Shannon Benna talks 3D

The UT3D Program prides itself on connecting its students with industry professionals, and lecturer Shannon Benna has a wide range of experience with the technology. An LA-based independent producer and creative director who specializes in emerging technologies, Benna’s production credits include producing a 360 training simulator for the Department of Defense and serving as lead stereographer for the 2011 horror film A Haunting in Salem. She is also a founder of Stereo Sisters, a professional organization for women working in 3D industries. With the UT3D Program entering its third year, Benna recently spoke with the RTF Department about the intuitive nature of 3D filmmaking, the close relationship between art and technology, and the importance of women’s involvement in STEM fields.

How did you get turned on to 3D?

I got into 3D in two ways--gradually and all at once. I was definitely an artsy kid. I grew up being very hands-off in the sciences and technology. I went to the University of Arizona for their music-theater program and I fell in love with their astrophysics program. I took one planetary science class and just absolutely reveled in it. So I started taking more and more classes. They were building the cameras for the Mars Rover and the Cassini Mission that went to Saturn, which were all stereoscopic. But I never thought about 3D as a cinematic storytelling tool--it seemed like a scientific analysis tool, so I never really thought about it in relation to my craft. Years later I was working for a wonderful woman, Tara Veneruso, and she was the first person who really kind of forced me to go ahead and be hands-on about technology. Through her I met another filmmaker named Sara Ivicevich, and she introduced me to 3D filmmaking. It finally hit home that it was part of this immersive tool kit that media was beginning to really delve into and explore. I feel that because it was a visual medium, I was more drawn to learning the technological aspects of it and really digging my teeth into the actual technical solutions therein. And that’s kind of how I ended up getting into technology development and cutting edge technology as a career overall.

Shannon Benna

What makes the UT3D Program unique?

The curriculum itself is very well constructed for such a short period of time to convey so much information and yield such beautiful results. I think it's really special how much equipment and resources that the program has. I mean, I have worked for 3D studios in LA that don't have a fifth as much equipment! And the amount of stuff that these students have access to is unbelievably cool. They’re now pushing the envelope. This year's advanced class--I saw them come up as intro students their first semester and now they're in their advanced class this year and they hit the ground running. They’re absolutely snapping like ravenous wolves to get their hands on the equipment and start shooting! And they have such advanced ideas. It’s incredible. They're actually sending me emails going, “OK, so I think I can rent this camera from an outside place and apply it in this way and shoot this. So how do I work out the cabling on that?” And I’m going, “Uh, I will have to research that for you!” It’s still an emerging technology, and they are truly on the bleeding edge at this point. It’s wonderful to watch, and I’m gonna have to work my butt off to keep up with them!

What do you tell students who are concerned that they don’t have the technical background to learn 3D filmmaking?

One of the things that I think is really great about 3D specifically is that it's a less daunting version of technology for people to get into. I know that that sounds counterintuitive, because we like to say 3D production is production troubles cubed-- not just multiplied by three, but 3 x 3 x 3! And that means 360 production is even worse. But because of its visual nature, I think that 3D is a more easily approachable technology solution for people to really get into, because they can understand it on an instinctive level once they learn the rules. And even before they learn the rules they get it because everybody has two eyes. Except for 8-10 percent of the population, we all see in stereoscope. The actual art of 3D is learning how to replicate what we have in real life--the way that we actually see--and it automatically makes sense. I try to teach my students to experiment, not to worry about what’s right and wrong. If there’s something wrong with your shot, you will know, because you'll throw up a little bit in your mouth. Your body will go, “Uh-uh, that doesn't work!” You don't need to have a stereo calculator to know that your stereo separation and every angle is correct. You can see it. And I know that not all stereographers would appreciate me saying that, because some people are much more mathematically tied to those formulas and to those rules. But I really feel like you’re freed from that. It’s a visual art, and it just happens to have technological applications that make it possible. 

You co-founded an organization called Stereo Sisters, which brings together women who work in 3D industries. How did that get started?

I was part of the 3D Club in LA, which is a really great place to meet people. A lot of guys in the club kept saying we needed more women in 3D, so I started paying attention when I’d go to NAB or other tech conferences. I noticed that they were wrong! There are a lot of women in 3D. They’re technology developers, they’re software developers, they’re CEOs. Everybody says that it’s a boys’ club and it really isn't. So I thought maybe we needed to make a girls’ club, and I decided to start Stereo Sisters. I asked Sara Ivecivich, who had introduced me to 3D, to be my other sister and help me put it together. When I got into 3D tech and found that I really liked using my brain in solving those problems technically, I felt very empowered as a woman. I became somebody that people were coming to for solutions, and I wasn't a guy. It made no sense that I should automatically think that—“Oh, I’m the smart one and I’m not a guy.” I felt that it was something I wanted to share with other women in the same way other women had shared that with me, that same amazing pleasure that I found through being able to be valued for my brain and my intellect.