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Interview: Catherine Winder discusses Wind Sun Sky Entertainment and Canada’s growing animation industry

By July 29, 2023No Comments12 min read

Catherine Winder, CEO of Wind Sun Sky Entertainment, understands that all collaborative projects rely on good communication skills. Since her early days at Walt Disney Television in Japan, Winder has had the remarkable opportunity to work on iconic animated films, television shows, and brands such as The Powerpuff Girls, Angry Birds, and The Clone Wars as a production manager and producer. While working at these companies, Winder learned that it is important to clearly state the production’s goals and visions rather than assume that everyone is on the same page. 

“If you’re not clear, as a leader, you’ll find murky results,” Winder said during our conversation. “But, if you’re clear and everybody understands, they’re going to do great work.”

Now the Toronto native is applying everything she learned from her work in animation production to her role as CEO of Wind Sun Sky Entertainment. As a full-service multimedia company, Wind Sun Sky Entertainment has produced several creator-led projects, including the renowned Prime Video animated series Invincible and Adult Swim Canada’s first original animated series Psi Cops. Along with the aforementioned television shows, the Vancouver-based production company aims to champion more innovative stories through various formats like mobile apps, digital platforms, live events, and games. 

During our chat, we talked about the importance of identifying and expanding potential properties, the projects she is working on at Wind Sun Sky Entertainment, and Canada’s burgeoning Animation industry. This conversation was lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

In your book Producing Animation, you and your co-writer Zahra Dowlatabadi emphasize the importance of identifying potential properties to buyers and, most notably, finding the project’s ideal format for the target audience. How do you select the appropriate media for your projects since there are so many to choose from?

That’s a great question. For each project, we take a bespoke approach and work in partnership with the IP owners. We aren’t a studio where we just option a property, take it internally, and make decisions on our own. Rather, we work closely with the creators because they know their property best and know what their fans are looking for. And we’ll collaborate to determine what best approach makes sense to go out to the marketplace. We don’t develop one linear product, but we’ll work with and collaborate with creators and IP holders to extend it into the future. We’re always looking ahead. We’re in it for the long term. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Can you provide me with an example?

One of the properties that we’re going to go out to market with is in the adult animation space. I have a real passion for adult animation. I’ve been doing this for a long time with Æon Flux and Spawn. And then adapting Invincible and, most recently, Psi Cops. In the case of another property, we’re in the middle of developing to go to the market called Bhalla. We’ve got an amazing creator. His name is Anish Bhalla. With this story, it makes sense to go out in the long format, but we’re not looking at it that way only. I’ll tell you about this one. It’s a coming-of-age comedy that celebrates the immigrant experience. [The series is] essentially an Indian Bob’s Burgers meets The Simpsons. It has a fresh and fun ensemble of characters that have yet to be seen on the screen. 

I’m glad that you mentioned [Bhalla] because one of the things I find fascinating about your company is that you are committed to pushing stories from diverse creators and creators from marginalized groups. As much as it’s great to see those creators producing creative work, how do you ensure that your studio projects feel authentic and it doesn’t rely on tropes or stereotypes?

That’s back to working in collaboration with the creators themselves directly.  Like I said, they have the vision and expertise. We’re here to support the vision and bring it to life in the most authentic way possible for the screen. It’s the kind of property that we’d love to work on because it’s from a strong visionary creator. It’s telling a story that we haven’t seen from a diverse creator and from this cultural perspective. So, I’m excited about it. It has the potential in the future to be a short or a game. There are a lot of ways we can take this. We don’t take on a lot of original ideas, it’s very hard to sell. Typically, buyers are looking for pre-existing awareness. But, this has a strong concept and vision from the creator that we felt there was a ton of long-term opportunity. 

Considering that you are a CEO of a multimedia production company, which aspects of the production process are you more hands-on with, and which parts of the production pipeline do you relinquish control to others?

I’m very hands-on when it comes to getting a project off the ground. I feel a deep responsibility to the creators that we bring into the studio. It’s important to me to set and model behavior that [shows] we are collaborators and that we’re truly partners. I find it critical that we’re all working together, and I can hear exactly how they feel and how things are going. Then I make sure that my team is getting the vision to a place that we can all stand behind. So, I’m very hands-on. But as the project finds its legs, it’s very important for me to [have] a bird’s eye view. So that I can play a role where I have fresh eyes on the content. If I’m deep in with all the producers, they can’t do their job either. I want people to feel empowered and take ownership of a project. 

What are the most challenging aspects of your job?

I love my job. It’s wonderful to have the opportunity and the ability to be in all sorts of genres, from kids to comedy to drama. But there are days when I’m wearing so many hats that it can be a little challenging and tiring. On the other hand, I do get energized by it as well. We punch way above our weight class at Wind Sun Sky, we do so many different things.

So, what’s most important is communication. Being clear to the team what the priorities are, ensuring that the vision is clear and understood for whatever project we’re embarking on or whatever person that we’re developing and adapting with. You cannot over-communicate. To do that, it takes real intention, attention, and time. I make it my priority to meet with large groups of individuals all week long. I have a packed calendar because of my fundamental belief that I need to be communicating. I need to be there to support and mentor the team whenever possible.

Since we talked about your challenges, what is the one thing about your job that makes you get up every morning?

There’s nothing more exciting and thrilling in my day to day when I see team members, artists, and production staff feel that they’re doing something important. That they see their successes, whether that comes through the work that’s being produced, bringing the project in on time, or challenging a team to get where they need to be for that week. I’m doing this because I’m passionate about it. I love to work with people who are passionate and want to challenge themselves. When I see that happening, people growing and evolving, it makes it all worthwhile.

I want to pivot a little bit to talk about the animation industry in Canada, particularly in Vancouver. According to the Vancouver Economic Commission, where you were once a board member, over 60 visual effects and animation studios reside in the city, making it one of the most lucrative places for people to start their careers in the field. What do you make of Vancouver’s investment in the animation and visual effects industry?

The Vancouver [animation] industry is incredible. That is thanks to the government investment and commitment to the business here. I’d say the talent here is best in class, which is one of the reasons I set my company up. I saw there was so much potential here. For me, the idea was to really lean into that and find ways to provide the talent here with opportunities to drive the storytelling out of Canada and particularly Vancouver. Although I work across Canada, the philosophy for me was to provide opportunities where Canadians could be leading the charge when it comes to storytelling.

Before the pandemic, most of the opportunities were south of the border, but it’s getting much better. The reality is we’ve been fortunate with our industry. We’ve got the Pacific Screenwriters Program in play, which is developing our deeper pool of writers here. We’ve got many creative BC programs that provide development funds. I’m on the national board of the CMPA [Canadian Media Producers Association], and the BC branch is so committed to our industry and ensuring that the rights are kept here, and it’s an ongoing sustainable industry. For me, it’s critical that we keep the rights here to drive the storytelling. Otherwise, we risk losing a sustainable industry. We need to be reinvesting in our IP,  talent, infrastructure, and, most importantly, storytellers. And I fundamentally believe that the industry is behind that, and I’m excited for the future.

What I do find interesting about the animation industry in Canada isn’t so much that there is business, which is great, but also that there is a growing movement where the industry is developing and nurturing content for Canadian-based writers and artists. Of course, the most notable example is Adult Swim Canada’s foray into original animated programs with your project Psi Cops, which you executive produced. Why do you think now is a good time for studios to seek ideas and stories for Canadian-based creatives?

 I think it’s not just now, it’s always been there. There is fantastic talent here that has not had an opportunity for their voice to come through unless they move down to the States. But the reality is that we’ve built a strong subcontract business where there are so many people who have had great opportunities to work on all sorts of content. There’s no reason why Canadian storytellers such as Bart [Batchelor] and Chris [Nielsen] from Psi Cops can’t lead the charge and be executive producers and run shows. 

Since there is an opportunity for more Canadian creatives to create and produce their work, do you think there will be an opportunity for more Indigenous creators? 

Absolutely. It’s critically important that Indigenous creators find their way into the animation industry because there are a ton of opportunities for storytelling. We’re actually in development on a property with Marie Clements. She is an Indigenous creator, producer, and writer. [The filmmaker] just did Bones of Crows. She is phenomenal, an amazing storyteller. So it has been a commitment on our part to find Indigenous storytellers and artists to work with.

What challenges does the animation and visual effects community in Canada need to overcome in order for it to stay relevant for years to come?

In our case, we’re on the right trajectory for a positive outcome, and the industry will sustain itself. With that said, it’s important that we’re balancing our business with the subcontract business, which is critical to the industry’s infrastructure and sustainability. On the other hand, as I mentioned earlier, what is absolutely of fundamental importance is for us to find ways to hold on to the rights of the projects and shows that we are developing, financing, and leading the charge on. 

Where do you see Canada’s animation and visual effects industry heading in the next five to 10 years?

At the moment, we’re in a teeny bit of a contraction as streamers are figuring things out, which is not a surprise to me because it was a very fast expansion over the last few years. So we’re in the middle of contractions. I see it settling out and getting into a little more evenly-paced workflow of content. But, I continue to see us as leaders in the field. I believe that Vancouver has the largest hub [for foreign and domestic studios worldwide]. You’ve also got the interactive and gaming world. And what I see in the next five years is the convergence of it all. It’s gamified storytelling that will be very difficult to tell the difference [from] linear content. There will be interactive elements that are engaging our audiences in ways that we can’t even predict.

We’re doing a little bit of that right now in Roblox. What we’ve done is leveraging the Roblox platform to adapt these rich game worlds fans love, like “Twilight Daycare” and “Creatures of Sonaria,” and we’re creating authentic character-based scripted stories. We’re connecting the players with their favorite characters in a new way and creating an authentic kind of narrative bridge between the stories and the games. That’s the first step. But I believe it’ll merge even further, and those stories will become more and more gamified as we go. Audiences will truly be able to be participants in the storytelling in ways we’ve never imagined.

That’s interesting because some people looked at video games as if it was a lower art form, which is not the case. Yet, you see [properties that used to be video games such as] Sonic the Hedgehog, The Last of Us, and The Super Mario Bros. are now successful television shows and movies.

It took a long time. When we produced Angry Birds, it was really one of the first ones that broke the mold. Prior to that, the adaptations from the game world into the big screen were challenging. We were fortunate that Angry Birds had been the right property, and we had the right creative team to bring it to a successful outcome. But these days, if you look at the financial side of the business, the reality is the games are where all the opportunity is. The shows have turned into much more of a marketing tool. It’s flipped. It used to be that the show was for the long term, and the game was kind of an add-on. Now the shows are more in support of creating a 360 experience for the game, which is really the financial opportunity.

Where do you see your company in the next five to 10 years?

I will continue to work at the intersection of storytelling meets technology and will push and try new things. That’s what I’m all about. It’s not sitting back and say ‘Okay, this is the best way to go.’ No, let’s constantly try new things, take bets, and find ways to create experiences that are going to thrill and delight fans.

Feature image courtesy of Wind Sun Sky Entertainment. Photo illustration by Katey Stoetzel.

Phylecia Miller

Phylecia Miller is a quirky Black freelance writer and creator of the blog, Hi, Phylecia. Born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, she resides in Vancouver, British Columbia, with her lovely husband and lazy tuxedo cat. Her professional experiences include working for Rotten Tomatoes and Film Independent. When she is not agonizing over her first sentence, Phylecia takes long scenic walks at Stanley Park and the VanDusen Botanical Garden. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @hiphylecia.

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