On Mighty Toaster Wings: More After Dark History

It’s nothing short of spectacular to interview the legends behind an artistic creation. Just to know through every freeze frame that came to their minds, every idea that became born of creativity beyond wildest imaginations, the magic, the bewilderment, the stories behind the culmination of it all – it gives you a feeling of awe and leaves you starry eyed.

Last week, I shared my interview with Jack Eastman, one of the architects of After Dark. Today I get to share my interview with Patrick Beard, the man who worked alongside Eastman.

Tommy: Hi Patrick. It’s great to be able to interview you.

How did After Dark see the light of day?

Patrick: Jack and I were colleagues at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory (LBL). We were both interested in Mac programming and collaborated on a couple of toy projects together. Eventually we started toying with the idea of writing a screen saver. He wrote the basic engine, and I came up with the plugin model, as far as it went.

Mac II with color displayI left the lab to take a job at Berkeley Systems, a company I’d come to respect for its interesting products, such as Stepping Out, which was a cool virtual screen utility – way ahead of its time. While on the job at Berkeley Systems (BSI at the time, I think), I was toying around with what we were calling “Blank”, which was running on my Mac II.

One of the guys I was working with, Michael O’Connor, saw it and thought we should show it to Wes Boyd, who was the president of BSI. They were pretty excited pretty quickly, and unbeknownst to me, they made a deal with Jack, and After Dark was born. I don’t recall how the name came about, but I remember hashing out lots of names, and that one stuck.

Tommy: Besides Jack Eastman and yourself, who were the other creative forces behind After Dark?

Patrick: Engineering-wise, initially it was just me and Jack, but soon other programmers were enlisted to write modules. For the initial release, I think it was perhaps two other engineers. I don’t recall their names. However I do recall Bruce Burkhalter having a lot to do with making sure we found all the bugs.

screen full of flying toastersOf course, Wes had a lot of creative input into the design of the look of the product, plus I think Nick Rush, who was a marketing and product designer. Eventually, we had a topflight graphics designer, Igor (name?) who was responsible for many of the images in After Dark. I think there was also a Japanese designer, Tomoya (?) who also had important input. I think they did the initial redesign of the Flying Toasters themselves, which became the signature of After Dark.

As the team grew, there are more names than I can recall who had important contributions. Even some of the kids of the BSI staff had a hand in QA testing. Babies have a knack for causing crashes in software.

After Dark boxTommy: In my mind, After Dark 2.0 had a “darkness”, a sense of the modules actually portraying the idea of “After Dark”, through many of the modules such as Nocturns, Zot, Starry Night, and others. Was this how you all envisioned After Dark and any future versions?

Patrick: Starry Night has the strongest connection for me. I don’t recall there being a conscious effort at darkness, beyond the obvious idea that a screen saver should create a darker environment for a color CRT in order to help preserve the phosphors.

We’d all seen the effects of images burnt into screens, and we were actually trying to design something with real utility. We never imagined it would define a new category for entertainment software.

The overall look of After Dark was sort of out of our hands as engineers, so I can’t really comment too much more on this issue.

Tommy: Do you feel the direction and the creativeness behind After Dark changed after 2.0 – and if so, in what way?

Patrick: One obvious turn was using licensed images. The Star Trek collection comes to mind. At this point, I was looking forward to other projects at BSI, and the idea of churning out modules based on other people’s graphics designs started to turn me off. At that point, many of the technical challenges were solved, and After Dark became sort of a vehicle for generating revenue.

I’m an engineer at heart, so that’s why I came up with modules like Randomizer and MultiModule. Sort of meta-modules. I believe we also had a contest for the best modules developed by third parties. That was a lot of fun, seeing what other people would come up with. I can’t recall whether 2.0 was before or after that. I think some of the 2.0 modules came from the contest. Certainly after 2.0, the product was much less engineering driven.

Tommy: That brings up another question that I didn’t ask Jack, but since you brought it up – tell me about the MultiModule and Randomizer, two of the features that I fully believe made After Dark even greater! What was the idea there in your mind behind both?

Patrick: I came up with MultiModule first, sort of in a dream. One of those momentary flashes of an idea. My idea was to allow other people to compose their own custom screen savers using existing modules. Since I had designed the module interface, I was able to quickly implement a sort of simulation of the engine within MultiModule itself and had it running pretty quickly.

Randomizer came about as sort of an after thought, a sort of trivial version of MultiModule. In the end, both were important in their own ways. I recall hearing stories of kids using MultiModule to create environments for themselves, using the computer to reenact scenes from sci fi stories or whatever.

The first time I saw Boris running on top of a field of flowers, I realized I’d come up with something very special.

Tommy: Have you or any of the other original team members ever thought of releasing another screen saver? 5.0 anyone?

Patrick: Not seriously. Screen saver engines are now part of operating systems. Certainly a reprise of the best module packs for the popular platforms would be nice to see. A job for younger engineers, I think. Perhaps when all the images become public domain, that could happen. With the advent of LCD displays, screen savers are now purely eye candy.

One of the ideas I always wanted us to pursue was to use the After Dark engine to run batch jobs, sort of like SETI@Home. When that came about, I was enthused that somebody else had that idea.

After Dark 4Tommy: As I told you before, After Dark was and still is my all-time favorite program. I was deeply saddened when After Dark was finally “laid to rest”, so to speak. I continued supporting After Dark and its subsequent versions. How did you feel when you learned there would not be an After Dark 5.0? Were there ever plans for a 5.0?

Patrick: No idea. I left BSI in 1992 to go to graduate school. I was sad when the company went out of business. At one point I think it became more well known for You Don’t Know Jack. I wasn’t privy to their product planning after I left the company.

Tommy: In your mind, what was the defining feature or part of After Dark that made it unique?

Patrick: Clearly the modules made it stand out. Our competition, Pyro, hastily brought out their own modules after we did, because we quickly eclipsed it.

I also think there was an elegance to the product, a simplicity that was consistent with the philosophy of the Macintosh itself. We put a lot of polish on a program that didn’t do a heck of a lot, but people seemed to appreciate it.

I liked how each module had its own credits, so people could find out who wrote the module. That was the first time I’d ever seen a piece of software go out of its way to give credit to the contributors.

Tommy: That was definitely a cool part of After Dark.

What was your favorite module of all time?

Patrick: Of course, my version of flying toasters.

Tommy: On Mighty Toaster Wings!

Patrick: I liked how you could adjust the brownness of the toast.

Tommy: Me, too.

Patrick: That was my idea. Jack wrote the prototype with funny little graphics.

Tommy: What do you want those who are reading this article to know about After Dark that they may not know already?

Patrick: Just that we put a lot of hours into making it be as stable as we could. We weren’t perfect engineers, but we were proud that it worked as well as it did.

I also sort of cut my teeth as a software engineer while writing it. It was an amazing learning experience.

You asked earlier if we would ever release another version. Rather than that, I often wish we could get the team back together to do something equally inspired. There was a certain magic to how well we all worked together. I think you go through the rest of your working life looking for that kind of experience. It doesn’t come along every day.

Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

Tommy: Hey, I really appreciate you taking time out of your busy schedule to let the #1 fan of After Dark interview you.

Patrick: You’re welcome.

Come back tomorrow for the final part of my tribute to After Dark, an interview with Bill Stewart, who along with Ian MacDonald successfully ported After Dark to Windows.

I’ll also fill you in on ways to keep the After Dark magic alive today.

Go to the After Dark Interviews index.

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