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Exploring Human Connection Through Animation

Film major shines a light on relationships with the help of an undergraduate research grant.

Portrait of VPA student, Alyssa Chang. Click to read her story.
Alyssa Chang received a SOURCE grant to create “The Light Within,” an animated film about human connections.

Alyssa Chang ’21 was a self-taught video editor before she finished high school in Yorba Linda, California. She envisioned a career in film design and development, so her college search targeted schools that featured reputable film programs. “I did my research and discovered that Syracuse University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA) has one of the top film programs in the country,” she says. “I couldn’t help but look into it, and I couldn’t be happier with my decision.”

What she didn’t know at the time was that as a Syracuse University student, she would have the opportunity to create her own animated film, as well as the funding to make it happen. As her senior year approached, Chang submitted a proposal to the Syracuse Office of Undergraduate Research and Creative Engagement , better known as the SOURCE. Since 2019, the University has committed $1 million annually to provide grants for students who engage in faculty-guided research and creative inquiry. Undergraduates from any of Syracuse University’s schools and colleges are eligible for grants of up to $5,000 to complete academic year or summer projects. Each student has a designated faculty mentor and SOURCE peer mentors to guide them.

“I was introduced to the SOURCE grant by Mišo Suchý, one of my film professors,” Chang says. “It funded my senior thesis and gave me the opportunity to oversee a talented team that works great together. I couldn’t be more grateful.”

Finding the Light

A hand uses a stylus to work in Photoshop on a tablet.
Chang uses a Huion tablet that connects to her computer to produce illustrations in Photoshop.

Chang’s grant facilitated the creation of The Light Within, an animated film that explores human connection and vulnerability. “The ‘light within’ refers to self-love, and how that can get lost in a codependent relationship,” she explains. “That light plays a vital role in the message I wanted to convey. The main character is a girl who loses her light as she loses her identity and self-esteem. My goal was to express how difficult it is to figure out what is more important: the love you have for a person who is draining your energy or the love you have for yourself.”

Kelly Gallagher, assistant professor of film in VPA’s Department of Transmedia, was Chang’s faculty mentor for the project. “It was always a pleasure taking her classes, and she has always been so invested in my projects,” Chang says. “As an experienced animator, I thought she’d be a perfect mentor for The Light Within. Her energy and attitude toward her students have inspired me to follow her lead as an animator and leader in my field.”

A SOURCE of Support

Portrait of VPA student, Alyssa Chang focusing by the computer

Syracuse University’s commitment to supporting undergraduate research and creative projects was a lifeline for Chang. “It means the world to me that I received funding for this project. Every artist welcomes a helping hand when it comes to achieving their vision, and I am very grateful for the opportunity to produce the film I’ve dreamed of making,” she says. She credits SOURCE director Kate Hanson with keeping her on track as the film took shape. “Kate has been an excellent guide on this project because she is very passionate about the SOURCE and makes sure that every grant recipient is satisfied with their progress.”

Hanson, in turn, has been impressed with Chang's drive and creativity. “Alyssa has truly challenged herself with this project,” she says. “She’s refining her skills as an animator and learning to align her vision of the film with the constraints of a tight timeline, team management and a limited budget.”

Chang says she has tapped into almost everything she’s learned as a film major while completing this project. “I’ve used my knowledge in storytelling, visual development and management, and the experience of running a team of animators is definitely going to help me in future projects.” She plans to submit the finished piece to a variety of film festivals and hopes her work will eventually lead to a dream job in character design or pre-visualization development. “I am interested in planning production, conducting visuals and creating characters, and I’ve decided to further my education in 2D animation or visual development by attending graduate school,” she says.

A Collaborative Community

Outside of the classroom and studio, Chang has surrounded herself with “amazing, talented and inspirational women” as a member of Kappa Alpha Theta sorority. It was founded on the values of intellectual curiosity, leadership potential, commitment to service and personal excellence—qualities she embodies as an individual and as a member of the University community. “Syracuse orange isn’t just a color,” she says. “It represents a community of individuals who support and inspire me constantly. Through collaboration, we have all been able to grow in our work and as people. Syracuse University has shaped me into the artist I never thought I’d become, in the best way possible.”

Mary Beth Horsington

This story was published on .

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