Reaching for Higher Sky
September 14, 2015

Reaching for Higher Sky

At the University of Southern California’s (USC’s) John C. Hench Division of Animation and Digital Arts, students are encouraged not only to embrace traditional forms, but to innovate and experiment with the forms using imagination, creativity, and critical thinking.

It is with this kind of approach that helped Teng (Eric) Cheng, MFA animation student, win a silver medal at the 2014 annual Student Academy Awards for “Higher Sky,” an animation using traditional Chinese styles and art forms .

Cheng drew upon the ancient martial art of Chinese kung fu as inspiration for his 5-minute 40-second film. In it, he captures the beauty of this Chinese art using traditional 2D animation techniques blended with 3D to depict a jungle encounter between two kung-fu masters: a monkey and a swallow. The animated short’s aesthetic is a perfect match for the story and subject matter, masterful even. 

Cheng’s talents developed in his home country of China, where he completed a BA in computer animation at the Communication University of China. He then migrated to the USC School of Cinematic Arts (SCA). “I wanted to make global stuff,” Cheng says. “With that goal, I needed to go to another country that had a totally different cultural ideology.”

Nevertheless, Cheng used his knowledge of Chinese culture and style to set himself apart from other students at SCA. “During my studies here, I knew that if I wanted to do something outstanding, I needed to do something different, something that belonged to me,” Cheng says.


Theanimation style in “Higher Sky” uses traditional Chinese art styles, with swift brushstrokes and water-colored images, to tell Chinese folklore involving a swallow and monkey. He then added more contemporary art elements and made some of the details more fashionable. “I tried to pick some Chinese elements to explain the story the way everyone could understand. I made it simple and old-fashioned,” Cheng says. 

Cheng’s biggest aesthetic challenge came from the art design. “Traditional Chinese painting is an art that audiences need more time to feel and perceive. But cinematic art is more direct and simple, which means we must pass information to audiences in a few minutes,” he explains. “So I put a lot of time into analyzing and designing the traditional Chinese painting, making it more modern, fashionable, and easier to digest.”

In fact, Cheng decided to do an animated short film in the Chinese style even before he planned the story and characters. “I know a lot of Chinese elements are really amazing, but most of them are not shown in an international way,” he says. “I really wanted to create something that could let more people enjoy and get to know these beautiful things in Chinese art.”

While he solicited some help from friends with various skill sets, Cheng took responsibility for nearly all the work, with the exception of the music, sound effects, and sound mixing. He started the project in August 2013 and completed it in May 2014. 

Mostly, the work involved character animation. “The biggest challenge was finding the perfect balance in character animation,” Cheng says. The characters are 2D, as are most of the backgrounds, though there are some environments that are 3D. Finding a way to achieve the abstract impression within 3D became quite the challenge. To achieve this, the filmmaker turned off the lighting within Autodesk’s Maya and separated the light he needed into two parts: on one part he drew directly on the textures, and the other he added in Adobe’s After Effects. 

In addition to Maya, Cheng used Pixologic’s ZBrush and Adobe’s Photoshop, as well as Systemax Software Development’s PaintTool SAI and Celsys’s RETAS 2D for coloring. He also utilized the school studios’ HP Z600s.

With “Higher Sky,” Cheng began dabbling in 3D and now is embracing the medium. In fact, he is currently working on his thesis, “The Mosquito,” a 3D/live-action film about a mother mosquito training her daughter during her first blood hunt.

For Cheng, “Higher Sky” is much more than a school project. It is a reflection of his culture. The essence of who he is. “Initially, the idea came to mind because I wanted to tell a story of ancient Chinese principle: No matter how big the mountain is, there’s always a bigger one; no matter how high you are, the sky is always above you.” Words Cheng is following as he continues on his filmmaking quest.