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Catherine Winder
A Canadian in Japan discovers animation
US animation in the 1980s took a strange turn: studios started doing less animation themselves, and more subcontracting elsewhere. Gone were the days when animators worked down the hall from (or sitting next to!) a production's directors or storyboarders; US studios instead did the preproduction at home, and had the actual animation work done overseas--usually in Asia--while the directors and preproduction artists stayed stateside.

Given the precise nature of animation and the degree of control required of any director, this method seems utterly mad. And, in many ways, it is.

While preparing fps #7's Æon Flux booklet, I found myself speaking with the show's executive producer, Catherine Winder. I discovered that she had spent much of the last decade coordinating overseas animation efforts. That discovery led to this interview. Rather than attempt to summarize her extensive credits, I'll let her speak for herself:

Emru Townsend: Beginning at the beginning: during our last talk, you had mentioned that you were more less minding your own business in Japan when all of this started. What were you doing in Japan to begin with?

Catherine Winder: I was teaching English and studying Japanese.

Did you have any background in animation or show biz or anything like that before?

None. Nothing. Well, I had produced a television series at university, it was live-action. But I had no background in the world of animation. However I had an administrative background--I used to work at IBM--and then that combined with the production at university and my Japanese, it seemed as if I had the background qualifications to work at Disney, who were setting up a studio.

So what year would this be? This would be around the time when, what was starting--was that TaleSpin?

Yeah, they were working on Gummi Bears, TaleSpin, Rescue Rangers. That would be '89, '90, in there.

So you're minding your own business in Japan. Were they putting out a call for people, was it a friend-of-a-friend kind of thing, how did you find out about this?

No, it was an advertisement in the English newspaper, saying they were looking for production people at Walt Disney Animation, Television. And I decided that I was going to go, I was trying to figure out what the next step would be, and I wanted to get into international production, but I didn't know what that meant, didn't really understand how the animation world worked. So I went in, and they way they interview in Japan, it's very different than in North America. They really do a lot of the talking, and they did all the talking in Japanese. And they had my English résumé, and I guess they were really interested in me because I was Canadian. They were a Japanese studio that had been purchased by Disney Television, and were having troubles communicating between the two, they both did things very differently, and they needed somebody who could bridge that communication gap and smooth out the relationship between the two. And being Canadian, that helped. I wasn't American. Not Japanese, so, you know, I was a nice, you know, "middle" person.

Isn't it amazing how often being Canadian is defined as being not American?

[laughs] It just really helped in this instance. Anyway, so they held the entire interview in Japanese, they described what my job would be, and I sat there and smiled and said yes, yes, yes all the way through, and walked out of there and did not know what I had accepted, because my Japanese wasn't quite as good as I had been led to believe. But they didn't really ask me either, so it wasn't like I was lying, they just didn't ask!

So anyways, I had accepted this job. What happened was, there was about a two-month gap before I actually started. And so I went in after I had accepted the job, and I said, "Look, I'm not up to speed in terms of the Japanese, I have all of the animation process to learn from you--I'll give you a deal. Give me three months, cut my salary in half, I'll go to school half-days, and I'll come in to the studio half-days, and you can teach me all about the animation process, and I'll start working on getting your communication going." I needed to set up tracking systems, they also subcontracted work to Taiwan, and a variety of studios in Korea, so I was overseeing that for them as well. So I was involved in all of their production. So I was learning all about this and trying to get these systems up and running. And after three months of really immersing myself into Japanese and animation, I was ready to go on the job. So I really created my own job, too, where I saw a need, working with them, working with the American studio. Trying to figure out what information the Americans needed, and what information the Japanese needed to give the Americans, and [what was] needed from the Korean studios and the Taiwanese studios they were working with. So I was really involved in all aspects of the production, so it was a really great experience.

I can imagine. It sounds like the best way to learn.

It was the best way to learn, because television animation, as you know, is mostly done in Asia. So I learned from the perspective of what makes a good package and a good film, and what does not. Rather than being on the other end, putting these packages together and not quite understanding what goes on on the other end. So it was a really great experience.

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