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Marc Morissette / Cluster Films

Marc Morissette

Owner / Cluster Films

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Why did you start a company?

Well, I wanted to move more into directing. With my knowledge of Visual effects and post-production, I wanted to mix all of that into the best key in-hand service. Also, to be really honest, one of the things that led me to start CLUSTER is that I didn’t like how certain companies would handle production and people. I know there is a learning curve in the visual effects industry that you can really only grasp the inner working of how it works by actually doing the work. But I do believe that there is a lack in supporting the evolution of their artists and production staff moving on into managerial roles.

Talk to me about your installations?

So CLUSTER has 3 artists stations and 1 Finishing station. We have a small local render farm and of course a Green Screen studio next to all of that which is now upgraded to a virtual production set. This means we can now do in-camera VFX, the same technology used on Star Wars the Mandolorian. We want to bring Virtual Production to a larger crowd at a reasonable price. But this requires as we are putting the pieces together, a lot of equipment.

What differentiate your company from others?

I think what brings CLUSTER to a unique position, it’s the way it’s set up and the service offering for our studio size to our customers. We now range from VFX services, studio shooting (greenscreen), and we are now equipped with a full virtual set for in-camera VFX using Unreal Engine.

``WE ARE NOW EQUIPPED WITH A FULL VIRTUAL SET FOR IN-CAMERA VFX USING UNREAL ENGINE.``
How many years did it take you to build a solid foundation?

We are now entering our 6th year in business. CLUSTER for me is still evolving. The market and technologies change so often in our field that if we are not perpetually adapting yourself it’s hard, I think, for small companies to survive in this world of giant VFX companies. What we try is to bring a more human feel to all of our clients in our VFX boutique still environment.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years from now?

I Would love to see our content creation using Virtual Production and Unreal Engine and all other VFX software used to push the content as far as the technology can go and as far as our studio can go. And most important, building a great team working toward that goal.

How did you get funded? How did you find your business partners?

I don’t have any partners. When Cluster started I did have a partner but we eventually transitioned into me being the sole owner for several years now. So In a short period of time, I’ve been through a lot of changes as for the shape of the company itself.

What’s your best investment so far?

Investing in my studio is for me the best investment, being able to do work while testing new methodology and new technology to better improve the content creation demand out there. Even for our size, the studio packs a punch! The goal was to create a great environment for filmmakers of all sorts and try to remove as many limitations to their creative ideas that are also based on a limited budget. We help a lot of filmmakers find alternative ways to create their VFX to fit the boundaries of their budget.

What would be a viable business model?

A viable business model is hard to discern since our industry is a mix of technology and creativity. Yes, there will always be someone cheaper or there will be a game-changing software or hardware that will automate a task. Without clearly identifying what is the minimum rate for all given VFX tasks. That is why building a viable VFX industry model is still not set in stone. With all the content creators out there needed, I see a nice model emerging by connecting smaller size businesses like CLUSTER into a haha “cluster” of specialized VFX boutique that will output as good as quality as the bigger VFX houses out there. We are already doing work this way and it’s giving our clients higher quality products for the price. A lot of VFX boutique owners out there are industry veterans like me who want to still be in the game like we were when working in larger studios.

What is your biggest strength?

I am generally calm and I try not to be too spontaneous, which I think people appreciate when we have to find solutions.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years from now?

I simply want to find great and original ways to solve VFX problems. Projects will always come in if I do my job properly. So, I’m not worried about this at the moment.

What’s the best joke you’ve done at work?

It’s important during Dailies (meeting with artists to talk about the work done) to be entertaining to make sure nobody falls asleep. I already brought a few years ago a very bad joke book to start every dailies… it was a great success and it relaxes people before the meeting.

Do you think remote work is a viable solution for companies and what are the challenges?

I think this is a great step for the future. I wouldn’t think we could be 100% remote for simple reason of technology limitation and team communication, but a few days a week is something that could be probably possible.

What are the qualities or characteristics needed to accomplish your daily work?

Communication and team spirit. You have co-workers that bring new ideas and different point of views. It’s your role to listen to them to then take clear decisions… Good communication will also make the time at the office more enjoyable, we sometimes need to be reminded that we only work with pixels, it’s possible to have fun while working.

How do you keep yourself updated with all the new technologies?

Conferences and trainings are for sure very important. You need to be interested by what is being developed. It’s a very fast-growing industry and you don’t want to be outdated.

What is the last tutorial you’ve listened to and why it helped you become a better artist?

I am right now following a few classes at UQAT (Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue) for my personal knowledge. I am learning main softwares and management technics to help my day to day job. Being able to know a bit the limitations of every department helps me a lot when I talk with a client so bring new ideas to solve problems.

``WE ARE NOW EQUIPPED WITH A FULL VIRTUAL SET FOR IN-CAMERA VFX USING UNREAL ENGINE.``
Describe one of your days?

Get at the office between 8:30-9:00 am and I leave at 17h. When I get to work it’s reading emails. Trying to evaluate the tasks I have to do during the day. Ranging from Producing, supervision, doing some VFX shots, a bit of accounting, marketing, business development, R & D. These are all tasks that I do in a single day at different proportions. Always prioritizing active projects.

What is your expertise?

My main expertise is Compositing and that of Cluster. I started on Discreet Flame and moved my way when I was at Digital Domain to Nuke back in 2003. Then I moved on to Lead Sequence, Compositing Supervisor to VFX Supervisor. I also have a lot of other traits that are not often publicized. Although not my expertise I also found myself producing the movie Spencer Confidential for Netflix for example.

What inspires you the most?

Being challenged every day with my multiple facets, as an Artist, Supervisor, entrepreneur, producer, eternal student of the industry, etc… Mixing all of this to give a unique experience for our clients here at CLUSTER. I love this field so much and all the people in it that I had the pleasure of working with that I want to keep at it for a long time.

What motivates you to wake up every morning?

Keeping at it. Cluster for me is my dream come true, creating a human-size studio that will grow using the available resources and technology to feed into creative content and ideas. From movies, television series, and many other creative projects out there. All the elements are now here and available in my Studio.

``WE ARE NOW EQUIPPED WITH A FULL VIRTUAL SET FOR IN-CAMERA VFX USING UNREAL ENGINE.``
What are the qualities to be a good owner?

I think a good owner understands all the services that a company offers. That being said I want to relate this as the owner’s understanding of his employees’ needs as they do their work. Having the employees communicate their needs while bidding or forcing upcoming jobs. Encouraging good moves and failures also is requisite, that’s how individuals become even sharper minded and focused while doing their work. I think this is important at an employee, owner, and company level. That’s how you grow everyone in the organization. When you get to work with the same team over and over that’s when, I think, the fun begins, having a veteran team to do projects.

What’s the hardest decision you’ve had to take as a company owner?

I think as a business owner it’s important to have a clear understanding of where you are going long term. And sometimes the realities of the market both local and international, new technologies that are changing up every 2-3 months challenge the direction of any business owner in our industry (and in general). Sometimes the local market you are in is trying to pull you in one direction that is not necessarily the destination you were planning to go to in the first place. Always steering the boat towards that initial goal and having foresight enough in that changing industry is for me the hardest decision I make,… every day. Finding the quick way toward financial stability and accepting clients at all costs is not in Clusters’ philosophy. We try to develop actual long term relationships with our client and that takes longer.

How would you describe your management style?

I’m a very relaxed person. I never forget that we are only creating images and that our client relationships always have this extra communication when the time arrives to discuss deadlines, budgets, etc… In that sense, I try to make an environment flexible and as relax as possible for everyone. I’m also hands-on on every project so I’m always working with everyone which I think makes a big difference in the artists’ perception of their workload.

How do you deal with problematic employees?

So far so good, but I keep an honest conversation with my employees regarding their tasks and their performance doing them. If I see they lack the knowledge to do a task, I will train them to do it on the spot. This way I know it will be done a certain way that is relevant to the project at hand and the company’s future. From there that task becomes an acquired skill to the artist that I can now depend on from that point forward.

`` AN ARTIST WANTING TO WORK HERE WOULD BE A VERY MOTIVATED AND TALENTED INDIVIDUAL ``
How do you deal with difficult clients?

Actually, this is one critical issue I find in the business we are in, that we don’t discuss enough, bad and toxic clients. These clients can be even as powerful as to basically shut down some studios. Giving the best service to ALL my clients is and always will be our priority here at CLUSTER. However, we will always have the choice of working with this client or not, in the future. Depending on how big the VFX studio is, it’s a challenge between “the customer is always right” and what becomes a bad relationship for your team/business. I have heard of studios telling toxic clients things like “ take back your project and finish it somewhere else”. To those company owners, to be placed in that position, that should not happen in the first place and for that, I have enormous respect for them as it’s a very hard decision to make. We were lucky enough not to have to go to that extreme. And a lot of time our patience pays off with repeated business as we are fun to work with and have both the same interests as our clients.

The Industry

How would you describe the industry today?

The industry today, in 2020, is getting overall. New technology and AI are making some shifts in how certain elements are done. Virtual Production is also a big game-changer. The arrival of COVID-19 is also another big factor in the transformation of our industry. Opening remote work to employees is changing how people work and live. Passing by usually really busy neighborhoods that house a lot of large VFX and game studios are now empty. I heard that creative agencies are not renewing their leases as they are functioning remotely now and there is no loss of revenue and productivity on their part. So there is a big change to this covid19 end line ever-changing with multiple waves of cases out there. Even with “ongoing shoots” there is always a risk of another stop of production if a covid case arises. That is why we’ve adapted in a very unique way of working remotely to be able to operate while limiting people being present at work. We can now have reviews from any computer and camera in our studio and we are able to output to our clients, who are now all remote (and sometimes working in their pajamas 😉 any feed we want. Kinda like a broadcast studio.

What would be your suggestion to artists who want to work for your company?

An artist wanting to work here would be a very motivated and talented individual (or at least “in progress” 😉 ) with hopefully a passion to try new things. Ultimately it’s the individual’s own motivation to show they’re taking this job at heart. Having someone to have a broad range of VFX, shooting, camera, onset experience is something that each branch of their knowledge would be exploited at CLUSTER since we cover all of those.

What’s your best advice for someone who wants to start their own company?

Oh, this is a tough question, I would say find/hire/talk to someone that did it before and is willing to share. Just having a conversation with that person might get you to better evaluate if you want to embark on that adventure. Being an artist is a very different set of mind than being an entrepreneur. The relationship between artistry and money is a strange balance. Shifting to that mindset is a bit of a challenge for some. But I will say that to really understand this you need to just do it. Everyone has a different journey into entrepreneurship but you get the same all-around experience in the end.

What do you think is lacking in this field in general?

I think of who I consider being VFX entrepreneurs, but especially people that have been in the industry for 30 + years and that have seen multiple revolutions from a financial standpoint. They all say the same things that we all need to standardize our practices or else we will never grow as a business. I’ve had several conversations with some of them and CLUSTER is a big experiment in a way. I really wanted to understand the dynamic of the financial side of the VFX industry. Coming close to my 6th year I now understand a lot of things about why certain decisions are made. I’m still on the path to have this new business model emerge in the next few years and I hope CLUSTER will have a significant role in that change.

`` AN ARTIST WANTING TO WORK HERE WOULD BE A VERY MOTIVATED AND TALENTED INDIVIDUAL ``
If you’re working on your own IP, how did it start? Where did you get the inspiration for your idea?

The creation of Cluster is no random thing. A dream of mine to direct a project that I have been slowly writing over the years would be an amazing experience. Having the Virtual Production set available now will certainly accelerate the process. Creating great looking pitch material for more finished shot and editing, color grading. Everything to get a project financed. The inspiration for that comes from a mix of personal experience and reading the news, reading books, listening to music, and watching movies. I’m a strong believer that creativity is a mix of multiple elements that your brain reorganizes in unique ways

How do you manage your balanced work-personal life ?

What drove me to start Cluster was to be able to control my hours and to be flexible when I worked during a particular day. There are still crunches but they are not unnecessary imposed crunches. Too many times I have been doing late nights which the next day I would get comments like: “oh we did not send the shot” or “oh there are new elements for that”. The reason I’m talking about this is, it reinforces the issues in communication between either production/supervisors/coordinators/artists etc.. especially now that I’m a business owner / Supervisor / Producer (sometimes 😉 ). Working unnecessary work hours directly impacts that precious work/life balance. I prefer having artists at 100% every day than having them lose interest or being affected in both of the aspects of their lives which impacts directly their productivity.

How do you promote your company?

Mainly through web channels, websites, social media. But what I really enjoy doing is actual business development, preferably in person (or zoom, super hangouts …etc). I’m a very enthusiastic person in life, I think this is a good factor when I meet people. I often talk to people and students and I think it shows that even after 20+ years doing this I’m still enjoying every bit.

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Marieve Pilon
marieve [at] 3dqub.ca

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