Technology is just a means to an end

Sakchin Bessette, creative director and co-founder of Moment Factory

If you are looking for multimedia magic, then Moment Factory is the company that even makes Hogwarts look like a kindergarten. Once a few Canadian VJs, now it is a studio with a personnel of 150 designers, programmers, directors and many other people who, seemingly, can make every visual dream come true. The scope of their work consists of high-end shows, amazing installations in parks and even the entire Los Angeles airport. This is the company which makes you believe that the future is really now: you can see it, you can experience it and you can even animate it yourself. Sakchin Bessette, creative director and co-founder of Moment Factory, tells Live magazine the story of Moment Factory and creating the multimedia world.

Moment Factory has been in business since 2001, but only in the second half of the 2000's could we see it really becoming a rising star. Was it the Nine Inch Nails “Lights in the Sky” tour that pushed it forward or was there more happening below the surface?

When we started in 2001, we did a lot of VJ-ing, that is really where we came from — night clubs, raves, all that electronic scene which was happening. At the beginning it was like hanging a big projector with all the wires and tape and VHS machines to mix it. It was a really low-tech old school thing, all the tools we used. We got in touch with friends from Cirque de Soleil, started working with them, then came parties and cruise ship performances, and permanent installations here and there. One day a friend of ours called and put us in touch with Trent Reznor. Basically, he was looking for some interactivity at his tour, so we tried to figure out how it could work. It was an extreme challenge, really, because we didn’t really know what he wanted and how to do it. And we had like three months from the beginning till the end of the project to build everything, to understand what sensors we could use, getting into the work-flow, and showing stuff at rehearsals. An interactive backdrop is very complex and every element changes it. One day you have one type of lighting at rehearsals, the next day it would be another, the positions of the people on stage were changing — it was a very complex production to put together.  But in the end we pulled it off and Trent did a really great show; he is a great leader with a big vision. Also, Rob Sheridan and Roy Bennett — the Nine Inch Nails art director and stage designer — are amazing. Since then we have worked with Madonna, Jay-Z, Imagine Dragons, Muse — we are doing a bunch of shows now.

We still do a lot of experimentation and R&D, especially on projects that are more artistic-oriented — just for the fun of it.

Moment Factory is a company which is rightfully called “high-end”. If we go beyond words, what technical inventions pushed Moment Factory forward in this or that moment?

The first one that comes to mind is the interactive technology that we have developed through the years. Exactly what was put into the Nine Inch Nails shows we spoke earlier about. And that is basically some sensors that we hacked and developed and software that was linked with it. For us the technology is interesting and useful, but it is a means to an end. It is a means to artistic exploration and expression. The main thing that Moment Factory does — and we really like it — is always working with multimedia fields. We work with public experiences, not TV ads, websites or music videos. We do experiences where people gather physically. But within that field there are quite a variety of projects from rock-shows to museums or airport installations, from theme parks and forests to cruise ships, from casinos to shopping malls — all kinds of shows. So, the fact that we are able to do all those types of projects kind of co-inspires every following project. You do a rock show and start having ideas for an architectural project, it is a mix of understanding different mediums and how they can bridge.

Could you describe how certain ideas grow into something different?

Well, for example, people who are city architects or developers say, “We could have something like this! Where has it been done before?” They want proof of a concept and they want it to be stable and reliable to last for 10 years. In the rock show business people are like, “If it has been done before, I don’t want it.” It is a very different type of thinking and a different type of risk and plan to take. So, if we get back to interactivity, we explore interactivity in the event setting. We have teams on site who do the fine tuning and troubleshooting live, they are experimenting and taking more risks in the event setting. And then if you have a long-lasting permanent installation and you have done certain things in a rock show context, you can feel quite secure about the performance of the systems in another environment. Using the same technology on multiple other earlier projects we’ve been able to lock down the process and technical design that will be stable enough for a long-term installation. For example, the LAX project in the Los Angeles airport with multiple generative and interactive installations: the multiple strips of LCD screens that interact with the people, they walk by and these strips are activated by them. It is also synchronized with the gates — if there is a plane departing to Moscow, the Russian-themed content would play on the screens.

How does your work process and attitude differ when it is applied to corporate events, experiential marketing, rock and pop artists and “public destinations”?

The types of clients always affect the process. People sometimes don’t know what a pixel is, how to manage content-production, multimedia design or the duties of electricians and engineers who install all the equipment. If we are doing an event with a brand or an agency, some of them are already used to doing immersive installations or experiential design. If it is a rock show, it depends on the artist: how they structure it all, if they are involved or not really available. The process depends on the schedule, on the mood — it changes a lot depending on the person. But for us, we have a more or less same process — going through conception, design, production and integration. Along the way we have three main disciplines: content, scenography and technical design. The system basically emerges in and out during this process. 

It is more about understanding the needs of the project and understanding how we can really maximize the production value for the installation and still be innovative in terms of production.

We have the capacity to deal with big companies and are able to adapt — which is not always easy in terms of the layers and politics of how they work. The changes in dynamics depend on the clients, so when you have someone like Madonna or Muse, for them it would be us listening to the music and understanding the whole aesthetic so that we could bring things that enhance the show. If we work with theme parks or a city, it is often more of a layered and complex decision-making process which requires different approval processes and presentations.

But we should not forget that you can be fully creative in one case, and in another there will be the band’s artistic director with his own vision…

Ideally, there must be a synergy between our team and the artist’s. For example, we know Rob Sheridan of Nine Inch Nails quite well, so there is mutual trust — he knows that we are gonna deliver and we understand what he means with specific aesthetics. The line is really fine, what Trent will like or what he will not like. The design can be polished and still need to feel rough, it must be synchronized but not to every beat. So you need to find some other layer in the music, often the emotional one, and then bring out that “emotional structure”.

Sometimes when you have projects like “Foresta Lumina”, you do an installation in the wild forest and have full creative freedom. But it requires a completely different responsibility, especially when the clients are parks. They don’t know how to do these things. So parks “want it like this”, artists “want it like that”, and our creative director wants to do it his own way. It is more about us being more responsible for our decisions and the success of the project. And you have to be very good at listening, understanding and gathering the right team.

“Foresta Lumina” has become one of the most unusual Moment Factory productions. What was the idea behind combining nature and technology?

This is a small park about two hours from Montreal. There is a canyon and a rope bridge that crosses it. They have tourists during the daytime, but no one in the evenings, and they wanted to have a show on the bridge. When we started to study the space it was like, “Maybe it would be better if we create a path in the forest with a light installation?” We were inspired by the local legends and stories. It is a big Christian area, people there used to be very religious and they had a lot of stories about demons, fairies and American Indian-inspired legends. We put them together and through that built our story of a person who interacts with fairies and is guided within the forest. We built multiple installations that guided the viewer through that experience. It is really amazing to work in the forest and using it as a canvas.  It is touching to see how using this canvas as a base can really enhance the night experience there. It is always somehow mysterious when you’re walking in the forest at night. And people are not just walking here, they feel like they are participating because they are discovering themselves. And it was a great success, from June till October there were about 150,000 people who went to see it, and it is two hours away from Montreal. Now we have a bunch of other projects like this, so we have developed techniques and tricks to limit operation expenses and maximize the experience for the audience. It is a really nice medium to work in. And it is never an easy road to mix together things which are not always supposed to be mixed.

A lot of stage directors and designers speak about the importance of the story. But how does the story in the bigger sense connect with installations for an airport or a shopping centre?

There are different layers to stories. If we look at the LAX project, the main story was to bring back the romance of travel — this is what we wanted to do as the main objective. We wanted to make the airport experience magical: not just a logistical rush, waiting in line and getting checked in for a flight. We wanted to bring back the feeling that was there, say, in the 50's. You are travelling, you are exploring the world, and it is amazing. When you are in an airplane it is like being in a portal — and you get to see clouds and the sunset. That was the over-arching objective. The story is not necessarily “Once upon a time…” or something that precise. Each capsule of content is a new story but all of them are related to each other in a certain way, as if it were a global story. So, there is “Dance Time” for example, where the clock tower opens up every hour with dancers and a cuckoo clock mechanism — and it is a very touching piece of the installation. Another one is the “Voyage of discovery” which was shot in South Africa with a girl looking like Alice in Wonderland who goes through different doors and dimensions and gets a ticket to travel. “Portals” is based on art inspired by sculptures from different countries and, as people walk by, they are animated. So there are different stories within the major theme.

It really varies if we take another project we did here in Montreal. Basically it was a public space with fountains, but we enhanced them with a show that lasted about three months. And there was a story of love between a pixel and a water-drop. It can be abstract sometimes but it still guides the process. Even if the audience doesn’t really get it, it helps us to make decisions and create a sense of continuity, evolution, and drama — it excites the emotions when you have a storyline.

 How do you test the equipment and rehearse your installations when implementing them in such locations as the LA airport or the Sagrada Familia cathedral? In rock shows or smaller events you can rent a hangar or a room, but the above mentioned cases are very different…

We test as much as we can in our studio. We have a two-floor studio, about 2000 sq. feet, green screens and all kinds of technology. For the airport project we brought similar demo-screens in to test textures and details and see how they react. Generally we have a team on site which works a certain amount of time. For rock shows it can be 2-3 weeks, if it is a bigger project — a month or two. Basically we work on site to fine tune, finalize and polish all the little details. Sometimes it also inspires us to make physical scale models there. Often it is difficult to imagine things when you just look into computer screens, so we take designs out of them into a kind of miniature space.

In your view, what are the current trends happening in your field and what could we expect in the future?

I think a lot of trends are based on bringing entertainment to different venues and creating attractions in different spaces. Forests, shopping malls, casinos, all of them need something that will really draw people. There is something happening with online purchases, online gaming, home entertainment systems — people tend to stay at home. It might be much safer and comfortable to stay home with your TV and sound-system and watch a film than going out or watching a show. It seems like there are more and more people doing content for individual personal devices. And we are doing content for public spaces. We can imagine that in 50 years or two generations you will not need to leave your house anymore and have a social life and career entirely at home. But we really want to create relevant entertainment in different fields and bring new content and new ways to entertain and touch people — in other words to give them a reason to leave the house. For sure, there are also many different studios and a lot of great work happening these days. Innovating is fun because this industry is such a new world. A few years ago when we started it didn't even exist and now you can make a career in it. It generates more belief in this medium.

Everyone now has the responsibility to push innovations further and at the same time be high quality and relevant.

What has been the most complex project in Moment Factory's roster?

A lot of projects have been quite complex. If we look at the Super Bowl with Madonna, it was complex because of the field. We had to be able to set up in 7 minutes, have the 12 minute show and then set up in 7 minutes again. That required a lot of creative thinking about the equipment we used, the rigging systems of the arena and other questions. Of course, this could not be done without other great people who helped us. For the Muse show we were tracking musicians, creating the “puppet” effect and “strings” were supposed to follow the band. So we needed to track artists and in the touring context it appeared to be pretty challenging. At the Royal Caribbean we had robotic screens and we had to develop ways to animate and synchronise them with visual content. You needed to eliminate all the risks like program glitches, wrong movements — there were hundreds of different parameters. When we were working with cities or airports it was always this big background like engineering, communications, ventilation, power, scheduling the work. Somehow we like to have projects that challenge us.

There is a saying, “Devil is in the details”…

Yeah, that’s an interesting thing. We spend a lot of time on colouring and placing. When you do illusions with projection-mapping or LED screens in public spaces, it is about timing and colour and linking them to the architecture. It requires a lot of time to figure out because of the perspective. When you create false depth illusions, you need to play with perception and understand how different angles, for example, will react to the physical human eye. A lot of the work we do is about playing tricks which, eventually,  creates a sense of wonder. I think this mixture really is the key.

I experiment a lot with light and it is the most inspiring thing for me. That is the reason why I am so excited about the things we do — we play a lot with lights. Light is not a commodity; it is an amazing phenomenon. Something we take for granted — switch on, switch off. We can measure it in Kelvins and Lumens, but in the end it is really a fundamentally magical thing. And when you start transforming it and start thinking about how a rainbow appears or how it refracts in patterns, and how this affects our mood — there are so many invisible layers that we don’t see!


Sometimes you have no choice

Philip Thomas, CEO of the Cannes Lions festival

Capturing the beauty around

Yuri Molodkovets, official photographer of the State Hermitage, member of the Association of Designers of Russia

Design for life

Scott Clear, Chief Design & Innovation Officer at RKS Design