Kato Wake's story
Thom: Where did the storyEngine idea come from?

Kato: The storyEngine Story was developed in about 6 weeks by 5 of us, all students in the first class of the Canadian Film Centre's newMedia H@bitat in Toronto. Initially the group was Rand Ardell, Jason Cliff, Rena Dempsey, Tessa Sproule and myself, Kato Wake. One of us was a programmer, one a marketing /designer type, one a journalist, one a creative visual person/technical type, and myself, a designer.

Our goal was a project which reached out to people rather than a pure entertainment project. We wanted the focus to be on content rather than on technology and we wanted content which was grass roots driven.

Thom: Who developed the initial idea?

Kato: The storyEngine evolved organically among all 5 of us. Tessa Sproule was the initial project manager because she had a past history with the CBC whom we always viewed as a natural partner for the storyEngine. We developed a simple prototype ( illustrations on the right) which was a choose-your-train-of-thought model categorized by time, place or topic.

Thom: How did the design 'evolve?'

Kato: We tossed around a few ideas: one idea was to show Canadian humour ["who the heck do you think we are"] and another idea that back-fired was doing a kid's storytelling site with a DJ and his room. Then, with 6 weeks left to produce, we finally conceived the Great Canadian Story Engine, which was the prototype of the existing site, storyengine.ca.

Thom: Did the five of you come together and do the StoryEngine or did you come together and then do the storyEngine?

Kato: The five of us came together to create a project which was communication based, storytelling and far reaching, not elitist, not art for art sake. The idea was to form the skeleton structure and the real magic would happen when people outside our group added the meat, the stories.

Thom: Did you give any thought to how the project could be funded?

Kato: We thought that maybe CBC would be interested in our project, because Tessa had worked as a producer there before coming to h@abitat. We also thought the project was strong as an educational platform for inter-school exchanges, but really it was Ana Serrano, [the director of h@bitat], who got the project funding off the ground, along with the producer Kate Halpenny and others from the Canadian Film Centre.

Thom: Who approached CBC? Tessa or Ana?

Kato: Kate and Ana really took charge of the funding. CBC seemed to be a natural partner because they reflect a big perspective of the Canadian "sensibility" and storytelling in general. Historica was interested in Canadian storytelling from a historical reference point.

Thom: When did the Millennium and CBC funded get finalized?

Kato: The Millennium funding came first, [I think last spring], with $500,000 but we had to match it. The funding was finalized in mid December 1999. Tessa helped with CBC's involvement, and Ana and Kate worked extremely hard to get the other partners on board.

Thom: Of the initial group what was the drop off rate?

Kato: Tessa and I stayed on to take on the project. Acutally, Tessa was technically still working for CBC, but was given time off to get the Story Engine off the ground. She was absolutely essential to its success, and her vision and overall understanding of all the areas of production really glued it together. Tessa is amazing. Rand was involved indirectly through his work, MacLaren McCann, and Jason helped with some of the initial visioning but continued to work at CBC on the infoculture site.

Thom: What roles were filled when the project had full funding and was ready to go into production?

Kato: I was creative director and Tessa the content director. Kate was the project manager and Ana acted as our client. We were incorporated with Immersant who provided the back engine support with a couple of programmers. They also helped with usability evaluation, The team grew to about 12 before the tour.

Thom: Who came up with the word 'storyEngine' for the project?

Kato: The name was the same one we used in the prototype so we kept it. The original team members came up with it, and the Film Centre kept it to sell the idea to sponsors and partners. The train metaphor suited Canada historically, and had a lot of good word associations with it too. [hop on board, get on track...]

Thom: Who were your audiences for the storyEngine?

Kato: We had three target audiences for the project: storytellers, kin keepers who keep track of their family histories both across Canada and around the world, and the connected, people who embrace the new technologies and cyber communities but are itching for more content driven media. We were thinking of traditional CBC listeners in this last grouping.

Thom: What were your problems with designing the storyEngine?

Kato: The storyEngine is very different from traditional web design where you have more control over the development of static pages. Most of the site is database generated which is a very tricky way to do design. There are some minor usability issues which should have been caught during usability testing but they weren't. The biggest problem is that the site is very text heavy

The title was a big problem. The Great Canadian StoryEngine is a huge mouthful which we had to design two different sites in both French and English. There were also political play around the branding issues with the site. The Canadian Film Centre is a long word which I didn't know was to become part of the title. With French there was much discussion around the translation of the title because you can't just translate it literally because of the subtleties in language. Plus to get the title in both French and English on the same page and eventually on the same bus was a real struggle. For the web site we were lucky that we got www.storyengine.ca

Thom: How did you start the visual design of the site and the bus?

Kato: The site design came first. As a group we did a lot of visioning prior to production, to really understand our target audience, and to get to know one another. Then I came up with a creative brief, and tossed around a few ideas for a few weeks: a tree, a train, a scrapbook idea, and an inventor idea a la Rube Goldberg. The two ideas that were presented were based on the train and the tree, and the train idea won. Originally the train palette was black with primary colours, but eventually I added the book and people to it, and juxtaposed the primary colours with an secondary earthier palette, which lightened it up a bit. I wanted the site to be in Flash, and always designed it in Illustrator /vector based. But we couldn't continue to do the entire site in Flash because there were conflicts with the back engine. So the interior pages of the site were designed in Photoshop. I started by fooling around with train tracks scanned in from a toy train set that Tessa gave me for Christmas. The final design is quite reserved but I would say fairly optimistic. Because the site was so text driven the design had to take a quiet position. I needed to create some sort of intimacy for people to take the time to submit and to read.

I also had the idea of a tree which you hold the key to, seasons changing, life changing metaphor. The tree thing was very whimsical. I was always thinking about sound and animation moving from spring to fall.

I proposed both ideas to a variety of folks. Eventually we decided that the tree would go and the train would stay. I started out with a very earthy palette, lots of Photoshop stuff which was very impractical in terms of the web and down load times. The palette was also a little too dark. I wanted something more joyful, celebrating Canadian lives. I also wanted it in Flash because I like vector based art online.

The train was also to be in high contrast, coming on screen animated and shaking. The original colors were very racy, very urban with a strong black which I think scared a lot of people. The wanted some of the sweetness of the tree design in the train design. The train tracks in the final design were scanned form real toy train tracks which Tessa gave me for Christmas that year.

The final design was a train going right to left because it was zippier. Keep in mind that the design process was a group design which is different than individual design. To me the final design feels quite reserved from a design point of view but I think that is a sign of confidence and ultimately the site is about the people who write the stories. The design has to be secondary.

Thom: You designed the look and feel of everything from the posters to the web site to the insides and the outsides of a 30 foot airstream trailer? How do you design for a trailer?

Kato: Yup, I designed the outside and the inside of the storyMobile. The design of the outside of the bus was cut in vinyl so I had to make the drawing inch by inch so it would fit exactly when applied. I originally got the Airstream trailer and drew directly on it. I measured all the points so the enormous decals would be just right. It is an old trailer, a 78, so there are lots of bends and curves. It was also logo hell because of all the text for the name, the names of the partners in both French and English. But, it was fun.

For the interior, I wanted to juxtaposed the high tech nature of the project with campy comfort. It was important to make coming into the trailer non-intimidating. It was an older Airstream [1978] so it wasn't exactly slick inside. And I was aware that the Film Centre is often seen as somewhat elitist, and so it was necessary to show the public that they were very approachable. I hung photos of friends, a fish clothing hook, hockey sticks, a plaid jacket hung, ice skates and a snow shoe...and used flags and decals. The tour team has added more kitchy souvenirs of their trip, which is fine by me. As long as it remains clean and friendly!

Thom: What do you hope happens to the storyEngine?

Kato: I hope it is kept alive through the CBC. I think right now Historica and CBC are trying to work out the details. I would like to see Canadians continue to use it to tell stories via the CBC web site. If Historica takes it over I would like to see them use it as an educational tool for children to rework history through the oral tradition connecting with and through older folks.

It is interesting that anything you give out takes on its own life. I don't have a lot of emotional investment. I tried my best and I'm proud of it.

Thom: What are you doing now that the storyEngine is up and running?

Kato: I am having a good time this summer, and thinking about what I want to do next. I am motivated by ideas and concepts, and want to be involved in creative collaborations again. I love music and images together, education and social commentary...I and have some ideas in my mind: stay tuned!

Thom: Have you gotten any work based on the trailer?

Kato: No but I'd love to do another trailer. I loved it.

Ana, Tessa, Kate & Kato