May 4, 2018

SCA Celebrates the Dedication of the John C. Hench Endowed Chair

By Phenia Hovsepyan

On April 25th the USC School of Cinematic Art dedicated the John C. Hench Endowed Chair, making it the 31st endowed chair at the School. The Chair was endowed by the John C. Hench Foundation, which previously named the School’s John C. Hench Division of Animation & Digital Arts, in 2006. Foundation trustees Jose and Leonor Deetjen were joined by Dean Elizabeth Daley (above right), USC Provost Dr. Michael Quick, and alum Andrew Millstein (above left) in honoring Teresa Cheng (above center) as the first holder of the chair. 

Teresa Cheng has been the head of the Animation division since last year, overseeing a vast curriculum that covers everything from 2D hand-drawn work to stop motion to visual effects. In a fast-paced and future-focused field, animation students are constantly collaborating with their peers in other divisions and learning from the work of legends who came before them. SCA Dean Elizabeth Daley said the foundation’s continued generous support will ensure that the next generation of animators will have the best resources and opportunities at USC to finetune their craft and begin successful careers. 

John C. Hench was an animation legend who always seemed to be one-step ahead of his time, Dean Daley told the audience gathered in the Ray Stark auditorium for the dedication. She also highlighted Hench’s immeasurable contribution to the Disney Corporation. “Any celebration of John Hench’s legacy is essentially a celebration of Disney Animation,” she said. “John was Walt Disney’s right-hand-man and spent more than 65 years at the Disney Corporation, contributing to every aspect of its success.” The original Disney Imagineer, Hench worked on iconic films such as Fantasiaand Alice in Wonderland, and also found time to spend afternoons drawing with students at USC. Hench served as an extraordinary example of what it means to be a creative pioneer, and the John C. Hench Foundation continues to promote his tradition of mentorship. 

It was also fitting that Andrew Millstein, President of Walt Disney Animation, was at the dedication to introduce Teresa Cheng. Millstein, who is an alum of the USC School of Cinematic Art and the man responsible for the endless sing-alongs to “Let it Go” from Frozen, has known Cheng for over 25 years. “She struck me, immediately, as a consummate professional. A person whose passion for the medium was easily evidenced. A person whose know-how combined with a steady hand was exactly what the then-burgeoning art form of CG needed,” Millstein recalled. He chronicled her career that began in “the embryonic days of computer-generated imagery,” to years working at DreamWorks Animation on films such as Madagascar and Shrek, to serving as general manager of Lucasfilms Singapore. “Animation has come a long way. It has come a long way because of people like Teresa. Any project is elevated by her participation,” Millstein told the audience. He said that when Cheng made the decision to come to USC after 30 years of pioneering work in animation, his reaction was, “I wish I had a teacher like her when I was at USC!” He added that, “The future of animation is boundless. The animation industry of tomorrow will be in the hands of the next generation of students here at USC. Those students, and those who teach them, will drive the art form forward to places that, standing here today, we can only imagine.”

Throughout the evening Teresa Cheng was hailed as the perfect person to cultivate a culture of teamwork and critical thinking for students in the Hench Division. 

In her remarks, Cheng said she is reminded that Hench “taught us to pay attention to the details in visual storytelling, so that every frame we create may be authentic for the audience and so that the audience would stay immersed in the world we’ve imagined.” She is thrilled to incorporate all she has learned to inspire young filmmakers. “Many students have asked me why I left the industry for academia. Well, I’ve come here to share what I learned from the very best in the industry; and frankly, I haven’t left the industry—I’m just working at the very front end of it right now—to seed the talent and help people in Act One of their animation careers,” Cheng said. She further added that being a teacher and coaching the next generation of industry leaders is “the single most gratifying experience in my own career.” 

For Teresa Cheng, being installed as the inaugural holder of the John C. Hench Endowed Chair ceremony offered an opportunity to bring together of her friends, colleagues, students, and family members to celebrate the endless potentials of education in the 21stcentury. “Teaching is a time-honored profession in the Chinese culture. It’s a privilege and an enormous responsibility,” she said. “We owe it to the students to continually evolve with the changing world outside our campus, to stay relevant, to not become too complacent and comfortable, to self-examine where we could improve as teachers. We are charged with helping students immerse, connect and engage.” The biggest lesson of her already celebrated career? “You don’t have to be perfect,” she said.  “I have learned so much from trial and error, and I hope I can help our students not make the same mistakes I made.” John C. Hench perhaps said it best, “There’s no trick to it, you just have to love your work.”

Above left: Leonor and Jose Deetjen with Teresa Cheng. Above right: Teresa Cheng with her family.