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What's the Big Idea?

(by 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…big ideas.

This story 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."

It's just 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.

With these 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.

In numerous 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.

This expansion 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 by Nawrocki.

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.

Jonah 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.

Awards 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 Video Production
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.

--

Noell Wolfgram 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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