Cover Story

VeggieTales, VeggieSales

Who would have thought a Bible college dropout would find a way to get kids excited about vegetables? VeggieTales may not be leafy, but they are green: Producers have sold 6 million copies of the animated cartoon series, which rules the Christian market and is breaking into the mainstream. A CD of VeggieTales songs has topped the Billboard kids' chart. Can it last? And will success compromise the content? Meet the humans behind the Veggies.

Issue: "Veggie Mania," Dec. 12, 1998

in Chicago - It's hard to spot the headquarters of Big Idea Productions in Chicago unless you are looking for it. A metal nameplate at the door of a renovated warehouse on North Clinton Street is the only clue to passers-by that this building west of the Loop is the home of Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber, the computer-animated stars of the hot-selling video series for children, VeggieTales. On the sixth floor, the day is just starting for members of Big Idea's production staff. Mostly in their 20s, they arrive wearing jeans, sweaters, and untucked shirts. A receptionist wears a shirt bearing the computer-ripened red face of Bob; some others wear purple bowling shirts with the image of Art Bigotti, a bowling asparagus character from Larry-Boy and the Fib from Outer Space! Big Idea's offices are made up of cubicles in the center surrounded by rooms with doors, many of which are studios and group offices. Fan mail, staff doodlings, press clippings, and posters adorn the walls. Images of Bob and Larry-Big Idea's equivalent of Mickey Mouse and Goofy-are everywhere. On this autumn Friday morning, the Big Idea staff had just finished production on the latest video, Silly Songs 2: The End of Silliness? Animators, having put in more hours in the weeks leading up to deadline than they'd like to admit, normally would be enjoying the chance to kick back and savor a few days of rest. But on this day, employees were hard at work. Why? The ink had just dried on a deal with PAX-TV for a Christmas special to air on Dec. 19-the broadcast debut for VeggieTales and a golden opportunity to reach a larger audience. The Christmas episode Big Idea had already produced, The Toy that Saved Christmas, was 32 minutes long, but broadcast segments must be either 22 or 46 minutes. The creators had a choice: Cut 10 minutes or add 14. True to its name, Big Idea decided to add new footage. "Make no small plans," founder Phil Vischer explained in an interview, as he recounted the years of struggle getting his products launched and accepted. Mr. Vischer, a 33-year-old Bible college dropout, is the voice of Bob the Tomato and other characters, and he writes or co-writes many of the stories. Sitting in his brightly lit corner office, Mr. Vischer told WORLD his creative influences range from Dr. Seuss and Walt Disney to Monty Python, the Coen Brothers (Fargo, Raising Arizona), and Tim Burton (Beetlejuice, The Nightmare Before Christmas). "I sometimes wonder if I'm Tim Burton's good twin," he says with a laugh. The voices and characters for VeggieTales have been in development for years, dating from when Mr. Vischer and partner Mike Nawrocki were in puppet ministry at St. Paul Bible College. Although Big Idea Productions is now moving from one success to the next, it was by no means easy getting there. When he is asked what his darkest moment was, Mr. Vischer chuckles and says, "There were probably six months of darkest moments!" But he says he can remember one time when an unmistakable ray of light penetrated one of those moments. He had quit his job and was in the process of trying to sell Christian publishers on his idea, but "no one was buying it." At the time, he had been married for a year and had a new baby to take care of. (Everland Entertainment, a division of Word, did not sign on as a national distributor until soon after the production of the first video.) "I was asking, 'Did you lead us out of Egypt to die here in the desert?'" he says. Finally, he came down to his last $10 at the same time his wife, Lisa, ran out of food for their dog. So he decided to send her out for the dog food before sorting through a stack of mail. Included in the pile of bills was an envelope without a return address containing a cashier's check for $400 and a note saying, "God laid it on my heart that you might need this." "It couldn't have been more obvious than if God sat down next to me and said, 'You're going in the right direction,'" Mr. Vischer says, his speech slowing down a notch. "Nothing has happened [since then] that can change my belief in this." Now, anchored to the popularity of VeggieTales, Big Idea is growing rapidly. In dollars-and-cents terms, no one at Big Idea will say (the company is privately held, so those numbers stay private). But in terms of videos sold, the company in its five years of existence has moved from selling tens of thousands of videos to millions, roughly 6 million to date. In addition to Christian bookstores, consumers can find VeggieTales videos for sale at Kmart, WalMart, and Target stores and for rent at Blockbuster Video. Target's Denise Workcuff said Veggie sales are "up there with the Rugrats." Big Idea has grown from a group of friends working from Mr. Vischer's spare bedroom to a corporation of nearly 70 employees at last count. Mr. Vischer tries to keep his hand in just about everything; when an assistant had a problem with a computer, he crawled under her desk to fix it. He decided to animate vegetables after realizing that he didn't have the budget for the equipment necessary to produce computer-animated characters with arms and legs. And the characters' lack of hands has turned into a recurring source of humor. In Josh and the Big Wall, a retelling of the biblical battle of Jericho, one character asks, "How are we clapping?" prompting another to respond, "I have no idea." Mr. Vischer is a fan of "wit, not bodily humor," hence the stuffy character of Archibald the Asparagus and the "English golf announcer" voice introducing Silly Songs with Larry. There's also a lot of Mr. Vischer's personality in the earnest, down-to-earth Bob the Tomato, staffers say, as well as a lot of partner Mike Nawrocki in the goofy Larry the Cucumber. With the PAX-TV deadline looming, Big Idea employees are also hard at work on a new video scheduled for Spring release, Larry-Boy and the Rumor Weed. Bill Haljun, Big Idea's vice president of consumer marketing, arrives with loaves of gourmet bread he will deposit in a break room. He does this regularly enough to have earned a "catering" credit in previous VeggieTales videos. Although older than most of the staff, Mr. Haljun fits right in, wearing a red shirt, patchwork pants, and Birkenstock clogs. Mr. Haljun, leading a tour of the various departments, told WORLD that all VeggieTales videos start with one essential "nugget of truth" the video is meant to illustrate. In the case of Where Is God When I'm S-Scared?, the message is simply that "God is bigger than the boogey-man." Then a script is written and is proofed by Mr. Vischer's mother-in-law Scottie May-who holds a doctorate in education-to make sure it is appropriate for children ages four to eight. Art director Joe Sapulich, an ad industry veteran who worked on the national campaign for Gerber Baby Food, produces concept sketches for the characters and scenery for this release in his windowed cubicle. After he finishes a sketch, he scans the image into the computer and electronically adds color. After the script is written and a concept is approved-such as the design of the "Rumor Weed" character-it is printed, signed by Mr. Vischer, and tacked to a bulletin board. Then it's time for Big Idea's other departments to get to work. The "clock" that drives the show is the soundtrack. For this step in the process, Big Idea has its own recording studio, consisting of one room with a microphone and another with computers and sound equipment. Today, Big Idea had just finished recording the soundtrack to the Christmas special. Most of the morning, Mr. Vischer could be found holed up in the studio, looking at digital sound waves on the computer and choosing takes for character voices. The voice of Bob the Tomato booms from the speakers: "Well, at least we had one good song," says the earnest host. "Some Christmas specials don't even have that!" Mr. Vischer wrinkles his brow and drags the take with his mouse to the "finished" section on his computer screen. Elsewhere, storyboard artist Everett Downing sketches cels that will provide a road map to animators working on computers in a nearby office. Each section of animation consists of 30 frames, with roughly 50,000 frames of animation in a half-hour show. Each animator turns out about five to six seconds of animation per day, making the average production time about five months for a single episode. The modeling and animation is done on high-end Silicon Graphics workstations running Softimage software, the same equipment used in Forrest Gump and Disney's Toy Story. In a large corner office, modeler Aaron Hartline stares intently at his computer as he builds and rotates the stage the Veggies will be using to sing Christmas carols. Tacked to the wall next to him are decorations that resemble a college student's dorm room, including promotional materials for DreamWorks' Antz, a poster for The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and VeggieTales paraphernalia. Animators and modelers spend much of the morning walking between their offices and Kurt Heineke's music studio, a room filled with keyboards and sound equipment, decorated with children's drawings of the VeggieTales characters. Animators, working on Christmas carol segments, are trying to determine how to animate bells for one song. A relatively new employee asks Mr. Heineke for sheet music to help their timing, a request he is unable to fulfill since he composes his music on a computer with a keyboard. "We're using guerrilla tactics for this," he explains. Until a year and a half ago, Mr. Heineke was also the director of music at Park Community Church, a nondenominational congregation in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood that has drawn a large number of artists. Many of the first members of Big Idea's staff, including Mr. Vischer and Mike Nawrocki, voice of Larry the Cucumber and creator of the "Silly Songs" segment, are members of the church. While he remained a member of Park Community Church, Mr. Heineke quit the job there when Big Idea began to look "pretty stable." In his time with the company, he's gotten the Moody Bible College Glee Club to sing at full volume for the Larry-Boy and the Fib from Outer Space video. He has also helped to write a love song to a cheeseburger in Madame Blueberry, and has put together music for two compilation CDs of Veggie tunes that in late summer occupied the No. 1 and No. 2 slots on the Billboard Kids Audio chart. Although this is a work day for Big Idea's employees, some take a moment to creatively goof off. A "remix" of the "Salesmunz Rap" from Madame Blueberry has been created, consisting mostly of the words, "check it out, check it out" and "hold me, Bob"-a line by an emotional Larry borrowed from the end of the Madame Blueberry video. Aaron Hartline shows off his three-second animated video of a large cow (which looks suspiciously like the "Fib from Outer Space") stomping everything in its path. And the picture of Phil Vischer in a recent Chicago Tribune article has been scribbled on by a succession of silly staffers, prompting him to write "I did not do this" below all the doodlings. As early afternoon arrives, Big Idea employees begin tearing themselves away from their work to ride over to Maggiano's Little Italy for a late lunch and the release party for Silly Songs 2. There's more pasta than vegetables on the menu, but Big Idea employees show no qualms about tearing into the salad. Someone has added the words, "Hold Me, Bob" to the bottom of the sign welcoming the group. Phil Vischer has made his work a family affair. Wife Lisa, who provides the voice for Junior Asparagus and acts as a story consultant, arrives at the restaurant with Jeremy and Sidney Marie, the Vischers' two youngest children, in time for the "world premiere" of the latest video. Shelby, the eldest Vischer child, lent her voice to both Madame Blueberry and The Toy that Saved Christmas. Before the lights go down and the show begins on a big screen-a scene that will be repeated at Christian retailers almost a month later, as families line up to buy the latest release-Mr. Vischer regales the staff with stories from his recent appearance on CBS's This Morning, telling them about a hairdresser who said, "I love VeggieTales," after telling him that he loved his hair. "There's enough buzz that there's people at the networks passing VeggieTales videos back and forth," he says. In the Christian market, VeggieTales rule. Phil Vischer and company have not changed their approach to the products that have sold so well in Christian bookstores. Each video still ends with a Bible verse, something mass-market distribution companies that initially approached Big Idea suggested should be removed. As VeggieTales move into the mainstream marketplace, the question naturally arises: Will success spoil the Veggies? "From the beginning," said Mr. Nawrocki, "we had a very clear vision of what we were trying to achieve.... We are doing the same thing we've always done." And that is, as Mr. Vischer puts it, "[telling] stories to kids that would push them toward God, rather than away from him."

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