You Say Tomato...: Judge David Johnson Peers Into the Wild World of VeggieTales with Co-Creator Mike Nawrocki
Judge David Johnson
June 20th, 2005
VeggieTales has become a home entertainment staple in many homes around the nation. From its pioneering use of computer animation in the early 1990s to its surge in popularity, which established it as a major player in family home entertainment, Big Idea productions, the company that creates VeggieTales, has garnered a reputation for consistently smart, biblically inspired storytelling.
To coincide with the company's latest release, Minnesota Cuke and the Search for Samson's Hairbrush, Judge David Johnson talked with series co-creator and the voice of Larry the Cucumber, Mike Nawrocki, about the future of Bob and Larry, Big Idea's mission of positively impacting children with their art, and how two college friends helped redefine animation as we know it.
DVD Verdict: Where does Big Idea fit in the crowded world of family animation?
Mike Nawrocki: The stories we tell are lessons that come from a biblical worldview. But they still have to be entertaining, like everything else on the market. Our audience may be a little different, as they have traditionally been parents who share that worldview.
Verdict: How did you get involved with Big Idea?
Nawrocki: I met Phil [Vischer, co-creator and voice of Bob the Tomato] in college. There we were working together writing, performing, and doing puppet shows. We moved to Chicago in the late '80s and began working in video production and computer animation. Eventually, we decided to do what we had done in college with this new technology. VeggieTales was the first long-running computer animated series, and learning to deal with the technology was challenging. I hardly slept for four years!
Verdict: On your website, you state your core purpose as "to markedly enhance the moral and spiritual fabric of our society through creative media." How would you characterize the company's progress?
Nawrocki: I think we're making an impact. I think, over the past few years, what was an entirely secular society in media is starting to change. I think people are becoming more open to biblical-based storytelling. With VeggieTales, we're not trying to proselytize; we just want to tell stories that are entertaining and reflect our worldview.
Verdict: Take us through the process of crafting an episode.
Nawrocki: For a 45-minute VeggieTales release, the process usually takes two years. A development group meets and we all come up with ideas, which are pitched in that group environment. Then one of us goes and writes the screenplay. Actually, the most time-consuming work is done in pre-production; the actual production cycle is three months.
The most difficult, and at the same time satisfying, element of the whole process is creating ideas. Each episode we go into a brand-new environment with our characters, which makes it challenging and fun. Coming up with fresh and funny ideas is hard work, but there's nothing more satisfying that watching those ideas come together.
Verdict: Talk about some of the feedback you get. Do you get criticism?
Nawrocki: Well, you can never please [every]body! With VeggieTales, people have their favorite episodes. We'll get the inevitable "That show was pretty good, but it wasn't as good as _____."
What motivates me is the feedback we get from kids and parents. We're hoping to tell stories that make a positive difference in kids' lives, and when we hear that [it] is, that makes it so much more rewarding.
Verdict: Was it hard to make the transition from Christian book stores to mainstream retailers?
Nawrocki: It was a challenge at first. Because we had no money for marketing, all the popularity of VeggieTales came from word of mouth. It was real grassroots. We started in 1993, and it wasn't until 1996 or 1997 that we began to get noticed. When mainstream retailers first approached us, they said they were interested, but requested the "God language" be taken out. We refused. If we did that, it would defeat the purpose.
Verdict: How has success affected Big Idea?
Nawrocki: The people who work here are committed to telling stories that have a positive impact on children. That hasn't changed. We all just enjoy coming to work every day. I'm still here because I still have that passion and believe in that mission. Hopefully that will always be the motivation that surrounds VeggieTales.
Verdict: What lies ahead for Bob and Larry and the rest of the VeggieTales gang?
Nawrocki: Well, we're just releasing Minnesota Cuke, but we're also finishing up post-production for our November release, The Lord of the Beans. We also have another theatrical release on the horizon, based on the "Pirates That Don't Do Anything," and a script for another possible movie called The Bob and Larry Movie, which tells the story of how Bob and Larry first met.
We're launching a Big Idea record label, and kicking it off with a live music tour starring VeggieTales characters. The heart of Big Idea is still our 45-minute releases, which we will of course continue.
Verdict: Lastly, do you still eat salads or is it too weird for you now?
Nawrocki (laughs, then launches into his Larry the Cucumber voice): As I tell the kids, as long as your vegetables aren't talking to you, it's okay to eat them! I encourage consumption of all non-talking vegetables.
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