By Allyson Pang, AsAmNews Intern
It was normal for Greg Jein to go into his favorite bookstore and search for comic books to add to his collection. However, this time was different.
One of the workers had asked if Jein would be interested in a script about spaceships. Turns out, the script he brought home to read was the unreleased pilot script for Star Trek.
From that point on, Jein went to his cousin Jerry Chang’s grandma’s house every week to watch the show.
Later in Jein’s career, he would become involved to save Star Trek’s third season from cancellation. Jein would also earn two Emmy nominations and two Oscar nominations for his visual effects and model making prowess across various films.
Before Jein, there had been very little Asian representation in the visual effects industry.
“He never thought of himself as being a pioneer or anything like that but that’s what it was,” Jerry said to AsAmNews. “He was very big into looking at Asian actors and he thought those guys were the pioneers.”
Jein passed away in May this year at 76 years old. To celebrate his ongoing legacy and impacts in the industry, it was only fitting for Jein to be honored in a first-ever deep space memorial flight alongside several original Star Trek cast members, including Star Trek’s creator Gene Roddenberry.
The host company Celestis leads many memorial spaceflights. The deceased’s DNA from their ashes is placed in a flight capsule that is a quarter-inch thick and a quarter-inch in diameter.
“It doesn’t represent the entire person, it represents a symbolic portion of the remains,” Celestis President Colby Youngblood said to AsAmNews.
Unlike other missions, the “Enterprise Flight” that Jein will be on is never-ending; it is a 100-million-mile orbit around the Sun. The purpose is to create mankind’s furthest outpost.
“When we found out that Greg had passed away, we thought it was only appropriate that we would extend the honor to him since he had such a huge impact on the Star Trek franchise,” Youngblood said.
The Enterprise Flight launch is planned for early 2023, according to Celestis’s website.
Creative from the start
Jerry knew his cousin was different from the moment that Jein recreated a miniature version of Disneyland at 11 years old.
The two cousins went to Disneyland when it first opened in the late 1950s. Six months later, Jein completed an exact miniature replica of Disneyland out of his train set. There were wooden cut-outs of various rides from the Skyway buckets to the Monsanto House of the Future with an open roof to see the furniture inside.
“He had that kind of mind where he could sit there, figure it out and build it. And that’s what he did,” Jerry said.
Jein cared about being accurate with his model making. Jerry described playing with toy soldiers that Jein repainted to reflect real-life WWII soldiers.
This passion for accuracy and detail carried into Jein’s work as a visual effects artist and model maker in Hollywood.
Jein was especially skilled in being able to look at a simple line drawing and recreate it into an exact model, Jerry said. He had the ability to make a miniature model that was just the right perspective for the scene being filmed.
In addition to the original Star Trek series, Jein worked on productions with Warner Bros, Paramount, Universal, Columbia Pictures and 20th Century Fox. Some of his notable contributions ranged from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) to Avatar (2009) to the new Mulan (2020).
A modest guy
Jerry said that Jein very modest about everything he did.
“Anybody you talked to will tell you that that’s the type of person he was,” Jerry said. “He got nominated twice for an Academy Award but unless you actually asked him about that he would never talk about it.”
Linda said that Jein was not interested in winning awards. He only wanted to build and be a part of projects that he enjoyed.
Jerry recalled being invited by Jein to the premiere screening of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Jein introduced his colleague “Steven” and Jerry shook hands with him without thinking much of it.
Only when the film started did Jerry realize he had shaken hands with Steven Spielberg, and Jein had been so casual about it.
“He wouldn’t talk about the fact that he was working with some of the biggest directors or anything like that. He would just say that he was working on a project and ‘this is what I’m doing,’” Jerry said.
A lasting legacy through others
Even as modest as Jein was, with all of his accomplishments, sometimes people were nervous to approach him. However, Jein’s sense of humor often helped colleagues to feel more at ease.
Jein’s colleagues told Jerry about the practical jokes and pranks that Jein would play on them, particularly holiday-themed ones.
Many people in the industry expressed gratitude for Jein because often, he was the one who gave them their first job.
“Greg was the type of person who would give young talent a chance to show what they could do,” Jerry said.
Jerry’s wife Linda also added that Jein brought in more women into the industry. She believed it was due to Jein’s upbringing in a family of strong women.
“I think Greg didn’t really see those boundaries like maybe a lot of other men look at the industry’s perspective,” she said. “He looked at it that a woman can do stuff just as good as a male. He never looked at it male or female. He just looked at people and if he felt that they had the potential, he didn’t hesitate to give them a try.”
According to Celestis’s page, Jein pushed for the inclusion of the first female model makers in his union Local 44. Previous to Local 44, there had only been special effects unions for men.
Part of Jein’s lasting legacy in the industry is the continuing pass-down of his knowledge.
Jerry said that Jein aimed to develop one’s talent to a point when the person could work independently without help. Jein’s colleagues told Jerry that now they pass down what they learned from Jein to others.
Pieces from Jein’s collection of film costumes and props have also been spread to friends and colleagues. Jein’s shop and office were known to house many collector’s items in full display on walls or sitting on his desk.
Even if the items were not from a film that Jein worked on, many people looked forward to listening to him discuss the history behind it.
A mission into deep space
Jein’s next part of the journey will be to the place that he saw through the lens of Star Trek: space.
Linda viewed Jein as one of the first Trekkies and felt like it would mean a lot to Jein to be on the Enterprise Flight. The flight already has around 180 passengers alongside the visual effects artist.
After all of the scripts, costumes and props he collected related to Star Trek, it only made sense for Jein to live amongst the stars in an eternal orbit beside the people that he grew up watching on TV.
AsAmNews is published by the non-profit, Asian American Media Inc. Please consider making a donation and following us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok. Information about interning, joining the staff or volunteering is here. We are supported by a grant from the California Library Commission and its Stop the Hate program. You can find more resources here.