Eat your vegetables. Just, not the talking ones...
by Joel Cunningham
Since 1993, Big Idea has been teaching better living through produce with VeggieTales, a show in which limbless, talking veggies impart the morals and wisdom of the Bible with heart and plenty of humor.
On the eve of Big Idea's latest release, VeggieTales: Sheerluck Holmes and the Golden Ruler, dOc writer Joel Cunningham spoke with series co-creator (and the squeaky voice behind Larry the Cucumber), Mike Nawrocki.
digitallyOBSESSED: Did you have any idea when you and Phil Vischer came up with this concept over a decade ago that your name would become synonymous with, you know, limbless vegetables?
Mike Nawrocki: I could have only dreamed. No, we didn't, we had no idea how big it would get. We thought it was really important to tell stories with the type of values we thought parents would want to pass along to their kids. The type of things that we were seeing that was available to kids at the time had a lot of violence, a lot of sarcasm, and we were just looking to tell entertaining stories with great values. We used vegetables just because they were easy to animate with computers, and the rest went from there.
dOc: Speaking of that, did you know at the time that computer animation would become what it has, going from the simple veggie shapes to what you can do now?
MN: At the time, Phil and I were both in the video post-production industry in Chicago, working on commercials and had access to the high-end equipment, and it was getting better every year. VeggieTales was the first computer animated series, so the technology wasn't available to do anything more complicated and still do a half-hour video, but we saw it progressing all the time. And we kind of felt like, over time, it would become much more user-friendly and we'd be able to do many more things with it. Which we have, but we've really maintained the character feel; we haven't felt any need to grow arms or legs or anything. But everything from the environments to some of the additional characters, we've been able to do more with that.
dOc: I've been watching them since the eighth grade or so, and it's been funny to look back at those first few when they started re-releasing them on DVD, the classic ones.
MN: Oh yeah, I look at them again and go, "wow." It's painful for me, I'm like, "oh, that looks awful!" But the fun thing is, we still hear back from fans who say some of those first shows are their favorites. I think the stories still hold up, and I think that's the important thing with any technology, is it doesn't matter how many bells and whistles you use as long as the stories hold up. But the other thing that's improved over the time is, we were both technicians and artists and storytellers, kind of trying to do everything. But over time, the people that have joined us have just been really great in their particular fields, from the technology, to the art, to the storytelling, and all those things I feel have improved over time.
dOc: Along those lines of doing everything yourself, had you always been interested in doing the cartoon voices, or did that grow out of that fact that the company was so small at that point?
MN: Phil and I, we actually met doing puppets. We met at a small college up in Minneapolis, a college we both only went to for about a year and a half, called Crown College. I was from Colorado, he was from the Chicago area, and both of us had been involved separately doing puppets and different drama growing up. So when we started working together in college, and just writing together, we had a real creative chemistry, and that lent itself really well to animation as we started to get into that. Phil was sort of an animation bug himself, that's kind of what he did in the video post industry, and so we had a little bit of know-how. And at the time with computer animation, there weren't a lot of people who had know-how, so we were among the fortunate ones that did.
dOc: What's your production process like, now that the animation is outsourced rather than produced in-house? [Another company purchased Big Idea around three years ago after it filed for bankruptcy, and its Chicago-based animation studio was shuttered. The show is now produced in Nashville and animated by a Canadian company.] Are you still hands-on as a director?
MN: Yeah. The way I like to explain it is, we're more of an architectural firm now. A lot of ways, we're more thorough now then when we had our own studio on-site, because we have to be very clear with how we communicate what we need done in the animation. As we're preparing the hand-off, which is the story reel and all the art and all the directions... Before, a lot of the hand-off to our animation department was verbal. But now, we've got to put it all down on paper, and it forces us to think through every single shot. I think it's aided us in a creative sense, because it helps us think through things more and allows us to better utilize the budgets, so we know what's important and what to concentrate on. So it's been advantageous to us in certain regard, and at the same time it was one of the hardest things about going through the bankruptcy, to lose the in-house studio and all the people that had joined us for that.
dOc: So when you start working on a new show, do you start with the moral or Biblical lesson you want to go with, or do you start with the scenario and see what fits into that?
MN: We've done it both ways. The story sort of drives that. Before, we've gotten letters from parents who say, you know, "I'd love to have a lesson about sharing," and that actually drove Lyle, the Kindly Viking. Phil wrote that script based on fan feedback. And it others cases, it's stuff that just sort of hits us. One show a while ago, Madam Blueberry, was one that the story kind of came first, as a parody on Madam Bovary, and the lesson came out of it.
dOc: So who's the Sherlock Holmes fan? How do you go about choosing which things you're going to parody? You've had the Lord of the Rings, the Indiana Jones spoofs...
MN: We have a development group made up of Phil Vischer, Tim Hodge, myself, David Pitts, and Gale Shenbaum who was with us on Sheerluck Holmes. But for Sheerluck in particular, that came from a company submission a couple of years ago, when one of the animators here said he had a great idea for an episode. The key we really picked up on was Bob as Watson and Larry as Sheerluck, just that dynamic, that Larry doesn't give Bob credit for what he does. We loved that initial concept, so we took that into development.
dOc: It seemed to fit their personalities pretty well, with Larry being typically clueless. He's the world's most famous detective, but he's still not the smart one.
MN: Yeah, he's more the celebrity type. But it's funny, because the other story, The Asparagus of La Mancha, I had wanted to do that for years as "Bob Quixote," because I thought that would be really funny, but when we started forming this episode on friendship, we pulled in that idea of the Don and Sancho characters, but we couldn't have Bob be both, so Robert Lee, who did the initial screenplay, pitched the idea to have Archibald [Asparagus] in that role, and that fit perfectly.
dOc: It seemed for a while you were doing one longer show, and now there's been a few that have the two shorter ones together. Is that decided in terms of how long the stories take to play out?
MN: Pretty much. It depends on the story itself. Our last one, Lord of the Beans, was over 50 minutes by itself, so it was a real long single story. As we come up with ideas, some of them can maintain 50 minutes, others feel better being short.
dOc: It sort of reminds me of going back to the first ones, the shorter stories. Especially this latest, it reminded me a lot of the early videos.
MN: Well thank you, I'll take that as a compliment. I really do, I felt like this was more of a classic Veggie feel. It was silly, a lot of fun, a lot of laughs, so I was really happy with how it turned out.
dOc: In terms of the Silly Song with Larry, Gated Community... Have you had a bad experience with a gated community?
MN: It's funny, our company moved to Nashville about two years ago, and it just came out of the experience of looking for a house and being exposed to the local real estate market in Nashville. And at one point I just started sort of humming [the lyrics]. It's just sort of a light-hearted poke.
dOc: Do you find your own songs get stuck in your head?
MN: They do, I'll get a melody and maybe a simple lyric, something that will stay for a long time before I do anything with it. It's good if it's kind of catchy like that. I have a couple of kids, my daughter is 7 and my son is 4, and I sort of unwittingly will sing sort of ditties around the house, and then I'll hear them singing it hours later, and I'm like, "This thing is catchy, that's good."
dOc: In terms of the DVDs and the bonus material, do you like assembling all that for the fans? What's involved there?
MN: We have a great time doing that. Chris Wall, who works here as an editor and our DVD producer, does a great job with that stuff. They continue to do a wonderful job putting on stuff that's fun for the fans. With VeggieTales, we try to make the story like a mini-movie, and with the DVD release, what you'd expect to see with a feature film release.
dOc: What other shows are you working on for this year? I believe you're doing three a year now?
MN: We have the return of 3-D LarryBoy coming this summer; The Rumor Weed was the last one, this next one's called LarryBoy and the Bad Apple, and it's a lesson about avoiding temptation. That's a single story, and then we have another double, just before Christmas, and the headline story on that is the story of Gideon.
dOc: I read that there's another movie in the works; is this the Bob and Larry Movie that was talked about on the Jonah DVD that was in development before the company was sold, or something new?
MN: We are working on another movie, but I can't give too much information about it. But we are working on a film and there's more exciting info to come on that really soon. It'll be a theatrical release.
dOc: I was a big fan of 3-2-1 Penguins! Any chance we'll see more of that, or more offshoot shows like that?
MN: With Penguins, we've been pursuing developing that into a television series. We did six direct-to-video episodes, but just the economics of that and the fan base of that, it didn't work in the same way VeggieTales did, but the show itself I think has a lot of potential going forward.
dOc: Finally, this is only tangentially related, but I wanted to know what you think about the recent wave of faith-based films. Obviously there was The Passion and even The Chronicles of Narnia, and it all started really with The Omega Code and Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie a few years back; mainstream Hollywood seems to be discovering this audience exists. What do you think about that as someone who has been in the industry over a decade now?
MN: I think it's great. For VeggieTales, what we're doing is representing a Biblical worldview in our storytelling. I think it's great when well-done movies can come out and do the same thing. Good storytelling is good storytelling, regardless of what worldview it represents, and I'm really thrilled to see that great stories are being told with that worldview. And we're hoping with VeggieTales, that's what we're doing, too, telling stories well and making shows that people really respond to.