[When I casually asked Bonnie Lebesch last summer what she did, I had no idea she’d tell me that she’d recently self-published a commercial-quality CD-ROM, called Stella and the Star-Tones. I also had no idea what she meant in saying the CD-ROM made it possible to play with ideas like "what kind of song would a red star sing?" though I now realize her description was apt and that her award-winning CD-ROM is a lovely testament to what can develop from an imagination given room to roam. What follows is Bonnie’s tale of what led her to self-publish Stella and the Star-Tones. -Tonya]
This story highlights the long and winding road that brought me to self-publish the Stella and the Star-Tones CD-ROM under the company name Bohem Interactive.
The Universe Is Bigger Than Me — In 1995, I ended a three year stint as a contractor (not an employee) at Microsoft. Microsoft taught me the ropes of creating a CD-ROM and gave me space to build a great career in User Interface (UI) design. I survived reorganizations and project cancellations, but eventually, it was time for me to go. I won’t go into all the details, but the constellations were aligned just so, I had lost trust in Microsoft’s management, and my life was headed in a new direction.
Resting, Reading, and Thinking — With my new-found freedom, I planned to restore my focus and explore some UI ideas I had bouncing around in my head. I thought that there must be a better way to approach interactive design than confusing layers of buttons and the dreaded "windows hell." I spent two months in the library researching moons and stars, constellations and creation myths. I read every ancient book on constellations and mythology I could find. I studied planispheres and star charts to stir my imagination.
What if I designed an interface that changed over time, allowing new elements to be introduced throughout the year? I created a planisphere in Photoshop on my Power Mac 7100/66 (with 56 MB RAM) and calculated rotations that segmented the stars in the Northern Hemisphere into 12 monthly views. I planned to use the Greek constellations as characters and to illustrate their myths interactively. I plotted the constellations on my planisphere and created a printed, table-sized map, then presented my creation to a tough audience of three-to-six-year-olds. Even though they were studying creation myths in school, they had no interest in Andromeda and rocks and chains. I learned that when they look at the stars, they connect the dots into spaceships and aliens! Now what?
Make It Up — Of course, even the "real" constellations are made up, so I scrapped the oldies. Being a visual artist, I’ve always loved dot-to-dots and crayons. I gleefully plotted weird and funny aliens. I went for a childlike and whimsical approach. I read about how children play and learn, theories of language, and Boolean logic, then drifted towards chaos theory, quantum physics, synchronicity, and the collective unconscious. Pure bliss.
By now I’d reached month four and was on a path that had me so entranced I could not stop, nor did I have the desire. Besides, I’d build a prototype and find funding, and then the royalties would pour in, right? I had complete faith in my ability to build a CD-ROM title, because I’d shipped several while at Microsoft. Even though I had nowhere near the budget many software companies maintain – Microsoft employed anywhere from 5 to 40 or more people on each of its CD-ROM titles and spent well over $300,000 per year – I had talent and plenty of time.
Divine Inspiration — The Universe has a way of cajoling you into following its whims. Strange things kept happening, like I’d pull a library book off the shelf, open it at random, and find a quote about "stars dancing in the night." Late one night I was brainstorming how to illustrate my constellations. I needed a style that would play well from a CD-ROM, and one I could illustrate myself. This meant no 3D, no texture mapping, and a style I could animate in Director. I thought of Joan Miro, the Spanish artist whose paintings often had a richly worked background with simple flat shapes on top. The next day I discovered Miro had done a series of drawings in this style, surprisingly titled "The Constellations." And guess what – he’d made them up. He drew wonderfully playful aliens, moons, and stars! (The text at the URL below is in French, but the images speak for themselves.)
I spent 6 weeks illustrating each of 29 constellations on separate screens in Fractal Painter using a Wacom tablet. I kept the backgrounds simple with colors of blue, yellow, red, and green, and drew overlying elements in flat black with a small dither to the background. I drew whimsical stars, spirals, and dots to populate the screens.
The False Lure of Funding — I built a self-running proposal including voice-overs, children’s commentary, and animations in Director 4.0, small enough to fit on a 44 MB SyQuest cartridge. People swooned over it. "It’s a sure bet. Hold out for the right deal," everyone advised me. I studied contract negotiations and royalty agreements, and wrote detailed production specifications, schedules, and budgets. I obtained a copyright for the unpublished work and armed myself with a non-disclosure agreement.
Over the next nine months I listened to countless publishers and developers gush over Stella. "It’s so beautiful!" "It’s so creative and fun and unique!" I spoke to every major software publisher in the U.S., many through inside contacts. One company offered me a job with stock options – if I’d hand over Stella, without compensation, ownership, or creative control! I encountered producers who refused to sign the non-disclosure agreement, or even worse, offered a non-disclosure that gave them the right to steal what they wanted.
If people loved Stella so much, why couldn’t I find funding? I believe that the problem lay with Stella’s creative and unique qualities. From book and software publishers I learned that, in the current climate, nobody wants to take a risk on something that hasn’t proved successful before. Without an established niche, publishers are unwilling to implement marketing schemes for new genres.
Two Realities — Fifteen months into the project, I came to the harsh realization of two important facts: I was not going to convince anyone to pay me to build my dream, and I was not willing to let the dream wither from lack of funding. I would finish the project on my own, even if it meant becoming a publisher myself. The first step was to cut the project back from its ever-increasing "feature creep." I cut huge amounts of complex narrative, interactivity, and animation and began to explore music as a prime interactive model.
I read about how young children learn music with the use of visual props, and realized that I had found my answer. If every star and dot on the screen was interpreted into a musical phrase, then how would a big black dot sound compared to a small red dot? Even better, could the audio be composed to produce a concert of music when played collectively? It seemed so simple, almost too simple, but it was within my production limitations.
Production on a Shoestring — I gave myself another few months to scrape together a team and finish production. I found two talented interns from a local digital media degree program who were willing to give it a try, and – importantly – to work for free. Clay Sherman <[email protected]> did the Director 5.0 programing and Garrett Williams <[email protected]> is the talent behind the original music compositions. Our team of three proved to be the perfect arrangement for this stage of production. This is how it worked:
I drew everything in Fractal Painter then brought it into Photoshop 3.0 for color composition and animation. Animations were limited to three frames; most have just one frame for mouseover actions. I ran the flattened objects through DeBabelizer for custom palette conversions. I then imported the files into Director, placed each one into the cast window in its assigned place (we had a simple scheme for cast member assignments), and then placed each one into its correct stage and score position. After that, Clay used Lingo (Director’s programming language) to make the actions work and link the parts. Clay used a plug-in called the Rollover Toolkit (written by Tab Julius; from Penworks) to activate the many mouseovers.
In part, I chose Director as the authoring environment because of its cross-platform capabilities. I wanted to press a dual-platform CD-ROM, and Director allows files to be shared for both Mac and Windows. Also, I wanted Stella and the Star-Tones to play directly from the CD-ROM, with no need to load files onto the hard disk. I had no problems moving Director files from my Mac and opening them on Clay’s custom Windows machine (a Pentium with a Cyrix P150 processor and 80 MB RAM) and back again.
The next step was for Garret to add the music. Garrett works on a Power Mac 7100/80AV, and his audio setup includes MIDI instruments, synthesizers, Opcode’s StudioVision, the shareware D-SoundPro, Band in a Box, and a guitar for sampling. With mouseovers active, Garrett composed each soundtrack to the action and placed AIFF sounds directly in the Director files. We tweaked each element until we found the best response for triggering audio files and providing a smooth playback.
This production process took four months to complete. I still had hopes of finding a publisher to pick up the finished product and needed to research trademark names, do testing, press a master, and design packaging.
Open for Business — In winter of 1997, two years after beginning, I took the final step – I formed Bohem Interactive and self-published the CD-ROM. I designed the Bohem jester logo in a morning, but took a solid month to complete the package design. I used Illustrator and QuarkXPress, (thanking my lucky stars I don’t design for print anymore because I’d have to beef up my system big time). It took another month to find the right printer and disk manufacturer. I pressed 1,000 hybrid (Mac OS and Windows compatible) disks – the first real output of cash so far. In April I threw a party to present Stella and the Star-Tones to a bustling crowd of kids and adults.
So you have a finished disk, but what do you do with it? I had long since decided it was impossible for me to enter the software distribution arena. Most software retail stores charge hefty ($2,000 to $10,000) slotting fees to place products on shelves. Distributors and catalogs make profits from selling expensive advertising space to publishers (and that space is often required to get the product listed). In addition, packaging a jewel case inside a larger cardboard box doubles manufacturing costs. And if you put your product in a software store or catalog, it sits next to 300 other "awesome, revolutionary, educational!" titles.
Since Stella is more a musical art piece than a software game, I decided it would be best sold where musicians, artists, and their kids shop, as well as where people purchase gifts. In May of 1997, I ran a booth at the Museum Store Association Trade Show, hoping to sell disks to store buyers and also to interest distributors from the gift market. It was a grueling experience, but it worked! I found a distributor for the museum, gift, children, book, and music store markets. The best part is I can now say, "My artwork is in dozens of major art museums."
The Internet Goes to Market — Finding a distributor was a big step, but selling is another. The most difficult handicap in selling CD-ROMs is the inability to show them in action. I can describe what the disk is, how it works, what you see and hear, but nothing can substitute for the experience of playing. The Internet provides a unique opportunity for allowing people to play and hear the program, even in a short demo.
Although I think few people are comfortable with online commerce, there is a solid network of dedicated users who use the Internet for research and product purchases. For Bohem Interactive, Internet sales are an experiment that’s not too costly to set up – and the Internet reaches the entire world. This is a plus, because Stella is virtually text-free, making it accessible to people of all cultures and backgrounds.
Last Words — My cousin took a disk home to his six-year-old daughter. He thought he’d test it first to make sure it worked and to learn his way around before explaining it to her. He got frustrated because he couldn’t figure out the rules. When his daughter came in, she took one look and started to play, exclaiming, "Well, duh!" My cousin realized the most important lesson about Stella – no rules, no goals, no mistakes. Just play.
Stella is a toy, a fun experience. It was a hell of a lot of work pulling it all together, but it continues to be a source of joy. I may be a fool (part of the inspiration for the Bohem logo) but given the right circumstance I’d do it again, though I would not recommend such a crazy and obsessive goal to most people. It takes over your life and demands every ounce of focus, strength and dedication you can scrape together. I feel as though I’ve earned a Ph.D. in Creativity – and I’m working on an MBA in Faith. With that said, Stella represents the best of my creative work so far and brings me closer to understanding what my life’s work is about.