Secret DIY origins of 'VeggieTales' success

In 1988, Phil Vischer was locked away in his tiny garage experimenting with the first widely available computer animation software. It was still seven years before Pixar’s “Toy Story” would become the highest grossing film of the year and “South Park” would enter the cultural lexicon.

“I tried to make a fully limbed character,” Vischer said. “It was just a disaster, a nightmare.” The nascent animator had spent years hand-crafting his own puppets but wanted to find a new way to tell children’s stories with Biblical themes. The problem was, Vischer didn’t have any extensive training and computer animation equipment was still so expensive that it wasn’t readily accessible to the public.

 “I finally realized the only way I was going to make a character was if it didn’t have arms, legs, hair or clothes,” he said, laughing. “So, I thought of a candy bar, put a little face on him. I wanted to animate the whole show myself. My wife walked in and said, ‘Your Mom is going to be so mad at you, seeing that you’re selling candy bars.”

That nameless and voiceless candy bar became Larry the Cucumber, one of the more recognizable characters in modern animation.

 Today, VeggieTales is a multimillion-dollar cross-platform venture, with a new series on Netflix, movies, video games and dozens of episodes that Vischer and co-creator Mike Nawrocki have created over the years. Yet one thing that hasn’t changed for the two men is their hands-on approach to storytelling.

(Mike Nawrocki. Image courtesy VeggieTales)

For DIY creative types, there is often a moment of critical decision. Will their passion remain a part-time hobby, or do they take a leap into the unknown and make it their life’s work? The choice was the same for Nawrocki. He’d struck up a friendship with Vischer and had begun learning about the animation process himself, but was well on track toward a career in medicine.

“I had applied with the Peace Corps and was going to teach biology in Africa for two years and then go to med school,” he said. “It was on a project called ‘Take 38’ where we gave the first characters voices and did a 2-minute clip to try and raise money for production. I was probably two months away from leaving when funding came through for the first show. That was the big moment of choice for me; that moment of decision where my life is going to look very different.”

The two men did virtually everything in the early days of creating VeggieTales stories. They wrote, animated and voiced the characters and distributed copies of the first episodes on VHS tapes. Vischer said creating that first episode took two years of labor and he quit his own job to fully commit to the project.

In the ensuing years, VeggieTales joined a wave of computer animation hits. “Toy Story” was the highest grossing film of 1995 and two years later, “South Park” would take animated storytelling in a completely different direction but with the same handcrafted aesthetic Vischer and Nawrocki applied to their own creations. Yet, as VeggieTales grew into a worldwide phenomenon, Vischer said he became less connected to his original mission of finding a unique and homemade way to tell Bible stories to kids.

(Phil Vischer. Image courtesy VeggieTales)

“I’m fairly introverted. I’m the shy kid who hid in the basement playing with Super 8 movies instead of going to parties,” Vischer said. “The more it turned into a real company, the less I enjoyed it. By the year 2000, I had 210 people on staff and it was the largest animation studio between the coasts. It was so far from the garage, I couldn’t even find the handle on the door.” 

By 2003, Vischer had lost control of the company in a lawsuit. You might expect the story to take a bitter turn from there but both men say that change allowed them to return to the fundamentals and focus on what they enjoy doing most.

“The new owners ended up giving me a consulting gig,” Vischer said. “It allowed me to focus on writing and voicing the characters. I actually went back to the garage to work on new projects. It’s been much more enjoyable. The first thing I did after that was design a puppet, put it on YouTube and have kids send in questions about the Bible and theology.”

Nawrocki has stayed more directly involved in the show’s production but said he largely stays out of the business side of things in order to maintain the sense of joy that first made him quit medical school and follow his dream of making VeggieTales a reality.

 “Seeing that first model of Larry the Cucumber was so cool, watching him hopping, laughing and smiling at the camera,” he said. “For me, it never gets old. It’s such a great part of the process to be involved in every step along the way.”

 “My biggest piece of advice is to get to know yourself,” Vischer said. “I read a Charles Schulz biography that talked about him going into his little workshop studio behind the house and working on comics, sketching every day. And once a week the lawyers would come over to discuss the business. I said, ‘that’s how I’m wired. I’m not really the Walt Disney type. I’m the sculptor or the painter.’”

 Netflix will debut five new episodes of “VeggieTales in the House” on January 30.