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Those were the days, my friend;
We thought they’d never end.

doug

 

Slides were the DNA of Incredible Images; real slides, that is, the kind made of film. Originally, the company was called The Incredible Slidemakers, and for a good reason: most people who saw our work usually exclaimed, “That’s incredible!”

When the company started in 1973 slide shows were the latest-greatest way to present content at large meetings and events. Before that, people used flip charts and, if they could afford it, 16mm motion pictures. Slides made it possible to project large pictures and titles, which could be seen by more people; and, voila, a new communications technique was born, called “slide shows.”

Slide shows were much easier and less expensive to produce than movies; and people could almost make slide shows by themselves; just buy a projector and have some slides made, and you had yourself a slick presentation.

Skyrockets are a good metaphor to describe the slideshow business, because after a moon-shot take off that began in the late 70’s, and lasted six years, the industry – renamed ‘multi-image’ -- enjoyed a three-year peak; and then, in the late 80’s the whole business fizzled out… usurped by video and (especially) PowerPoint. An entire industry come and gone in just about one decade… that’s probably one of the shortest business cycles in history.

The story of multi-image is the story of my life; or at very least is its overarching arc. Fortunately, I was in the right place at the right time, to become a multi-image pioneer, by virtue of serendipity.

Before slides, it was in 1973, when an oil embargo triggered a massive recession that just about killed my photo-graphics business; because advertising budgets were slashed, magazines were going out of business; so I lost 60% of my customers in one year, right after moving into a swanky new studio at 23 East 73rd Street in New York.

The studio was then called Mesney’s Third Bardo, which was a collaboration between myself, as photo-illustrator, and Tom Ridinger as graphic designer; we had worked together well for Car & Driver magazine, where Tom was the art director; and our collaborations were winning awards and notoriety; but (remember) magazines were having a tough time in the recession, so Tom left Ziff-Davis to work with together with me. Business was good; among others, we did album covers for Willy Nelson, package-produced Show magazine for Huntington Hartford, designed 24 covers per month for Bee Line Books, produced corporate ads and annual reports for Executive Jet Aviation (now Net Jets), to name just a few.

Then, when some of my infra-red sailing photos got published in Nikon World magazine, the company then asked to use them for a slide presentation at the New York National Boat Show; which tied-in nicely because we were producing the advertising poster for the boat show. The slide show, which was made by Aniforms, was a 3 X 3 grid of rear-projection boxes, each with a slide projector inside, for a total of nine projectors; so to show one of my pictures, it had to be split into nine pieces, which were re-assembled into one picture by the nine projectors; and that in itself was an eye-opener for me; but what really impressed me was how the pictures were syncopated with music; because the technology hadn’t existed to easily choreograph slides to music.

George Rounds, who was ad manager for NAEBM (National Association of Engine and Boat Manufacturers – organizers of the New York National Boat Show), also saw the Nikon show and decided that he wanted a show like as a feature presentation for the company’s annual meeting. Quickly, I undercut Aniforms’ price and took on the assignment, to get the chance to mix pictures and music; then, while researching for the right programming equipment, I discovered Audio Visual Laboratories (AVL), a start-up tech company run by former Bell Laboratories engineer Chuck Kappenman, who had worked with United Audio Visual (UAV), designing programmable controls for slide-projectors; after which he started AVL, which became the world’s largest producer of multi-image control equipment, thanks to his marketing genius, carried through by Ed McTigue at first, and then Bryan King, AVL’s Canadian-born sales manager, who could out-schmooze (and probably out-drink) anyone.

The NAEBM theme show was projected on three screens, with two projectors aimed at each, showing fanciful sailing pictures accompanied by ethereal music; the client loved it and so did AVL, who started using it to demo their control gear; thus was born a close relationship between myself and AVL; and we became a beta test site, with access to the newest machines, and thus stay ahead of the growing pack of audiovisual producers.

Thanks to AVL, more affordable slides shows replaced 16mm corporate films, and an industry called multi-image was born. Quickly, AVL had competition from copy-cat companies like Arion, Clear Light and Dataton. The competition was good because each company’s R&D propelled the production of bigger and better slide shows. However, as more and more companies started using slide shows, it got more difficult to for anyone of them to stand out from the crowd; which created the need for fancier, slicker-looking images; and that’s how The Incredible Slidemakerscompany began, making special effects slides and slide shows.

At some point early on, we ‘discovered’ that by aiming more than one projector at the screen, one could create double projections, flashing and other effects. We got into effects accidentally, when our Forox rostrum camera mal-functioned and over-exposed some title slides, the resulting lettering and words were surrounded by an impressive glow -- wow! – and from that point on, our focus was on effects, which sold like hot cakes. We started adding more and more projectors to heighted the effects; and eventually, used enough projectors to make animated sequences. To demonstrate our ‘products’ we produced the show called Bumbles.

Bumbles

The 1979 show was a portfolio of our special effects slide work... this was the first time many of these special effects were ever seen. The above movie is a digitally reassembled VHS of the original slide show.

 

Bumbles was a ground-breaking show that used 15 slide projectors aimed at one screen. Nobody had done that before. Nor had anyone ever shown such a range of special effects graphics. Having been in from the beginning, The Incredible Slidemakers pioneered the visual effects that would later be copied first by other slide-show makers, then the video industry, and finally in digital media; in fact, a good number of the effects in Photoshop et al have trace their roots to the innovative work of The Incredible Slidemakers.

Within a few short years after the release of Bumbles virtually everyone in the meetings-and-events business was using slide animation and special effects; and at our shop, to stay ahead of the pack, we kept pushing the envelope, using more and more projectors. For example, some of the last slide shows I worked on involved upwards to and sometimes more than one hundred projectors; which is one seriously complicated set-up, with equally serious costs. Keeping up with the Jonses was getting to big and too heavy… and also getting ‘old’ technologically as well as stylistically. In fashion, and media, styles and techniques have cycles which amount to “here today, gone tomorrow.”

poster

Incredible Poster

The Incredible Slidemakers pioneered production techniques for optical special effects; and what started as a mistake, changed everything. A few short years after the release of Bumbles everyone was playing with slide animation; and at our shop, we kept pushing the envelope.

Audiovisual business rapidly filled the 60% vacuum in the studio’s print business, and within two years completely over-took it. No longer really a print-graphics shop -- we were making slides and slide shows – Tom left, the company was renamed (to The Incredible Slidemakers), Pat Billings came on board to help in show production, and Fred Cannizzaro was hired to run what came to be our special effects slides department.

Gone, for me, was 1981 when inflation was running rampant; and interest rates hit 20% when Paul Volker put the kibosh on the economy. Credit tightened up and with it business in general. At most companies, big, expensive presentations went on the budget-chopping block in the first wave of cut-backs; so the phone stopped ringing, and many of the projects we had made proposals for, simply went away. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, I decided to close the shop… and move to Honolulu; because Japan was a cooking economy, investing heavily in Honolulu and Hawaiian real-estate in general, creating (I incorrectly thought) opportunities for multi-image show business.

To promote Hawaiian business, we produced the demo show Hawaii – Xanadu; it was to be the swan-song for The Incredible Slidemakers and I wanted it to be a sensation. Taking a page out of P.T. Barnum’s book, I decided to make a show that “turned the sublime into the ridiculous” by using 30-projectors on a single screen to project Hawaii – Xanadu, a “mind blower” that presents 2,400 animated slides in about 3 minutes, accompanied by the popular song “Xanadu,” sung by Olivia Newton-John. I thought, at very least I will hold the land speed record for slides.

 

Hawaii - Xanadu

Hawaii – Xanadu was produced under duress, as the studio was working against a tight closing down schedule, and fully half the staff (who were left) were not happy about the shuttering of the shop.

The last man standing was Jon Bromberg, an indomitable bull dog who got things done and went on to get things done for Staging Techniques and Bill Gates after getting everything packed into a forty-foot container destined for Honolulu, along with me. It would be the beginning of a 20-year odyssey, working my way around the world as a free-lance consultant to other multi-image production companies.

My plan for a multi-image production company didn’t work out; I should have realized that no producer would hire a sub-contractor in Hawaii, when they wanted to go there themselves.

As the bank account dwindled, I turned to making ‘tourist pictures’ using a rare 360-degree camera called the Cyclopan, developed by Jack Rankin, who built ten prototypes, of which I became the owner of serial number 1003. My (then) wife, Sandra Sande, and I started a business called Hawaiian Panoramas; the idea being to make gallery artwork and picture books featuring scenic panoramas of Hawaiian feature destinations made with our “one-of-a-kind” camera. Well, we never made any money, but Hawaiian Panoramas got us to the best spots on all the islands while producing the shots… priceless.

Did I tell you that I think I have a lucky star? That’s because every time I have gone bust, the phone has rung, always with a new opportunity; and so it was as the tide went out in Hawaii.

Lindsay Rodda at Sonar Graphics in Melbourne, Australia, called to ask if I would oversee the production of car-launch shows for Ford and Holden (GM Australia), and train his staff in the process. It was there that I met, and convinced Lindsay to hire, John Emms, then a masterful technical photographer, as head of the rostrum camera department; it was a big change for John, an entirely new camera technology that he would soon master, later becoming my production partner in a Swedish venture called Incredible Imagers AB.

After a year down under, we returned to Honolulu and resumed Hawaiian Panoramas, but tourism was way off due to the business “hangover” after Volker’s draconian credit tightening, and we found ourselves slowly going broke again until, once again, the phone rang.

This time, it was Chris Korody on the line, calling from Image Stream, his internationally- recognized multi-image production company, in Los Angeles; they were over booked and staffing up. I ended up there for a couple of years, and manages to convince Chris to bring in John Emms from Australia, to run the Maron Carrell rostrum camera department, which has a position he held until Image Stream went under in 1985, another victim of “Volkerism.”

My days at Image Stream were among the happiest, professionally. His staff was more capable and more motivated than any I have ever seen, anywhere; everyone had everyone else covered; so you could do your thing and everyone wanted to help you… and you wanted to help them; it was truly a team, with a strong and opinionated leader. While at Image Stream, I programmed and oversaw the production of shows for a Yamaha new-model introduction, as well as the Quazite Product Launch, (Quazite is a polymer-concrete material).

Quazite

I was happy at Image Stream, working alongside Chris Korody, himself a giant in the multi-image business. Sandra and I even lived with Chris (and Kathy and their dog, Charlie) for a few weeks until we found our own place; but I got seduced, and then abandoned, by a creative Canadian production house (who shall remain nameless) promising a World’s Fair’s gig working on a monster show for the Air Canada pavilion; they taught me (yet again) to never reveal your plans before you get paid. After laying out the plan in my proposal, they hired a local producer to execute those plans at a substantially lower rate; so after moving up to Vancouver, I was suddenly unemployed.

That was a long, dreary time, that autumn and winter in Vancouver, waiting for the phone to ring. Finally it did – I told you, it always does (or used to) -- and it was Sven Lidbeck calling from Audio Visual Centrum (AVC) in Stockholm, Sweden, offering a chance to produce the show that would launch the Saab 9000:

When the plane touched down in Sweden, it was a late-Spring evening, but it felt like 50 below and seemed like we had reached the ends of the Earth. Lasse Hellquist and Kjell Gustavsson picked us up at the airport and took us on a tour of Stockholm (including “Swedish wine” aka snaps) before meeting Kurt Hjelte, the leader of the pack.

AVC at that time was Sweden’s premiere meeting-production company; they had a good multi-image show making facility, with about two dozen people on staff, but they wanted to make it better… an attitude of which I have always approved; so they imported talent from other countries, particularly England and America, where multi-imagery was the most sophisticated. During my tenure there, I worked alongside Rick Pedolski, another American producer, and together we brought in teams of others from New York and L.A., which fleshed out AVC’s staff to about three dozen.

 

Saab 0056

 

Saab 9000CD World Launch

The show was a hit; although originally contracted for only three months, Saab asked me to stay and I ended up in Sweden for another eight years making shows not only for Saab, but also for companies ranging from Scania and Volvo to Ericsson, Electrolux, and Skanska. This show, for IKEA, called Building It Is Half The Fun, was the last show I produced for AVC before leaving them to start my own company, with John Emms, called Incredible Imagers AB.

 

IKEA “Building It Is Half the Fun!”

I didn’t want to leave AVC, and they didn’t want me to leave, but they weren’t paying their bills and, undenounced to me, were actually going bankrupt due to over-staffing and too much overhead. I hadn’t been paid in so long that I couldn’t afford to go home, to Canada; I had to earn the money to get back to Canada, and the only way was to compete with AVC, which I did, taking the Saab account with me when I left.

Things went well for nearly a decade; but what goes up must come down. Immediately after expanding from Stockholm into new, EU headquarters in Brussels, in 1990, the first Gulf War scuttled business in Europe and I made a forced retreat back to Stockholm in 1991. None of the work from that period in Brussels stands out – those were troubled times – except one piece we did for Saab during the transition from Sweden to Belgium. It is a short piece called “Putting The Future In Motion”.

 

SAAB: Putting the Future In Motion

Back in Stockholm I planned the recipe for an escape from AV. Burned out on AV and empire building; my plan involved a complete change of life… the transition from an international AV producer to a restaurateur. I taught myself how to cook in Stockholm, out of sheer desperation for anything other than ‘Swedish’ food. Actually, Scandinavian cuisine is great, but it’s on the heavy side for a steady diet; I longed for lighter Asian fare; but there was only one Chinese place in Stockholm and they used a lot of celery and canned corn; so I learned how to cook Thai style, to begin with; and I got hooked on cooking along the way. Shortly, cooking took over more and more of my thoughts. The kitchen got expanded by knocking out a wall, and it was fully outfitted with professional gear. I even started looking for places near my studio on Hornsgatan, to open a restaurant; but nothing gelled.

Meanwhile, I was making my living, thanks to Saab, producing multi-screen backgrounds for Saab-car displays at International Motor Shows throughout Europe and Asia. That was great work, but building shows involving 60 or 100 projectors is a slow and tedious process; too slow.

It was around that time that I decided to return to continental America, after living abroad nearly two decades. The new plan: start over in America and begin with a restaurant or bakery. My sister was living on Vashon Island, near Seattle; and I decided to go there because it was a lot like Sweden, in many ways.

Vashon Island isn’t the best place for an AV business, but I was focused on my restaurant plan; and I got AV clients by word-of-mouth wherever I was. For the first years on Vashon Island, I worked mostly in Asia, and mostly for Malaysia Airlines; then the Asian economy crashed as the result of a currency crisis; suddenly I was too expensive, and the Asian phone stopped ringing.

Probably because I had a reputation of being a big-show producer, the next thing I knew I was on the RFP list for a huge production. At a briefing meeting of prospective producers, I found myself pitted against the giants in the AV world… the ‘Caribiners’ and ‘Jack Mortons’ of the world; the big guys had brought entourages of associates. There were more than a hundred people at that meeting; so I took a seat in the last row. Thinking there wasn’t a chance little ol’ Douglas would get the job, I let my mind wander and wrote a plan for an outrageously large production. Long story short, my plan won the day; then, needing help, I partnered with Watts-Silverstein to produce the show.

WS and I didn’t last long; I detest layered corporate structure and am not a team player; and because I know that I know the better way, I don’t do well on committees. So I walked, and left my money on the table. Freedom costs. But that was OK because it freed me up to give the restaurant plan more attention.

Fork Inn the Road, my first and only restaurant, opened on Vashon Island in the summer of 1995. It was a huge success at first that made me realize that I had made a big mistake, actually more than one. Being a ‘know-it-all’ by nature, I disregarded a lot of what I came to learn was good advice, about running a restaurant; and that turned out to be an expensive lesson. At the end of summer, when the tourists left the Island, so did my bottom line. Broke by November, I got out of the restaurant business and back into AV, to pay the bills.

As luck would have it, my former student-assistant at AVC (Audio Visual Centrum), Filip Jarnehag, called with a job offer; so I ended up back in Stockholm. Together we produced a four-projector piece called Natural Selection, for the Swedish telecom giant, Eriksson. If felt good to be in familiar territory, working with a good friend and former colleague; it was challenging as well, working with only four projectors, instead of forty; but the result was a more ‘intelligent’ show – a ‘thought’ piece – rather than my usual flash and dazzle.

Then, a funny thing happened when I got back to Vashon Island. I was sent an RFP from AT&T via another former colleague, John Whitcomb, whom I originally met when he was with Pran AV in New Braunfels, Texas. John and I put together two ‘discover centers’ for two Cadillac-Fairview office tower projects in Dallas and Ft. Worth. Now, he was pitching the hardware installation for a new NOCC (Network Operations Control Center). AT&T wanted the NOCC to include lavish facilities for ‘edu-taining’ VIPs and the Press; and John called me to put together the core creative for a first-class customer experience. I was up against the giant in AV – St. Andrea, Caribiner, Jack Mortan, et al – and perhaps because I thought I could never win the job, I wrote an outlandish proposal. Long story short, after four rounds, I won.

Little old me needed help to produce the AT&T mega-show, and I turned to my former employers, Charlie Watts and Bruce Silverstein for help. This turned out to be a mistake which cost me two good clients, a lot of money, and three years of my life, for which I have nothing to show you (because it all belongs to ‘them’). However, every cloud has a silver lining, or so they say. While at Watts-Silverstein, I had the chance of working with a crew sent from Lexivision in Stockholm to co-produce a monster-sized employee motivation program engineered for Swedish Match AB by Allan Hilburg.

I first worked with Allan Hilburg back in New York when he was with Burson-Marsteller; in fact, we did so much business together that Incredible Slidemakers awarded him Client of The Year. Fast forward twenty years and he invited me into a colossal project: produce content for a global employee-motivation program (Swedish Match is a very large international conglomerate). Long story short, that was the show that broke my relationship with Watts-Silverstein, whose endless committee meetings, well attended by those with big hourly billing rates, chewed up and spat out the budget of most things they made; it was small-scale corporate greed that disregarded the client – and their projects; the clients would pay for steak and be served hamburger.

When I quit Watts-Silverstein, the powers-that-be at Lexivision took note, and they offered me a job as one of their creative directors. So I found myself back in Sweden, again; and that was good because I like Sweden a lot; not the least because the way they do things in Scandinavia works for the benefit of most, instead of least; and mostly because their systems runs as well and as smoothly as a fine watch works. But even well-functioning societies have their ups and downs.

The gig at Lexivision didn’t last long, because the company went broke a half-a-year after I got there, victims of their own success. They had been on a tear, and expanded fast, along with the world economy in general; but when the economy went south, they were too top heavy to survive a cyclical business turndown. The history of Audiovisual is filled with stories like Lexivision’s; the bones of many great creative enterprises are all that remain of their hubris. Like top-heavy ships, they capsize when the waves get too big, and the wind too strong.

While at Lexivision, during that first year back in Sweden, I renewed friendship with a very loyal former Swedish client, Scania Bus Company. As it turned out, Max Bjurhem, their advertising manager, had come to (finally) agree with a proposal that I had submitted years earlier, to create an international photo library of Scania facilities, products, and customers around the world.

So it was in everyone’s best interest when I resigned from Lexivision and went to work for Scania Bus Company. The project involved reportage and photography in 22 countries across Europe and North Africa. After six months on the road, 35,000 pictures were edited to make a widely distributed digital photo library of the best 3,000; and the top twelve were featured in Scania’s Millennium Calendar, for the year 2000. It was a transformative project for me, in which I honed my skills as a digital photographer; and by the time the year-long Scania epic was done, I was done for good with those 10,000 ‘bad ones’.

scania calendar

Scania Calendar

When I got back to Vashon Island in December 1999, choices were limited in the selection of clients. Having burned my bridges at Watts-Silverstein in Seattle, I went looking for work in Portland, Oregon, at Sound Images.

Sound Images was one of the world’s best kept secrets in slide AV, at that time. They produced some of the biggest slide-show extravaganzas of all time; shows involving hundreds of projectors and elaborate assemblies of multiple screens; the kind of things you see at big rock concerts these days.

The digital skills I learned on the Scania job served me well at Sound Images, as did my experience producing very-large slide shows; it put me into the same league as Sound Images; and it made it possible for Dave Fry and I to talk ‘man to man’; and as a result was a five-year period of collaboration on nearly a dozen shows for Nike and others.

The world of audiovisual shows was changing then, to digital format. Although many resisted, Dave Fry and I both dove in head first, We both spent a fortune on digital camera systems as well as video projectors and Dataton ‘Watchout’ show-production software.

NIKE

Nike Show

2005 turned out to be the zenith of my audiovisual career. Before that, I thought the zenith was a 120- slide-projector show produced for Nike at Sound Images in 2001. But now the challenge was to join a team of two dozen specialists chosen by Batwin & Robin (New York) to produce a 19-screen Watchout show for the museum at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. It was a monumental project in scope and sheer size. 19-screens of various sizes spanned an area 200-feet wide and 30-feet high; and the content library for this random-access extravaganza contained three hours of material, sliced and diced for the 19 screens. To watch such a thing on such a tiny screen as this is almost a joke, but you can see it here.

cdc

CDC show

Postscript:

As the style of audiovisual shows moved into motion, still pictures and graphics became passé.

Now, in retrospect, I can say that the happiest days of my professional life were spent working with Chris Korody and Dave Fry. Those two producers allowed me complete creative freedom and support crews capable of producing virtually anything within reason.

There is nothing like seeing your work projected onto a giant screen, and being able to control the images on that screen, together with the music; it is as thrilling as flying a Learjet.