Feature

Still on Track

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Phil Vischer is best known as the creator of Veggie Tales®, the adventures of America’s beloved garden-variety believers. Since Big Idea, Vischer’s animation company, was sold at a bankruptcy auction in 2003, the vegetable kingdom has a new ruler; though he continues voicing the familiar characters, he has no creative control over the popular video series. Vischer has returned to storytelling using the medium he loved while on a student ministry team at Crown College, the C&MA’s school in St. Bonifacius, Minnesota. What’s in the Bible?, Vischer’s newest video series, features a crew of wise-cracking puppets that teach biblical truth and life lessons to children (and anyone else within earshot). Melinda Smith Lane, alife’s managing editor, interviewed Phil Vischer at the Evangelical Press Association’s annual convention in May.

al: The Alliance puts a lot of emphasis on “calling.” You have been making things since you were a child, but you didn’t put that together with the “calling” until later. Can you talk about that?
PV: I grew up attending my great-grandfather’s [R. R. Brown’s] Okoboji Lakes Bible and Missionary Conferences, where everyone dressed up in the garb of their territory and marched around the church. We always had missionaries at our houses, and I always had missionary kids in my youth groups. There was so much focus on missions, even in our immediate family, that I couldn’t figure out how this shy kid who liked puppets would play into that. I couldn’t find it. I remember going forward to respond to a call to “commit your life to reaching the world.” I was, “Yeah, I want to do that, but can I stay here? Because I’m really shy, and I don’t think I would do well out there with strangers.”

It wasn’t until high school and MTV first aired [that I knew my call]. I thought, Well, this is just amazing, because it was so much more creative than what television was in 1982. But secondly, I thought, Morally, this is really troubling. No one is using this type of creativity to promote what I learned in Sunday school. It was the contrast between the flannel graph and these amazing music videos. There was such a wide gulf . . . and that was the moment: “I see what I can do! I see why God gave me the abilities He gave me!” Because there was a need.

al: So you didn’t wait for your calling before you developed your art or your talent?
PV: No, no, because I always liked playing with stuff, making stuff, whether it was with Legos or clay or whatever. I went to Disneyland when I was 7 or 8 and went on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, and my jaw just dropped! I thought, This is the most amazing thing! I want to make one of these! And I came home doing drawings for how I could make my own miniature version of Pirates of the Caribbean in my backyard. I never built it because I’m not that good at building objects with my hands, but I could see it, I could see it all.

I have always loved the idea of being dropped on a desert island and figuring out what you could make just from the stuff you found there. At Disneyland, the Swiss Family Robinson tree house was my second favorite thing after Pirates of the Caribbean because they made all this stuff out of coconuts and bamboo. And the water system—I just loved that. I don’t want a blank piece of paper; I don’t want a blank check. Give me a box of parts and then an assignment. I want to figure out how to use what’s in the box to make what I want to make. For some reason, that motivates me.

Some people don’t like constraints; I don’t like lack of constraints. I don’t want 200 million dollars to make a movie—the possibilities are too great. “Here’s twenty bucks and a week and a half—now try to make something.” That’s much more fun.

al: You said [in your book] that when Veggie Tales began, you wanted to make the vegetables simple and round because of rendering time and computer limitations. Now that technology has caught up with your vision, you are doing puppets.
PV: It looks like What’s in the Bible? is going backwards because it’s puppets instead of computer animation, but we are actually going forward because we are doing completely virtual production. I have four people on staff, and we turned out more minutes of children’s programing last year than we did at Big Idea 10 years ago with 150 people on staff. To me, that is an exciting innovation.

al: Where did you get your creativity?
PV: My dad was a storyteller, and my dad’s mother was hilarious but very quiet and very dry. Almost British in her sense of humor. My grandfather was a salesman who never stopped talking and never listened. He would talk, talk, talk and then pause to take a breath, and my grandmother would say something he wouldn’t even hear that was hilarious, just drop-dead hilarious, and had the whole family laughing. And grandpa is going “What?? What just happened?” He realized it was a joke at his expense because he just wouldn’t stop talking. My dad got that sense of humor and has been writing skits and plays his whole life and doing all sorts of fun stuff.

al: When Big Idea went from just you and a few people to being a large company, not everyone was on board with your ideals. Obviously, the tension could work against your vision, but did it help your creativity?
PV: It didn’t help me at all, actually, because it was conflict, and I hate conflict. I am a peace-loving personality type, so conflict can kind of shut me down creatively, and it did. I didn’t do my best work when I was fighting with people.

I do enjoy grappling with philosophical questions, like, “How do you not lose the coasts while keeping the heartland?” That’s a question I dealt with as we produced Veggie Tales, and the solution came out of working in advertising in Chicago. I went from making films for church, where I didn’t know anyone who wasn’t a Christian, to making films for an ad agency, where I didn’t know anyone who was a Christian. It’s about the way you talk to those different groups: Could you make a film that works for both?

Whenever I explain something theological, I am always thinking about both groups: this has to make sense to my church friends and an ad agency guy who has never been to church in his life. And so that immediately takes you away from jargon and Christian shorthand, which most kids don’t get either. If they grow up and only heard shorthand and never heard a clear explanation, the shorthand becomes meaningless. A big part of What’s in the Bible? is unpacking all the shorthand. Salvation: what’s it mean? Redemption: what’s it mean? Justification: what does all this mean? Because no one ever stops to explain it in a way that is “sticky” for kids.

al: You have always worked with kids, but you have had a very strong bleed-over audience of teenagers, college kids, cool adults. Do you have any plans to develop something specifically in that direction?
PV: No, no, I am not hip enough to be hip on purpose. Speaking at youth conferences, you meet the organizers and they are just so youth-y, I feel like a dweeb! [Dweeb voice] “Hi, I am Phil, and I make children’s products. I will try to entertain the youth.”

My kids’ private Christian school invited me to do chapel for they all grew up on Veggie Tales. All I had to do was stand up and do voices, and I had won them over. But if it wasn’t for Veggie Tales I would never want to speak to high school kids because I am just not cool enough. There is too much Mr. Rogers in me to intentionally be hip.

al: You said it was hard at the beginning of computer graphics to find Christian artists. Is it still difficult?
PV: No. Even five years in from when we started, by 1998 or ’99, we would go on recruiting trips to art schools and, particularly in the South, get mobbed by kids who said, “I am in art school because of Veggie Tales.” Art education is extremely secular in the North, but in the South it was like church sometimes. And a lot of those kids went to Disney in Orlando and are at Pixar now. There are a lot of Christians at Pixar, so right now you could pull something together if you wanted to or needed to.

al: Are any of your characters based on people you know?
PV: Sunday School Lady—[doing voice] “Oh, for the love of Henrietta Mears”—is my mother’s mother. She’s out to redeem the flannel graph, to bring it full circle. The two old ladies, Agnes and Winifred, mirror the two old guys on The Muppets—Waldorf and Statler. Brother Louie is Louie Armstrong. Chuck Waggin is just a country singer. Clive and Ian are based on the idea of a show that Mike Palin did on BBC years ago, where he went to strange places and got mosquito-bitten and sunburned and made funny British quips. Everything is based on something. In Veggie Tales, for Mr. Nezzer I was imitating the voice of the Oogie Boogie Man from The Nightmare before Christmas, a Tim Burton film. Mr. Lunt’s voice was inspired by the weasels from the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

al: You were inspired a lot by TV when you were a kid. Does anything on TV inspire you now?
PV: Positively or negatively?

al: Either.
PV: Negatively, the obsession with stardom, particularly with kids. You see it in American Idol, but turn on the Disney Channel and on every other show, somebody is a pop star, somebody is a rock star, somebody is a secret rock star, somebody is going to a camp to be a rock star, somebody was born in Minnesota and moves to Hollywood to be on a TV show so they can be a star. That is the singular story line that our kids are getting from TV.

al: That you are nothing unless you are famous?
PV: Yes, you can move to LA and be a star, and then you’ll be happy. I just despise that story line! No kid wants to be an engineer; no kid wants to be a mathematician; no kid wants to be a scientist. We are falling further and further behind in science because we all want to be pop stars. The culture of stardom is really not beneficial.

al: Any positives from media?
PV: Whether I agree with him or not, Steven Colbert really makes me laugh. I do enjoy just seeing some of those guys work creatively. They have the ability to look at current events and come up with something on it that quickly [snaps fingers]. It is really inspiring. I think, Can I pull that off with a puppet? Something like that that’s Christian? I am more inspired by movies, because storytelling in movies can take a character somewhere. In TV, you can’t take them anywhere. You have to bring them back to the same spot, because the episodes may air out of order.

al: What type of movies?
PV: I’ve always loved the Coen brothers. I’ve always loved Tim Burton high school kids, and the only reason it worked is because and Terry Gilliam and people who have very unique points of view on things; they are always inspiring.

Pixar is awesome and wonderful, but I have almost gotten to the point where I need to stop watching their films because it’s just not encouraging—I will never have the resources that they have. So you need to look for inspiration in things that are more feasible. I’m discouraged by how attracted we are to giant, derivative action movies, you know, Transformers 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7—all the comic book stuff—because it’s not beneficial for Christian filmmakers. You can’t do anything like that, so being inspired by it is almost counterproductive. It’s more inspiring to watch Atlanta-based actor/filmmaker Tyler Perry and say, “Wow, he found an audience. He is serving that audience better than anyone else, and they are rewarding him by showing up.” That’s what Christians can learn from. There is very little you can learn from a giant Michael Bay film. Very little.

al: You have been through the wringer with your dream. Where do you find your grace?
PV: What’s amazing in this is, through losing everything, I have never actually not been able to continue making stuff. God has always provided a bridge to the next opportunity. It’s been kind of amazing, because no matter how badly I mess this thing up, I still get another chance to tell another story, to make something else. It’s not a burden or a duty; it’s a joy. At some point you think, Well, that’s it. I have messed up so badly that I have lost my keys to the creative workshop and I don’t get to make anything else—but God has always provided a way forward. It’s been as bizarre as a fan assuming I was in trouble after the collapse of Big Idea and writing me a check as a thank you for what I had done for their kids! And that check happened to bridge our living expenses from the bankruptcy to negotiating a deal with Big Idea to do voices. And then the income from doing voices for Big Idea bridged the next three years while we started to develop all the puppets.

There’s a scene in Wallace and Gromit: The Wrong Trousers where the characters have a chase on a model railroad. It’s the climax, and they realize they are running out of track, so the dog has to grab the box of extra track and lay it down in front of the train while they are going about 30 miles an hour. That’s what it’s felt like, except its God laying down the track. I’m like, “There’s no more track! I have no more track!” But we keep going. He never lays it down so far ahead that I can just say, “Oh, well, we’ve got this thing covered!” But I have never run out of track. It just amazes me that I’m focusing on the work, and God focuses on making sure there is still track in front of my train so I can keep using the gifts He gave me. And that’s grace, ’cause I blew up my old train really badly.


Phil and his wife, Lisa, attend an Alliance church. Check out www.whatsinthebible.com to get more information on Phil’s new series. His autobiography, Me, Myself, and Bob, is available from Christian bookstores and Amazon.com.

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