of the trip to Jupiter, like he wanted to go there for real and yell at the moons until they orbited the planet for the camera the right way.
Did all that crazy work pay off? Well, we're still talking about that movie 50 years later, aren't we? It took tons of documentation, but barring a murderous computer, the spaceship Discovery has everything we'll want if we ever make the long trip to other planets.
Wah Chang Designed Star Trek's Vintage Props
Hey! Do you know how Star Trek communicators totally didn't inspire cell phones? The technology was well under development when the series came out -- but it's still amazing that a science fiction show from the 1960s anticipated the far future of the 1990s, isn't it? The credit for that belongs to Wah Ming Chang -- even though no one bothered to, you know, list his name in the actual credits.
Chang grew up in San Francisco surrounded by artists, so he wasn't in great danger of becoming an investment banker or something like that. At a very young age he was already artist-ing it out for Disney -- if animators needed Pinocchio to, say, take a big dump, they'd grab the Pinocchio puppet Chang had made, seat it on a toilet, and work from there. No, he wasn't credited for that either -- no one at Disney was at the time.
Chang's name, in fact, had a funny way of just falling off the credits. When his work for The Time Machine got the Academy Award for Best Special Effects in 1961, the Oscar went to his partners Gene Warren and Tim Baar -- who had to mention themselves the Chinese-American gentleman who worked with them. As a fun albeit depressing exercise, go to Chang's IMDb page and count how many times the word "uncredited" appears.
His more enduring uncredited legacy, however, are his designs for Star Trek. Decades after the show ended, Leonard Nimoy had people giggling at him when he used his flip phone in public. Wang didn't just make the communicators to report to Captain Kirk that the Romulans were sullen...
... but also the tricorders to detect said sullenness...
... and the Birds of Prey, where all the aforementioned Romulan sullen-nity took place.
There was a reason to keep Chang's name off Star Trek's credits -- he wasn't union. The show wasn't allowed to commission props and costumes from him -- but through a loophole, they could buy them from him. "We need a creature that lives on the planet M-113 and kills people to feed on the salt from their bodies," they'd say, and Chang would go, "I have exactly that lying around my workshop!" Years would go by before anyone owned to the fact that he wasn't really so well stocked.
Bill Tytla Turned Disney's Animation Into High Art
Vladimir Tytla was overqualified to be an animator at Terrytoons, a crappy New York City studio. In fact, he was overqualified to be an animator anywhere -- he was a talented art student in the early 1930s, a time when all you needed to land the job was to know how to draw. But for Tytla, animation was only a 9-to-5 deal to provide for his siblings and his immigrant parents. His true passion was Art, with a capital A.
But Art had different ideas -- Art Babbitt, that is, Tytla's best pal who had moved to California. "Yo, Bill," Babbitt would write to him, "your skills are wasted churning out shitty cartoons for that shitty joint. Come to Hollywood, buddy. This is where it's at." Babbitt kept pressing on, and eventually Tytla bought a ticket to California to check out this Disney business his friend kept blabbering about.
If this wasn't the single most important event in animation history, it's easily in the top five.
After years of drudgery at a place where he had to hire his reference models out of his own pocket, Disney seemed to him like artist heaven. He accepted a job there, and his work was so stellar that within a year he was one of the first animators picked for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Today you see lush, expressive animation and go: "Yeah, that's Disney's schtick." But back then it wasn't -- that was Bill Tytla's schtick. Cartoons delivering emotional performances as opposed to just moving around the screen? That wasn't a thing before Tytla.
Tytla's secret was this: he didn't screw around when it came to art. He had toured Europe to study with the great masters (and meet European girls while he was at it). In Paris, he learned sculpture under Charles Despiau, who had worked with Rodin -- yes, that Rodin. As a result of that premium training, he carved shapes on paper like it was damn rock or clay, giving his drawings volume and weight like no one else in the industry could. Just look at the dark god Chernabog from Fantasia, hailed as Tytla's crowning achievement, and not just because of the masterful way he made you crap your pants as a child.
Tytla found at Disney the nurturing but challenging environment he needed. Good ol' Walt was a father to his employees -- a father who, on the other hand, really hated when his ungrateful children demanded such things as decent wages or screen credits. In 1941 he fired several artists who were trying to unionize the studio (including Tytla's buddy Art Babbitt, by then a legend in his own right), triggering a huge strike that changed the animation scene forever. Many ended up leaving Disney -- Tytla among them. That (and World War II) ended the short Golden Age that Bill Tytla's superior game had helped usher in.
Andres Diplotti can and will pet your cat if you leave it unattended. His personal website is diplotti.com