the Big Idea?
Noell Wolfgram Evans) Vegetables are not the first things that
come to mind when thinking about cartoon stars, but somehow a
tomato and a cucumber have become major animated celebrities,
to be exact Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber, of the amazingly
popular VeggieTales video series. This popularity has also been
tested on the silver screen with the release of Jonah - A VeggieTales
Movie, which made $25 million at the U.S. box office. All of this
is courtesy of Big Idea Productions, an independent production
house with some very, well
starts, as many do, with a couple of guys sitting around and talking.
The men, college friends Phil Vischer and Mike Nawrocki talked
about fulfilling a need they saw for cutting-edge stories. In
particular they were interested in bringing the stories of the
Bible and the Christian values that they held out from the shadows
of the entertainment world. Vischer believed that there was a
way to give kids a good message in a story that at the same time
entertained and excited them. While he set about to create a company
with a foot in faith, he is quick to state though that his goal
was not to create a Christian media company, but rather "a
media company with a Christian worldview."
this sort of positioning that has helped the company to achieve
the status that it has. Big Idea is not the first company to set
about creating Christian themed animation programs; series like
Storyteller's Café, Amazing Bible Stories and Davey and
Goliath had come and gone. They faded into quick obscurity thanks
either to their heavy handedness or low production values.
Vischer hoped to transcend the mark that had been set for Christian
entertainment and the key to that he realized was to take the
production values up. He understood that there was room in a piece
of "Hollywood style" entertainment for a message and
that the two could be combined to stand quality wise with anything
that Hollywood had to offer. It wasn't that they were particularly
against popular entertainment, rather they were disappointed in
it as they felt that it could be something more.
goals and a computer stationed in a spare room in his house, Vischer
set about creating. Finally in December of 1993 he had Where's
God When I'm S-Scared, not only was this the first VeggieTales
story but it was also the first full-length, 3D computer animated
children's video to be produced in North America. Two years later
there would be three other videos in the series and the sales
of these four shows would reach over 200,000 tapes. They would
continue to release videos at a rate of nearly one every six months
for the rest of the decade. With their success, Vischer proved
his instincts right, he also began to believe though that there
was room to grow.
interviews, Vischer has talked about his desire to "challenge"
Disney for the lion's share of the family entertainment market.
It is a statement often made with a simple, matter of fact brashness.
He believes that Disney, in expanding and diversifying, left a
group of families behind
and it is this base that he can work to and grow from to create
a significant challenge to the Disney Empire. He may decry what
Disney has become but Vischer understands how they got to their
position on top. In fact it could be argued that the Disney model
of growth is something that Big Idea is following in their attempt
to surpass them. The VeggieTales characters have been licensed
out to 24 different companies in 13 various consumer markets for
products, which include CD's, and toys. If Jonah is a success,
these numbers are sure to grow. This merchandising philosophy
is a formula Disney understands well, movies get people excited
but the merchandise makes the money. The Big Idea team may not
be working to get rich but success will expand the company and
the messages it tells.
includes a trip to the silver screen. With 25 million videos sold,
merchandise on the shelves and a live stage show touring the country
the time was ever so right to take these vegetables to the next
level. Jonah is an "update" of sorts of the biblical
story of Jonah and the Whale. It is co-written and co-directed
by Phil Vischer and Mike Nawrocki. Ameake Owens (formerly of the
WB's animation team) acts as the producer while Vischer, Nawrocki,
Kurt Heinecke and David Mullen wrote the score. Vischer's hands-on
involvement in every project Big Idea creates sets him apart from
most studio CEO's. Many executives claim to be involved in the
production aspect of filmmaking but few are as multi-talented
and interactive as Vischer. Consider that on top of everything
else, Vischer is the voice of Bob while Larry's voice is done
Big Idea has
never left Chicago, although the team has grown since those early
days. They have now nearly 200 employees and all of them worked
overtime on the production of Jonah. Big Idea is a Mac platform
house while Alias/Wavefront's Maya 3D software program was the
major tool utilized in the creative of the characters. Maya is
actually a recent addition to the Big Idea family. Up until 1999,
all of the work for the video series was done using SoftImage.
It is mostlikely due to the large range of abilities within Maya
and the plans of the company that brought that switch about.
is the first of a two-picture deal that was signed with distributor
Artisan Entertainment. No one is talking yet as to what they next
film may be, choosing instead to sit and watch the returns on
Jonah. They are not though, sitting quietly. The team at Big Idea
is taking an active part in the marketing of the film, hoping
that if they can attract their core Christian audience good word
of mouth and big box office will bring others in. To ensure this,
the film is being marketed in Christian magazines and on similar
themed radio shows while churches are being encouraged to hold
"whale watching" parties. They even went so far as to
create some Jonah based classroom curriculum that was distributed
to Bible schools this past summer.
It is important
to note that Big Idea is more than vegetables. They have worked
off of their success with the VeggieTales to create a number of
other Christian themed animated programs. And it seems that everything
they have created to this point has had the magic touch applied
to it. Not only are Big Idea videos a consistent crowd pleaser,
they've also done well to win over the critics.
Won by Big Idea
Film Advisory Board Award of Excellence
National Parenting Center Fall 2001 Seal of Approval
KidsFirst! - Coalition for Quality Children's Media Endorsement
World Animation Celebration Festival Winner, Best Direct-to-Home
Parents' Choice Fall 2001 Recommended
32nd Annual Dove Award Winner Children's Music Album of the Year
Parenting Magazine Video Magic Award
AdQ Design Award for Outstanding Advertising Print Ad
The Dove Foundation Dove Family Approved Seal
Inspiration Life Awards Voter Awards Campaign
Big Idea will
continue to attempt to rack up awards and commercial success with
their creations as they strive to complete their 20 year plan
which ends with them being among the top five family media entertainment
brands in the business. In this climate, if they stay close to
their mission statement: "To markedly enhance the moral and
spiritual fabric of society through creative media," they
may be able to achieve their goal and more.
Evans is a freelance writer who lives in Columbus, Ohio. He has
written for the Internet, print and had several plays produced.
He enjoys the study of animation and laughs over cartoons with
his wife and daughter.
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