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Big Changes at Big Idea

By Craig von Buseck Contributing Writer –'s Craig von Buseck recently sat down with VeggieTales creators Phil Vischer and Mike Nawrocki to talk about how things have changed in their lives since VeggieTales parent company, Big Idea, was forced to file for bankruptcy and was sold to Classic Media in 2003.

Craig von Buseck: Let's talk about how things are working right now. Mike, you moved with Big Idea from Chicago to Franklin, Tennessee.

Mike Nawrocki: Yeah.

Phil Vischer: You did? I kept looking for you at church and you weren't showing up. (laughs)

von Buseck: And Phil, you're still in the Chicago area?

Vischer: Yeah.

von Buseck: Mike, you're still officially with Big Idea, right?

Nawrocki: Yeah.

von Buseck: And Phil, you're contracting with them to do scripts and voices, right?

Vischer: I'm doing voices, and one script a year, and notes on other scripts.

Nawrocki: We have a development team of four -- there's Phil and I, and Tim Hodge, and David Betzer, a producer. So we meet a couple times a month to work on stories and develop scripts. I remained on staff and am part of the day-to-day development/directorial of the shows. So my job hasn't changed a lot from pre-bankruptcy to now.

The big difference is that we're outsourcing our animation now.

von Buseck: That's a pretty big difference.

Nawrocki: It is a big difference.

3-2-1 PenguinsVischer: We did it with '3-2-1 Penguins' before the bankruptcy, partly because we needed to cannibalize that team into 'Jonah', and partly because we were having a hard time controlling our own costs. And there are service studios popping up all around the world now that are very competent. When we started there were no animation studios where you could have a CGI production done -- it was so new, so we built our own. But now the world has changed completely and there's very little animation that you see on TV that is done by the company that owns the characters. So you have ten studios that will compete for the work, and what they're good at is producing animation very well and very efficiently. And what we were always good at was writing...

von Buseck: ...stories.

Nawrocki: And it's forced us to better efficiency too, because we have to create. We write the stories, but then we have to package them and see how they're going to look and how they're going to be paced. We have to figure out everything up front before we hand it off. In the past, when we had our own production studio, we left a lot of options open, which just gets really expensive. So I think we've been able to go up a notch in terms of look and visuals, while coming down in what it costs to produce them. So that's been an advantage to help us through a hard process -- losing an animation studio is really a hard thing to go through. But we're really happy with the process now and the company that we're working with.

von Buseck: So how has the company changed? Obviously, when you have new leadership there will be changes.

Nawrocki: The good things have been that the new ownership hasn't required anything different in the messages that we tell. They bought us because they loved our storytelling and they knew that we had a big and faithful audience. For them it was a good business decision. So they've left us alone with that. They don't look at scripts, they don't make story comments. They're more of a marketing company, and that's what they do.

The challenge, then, especially for Phil -- having owned it, and then having it not be yours -- just letting go of that was hard.

For me personally, I just felt like God has given me gifts and abilities as a storyteller and a writer -- that's what I do, just concentrate on the story.

von Buseck: Phil, how do you see yourself continuing with the Big Idea and VeggieTales? I know you're starting your own company.

Vischer: I don't want this new company [Jellyfish] to be perceived as another Big Idea or competition for Big Idea. It's really a creative shop.

von Buseck: That's who you are.

Vischer: Yeah, and now I have free time to create. It's not being taken up trying to keep a big company afloat. So I'm back on my knees saying, 'O.K. God, what stories do you want me to tell?' I want to see VeggieTales to continue and to be healthy because I think it's good for families, it's good for Christian bookstores, and it's good for Hollywood who has really taken notice -- like 'wow, there are Christians in the middle of the country.'

von Buseck: And they don't just vote, they do other things too.

VeggieTalesVischer: One of the San Francisco newspapers said that the election, 'The Passion', and VeggieTales proves that there is a huge Christian audience.

Nawrocki: Wow, I hadn't heard that.

Vischer: Well, after the bankruptcy I was so depressed that I blew it, I smashed it, I crashed it. But I'm seeing the impact that it had. Now it's so much easier for Christians to go into Hollywood, and it's not just because of VeggieTales, but because of the handful of things that have happened -- the 'Left Behind' books, 'The Passion', and VeggieTales are the three things that get mentioned the most. You can go to an agency in Hollywood and say, 'I have an idea for a Christian movie' -- ten years ago they would have laughed you out the door. Today they're actually looking for them.

It's really astounding how God worked through two guys in a spare bedroom in Chicago who had no clue what they were doing.

But God has allowed me to be in a place now where, if I write one of those a year, that takes maybe a third of my year, and I can come down to Nashville sometimes. But now I have all this free time on my hands just to kind of say, 'O.K., what's the next way that we can help families? What's the next way to impact the culture, building on top of what VeggieTales has established?' And that's what I get really pumped about.

So there's a meaning behind 'Jellyfish' that we're not explaining yet, but it involves my testimony and what God has shown me through all of this.

von Buseck: As you were dying from the jellyfish sting (laughs).

Nawrocki: I'll look forward to the movie and the book (laughs).

Vischer: They were my angels! You gave me an idea for a new video (laughs).

It basically is just me and a couple of other people who are going to take some of these ideas that I've been slowly putting up on the wall and start to execute them. We're going to look for the right partners. Some of them may be with Big Idea. Some of them might not make sense with Big Idea. But it's just an opportunity to write whatever and then see where God wants it to be.

von Buseck: How did the difficulties that you went through in the bankruptcy and the sale, how did it affect your relationship?

Vischer: We go hunting almost every weekend (laughs).

Nawrocki: Well the dynamics of the relationship has changed because…

Vischer: I'm not the boss of him! (laughs)

Nawrocki: (yelling) You're not the boss of me (laughs).

von Buseck: There's a whole new video there -- VeggieTales: You're Not the Boss of Me! (laughs)

Bob and LarryNawrocki: (in Larry's voice) Bob, you're not the boss of me!

Vischer: Larry's gotten a little bit more snarly lately (laughs).

Nawrocki: We were talking to somebody earlier about this, and I feel like there are parts of our relationship that are strengthening as friends through conflict. There's nothing more here than friendship. There's not some sort of a corporate structure.

Vischer: And I always had the veto before. So 'Lord of the Beans' is the first show that we've done where I don't have the veto anymore. And that's just a whole new dynamic. 'O.K., we're actually going to have to work together.' And I was so buried over the last few years by the weight of Big Idea, by the ambition of what I was trying to do, that I wasn't around much on a friend level anyway. I was just off at meetings with lawyers or sitting at home thinking about how stressed I was (laughs). So it's actually fun to go down to Nashville now and just hang out with the guys that are still there that I know. When you walk into a room and you're the employer -- it's very different when you're signing the pay checks and everyone's like, 'don't say anything that could get you in trouble'. It's more fun to hang out with people as peers.

von Buseck: Phil, you're also working on a couple of children's books, right?

Vischer: Yeah, last year I wrote a couple of kid's books. We're just looking for publishers to see what they think of them. There's no great ambition. I'm not trying to sell ten million books now to match however many million videos. I'm looking at little stories that God's bubbling up, saying 'Ooh, what does that one want to be? That one wants to be a children's book. Let's see if that will work?' It's fun not to have to worry about whether an idea will feed two hundred animators. The company couldn't afford to have me go off and write a children's book.

So as painful as it was, I see God's hand all over it now. 'You need to get out of that ambition and the pressure that I never intended for you to carry. Get closer to Me and start writing again. And stop worrying about all these people and all this stuff that you've constructed.' Which is not fun, because I didn't want to, at all.

von Buseck: So let me follow up with this question, what are the big lessons from Big Idea?

Vischer: See, that's too big. And every person that we've talked to has gone there. We're not going there yet. It's really my testimony that has come out of this that has affected everything. I'm starting to speak about it a little bit and finding a whole new ministry in just getting out there talking, not about fictitious vegetables, but about my journey. But it's such a big thing that we're not ready to try to crush it into ten minutes to make it work. So we'll take a rain check on that one.

von Buseck: How about for you, Mike?

Larry the CucumberNawrocki: 'Don't follow Phil' (laughs). No, for me, what I do now is not very different from what I've always done with VeggieTales. I continue to be excited about VeggieTales. As I look at the property and the potential of where it has to go and a lot of the meaning that it has for families -- and I think of things like 'Mr. Rogers' and 'Winnie the Pooh' that have enduring value and continue to touch families for years and years, and I'm at the place now where I want to do all I can to make sure that that continues to happen.

It's a lot of work. We had three releases this year, and we'll have two or three releases next year, so I spend a lot of my time in the VeggieTales world. But for me it remains challenging and rewarding, not only from a story perspective -- we have this ensemble and now we're going to create a new world for them to tell a story -- but the feedback that we get from kids and families continues to come in. As long as I know we're creating a show that's doing that then I'm really content being there. So that's the place where I am right now.

von Buseck: And Phil, that's part of your legacy forever. You were there building it over those years. And as difficult as what you've gone through is, you'll always have that impact that you've made and continue to make.

Vischer: That was something that God has kind of played out to me in bumping into people in Hollywood who have had doors open to them because of VeggieTales. And I feel like, O.K., well I didn't lose that. That's pretty cool.

von Buseck: So where do we go from here?

Vischer: I'm just trying to find God's will in a creative ministry. How do we put the Word of God into stories? Because Christians tend to be really good at putting it into sermons. We're actually pretty good at putting it into songs. But story is not something that we've done that well.

One of the children's books that I'm working on right now started out as what I thought was more of a sermon. There was just something that I was noticing as I have been studying the Bible more and have been de-stressed -- I've been experiencing God more. I thought that would make an interesting speech topic some time. I started making note of it. The next night I was lying in bed and the exact same lesson popped into my head as a story about two pigs. And I thought, 'that's different.' Within four hours I had the children's book that had the exact lesson that I thought would be a sermon, but it was in a story. And it was like, 'Oh, that's how you want me to preach. I get it.' Because I'm more of a preacher than I thought.

I have been speaking more, and actually it's kind of fun. You know, my great grandfather was a radio preacher for fifty years. So there's some sort of gene in me, where if you put me in a podium and give me a mic., eventually I'll start preaching. But I'm a story teller, so I'm discovering that I'm getting these nuggets of sermons that aren't just that I've picked up the Sunday School curriculum, I've pulled out the ten lessons, and I'm writing them funnier. There is a unique thing that God wants to say through me, but I don't think He wants to say it through a sermon, I think He wants me to say it in a story. I'm just completely jazzed about that -- too much fun!

Nawrocki: For me it's the opposite of that, I would just try to find a lesson in the silliness (laughs). Just go out there and be completely goofy -- 'let's wrestle a lesson out of this one' (laughs). Look what I got! What's the point here?

Vischer: What's it about? (laughs).

Editor's note: Last week a federal appeals court judge overturned the decision of the lower court in the lawsuit that ultimately led to Big Idea Productions’ bankruptcy. See the full story in my blog, ChurchWatch.

Order 'Minnesota Cuke'

Order other VeggieTales videos

Send Craig your e-mail comments on this interview.

More from Big Idea

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More from Craig von Buseck on

Craig von BuseckCraig von Buseck is Ministries Director for Send him your e-mail comments.

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