Some folks start businesses with a great idea. Some build a business around a capital investment. Some do both. Those that do both have to walk a fine line- promoting the idea, or promoting the gear into which they have sunk their money.
I wanted to start a business that specialized in visual communications, in an era before the proliferation of video. Film in the corporate world had passed it’s golden age, had matured into an industry (industrial film for businesses, charities, the arts), and had in many markets priced itself out of reach for many customers. The only viable option for business sales and training applications was the filmstrip (a series of still images on a single spool of film, sync’d manually to a soundtrack on record or cassette with an audible buzz-tone, or used without a soundtrack like a Powerpoint, but with just a blank moment between “slides”.
But, speaking of slides, they were about to make a statement. Kodak had invented the Carousel Projector, which eliminated various other “slide talk” methods… slides were pulled. dragged, pushed into the path of the projector’s bulb, and then once again subjected to the same torture on the way out. There were many schemes for doing this, but suffice it to say there were plenty of crushed slides and projector jams. The carousel, using gravity to drop the slide into the projector, greatly eliminated this problem. A sales person could make a pitch knowing they wouldn’t be interrupted by gear gaffs, and could confidently present and sell.
But that’s not show biz, let alone theater. To generate emotional buy-in you needed a story, sequential movie-style imagery, and a killer soundtrack. Filmstrips and click-click slides weren’t going to provide that. Again, Kodak provided an answer. It involved an extra projector, a controller for the two projectors, and a means for syncing what the projectors did to a soundtrack. I’m sure Kodak envisioned 160 slides of Dad’s vacation photos time to “I Left My Heart In San Francisco”, but they were providing a jumping off point for a lot more than that.
INTERLUDE: Consider the era. In the 1960’s TV had offered just two special effects: the dissolve, and optional color. Graphics were white type on black cards superimposed over a background. Cinema still led the special effect assault, the most effective being Disney cell animation or “2001: A Space Odyssey” outer space wide-screen experimental miniatures, full size set pieces and graphic tunnel effects.
Kodak’s new magic box was called a “dissolver” and it involved allowing two projectors to work in concert, each taking a turn advancing the tray and then dissolving into the waiting slide in the next tray.
Sounds boring, until you realize that this allowed the coupling of two visual touchstones heretofore only possible in cinema: extremely high resolution imagery, and silky smooth dissolves and fades. Timed to a real soundtrack, this meant a world of difference, and allowed us to achieve our creative goal: Professional storytelling at a fraction of the cost of film. This meant we could exist with low overhead and enter the untapped market at introductory prices (and seeing we were just 22 years old, we would slowly have to work our way up the corporate client credibility food chain to raise our prices).
We started by doing fundraising documentaries for the arts, but were soon surprised the variety of applications and venues our product was being used for: sales meetings, awards banquets, convention kickoffs, and as the market grew, the hardware happened to grow with it. New players added ways to attach more projectors which led to more experimentation and more effects. This led to multiple project animation effects, which could be pretty dazzling. Even as video grew, slides still had the edge when it came to quality of imagery, and videos effects even in the early 80’s were still pretty cheesy. Ours looked more like the titles to Star Wars or Superman.
Eventually the graphics edge led us to speaker support, a natural outgrowth, and one that had the edge over white on black press type or overhead projectors with hand drawn charts. Brand extension!
Within eight years we had major corporate clients in three major markets.
But we also experimented with video- well I did. While the company was devoted to slides, I sensed the writing on the wall. The public was going crazy with their Betamaxes and VHS’s. Awareness was growing. Video affordability was on the horizon, and although video graphics were expensive, network TV video had shed the cheese and added 3-D lettering and rotation animations. Soon that was available in local markets too.
It was too expensive for our blood, but if we produced everything except the animations, we might be able to move into video credibly since we were still the brains behind the story. I produced one or two conventions (openers, speaker introductions, history modules) in video, editing together historical imagery like we did with slides (quick edits paced to the music) but with the additions of camera moves on the still images (yes, the Ken Burns effect, but before Ken Burns.). Projecting a big screen image was very expensive in those days, but the cost of production- even pre-producing a few title and chapter animations to break apart the edit- made the total price still within that of a big slide affair. After that first big experiment I was convinced: time to move into the “next” medium, and grab that market position.
And that part of the story proved that history repeats itself. I’ll save it for next time.