Moment Factory’s Amahl Hazelton On Delivering Visual Experiences In Public, In The Midst Of A Pandemic
September 9, 2020 by Dave Haynes
Montreal’s Moment Factory has done many of the most visually interesting digital experiences you’ll see these days – from airports and big shopping malls to ancient churches, old forts and forests.
As with just about every company out there, COVID-19 has impacted what Moment Factory does – but in this chat with Amahl Hazelton, you’ll hear how the company has been successfully working its way through the pandemic, keeping a crew that’s now north of 400 people busy on new and running projects.
Hazelton does strategy and development at the company, and has been a point person on many of Moment’s projects in public and urban spaces. We get into the big demand that’s coming in from outdoor attractions to create memorable digital experiences in outside spaces that can be made workable and safe, even when social distancing is required.
We talk about how and why big visual projects come together, their goals and how success is measured.
We also talk about how the pandemic has reinforced some lifestyle and operating changes that were already coming together for Moment – like a big deployment that would normally have as many 30 staffers on the ground, for weeks, in another city – instead having three. Web cams and effective ongoing collaboration filled the gap, and it seems to work.
There’s a really short list of companies, globally, that do end-to-end iconic experiential media and events, and Moment is by far the largest of them – and by most measures the best.
Have a listen.
Amahl, thank you for joining me. It’s been a while since we’ve seen each other in person. It’s been a while since I’ve seen most people in person. I know a ton about Moment Factory. I’ve been to your studios and everything up in beautiful Montreal. I miss Montreal, but I’m not traveling anytime soon, but for those who don’t know much about the company, can you explain what Moment Factory is all about and what your role is there?
Amahl: Sure. So we’re a pretty unique multimedia studio, doing entertainment and placemaking, and we’ve grown over the past decade from about 25 to 425+ staff with really almost equally divided between technical design system architecture and motion design, content creation, art direction, of what we see on signature multimedia features be they for live rock shows and things like that, which is probably around 10% of our business and has been impacted by COVID, but is still in the pipeline for when things come back to live venues. And then the rest of about 90% of our work is in these permanent placemaking projects, what we’ve called over the years, “destinations”.
Your company has done a number of really iconic projects. Are there ones you can rattle off that people can go, “Oh yeah. I saw that.”
Amahl: Sure. I think a lot of people have been through some of the world’s major airports and they’ve seen what we’ve done in LAX back in 2013. I know they’ve seen it on your blog Sixteen:Nine. More recently numerous collaborations with Changi airport, which has consistently ranked number one in the world, and it’s always trying to set a new standard with their various terminals as they bring them online, as well as the various spaces that surround the airport. So they’ve been quite innovative in building entire attractions and almost theme parks around the airport so that people have things to do, from the local community and also travelers who are coming in and out and using the airport as a hub.
So there’s a lot of interesting stuff that’s been there and not just entertainment. There have been some interesting pain points solved by those destinations, dealing with long waiting lines, creating entertainment, and diversion around the checking lines, for example, through security in the case of Changi. And I think they’re pretty proud about that now, as they’ve got folks coming in and out on a limited basis, but they have a lot more gates and checks and people can be entertained and informed as they move through those zones compared to other places where, really, there’s no digital option to communicate or to keep people distracted while they’re waiting.
So that’s been an interesting model that a lot of airports and other transportation hubs have been reaching out to us about. We’re currently working on some projects people love seeing, and a lot of people will see them once things pick up again in travel, working with the busiest train station in North America, as well as the busiest in the world. I won’t name them, but it’s not hard to find. And those are all working on similar principles, wanting to do something special, communicate the destination and keep people engaged, especially since as many of the listeners will know, our airports, and there’s a lot of planes coming in and out, but over 50% of the revenues of better-run airports is from their retail, food and beverage layer, which means that they’re almost more shopping centers than they are airports.
And then people will have seen, as recently as last year, work that we did in live events with Ed Sheeran’s world tour, with Red Hot Chili Peppers with that pretty incredible kinetic chandelier, that would have been developed by Tate towers. And then, importantly, a lot of innovation around interactive experiences, what we call augmented games, augmented sports, where we’re dealing with mixed reality. And we’re starting to create interactive installations that play with actual, real audiovisual installed platforms as well as various ways. Yeah. That people can participate in and contribute to an onsite experience via connected devices, like their phones and things like that.
Crazy stuff where we’re mapping skateboard parks, while people do skateboard championships and they can send emojis out onto the field, around the skateboarders and things like that.
When you’re doing big public spaces, like the unnamed rail hubs, I’ve been involved with clients who have just flat out said, we want eye candy, we want the wow factor. We want something that makes people go, “Oh, wow”. But I would imagine given the amount of capital investment and the amount of investment in good creative and everything else that these clients want to do more than just have something that looks pretty, do they clearly define their purpose, what they want out of it?
And how do you work with them when it comes to the temptation to try to monetize what’s up on these with these big visuals because sometimes if you monetize them, it turns into advertising and it just loses the whole impact.
Amahl: Monetizing is much more complex than that actually for a lot of these destinations. Some, which have been used to having digital signage, do negotiate some kind of concession for advertising and getting on their platforms, but most of them actually have higher priorities, that are worth a lot more money to them.
And, and I would summarize that in one word, the visitor, the thing that all of these destinations want is a footfall and eyeballs. So they want to be reputationally the most competitive destination in their space. So they don’t want to be the 5th most popular shopping mall in their city, they don’t want to be the 8th top airport in the world. or the 10th theme park. They want to be number one. And that means being top of mind. And today being top of mind means that you’ve got a lot of buzz and you’ve got a lot of photogenic content circulating on the internet and you are right eye candy plays into that.
But the strategy and the objectives are much higher than that. We want, we need, and we depend on visitors and, and there’s a big role that Iconic Media features with meaningful content strategies, especially interactive ones can draw visitorship and when we’re talking with these destinations, I can summarize it usually in five main objectives.
They want to be top of mind, but they don’t want to just be famous with nobody coming on the site, so there has to be some kind of call to action. And after being number one reputationally, number two is that they want more visitors. They want them, number three, to stay longer on the site, to longer dwell times. They want people to engage more, traditionally a lot of these destinations had no clue who was coming in and out and had no direct relationship with them, but with today’s ecosystem of digital devices and content and sharing, now we can know who those people are. Destinations can know who they are, and have a relationship before, during, and after they arrive on the site.
And, what’s key to all of that is what is the onsite experience so that they come, they’ve got something to look forward to and something to engage with and that’s been our only focus for the entire 20 years that Moment Factory has been around, we’re going to celebrate 20 years in January, and as you know, none of our productions with the hundreds and hundreds of productions that we’ve done, not a single one, is actually delivered on a traditional 16:9 screen of a mobile phone or a TV in your basement cinema, or in a theater. It’s all out there in the real world, which is why our slogan, our credo is, “We do it in public” because we use all these same skill sets from cinema and video game, TV stage production, all the traditional AV formats, but we only do it in public.
How many of your clients, I don’t need a number, but I’m curious how often do you have clients who come to you with a very clear idea of what they want and how it will play out versus those who have an aspiration and you guys tease it out and create something?
Amahl: I would say it’s usually aspirational. It really depends on where the project comes from. If a project is coming through an end-user, it’s often aspirational. They know what they want to achieve, but they’re not sure how to get there. They have a sense of confidence in the fact that we come with so much experience and expertise, and we do a lot of R&D and innovation so we’re ahead of the curve. Often a lot of this stuff that we do has never been seen before, and then we move on and keep innovating and do something new for the next client.
And that those three things bring people in there’s already a well-established design process then people may be coming in and saying, we are architects, we’ve designed a building, but we know that we’ve got a lobby and an amphitheater and things like that, and we would like to work with you, Moment Factory to see what we can conceive of that.
For those spaces right now, I would say the trends of what we’re seeing, and the outreach that we’re receiving, which is tremendous, really has to do with, all the disruption attached to code. So, spaces destinations of all kinds, regional, rural, urban, interior, exterior, have been reaching out and saying, either in the case of rural zones, we’ve got more visitors than ever, “What can we offer them? We would like to do something like the Lumina Night Walk that you’ve created.”
Could you describe that? Just so people understand it.
Amahl: Sure. I think you might have a couple on your blog, but essentially…
Yeah, I don’t have any readers.
Amahl: (Laughter) I don’t think that’s true. You certainly have me and a lot of my colleagues, but, the Lumina is essentially like a walk in a natural or heritage environment.
So say, a nature park or a heritage fort, for example, and it essentially consists of 7-10 exterior stations, where people can get tickets. They’re always in a nighttime environment because they’re outside and it takes about 40 minutes to walk through this series of experiences, which usually have a narrative around them based on the local identity, that place, its stories, its people, its myths, and legends.
And, those have been already inherently COVID compliant as I call it. So you had specific departure times when you bought a ticket, so you’re leaving at 9:20, you arrive in your group and you move straight into the experience as a group, and the experiences are permeable, so you can come in and out of them, at your rhythm.
And people have a lot of space on these walks to move around each other without coming into contact and have a tremendous family experience which, you know, there’s a dearth of that. And, if there are connected objects, which in some cases, there are things that they can touch, those are easily sterilizable.
So interestingly, we’ve seen not only that, we’ve actually opened a brand new production that was procured entirely during COVID. We opened Alt Lumina, which is our first European Lumina Night Walk, we actually opened it just four weeks ago in Lije, which is in the French Alps. We’re working on a number of other ones and we’ve opened almost all of the Lumina Night Walks, which are now 12 around the world.
So we started with a couple of them in Quebec and then have them also in Japan, in Singapore, in Western and Eastern Canada, in Toronto zoo, and now Europe and some on the working table in the United States and elsewhere. So not only have some of those opened and been created during COVID, we’re receiving a lot of demand for those and have actually accelerated the opening of some which were only winter ones. So we had some winter Lumina Night Walks that asked us to come in and get them going for the summer season so that they could take advantage of the appetite of people to have something safe to enjoy with their families during this time where they’re mostly locked down.
Are these Moment Factory owned entities or joint ventures, or do you execute these for clients?
Amahl: These are partnerships, each one with each destination. There’s a lot of different profiles. If we look at the types of places that Luminas are going into, they’re going into, like I mentioned, nature parks, heritage parks, but they’re also becoming part of an added value ecosystem for adventure tourism operators. So you might have a zip line and you’re bound to close down as things get dark, but you’ve got this entire territory, that you’re all set up in and you’ve got operations set up, but you want to do something at night and maybe it’s a partnership between them and their local municipality, or County to actually drive tourism in those areas, but yeah, we always do it in partnership.
There’s a certain cost investment between the Moment Factory and the destination, and then, because it is a partnership, Moment Factory, and the destination has a share in the tickets and sales on a long term basis.
And we provide all the support to make sure that the environment isn’t neglected, but is maintained in tiptop shape, and it’s fully operational every day, every night that it’s open.
So that’s outside, but how do you manage things for inside jobs? (Laughter) That sounds like the wrong term.
Amahl: Well, actually it’s very similar. It’s interesting, there are some projects like you covered the Continuum project that we did for Canada 150. That was very interesting because that was, essentially, a takeover of a half-finished subway train station downtown.
And, we often get questions about how finished space needs to be to host a multimedia experience, and it really doesn’t have to be. This was essentially a dusty construction site, and it’s the same as a lot of these spaces that are being abandoned by retailers as they start to lose tenants inside shopping malls and stuff like that, they’re basically rough shells and there’s a lot you can do with a black box like that. You’ve got controlled light, you can create a really incredible experience. And if you look at the outcomes from that, I mentioned, we’ve been receiving a lot of calls to act essentially as an “emergency doctor” during this COVID time, and they’re saying, “We’re a shopping mall, and our tenants are closing and people are coming in on a mission. They’d come in the front door, they go to one store, they pick one thing up and they get out. And, our footfall has just dropped off the charts. And we’ve got an increasing number of square footage that we don’t know what to do with, how can we bring visitors back so that all of our existing retailers benefit, and do that in a safe way?”
And Continuum was actually almost an indoor model of a Lumina type experience, multiple stations, and things like that. And we now have this toolkit essentially of tried and true different installations that we’ve done, and if you look at some of the metrics of those backends, it’s very interesting to these destinations that are trying to attract visitors and repeat visitorship is Continuum, for example, had 320,000 people download tickets over nine weeks. So that’s barely two months. And if you put that in perspective, that’s pretty comparable to the annual visitorship in Ottawa of the national museums. So if you’re looking at, Museum of Science and Technology or Aviation or any of those, in nine weeks, this one humble multimedia installation attracted pretty equivalent tourism and footfall and ticket sales.
So in the current environment, the real critical issue for all these destinations is that we need people and there are things that can be set up and installed in three, four weeks. A typical Lumina is taking nine months to a year, three to four quarters to get it designed and implemented, but downtown, if you look at what’s happening right now, everybody’s in the regions. So the regions are doing really well, compared even to previous pre-COVID times, but they would like to capture and benefit on a sustained basis from that visitorship.
So they want those people to come back, even when things settle down and they’re looking to expand their offer, so “Hey, we’re out here in the countryside. There’s not a lot to see and do, so what can we do?” And Lumina offers a very interesting solution for that. But in the cities, that’s where you’re seeing community suffering. Tourism is destroyed, visitorship to traditional culture and retail destinations are destroyed and they’re very much looking for options, and these, sort of, pop-up experiences that multimedia can offer, and you don’t need to rebuild your entire architecture to do something special. You can take it over, you can transform it with projectors and audio and special effects and things like that and get a tremendous number of people, and it goes viral and it looks photogenic. These are very interesting solutions to developers, to cities, to business districts, and things like that right now.
Drafting off of the whole business of COVID and the nervousness about being around other people and the nervousness, right or wrong, around touching things, I think we’re all now conditioned to sanitizing. And when we touch anything, has that been forced to change in terms of how you do some of your interactive things?
Amahl: Not so much for us. Interestingly, we never jumped on the wave of joystick-controlled or VR goggle oriented experiences, both of which are pretty individual, and we are creating collective experiences and the R&D that I mentioned, and we spend a couple million a year at least on R&D really allows us to stay ahead of the curve in terms of using technologies that don’t require touch. So it’s something that we can look back 10 years and see some of the things that we were doing with interactive facades that were using the connect Kinect.
In fact, it was interesting when they discontinued Kinect. With, when Microsoft discontinued the original just last year, the big news around that is what are the Moment Factories of the world going to do? Moment Factory used that to create the nine-inch nails lights in the sky tour that was so famous.
What are we going to do without connecting now? There are new generations of that coming online from Microsoft and other technologies that we hacked, like the LIDAR, in autonomous cars, right? So very high response rate, very accurate, and we can use that to create massive experiences that are large scale, tracking a lot of people quite accurately and, and all of that is enabling more and more experiences.
The other trend of course, that I don’t need to mention is the personal device. We’re carrying around incredibly sophisticated pieces of technology that are essentially not only objects of our attention, they’re actually extensions of our body in some way. And so we can use them by how we blow into them, how we look at them, how we move them, and that can become our personal controller or means of contributing to the environment that surrounds us.
Does traditional digital signage, and by traditional I mean, 69 screens or LED displays that are feature walls or whatever, do they have a role in what you do or are they kind of complimentary? Are they integral?
Amahl: Well, it’s interesting. I’ve been doing a lot of calls with various stakeholders in the real estate development industry and almost categorically, they’ve been coming back this summer and saying it’s not just a nice to have, we consider it a must-have to have digital media and especially some kind of interactive digital media in our destination. It’s not optional anymore.
Now how to do it and what it does, is a deeper question. There’s a real desire to have it easy to use, so the 16:9 is people’s first reflex, but things don’t need to be, you know, a boring rectangle, no offense intended with your brand, but the…
I’m a boring guy. I’m fine. (Laughter)
Amahl: No, It’s the opposite.
But yeah, we’re breaking out of that box and everybody is, you’re seeing it all over the world that the traditional pixel space has been exploded.
And so if you’re coming into a more celebrated commercial office towers and things like that, they can’t afford not to distinguish themselves, they can’t afford to have a space that doesn’t allow, perhaps the nature of their “tech tenants” to be expressed or their upstart, their startups, or their innovative companies that they want to attract as tenants, which are the growth ones, right? And if you’re an office builder, then you’re going to be after the best growth tenants that you can find, and that is invariably in some kind of technology and innovation.
Yeah, I wondered if those commercial property developers were going to pivot away from those kinds of “highly visible visual experiences” in their lobbies and all that because of COVID and the whole work-from-home phenomenon, and would they now be competing just on cost-per-square-foot for leasing, but it sounds like if they want to stand out and stay competitive, they still have to do this?
Amahl: Well, it’s a lot about what we call place branding and competitive identity. If you’re going to have your destination compete against these other ones, what are you going to do to stand out? Because the dollar figure per square foot is really a race to the bottom. The location has always been a part of it, but experience too, and I think you’ve seen some of my presentations or keynotes, and I talked about ROI, but there’s also ROE, the return on emotion.
And that ROE is a much bigger conversation now than when I first said it 8-10 years ago. It’s return on the emotion, return on experience, return on entertainment, return on education, where people want to actually have a meaningful takeaway and not just an entertainment experience with their space and these developers.
You gotta think that as they start scratching their head about what is the stimulus to have people continue to choose to come to work in an office? Well, if you’ve got a boring concrete block box, a lot of the developers are saying, what if we got that’s going to entice people out of their basements, where they’re perfectly safe and happy doing their Zoom calls if our office building has nothing interesting and no way of communicating or expressing itself back and forth with the public that we’re trying to attract into it?
Before I hit the start recording button, we were talking a little bit about a project, at least part of the team was working on, without going into what that project was, what I found was interesting is the technical challenges of doing a live installation in the midst of a pandemic and how so much of the team that would normally be on site was working remotely and you were using things like webcams to put content on the big displays or whatever. Can you relay a little bit of that?
Amahl: Yeah, obviously we’ve all been grappling with the limitations to travel internally within countries, but, externally as well, trying to cross borders and we’ve got a massive project, it’s no secret, with the AT&T’s headquarters in downtown Dallas and a huge ecosystem of exterior and interior LEDs and content coming from the many incredible studios that AT&T purchased when they purchased Time Warner.
And, we’ve been refining this remote integration ability, where we would usually have 30 people on site for a month, so a lot of people, a lot of hotel rooms, a lot of per diem, we can now do an integration like that with 3 people for six weeks and that’s possible because we’ve always been particularly good at collaborating with local partners. So wherever we go around the world, we’re looking for local partners in the cities, in the regions that we’re conceiving these installations, who can actually support the clients and support us in implementing, delivering those. And there are fantastic partners on that Dallas team, the great in-house team with AT&T, against the architect who oversaw it. And that’s a continuing trend. So we’re just deepening those networks of collaborators in the integrator, in the manufacturing sector, and refining our processes to be able to do things wherever it is in the world using remote access points and high bandwidth connections.
So you see this as, or the company sees this as, something that you can do a lot going forward, or is this kind of a “hack” that’s getting you through?
Amahl: No, it’s something that we could do a tremendous amount of, and it’s actually kept us being extremely productive, even as all of those 425 staff that we have have been working from home.
We were up and running in about three days to work from home. And then one of the first things that we started undertaking was okay, how can we actually do real jobs, not collaborate on design, but actually produce them and integrate them and operate and maintain them moving forward. And we’ve got that riddle pretty much solved.
If we’re doing site visits, even for projects that are under development already, existing environments, we can actually do a lot of that with a good webcam or an iPad from the client-side and they can give us the tour of the space, and we look at it and start talking about the possibilities without needing to fly all the way to China or to Australia to do that.
Yeah, and I would imagine that this is good news in terms of staff morale and everything else, because going to, let’s say Dallas for a week is okay. You can hang out and go to a few restaurants and things like that, but if you’re there for five or six weeks, that gets old really quick. And if you could just do most of this work and be home with your family and your friends, you’re going to be a lot happier.
Amahl: It’s interesting because it was a pre-COVID initiative that we’d already started working on. How can we reduce the time in airplanes and hotels for our staff, which was an exciting thing when we were in our teenage years as a company, the phone rang, we loved jumping on a plane to go to Dubai and Europe, and Asia.
And we still do a lot of our work if you look at the breakdown, we do about 30% of our work in Asia, 30% in the States, 30% in Europe, and under 5% per year, traditionally in Canada, but that’s changing as well because as we’ve matured, we’ve started not just answering the phone, but building our relationships in these territories so closer within the United States, within Canada, starting to settle down and allow our staff to have lifestyles where they can start families of their own and spend more time with them and not be on a plane here and there. So, in Canada, we’ve had a lot of fun and have some very exciting projects in development coming online in Canada and the United States.
Good. This just flew by, so the last question, I’m curious because your job is public spaces, right? That’s your charge?
Amahl: Yeah. Although it’s more transversal now since over the past three to four months, but traditionally, yes, growing that whole permanent project space, which we described originally as public spaces, now more recently as cities. And that’s divided into a number of segments that have their own critical mass theme parks, the Luminas and Night Walk experiences that I described, and then these big urban development projects are pretty equally distributed.
So you get an inbound, you do a phone call or a Zoom call or whatever it may be, to talk to the potential customer for the first time. What’s that first question, other than how much of a budget you have?
Amahl: What do we ask them?
Amahl: It’s interesting. The first question I ask usually is, alright, this phone call was very exciting. We’re now three years later and looking back and your project, whatever it is, we don’t have any idea yet what it’s going to be, but you’re looking back and it was a huge success, and you’re tapping yourself on the back and saying, man, was it a good idea that I called those guys? What is your success criteria? What happened that you’re thinking, man, did I ever do it right?
And starting with that question of putting people in the future, looking back, and saying, boy, this is what I achieved, that puts everything in perspective, and allows us to have a conversation about what objectives they’re trying to attain long before we get to what are the real creative directions that can be applied to it, to reaching your challenges. So you want more visitorship now in four weeks and six weeks, eight weeks in your space? There’s a tremendous amount that we could do by Christmas.
You’ve got a Christmas holiday where things start reopening for COVID, for example, and now it’s February of next year and you’re looking back and you say, wow, I saved the holidays from the COVID Grinch. And there’s just so much that can be done to bring people together safely, with joy and not just as spectators, but as participants in experiences, which is what they’re hungry for.
People don’t just want to watch more Netflix, which they can do in their basement, but they actually want to contribute. They want to be a part of something and interactive multimedia installations can really unlock that for people and it can be done right now. But, it takes picking up the phone and saying, “what can we do?”
That’s great insight. Thank you.
Amahl: Yeah, well, real pleasure talking with you, Dave.