Island Lumina, Japan

There are now six Lumina forest walks—the most recent in Nagasaki, which opened weeks after the company’s night walk experience won a top prize in the Japan Media Arts Festival this year. (Courtesy of Moment Factory)

Features | From Pivot Magazine

These magic moments

How a brand of Montreal ravers is taking its immersive, you-have-to-be-there entertainment spectacles to the world

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Université du Québec à Montréal’s President Kennedy Pavilion is a brown-clad banality located in the city’s downtown core. Though it stretches an entire city block, it was seemingly built to be ignored—an unremarkable counterpoint to the neo-Gothic charms of the Anglican church directly to its east. 

Yet during the fall of 2013, it became difficult to tear one’s eyes away from the pavilion’s façade. Once darkness fell, a dizzying display of words lit up the building’s nine storeys in moving strips of white, red and black. “SANG [blood] DEMOCRACY PUNK SHAKESPEARE VIETNAM,” read one chunk. 

Those seemingly random words were actually the product of Moment Factory, a Montreal-based new media company. They were curated from the voices of random strangers who happened upon a microphone across the street. Their words were funnelled through voice recognition software, then projected roughly 20 seconds later onto the nine-storey canvas of the pavilion. For two months, crowds gathered every night to watch the installation, called Megaphone. Drunk college kids took turns. Rappers, poets and stand-up comedians tried out new material. At one point, an anti-police brutality advocate read off a list of men killed by police since 1987.  

The seeds of the company aesthetic lie in the Montreal rave scene, and in the city’s freethinking ethos

It was the kind of visual drama that Moment Factory specializes in, and that’s made it a global innovator whose work has been sought after by the likes of Madonna, Arcade Fire, the Super Bowl, the U Arena in Paris, and the cities of Hangzhou, China and Los Angeles, amongst scores of others. The company excels in making intrinsically interesting spectacles—say, a Red Hot Chili Peppers show—all the more so by way of light design, special effects and interactivity. It now employs more than 350 people and has branched into New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris and most recently Tokyo, its first foray into the Asian market. Today, more than 90 per cent of the company’s productions are international.  

It’s a leader in the world of experiential entertainment, where consumers don’t just watch the action, they’re part of it. Moment Factory’s immersive creations can only be experienced live, inspiring breathless you-had-to-be-there reviews. Its particular genius, and where a big part of its future may lie, is in entertaining people not only where they expect it (concerts and festivals), but where they don’t. The company transforms even seemingly mundane occurrences—walking through a darkened forest, queueing in an airport terminal—into captivating experiences.  

It’s no coincidence that their industry is taking off just as millennials come of age. According to the market research firm Harris, 78 per cent of that generation, who are now entering their prime earning years, would rather spend their money on experiences than on goods—say, a ticket to a music festival instead of the headliner’s tour T-shirt. Marketing agencies are paying attention. A 2017 report by the multinational marketing firm Freeman showed that one in three chief marketing officers surveyed planned to spend between 21 and 50 per cent of their budgets on experiential marketing in the next three to five years. The bet is that, when tied to brands, experiences like those created by Moment Factory will stick with potential customers—and help sell a product—more than any billboard ever could. 

Behind the scenes at the Montreal studioBehind the scenes at the Montreal studio. (Courtesy of Moment Factory)

Moment Factory has a global footprint, but its DNA (and its head office) remains in Montreal for one simple reason: it owes both its existence and continued success to the shambolic, often maddening city that birthed it.

The seeds of the company’s aesthetic lie in the rave scene of late 1990s-era Montreal. Though the city bore the worst of Quebec’s post-referendum economic hangover, the climate nonetheless afforded artists cheap rent and a nothing-to-lose attitude that at least made things interesting.

Two raver friends—Dominic Audet and Sakchin Bessette—had the idea of enhancing the already intense experience of a Montreal rave with visuals projected from slide projectors. They called it “music for the eyes,” and Moment Factory was born. Its first collaborations were with Cirque du Soleil, an early fellow traveller in Montreal’s broke-but-fabulous artistic scene.

The company’s first big break came when it collaborated with Nine Inch Nails for the industrial rock band’s 2008 Lights in the Sky tour. While a typical rock show will feature canned graphics and choreographed special effects, nearly half of the show’s visuals were generated by Moment Factory’s custom-built “brain.” It tracked the position and movements of band members and projected this data onto invisible LED screens. One effect had band leader Trent Reznor appear to burst through a wall of static and into view of the audience.

The company went on to gussy up the live performances of other massive acts. A Moment Factory co-production saw illuminated beach balls rain down on the crowd during Arcade Fire’s Coachella 2011 performance, and 32 HD projectors set the stage for Madonna during her 2012 Super Bowl halftime show.

The company has redesigned Los Angeles’ International Airport and Singapore’s Changi Airport, incorporating interactive light displays and trompe l’oeil storefronts rendered in LED.

“Our mission is to gather people together to live in a communal moment. If we can spread the magic, all the better.”

One of the company’s more surprising successes, though, lies in forests. In 2014, one of Moment Factory’s creative directors, Gabriel Pontbriand, launched a project to illuminate a tiny fraction of Quebec’s 761,000 square kilometres of forest with lights, sound and special effects. The ensuing production, Foresta Lumina, brings a host of creatures to life as visitors stroll a path through Quebec’s Coaticook Gorge. It is truly interactive: hologram wolves dart through the sky, trees seem to grow out of rock and forest floors light up as you walk through them.

There are now six Lumina forest walks—the most recent in Nagasaki, which opened weeks after the company’s night walk experience won a top prize in the Japan Media Arts Festival this year. Moment Factory’s Tokyo office, which opened in 2017, will be the company’s base of operations for its increasing number of projects in Asia. “We chose Japan for our first office in Asia to connect with pioneers of digital art, who are at the forefront of technological innovation and creativity,” says Pontbriand. “By putting down roots in Japan, we are forging partnerships that will keep us on the cutting edge of what we do.”

In China, Moment Factory literally planted a forest around a 1,000-year-old tree for its Mystic Tree installation in Hangzhou. These trees have become the canvas for a light-and-sound retelling of the Song dynasty.

The company reimagined a casino in the Netherlands and made a nightly multimedia spectacle out of the Sagrada Família church in Barcelona. It designed a permanent installation in Microsoft’s flagship store in New York City and the cabaret show shown regularly on one of the largest cruise ships on earth. Like Cirque du Soleil, Moment Factory has captured the freethinking ethos of its hometown—yet because the company works in a visual medium, it is unconstrained by language and translates globally as a result. “Our mission is to gather people together to live a communal moment,” Pontbriand says. “If we can spread the magic elsewhere, then all the better.”

Others are spreading the magic, too. This past spring, the Art Gallery of Ontario hosted a popular piece of experiential entertainment: Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors, dazzling reflective rooms that not even a million selfies could do justice to. Nearby, at Toronto’s historic Fort York, visitors can don headsets and see virtual British troops fighting American forces during the War of 1812, thanks to the work of augmented-reality firm Awe Co.

Last summer in Vancouver, thousands flocked to the shores of False Creek, where director Nettie Wild projected Uninterrupted, a stunning AV recreation of the Pacific salmon run, onto the underside of the Cambie Street Bridge. Coincidentally, another inventive piece of public art was on display just a short walk away: OH!, which let participants control the lights on Science World British Columbia’s geodesic dome via sensors on a beach ball–sized orb across the water.

Megaphone, MontrealMegaphone, Montreal. (Courtesy of Moment Factory)

Moment Factory does the vast majority of its work in Montreal from a 40,000-square-foot space in the city’s Mile End district. Walking into it is like strolling into an open-concept smorgasbord of high ceilings, computer monitors and skinny jeans. There are salads and beer taps in the cafeteria. It seems as though roughly a quarter of the employees are on skateboards at any given time.

“It’s easy being an artist here,” says Pontbriand, a lighting expert by trade, referring to the city beyond Moment Factory’s walls. Quebec invests heavily in culture: the provincial government has allotted nearly $800 million for 2018-2019 alone, giving access to an unparalleled system of grants and tax credits. “When I started my career in show business, as a guy who wasn’t very well known, I still had access to these huge venues with all kinds of equipment and technology.”

There’s even a certain institutional camaraderie amongst would-be competitors. In 2013, the city approached Moment Factory with a novel idea: make something remarkable out of the Jacques Cartier Bridge for the city’s 375th anniversary.

The bridge, which connects Montreal to the South Shore, is a pedestrian affair, figuratively and literally—unremarkable, utilitarian, painted the colour of hospitals and prison cells. Moment Factory worked with six of its Montreal-based competitors to turn it into something remarkable at night.

The $40-million Connexions vivantes (“Living Connections”) has the bridge turning a different colour every night, from green to blue and everything in between, thanks to over 2,800 LED light tubes encircling the girders and spires. It will shine for 10 years.

Living Connections was the fruit of 250 people; Moment Factory was only the best-known of the seven competing Montreal multimedia firms who worked on the project. Pontbriand sees them less as competitors than as Moment Factories in waiting. “There is a base of expertise here,” he says. “If you are a visual artist in Montreal, there is work here for you. There are little Moment Factories everywhere.”