Before PowerPoint, and long before digital projectors, 35-millimeter film slides were king. Bigger, clearer, and less expensive to produce than 16-millimeter film, and more colorful and higher-resolution than video, slides were the only medium for the kinds of high-impact presentations given by CEOs and top brass at annual meetings for stockholders, employees, and salespeople. Known in the business as “multi-image” shows, these presentations required a small army of producers, photographers, and live production staff to pull off. First the entire show had to be written, storyboarded, and scored. Images were selected from a library, photo shoots arranged, animations and special effects produced. A white-gloved technician developed, mounted, and dusted each slide before dropping it into the carousel. Thousands of cues were programmed into the show control computers—then tested, and tested again. Because computers crash. Projector bulbs burn out. Slide carousels get jammed.
“When you think of all the machines, all the connections, all the different bits and pieces, it’s a miracle these things even played at all,” says Douglas Mesney, a commercial photographer turned slide producer whose company Incredible Slidemakers produced the 80-projector Saab launch. Now 77 years old, he’s made a retirement project of archiving the now-forgotten slide business. Mesney pivoted to producing multi-image shows in the early 1970s after an encounter with an impressive six-screen setup at the 1972 New York Boat Show. He’d been shooting spreads for Penthouse and car magazines, occasionally lugging a Kodak projector or two to pitch meetings for advertising clients. “All of a sudden you look at six projectors and what they can do, and you go, Holy mackerel,” he remembers.
“All of a sudden you look at six projectors and what they can do, and you go, Holy mackerel.”
Douglas Mesney, a commercial photographer
Six was just the beginning. At the height of Mesney’s career, his shows called for up to 100 projectors braced together in vertiginous rigs. With multiple projectors pointing toward the same screen, he could create seamless panoramas and complex animations, all synchronized to tape. Although the risk of disaster was always high, when he pulled it off, his shows dazzled audiences and made corporate suits look like giants. Mesney’s clients included IKEA, Saab, Kodak, and Shell; he commanded production budgets in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. And in the multi-image business, that was cheap. Larger A/V staging companies, like Carabiner International, charged up to $1 million to orchestrate corporate meetings, jazzing up their generic multi-image “modules” with laser light shows, dance numbers, and top-shelf talent like Hall & Oates, the Allman Brothers, and even the Muppets. “I liken it to being a rock-and-roll roadie, but I never went on the tour bus,” explains Susan Buckland, a slide programmer who spent most of her career behind the screen at Carabiner.