Catherine Winder has been producing animation for Television, Film and Digital Media for 30 years now and is the current CEO of Skybound North Entertainment. If you enjoy animation chances are you’ve seen her work whether it’s Darkwing Duck, Captain Planet, Titan A.E. or The Angry Birds movie, Catherine has done it all.
Most notably, Catherine served as Producer and Executive Producer for Lucasfilm Animation back when there was no Lucasfilm Animation. Her primary objective was to oversee the set-up and management of the Marin County and Singapore studios. As George Lucas’ producer, her first project was to develop and produce a state of the art Star Wars animated television series, which would become known as Star Wars: The Clone Wars.
Although extremely busy these days, Catherine took the time to chat with us and go back in time to discuss how it all started. Enjoy!
In the beginning, the very early stages, what was the overall hope for the company at the time?
The long-term vision and hope for George’s idea was to set up Singapore and that the legacy of that achievement would be something that could live on. For the TV show specifically, the hope was that we could get 100 episodes made and that was the base of our strategy. Beyond that, the idea was to do more “green” content that would eventually filter through Singapore, that was the bigger picture at the time.
Now looking back and seeing all the different shows that have spun out of that original team, makes me excited and proud to have been a part in setting that up. Having built a foundation that’s been strong enough creatively that has allowed for that to happen.
Were you brought in specifically to set up Singapore because you had some experience in the Asian markets?
Yes. Gail Currey, who had been working at Lucasfilm, had been brought over to handle the operations of the studio. At that time, Gail hadn't had that much overseas experience, so they reached out to me to help them develop a business plan on how to build Singapore in a way that could be successful. And when I started with the company, I had the knowledge that The Clone Wars was going to be the first project that flowed through Singapore and be used to attract potential talent.
Were you involved creatively with the show at the beginning or was your task more to focus on the functionality of the operation?
I was. At the beginning there was so much to do, and Gail’s job at the time was to focus on the nuts and bolts of the operation. My original role was to take my knowledge of the overseas world and support her by creating a business plan that we could execute on. As I got to know Gail and become more immersed in the bigger vision for the project, and the fact that The Clone Wars was the driving content to get the studio up and running, I became more intrigued and interested in the show itself.
When I had first met George; it was to talk about setting up Singapore, but we also talked about The Clone Wars. The role of a producer is to use both your right and left brain, so it was my job to be both creative and have a business understanding of how to run a show. To get the best quality content on the screen with the resources we had to work with.
What did you think when George first ran the idea of The Clone Wars by you? Were you a Star Wars fan previously?
It all sounded very exciting to me and like a great creative opportunity. When he first ran it by me it was very up my alley because he challenged me, and he said, “My vision and my goal is to produce something that no one has ever seen before on the small screen for animation. We want to do something that is truly elevated and sophisticated that reaches out to a whole new generation of kids and keeps the property going” which of course it has done just that.
When I came to Lucasfilm, I was a fan of Star Wars, but not an uber-fan like Dave (Filoni) and some of the other people that came on after. That was okay because as producer I played a role in having a kind of distance from the material that proved valuable. I love Star Wars, but I wasn’t so invested in it that everything had to be absolutely perfect. Sometimes you need to shift a little a bit when you’re going into a different direction for content.
It sounds like you were trying to produce the best content you could regardless of how that happened to impact the greater Star Wars universe. In the end it was more important you produced good content, is that fair to say?
Absolutely. The “canon” is the foundation from which we developed the content and we had to respect that. We had to ensure the integrity was intact, but the end goal always is telling a great story. We wanted to tell stories that were both engaging and place audiences in a position to care about these characters. The goal was to speak to the widest audience possible and that’s what we achieved in the stories that we told.
By the time you had left the show, Disney wasn’t an option and or even on the table correct?
Correct. At that time there was still no intention by Lucasfilm to make any more movies. That was a big reason, from a business standpoint, why we were making the show to begin with. We wanted to reach out to the younger generations of Star Wars fans and continue the idea and we all felt this was the way to do it.
Did the critical reception of The Clone Wars movie cause any hesitation going forward?
Not at all. The reality was the movie was positioned to launch the series and act like more of a marketing event as opposed to a global box office strategy. The fact that George felt so pleased with what we were doing creatively, and that he would stand behind that approach was thrilling and made us all very proud. The response towards the movie and how successful it was or wasn’t, never slowed us down, it only empowered us.
Was getting the approval of George something that you and the team were conscious of?
Working on the show was an exciting yet demanding and intense experience. And it was our job, more specifically mine and then Dave’s, to earn George’s trust. The more trust we earned, the more involved he would get and the more excited he was about what we were creating. It’s easy to see how that support from him would build our enthusiasm and empower the crew to continue to do great things.
What were your first impressions of Dave Filoni?
George had challenged me with creating a look and style that had never been done, but he also challenged me with finding up and coming talent that would look at things differently. I searched all over and met many, many people and the person that stood out most was of course Dave. What was unique about Dave and what set him apart was that he’s a completely rounded artist. He designs, he paints, he boards, and he has a fully rounded vision about what he wants to accomplish.
When I first met him, it was his art that stood out for me the most. I really connected with it and I could see how his sense of style and color could be brought to the screen in a successful way.
Do you remember the first time you spoke with Dave?
The first time we talked on the phone, he thought I was spoofing him. At the time he was still quite junior in his career, he had only done Avatar. I called a bunch of people I trusted, and I said I’m looking for someone with a unique vision, somebody who would come at things differently, and somebody up and coming. I got a list of all these different names and Dave Filoni was one of them.
So I reached out to Dave and said “Hi, my name is Catherine Winder, I’m working with Lucasfilm, we’re setting up The Clone Wars and I was given your name. Would you like to learn a little more about what we’re doing?” His first reaction was “Oh C’mon!” and I had to repeat again who I was and why I was calling. He didn’t believe me, and he went silent, so I told him to hang up, do a little research on me, and then call back.
As it turns out, just a week before he and his pals had been talking about what their dream jobs were. Dave said at the time his dream was to work on an animated Star Wars show, so naturally he thought that one of his friends was playing a joke on him.
Let’s fast forward to 2007. Talk about your experience at Star Wars Celebration IV where you and Dave got to announce The Clone Wars to a live crowd?
It was probably one of the best moments of my career to date. We were excited to share our sneak peek footage because we thought we were on to something great. On the other hand, it was intimidating because the fans were the people we needed to please. So, going up on stage and giving our first sneak peek was an extraordinary moment because the response from the crowd was incredible. We got a standing ovation and you don’t get those very often in these kinds of situations because fans can be tough on their properties, especially when you’re doing something new. It was electrifying…it was incredible.
Talk about the end of your time on the show and maybe why you felt it was time to move on?
If you look back at my career, I’m a starter. I love building teams, building studios, getting things all going, and I find it really exciting to do that. Prior to Lucasfilm I took “Blue Sky” Studios and restructured it, turning it from a visual effects house into an animation studio where we did Ice Age and all the movies released since.
So, as we got the studios up and running in Marin County and Singapore and the series, which I only planned on doing one season, went from a movie, to a full season and then another, my job was done. I felt like by the time season two was greenlit, and production had started, I had a young family and that I had done my job and that it made sense to walk away. It was the right decision to make and I have a great family and a great life.
When you look back now I assume Lucasfilm Animation and The Clone Wars stands out as a career highlight?
It was and that plays back into my decision to finish up. What’s extraordinary and something that you can lose sight of, is that it’s not always about the product but rather the journey and the interactions and relationships with the people. And how when you find that great chemistry, and teamwork and experience, great things can come from it.
I loved my time at Lucasfilm Animation I couldn’t have been more fortunate to have had that experience and to be a part of history. To see now that legacy continuing in such a strong way and that a lot of the people I brought in are still in place and doing great things, it’s all incredibly satisfying.
There you have it! Catherine was very generous with her time and clearly had very fond memories of her days at Lucasfilm. Catherine is a trailblazer in every sense of the word and in those early days of Lucasfilm Animation, which were only conceptual, she implemented and carried out the ideas of George Lucas to massive success. Quite an achievement...and on both sides of the planet no less!
Don't forget to tune in this Friday as the ForceCast podcast celebrates 10 years of Lucasfilm Animation with a dream line-up of guests!
Till next time...MTFBWY.
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