Producer and CCFL project co-director Fabienne Tsaï shares her journey from making Stereo 3D mistakes to reigniting a love of film with her exploration of this unique medium.

A second guest post as part of our research series, celebrating The Third Dimension: our open programme of Stereo 3D events in Falmouth from 11-13 November.

To find out more about our Stereo 3D training scheme, CCFL Training, visit here: deadline for applications: 27 March 2015.

Fabienne Tsai on set for the CCFL Stereo 3D tests

If I look back for a moment, cinema has been a part of me and my life for over 40 years.  I started, of course, as a spectator, until deciding to go and look a little more closely.  Film studies in directing and editing followed, then five years spent discovering cinema exhibtion and then distribution.  And for nearly three decades now I have worked in production, keeping one foot in the world of distribution for many years.

In 2006, when I started producing Of Mice (a Cat) and Men, a 25 minute Stereo 3D animation, I didn’t know an awful lot about 3D cinema.  In fact, making the film in 3D wasn’t my original ambition.  My initial desire was to make a piece of animation and the decision to produce it in Stereo 3D was made for all the wrong reasons, although I didn’t realise it at the time.  Despite all the ingenuity and skills within the team and the short film funding that we had managed to procure, we couldn’t make the budget work and the only major additional finance that we could apply for was Funding for New Technology in 3D Production, from the Centre National du Cinéma Français (National Centre for French Cinema).

That finance, even if it didn’t completely close the gap, allowed me to take a step further towards the realisation of the film.  Thus the decision was taken, with the film’s director Camille Bovier Lapierre, to produce the film in Stereo 3D.  I had just jumped into the world of Stereo 3D with both feet, and inadvertantly opened up my soul to a form of artistic reflection which would consume me for much longer than the production of this one film.

Of Mice (a Cat) and Men had not been written for Stereo 3D and neither I nor the director knew the grammar.  As a result, the film was an opportunity to make pretty much all of the mistakes you don’t want to make when you’re making a 3D film.  We didn’t make any changes to the script, nor to the editing, thinking that we could make this film in 3D in the same way that we would make one in 2D.

CCFL testsBecause it was CGI animation, it only dawned on us when we were editing that we should have tackled it in a completely different way. Despite the limited money that remained, we redid the shots, lengthening those that were too short – since you can’t cut as quickly in 3D as we had envisaged for a 2D film.  When I watch this film today, despite it having been shortlisted for and awarded prizes in numerous 3D festivals, I see all the crap resulting from this ignorance.  The experience was, at the very least, informative, but above all it made me discover that there exists in 3D cinema and stereographic and/or immersive images a vast world where we can create new languages and a new relationship to stories for ourselves and cinema audiences through film and other immersive media.

By this time, I had become weary of a production system that all too often seemed devoid of sense and whose lack of creativity, investigation and research left me constantly dissatisfied.

Furthermore, I had felt for a number of years that our very hierarchical professions, in terms of the organisation of people, time and industry, weren’t really getting to grips with the technological innovations shaking up our profession and the world of the viewer on a daily basis, influencing both their perception and expectation of films.

I learnt how to edit on a 16mm Atlas and then a 35mm Steinbeck.  My tools were white gloves, soft lead pencils and a splicer.  I would hang the frames that I had eliminated or decided to keep to one side on the nails of the trim bins.  When I started producing, my production manager would hand me the reins at the end of shooting.  I had no difficulty in post-producing a film, it was really simple.  Then I saw digital editing arrive with Avid.  Special effects developed and became more complex, technical formats and distribution rules multiplied ad infinitum.  Whereas around twenty years ago post-production represented roughly 20% of the making of a film, it had now grown in importance to the extent that it could at times reach 50% or more. It was, therefore, unthinkable to continue to produce in the same order of events established in early cinema: writing, development, production, post-production and then distribution in all formats.


Another unfortunate factor at this time was that I began to lose the interest and curiosity I had always felt for films themselves.  The way the stories were told, how the films were constructed, the speeded-up editing, the excess of special effects seemingly thrown in at every opportunity, the technical compensation for a gaping hole where the narrative should be …  All of this contributed to depriving me of that which I sought as a viewer, producer and writer: mystery and emotion.

This is where the magic of Stereo 3D came into play.  As a result of making the short film in 2006 and then discovering Avatar in 2009, I realised that what was increasingly lacking in cinema for me was poetry.  Well, this essential poetic element is eminently present in stereographic images themselves. Without knowing it and without expressing what I was feeling when contemplating a stereographic image, I sensed that a stereographic film was not made for the purposes of “meaning” but to heighten images, feelings and emotions.

Furthermore, I sensed that stereographic images allowed the portrayal, not of a hyper-realistic world because it is three dimensional, but of a reality of a reinvented world that we understand instantly, because these images create a phenomenon of spontaneous penetration of the profound being which exists in all of us.  Not the being which appeals to our conceptual thinking and which does away with all that is real and discernible, but the being which is always linked to immediacy.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe had lengthy conversations on this subject with Antoine Le Bos who, at the time, was in the middle of the 1fois5 adventure.  Both of us were sure of just how immense and rich the territory before us was.  In 2013, when Antoine asked me to join forces with CCFL and take charge of the production and organisation of the shooting tests by the two filmmakers selected to carry out the 3D projects, I accepted of course.  Money is more than tight, so it’s a question of assembling all the partners – equipment providers and post-production studios – and connecting with crew who understand that this is the work of people passionate about the research and discovery of new ways of writing, news ways of thinking about stories, new ways of doing our work and producing films and images.

One of our first mistakes during these tests in 2013 was allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed by technology and, more precisely, the fear of not knowing how to use it and, therefore, forgetting the essential question of “What are we writing?” with this technology instead of “How does this work?”

But the tests were finished successfully, with the results and conclusions reported on by François Garnier above.

With hindsight, we nonetheless wanted to look into the relationship between creators and artists and new technology and techniques.  We felt strongly that our investigations should involve thinkers and researchers from social sciences who would know how to breathe life into a dimension that had so far been lacking.  The CCFL brings together scientific researchers, creatives, technicians and industry experts.  This is both vital and fascinating since our daily lives are constantly fed and affected by science and technology.  However it can be difficult to bring together worlds which have worked separately for decades.  Perhaps social science researchers, historians, philosophers, anthropologists will be our greatest connecters.

In 2013 a Eureka moment happened for all of us when we met Ann Owen.  Ann Owen is an animation graduate and a researcher at the University of Falmouth.  She specialised in the history and theory of animation before launching herself into research into “the audience perception of 3D films, from a neuro-scientific point of view”.


Ann Owen explained to us that in 2000 a Japanese neuroscience researcher, Tomohisha Okada, and his team discovered that the right side of the inferior parietal cortex, which is located inside the right parietal lobule, is activated when we look at a Stereo 3D image.  This area of the brain is not activated when we look at a 2D image.  Okada’s discovery confirmed that when our visual system perceives and deals with any stereoscopic image, it sends a direct message to our reptilian brain, the centre for emotions and survival reflexes, without passing through the parts of our brain that are linked to analysis and rationality.  “The primitive reptilian brain deals with stereotyped, preprogrammed behaviours.  The same situation, with the same stimulus, will always result in the same response.  This response is immediate, like a reflex.  Behaviour induced by the reptilian brain cannot evolve with experience, cannot adapt to a situation, because this brain has only short-term memory.”

The reptilian brain is also the site of touching and gripping.

Ann Owen therefore confirmed to us that the irrational emotions that we feel when we watch a Stereo 3D film are connected to how our vision and brain work, and this is common to all viewers.

Amongst those who doubt that Stereo 3D cinema can bring about new forms of writing and generate films that give the viewer “an experience”, there are people who maintain that the experience is not the same for everybody since the individual’s ability to focus considerably alters both their ability to see Stereo 3D images and the associated emotional impact.  We can now argue that it depends not on one’s ability to focus, but on following the “health guidelines” that Alain Derobe defended for years, as did those stereographers trained by him and, latterly, Joséphine Derobe.  It also depends on the intelligence of the 3D “grammar” and editing, which editors and directors need to master.


Furnished with this new information, we wanted to feed our minds with the work of some other neuroscience researchers, including Alain Berthoz. Professor at the Collège de France where he runs the Laboratory of Perception and Action, Alain Berthoz has been published various times.  In one publication, The Sense of Movement, he “reflects on cerebral function based on the idea that the brain serves to predict the future, to anticipate the consequences of action (one’s own or that of others), to gain time.”  Having studied the relationship between movement and perception, Berthoz informs us, among other things, that “there is no perception of space, of movement, neither vertigo nor loss of balance, nor a caress that is given or received, nor a sound heard or made, nor a gesture of grabbing or gripping, which is not either accompanied by an emotion or which causes one.”

Our research is not limited to images – 3D sound provokes as many questions.  This year we are able to call on numerous researchers, creative technicians and artists who are focusing their work on this subject.

Following the examples of Ann Owen and Alain Berthoz, we have begun a dialogue with the department working on “cognitive and acoustic spaces” led by Olivier Warusfel, at l’IRCAM in Paris.

We also discovered that Isabelle Viaud Delmon, researcher into behavioural and cognitive neuroscience, both normal and pathological, at CNRS (National Centre for Scientific Research) and one of the people collaborating with Olivier Warusfel, is conducting research on the subject of auditory spatial cognition.

Both of them explained part of their work to us: “In the world of sound reproduction or communication, future audio technology will favour the senses of immersion and presence.  Such notions are intrinsically linked to the spatial dimensions of a multimedia scene (in particular sound) and are notably reinforced in situations involving the listener’s own action, either as he navigates the scene or as he physically interacts with the objects therein.  In these conditions, made possible by holophonic or binaural technology, the congruence and real time refreshing of the spatial auditory cues relative to the movements or actions of the audience have a bigger impact on the sensation of presence.  This new context has motivated the launch of a series of experiments devoted to auditory spatial cognition, in particular through the study of the process of multisensory integration.  Emphasis is placed on the interaction between the auditory and idiothetic modalities (indices induced by the movement of the subject including balance and proprioception).  The experimental methodology makes use of behavioural experiments linked to the observation of dubbing performance or the navigation of subjects undergoing different exploratory contexts.”

It’s interesting to note that Isabelle Viaud Delmon also applies the results of this research to her work with autistic children, to help improve the management of the condition.

_GWS4000This interaction between vision, perception and movement also confirms one of our very first impressions: that it is impossible to consider stereography without also considering choreography; choreography of the body, choreography of the camera, choreography (spatialisation) of sound.

The stereographic image implies a completely different relationship with space, time and depth, different frameworks, alternative movements created especially for this kind of writing, a circulation of other sounds and words.  It implies that filmmakers aren’t looking  simply to “tell” or “outline” a story and the words spoken are not simply lines of dialogue. Actors must work in a different way, or rather they must relearn how to feel and perform because the viewer will not just be watching a film in Stereo 3D.  He will be living and feeling it with them.  We plan, therefore, to include in our workshops scenographers, choreographers and directors who come from the world of live performance.

One subject remains, a little less urgent but intimately linked: how can we give low-budget films access to this costly technology?  For some, stereography is seen as an extra constraint, a hefty production surcharge.  For us, it is the complete opposite.  Stereography gives us the opportunity to breathe new and liberated life into the film profession.  It means we have to change our old habits completely.  It is a response to a sociological evolution in our society.  Instead of favouring vertical production organisations, we should innovate and adopt horizontal organisations.  The scriptwriter, director and producer should no longer work in protectionist isolation when a film is being written and conceived.  Whether it’s a Stereo 3D film, or a film that requires visual effects or animation, the creative thinking process should be shared and debated from the very beginning with the visual effects supervisor and all the creative technicians.  The making of a film can no longer be divided into these four big stages, which are development, which includes writing, pre-production, production and post-production.  Today everything is inter-linked and that chronology is obsolete.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn terms of cost and the possibility of producing such films on a limited budget, the screenplay has to be written and thought about in accordance with the planned budget.

The limited budget should not be experienced as a constraint by filmmakers, but as a guarantee of freedom and an opportunity to renew and enhance their creativity.  It means that producers, screenwriters and directors must understand and agree with the absolute need to talk to all the creative technicians from the start of the writing.

An excellent preparation, where again the involvement of all the key players in making the film very early on in the process is essential.

We’re just at the start of our work.  These suggestions will be enhanced by the tests (shooting and post-production image and sound) that directors of the projects selected by the CCFL produce each year.

It is encouraging that every time we invite new minds and talents to join us on the CCFL adventure, there is an immediate positive response.  There is evidently a common desire to deepen this investigation into a subject which may seem narrow in the eyes of the world but which already charts an evolution in society as a whole.

This exploration of an immersive or Stereo 3D cinematographic language plays a key role in steering everyone towards independently renewing for themselves their experience of the world.

Fabienne Tsaï

The Cross Channel Film Lab is offering a free programme of Stereo 3D events in partnership with Falmouth University and Cornwall Film Festival from 11-13 November in Falmouth. For more information, browse our events page, or read more here.


Photography credit: Brigit Bouillot


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