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Catherine Winder of Wind Sun Sky Entertainment On The Future of Gaming

An Interview With Tyler Gallagher

I have always had a keen interest in using the technology in my projects in ways that hadn’t been used before to push the envelope when it comes to storytelling. The concept of enabling an audience to directly interact with their favorite cartoon character was something I began thinking about almost four years ago. That idea, combined with today’s reality that most audiences are looking for new ways to find community and connect in a virtual way, drove my desire to create a pipeline to produce event animation where the audience could interact live with their favorite cartoon characters.

As a part of our series about what’s around the corner for the gaming industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Catherine Winder.

Catherine is Wind Sun Sky’s CEO/Executive Producer. She is passionate about finding and collaborating with all sorts of incredible talent, no matter the medium. Leveraging her varied experiences with visionary creators, there is nothing she loves more than to bring together like-minded partners to create global timeless franchises. She’s had the good fortune to work with iconic visionaries and talent over the years including Robert Kirkman, George Lucas, Chris Meledandri, Bill Hanna, David Maisel, Ralph Bakshi and Peter Chung to name a few, and looks forward to adding to that list!

One of her most notable areas of expertise is the adaptation of IP into other forms of content. Properties include; Robert Kirkman’s Invincible and Super Dinosaur as well as producing/executive producing the global event films, The Angry Birds Movie 1 & 2, based off the hugely successful game. A daunting yet incredible career challenge, was adapting the Star Wars franchise into animation. Working with George Lucas directly, she built the team, oversaw the development and produced the first animated Star Wars movie and highly rated series, Star Wars: The Clone Wars. For WSS she is currently adapting several exciting properties including Summoners War (mobile game with 100 million+ players) and My Singing Monster(mobile game with 90+ million players). Catherine also co-authored the industry handbook “Producing Animation” for Focal Press in its third edition. She is a Board Member of the Vancouver Economic Commission (VEC), supporting development of the Western Canada entertainment industry. She is also on the board of the Canadian Media Producers Association (CMPA) and a member of both the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?

After graduating from university, I put a backpack on and traveled the world for a year, ending up in Tokyo where I found my way to Disney and learned all about the animation industry in Asia. Because the animation industry was just beginning to boom for North American animation to be produced in Asia, I found myself in the unique position of understanding how the business worked from the Asian perspective.

It was always my dream to work in L.A, leveraging my Tokyo Disney experience. My dream came true when I was hired to oversee Hanna Barbera’s international production operations.

I quickly moved up the executive ranks at Hanna-Barbera, because I was one of the few who understood the overseas studio system. Later, an opportunity came up to produce Aeon Flux at a small independent studio. I decided that while being part of a big iconic company was great, I needed to actually roll up my sleeves and understand every single job — what people did, why they did it, what worked, what didn’t. In some ways I had no right being the producer: I’d never done anything like it but worked as hard as possible to ensure the project’s success and most importantly support the show’s incredibly passionate creator, Peter Chung, to realize his vision.

From there, I found myself as a VP at HBO, and got back to a big company, this time a broadcaster, with a much deeper skillset, adapting the comic book Spawn by Todd McFarlane another strong creator, as well as producing a late-night Ralph Bakshi created series entitled Spicy City. As I was interested in movies, I then pivoted to Fox Feature films whereas SVP Production, I transformed Blue Sky into a feature film studio and oversaw production of the original Ice Age.

Next, I moved to LucasFilm whereas George Lucas’ producer, I assembled the team and built two studios- one in Marin and the other in Singapore- to adapt the Star Wars movies into animation producing Star Wars; The Clone Wars for two seasons as well as producing the feature film that launched the show.

After having been away for most of my adult life, I decided to return to Canada where I ran a large digital animation studio and produced the animated feature film Escape from Planet Earth.

Finally, I had the opportunity to collaborate with Rovio Entertainment in Finland to adapt the Angry Birds game into the feature film before starting Wind Sun Sky Entertainment

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Having worked in Asia, I was fortunate to learn early on the important lesson that there are multiple perspectives and lenses for each situation, and that you can never assume everyone is on the same page. The key to successful collaborations is understanding all points of view, especially when a project is in trouble. To go forward, you often need to step back and take the time needed to hear the various points of view at play in order to determine the best course of action.

This became crystal clear on a film I was hired to troubleshoot. The project was far behind schedule and on the way to being significantly over budget. There were nine months left in the original plan, but at least 18 months of work remaining. The lead production studio and producers were located in LA and were anxious to find a quick fix to get the project done and were pushing me to have answers within a week of starting. While I too wanted to solve their challenge fast, it was a complex project and there were a lot of considerations and moving parts.

As is typical of animation, this particular project was being outsourced to artists all over the world including Canada, LA, Brazil, and Europe, with the plan for all of the various materials to be sent to a studio in Taiwan where they would be combined into the final film.

The producers were looking for me to identify the studio that was causing the problems and let them go. As I dug in, it emerged that for all of the stakeholders, there was much confusion about the key creative expectations from the lead producers. There were many different cultures, languages and time zones which made it fundamentally challenging to ensure consistency when it came to vision of the style of storytelling and animation they were creating. As well, standardized processes and protocol information had not been shared clearly. As a result, the various sub-contractors were not clear about what was expected of them, resulting in each coming up with their own interpretation.

When I shared my findings with the producers, it wasn’t what they expected, and they didn’t react well as they felt they had done a good job in providing this information. In order to find a way forward, I quickly realized it was up to me to work with all of the many people involved to build a bridge to the producers in order to help them understand the various points of view. Without the bridge, there was no way to make this work as neither the budget nor the schedule were changing. More importantly, given the massive complexity of the situation no one person could do it alone, everyone needed to work together.

To build the bridge, I spent a significant amount of time working with the producers and sub-contractors to share detailed facts about how and where the communication and clarity of vision had gone off the rails.

Ultimately once the producers began to understand, empathize, and acknowledge that not everyone saw it the way they did, the team felt heard and respected. As a result, everyone pulled together and figured out a way forward to deliver the film as planned.

Is there a particular animated character you feel connected to? Can you share a story about that?

The fun part about being a producer is we get to wear multiple hats and jump in wherever needed to help out the team. On the first Angry Birds movie, we were trying to come up with an irritating sound for “Billy” the sign. If you’ve seen the film, Red gets irritated by the sign every time he walks by, and ultimately this frustration builds to the point where Red explodes and lets his frustration out on it. As Red was our main character, and it was quite a moment of aggression, it was paramount that the scene played in a way that the audience still felt empathy for him. To make this work, we decided we had to find a really irritating sound that would grate on both the audience and Red.

We spent weeks trying all sorts of ideas, but nothing had the effect we were looking for. I knew what we wanted so thought I would give it a try myself. One night, as my husband is a sound designer, I had him record me. The next day we placed my take in the scene and I held my breath. I knew we had success when I saw the team’s faces- my sound had everyone in the room irritated- it worked! While the plan was to leave the sound in temporarily, it stuck as everyone embraced it and ultimately stayed in the film. It was my first and I expect my last ever credit as an actor!

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

When COVID-19 hit in spring of 2020, the world completely changed. With millions of parents and kids stuck at home, kids’ content consumption had more than doubled. The need for a safe online space for kids, where parents could feel good about the values and learnings provided, became that much more amplified. In the spring of 2020, we decided to find a way to help. What better way to make kids’ lives feel expansive in a Covid-shrinking world by sending them to camp! The idea was to produce a library of active camp-themed videos that encouraged creative play, crafts, cooking and active community engagement around topics kids care about and the Camp Bonkers Variety Show was born.

While camp is generally limited to the group of kids who can afford it, thanks to the positive response to these early videos, we saw the potential to bring the transformative experience of summer camp to kids everywhere year-round. Leaning into WSS’s love of innovation and its corporate strategy of storytelling at the intersection of technology, it created a path forward for a first of its kind virtual camp built around the Camp Bonkers brand. A trifecta of cross platform storytelling experiences both passive and active for campers which includes a Camp Bonkers Roblox game; a Camp Bonkers Show featuring at-home activities and over-the-top “bonkers” challenges; and an interactive website offering weekly virtual badges for at-home crafts and Roblox virtual rewards.

Our Roblox game is a virtual camp that is a safe community, jam-packed with mini-games, scavenger hunts and co-operative virtual fireside hang-outs — offering kids tons to do, explore and engage with. Earn virtual badges and meet new campers every day. Our YouTube series continues the Camp Bonkers legacy of positive, inspiring, and kid friendly content where our Camp Counselors create amazing YouTube style challenges alongside real-world DIY projects. Connecting it all together is CampBonkers.com where kids are encouraged to go offline and complete virtual badges through real-world activities to earn exclusive and free Roblox rewards and exclusive collectables. These three platforms interconnect to provide kids — and their parents — a weekly cycle of on-screen and off-screen experiences within the Camp Bonkers brand.

Ok fantastic. Let’s now move to the main focus of our discussion. Can you tell us about the technological innovations in storytelling you are working on?

I have always had a keen interest in using the technology in my projects in ways that hadn’t been used before to push the envelope when it comes to storytelling. The concept of enabling an audience to directly interact with their favorite cartoon character was something I began thinking about almost four years ago. That idea, combined with today’s reality that most audiences are looking for new ways to find community and connect in a virtual way, drove my desire to create a pipeline to produce event animation where the audience could interact live with their favorite cartoon characters.

It took several years as we tested all sorts of pipelines and properties to figure out how to produce in a way we could stand-behind- quality of animation and stability of process. After much experimentation, we ended up creating a pipeline built in Unity that connected over half a dozen pieces of software.

Our first production was an adaption of a mobile game called My Singing Monsters into a musical variety show where three of their most popular fan characters were brought to life. Through an eight-episode run, for the first time ever, the games’ fans were positioned to engage directly with some of their favorite Monsters across multiple platforms in real time. As this was a pioneering effort, we had no idea how it would be received. The great news was we increased the live series viewership week-to-week over the course of the eight-episode run. From a brand perspective, the show helped further expand and connect with the game’s global fan base. Our innovative approach to storytelling brought a new dimension to their audience and helped them to continue to grow the game.

We have continued to evolve this approach. For Camp Bonkers, we brought our talking mascot and brand ambassador YUM the marshmallow to life to co-host our videos and conduct live Q&A tours with influencers and media. The challenge in this case was that our live animated approach to date required expensive mo-cap stages, equipment and teams. As we were looking to have an expedited pipeline that allowed for low-cost, quick to market solutions, we decided to team up with Holotech Studios who are developing next generation interactive avatar technology for smartphones and PCs.

How do you think this might disrupt the status quo?

For Camp Bonkers, our ultimate goal is to reach kids where they are online, while encouraging them to be imaginative and active participants in creative crafts and activities both on and off screen. As we know, realistically, parents have little control over online content viewing by their kids when it comes to the time spent watching, and the quality of storytelling, and it can cause stress and friction for families. Our hope is that by providing active, imaginative and safe content for kids delivered in a fun, creative, educational way and active versus passive experience, that we create a win-win for families that encourages parents and kids to connect.

You, of course, know that games and toys are not simply entertainment, but they can be used for important purposes. What is the “purpose” or mission behind your company? How do you think you are helping people or society?

Wind Sun Sky is purposefully built around a nimble, multi-faceted team. We carry a small slate and avoid locking into a house style. This is done to ensure we have the ability to select projects that we are passionate about, that excite us creatively and technically; and most importantly allow us to “say” something with the material.

We look at every piece of IP from a Franchise opportunity potential. Not just what is the show but what is the toy, the game, the live event, the A.R. experience, etc. In the same way we look at the IP through a Franchise lens, we look for IP that has a deeper message or thing to say — especially when looking at kids properties. This can take the shape of us finding a way to thread the “up-cycling” eco message in the multi-platform experience JunkBots we created with our toy partners HexBug. Or the eco-positive message of a new multi-platform property we will be announcing soon.

I’m very interested in the interface between digital content and education. How do you think more people (parents, teachers etc.) or institutions (work, school etc.) to leverage games and gamification to enhance education?

While it is challenging for parents on many fronts, our reality is that technology and gaming are fully integrated into children’s lives today. Looking at this glass half-full, this presents a number of opportunities around education and edutainment. Take Roblox for instance — we see this as a very flexible kids’ safe platform to create more immersive storytelling experiences that can both entertain and educate and have been pushing boundaries in it for the last couple of years. From the playable story chapters in our JunkBots Roblox game, to edutainment companion content like in Camp Bonkers, there is a lot we are exploring to help kids learn in a way that is fun. As we see this as the way of the future, we are now in early development on another new property that will look to leverage the Roblox platform to create content that aligns with the education syllabus.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Our health and the planet’s health are bound together. To that end we are in collaboration with some amazing partners, to develop a fully integrated media metaverse positioned to build and activate a global community of kids 6–10 years focused on a positive future for the planet. We recognize the eco-anxiety kids feel and the transformative actions they seek. By creating an aspirational story universe and leveraging global platforms, and metaverse technologies, we are creating edutainment content — stories, games and more — to entertain kids, and like Camp Bonkers to inspire them to get outside to play, explore, and connect with nature. I can’t wait to share more with you once we are able.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Follow your interests and what’s fun for you. If possible, choose passion over paycheck. It will always be better if you’re doing something that speaks to your heart as it will ultimately come through in your work. Throughout my career as I feel inspired, I am always willing to jump into something new even if it may seem a little bit crazy upfront- like backpacking around the world and ending up in Tokyo without a job or place to live. In taking this approach, you might just find yourself on a path that you had never thought of, and it could catapult your career.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

The easiest way to know what Wind Sun Sky is up to — project and company wise is via our Instagram. https://www.instagram.com/windsunskyent/?hl=en

Or website: www.windsunsky.com

Camp Bonkers website: https://campbonkers.com/

Camp Bonkers on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/c/CampBonkers

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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