Interview with VeggieTales Creator Phil Vischer
Disrupted Dreams and Purposeful Puppets VeggieTales and Galaxy Buck Creator Phil Vischer
Written by Mei Ling Nazar
At one point in his career, Phil Vischer, the creator of VeggieTales, was being compared to Walt Disney. He had created a faith-based series that became a household name, had 200 employees, and was the biggest animation studio in the country. And just as quickly as it had been built, it came crashing down. Vischer found himself declaring bankruptcy and selling the company that he built. With the animated cucumber and tomato tales behind him, Vischer set his sights on returning to the scene, but this time with puppets. His newest series titled Galaxy Buck revolves around Buck Denver and his dreams of carrying God’s love to every corner of the Milky Way. Risen sat down with this visionary to learn more about his process to develop faith-based content for kids, disrupted dreams, and the lessons God has taught him along the way.
Interviewed Exclusively for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: Over 20 years ago, you created a series that would become a staple in many Christian households, VeggieTales. How did you come up with the idea to use vegetables to tell faith-based stories and why do you think it was so well received?
Phil Vischer: I was a computer animator in Chicago in the late 1980’s just as computer animation was starting. I wanted to tell my own story, but the technology was so crude back then that I realized that I could only make a character if it didn’t have any arms, legs, hair or clothes. I started playing around with a candy bar and thought that would work. My wife saw the candy bar and said moms are going to be mad if you make their kids fall in love with candy bars. She had a good point. I thought what is shaped like a candy bar that moms wouldn’t mind their kids falling in love with, and the next thing that popped into my head was a cucumber.
So I threw away the candy bar character and made it a cucumber instead with a big goofy grin. He came to life. He was alone and it was not good. So I made him a sidekick, a short, round tomato. Who couldn’t like their kids falling in love with a cucumber and a tomato? That’s where Bob and Larry were created. As to why it caught on, I think that it was right at the explosion of VHS tapes. People were buying and collecting programs for their kids. It was at the right place at the right time and it was a faith-oriented program that was actually funny and entertaining.
Risen Magazine: How would you describe your personal faith journey?
Phil Vischer: I grew up in a Christian home. We were in church every Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night. We did AWANA clubs and prayer meetings. When I was nine, my parents split up and my dad moved out. My mom remarried when I was in high school. I had to decide if I was doing all this church stuff for my parents or am I doing it for me? I felt at that point that my parents had let me down. I did a lot of study on a more intellectual level versus emotional and really asking, “Is this what I really believe?” And God met me in a tangible way in that period of my life when I was missing my dad and not enjoying life very much.
God became real to me and my faith became my own and I went off to Bible college. I thought, “I want to make films and I want to share my faith in my films so I will go to Bible college and learn theology and then I will go to film school and learn filmmaking.” I never made it to film school and after three semesters of Bible college I was invited not to return because I had failed chapel for two consecutive semesters. I came back to Chicago and started working in video production.
Risen Magazine: Out of all the characters you have created, who is your favorite, and why?
Phil Vischer: I do the voices for about half the characters in VeggieTales and in my two new series, What’s in the Bible? and Galaxy Buck, I am doing all the voices because I am doing puppets and I am the puppeteer. Going back to VeggieTales, my favorite characters are Archibald Asparagus and Mister Lunt. I like doing Archibald because he is the part of me [in Archibald’s voice], “There’s a part of me that doesn’t like to get my hands dirty and when I was little my sister would chase me around with a worm.”
There’s a part of me that likes the proper British and doesn’t want to get my hands dirty. Mr. Lunt I love because he can get away with saying things that you normally wouldn’t be able to say in a children’s video. He can go off on strange tangents. If I am doing a live radio interview and they ask to interview Bob the Tomato. I say, “No, you don’t want to interview Bob the Tomato. How about Mr. Lunt? It will be much more entertaining for everyone listening.” He can get away with stuff. It is fun to do those characters.
God taught me that I had made the work I was doing for Him more important than my relationship with Him. I was worshipping my dream and not my Creator.
Risen Magazine: As someone who creates and writes programming, what are some television shows or movies that inspire you?
Phil Vischer: They tend to be kind of weird things that have a point or something to say. My favorite filmmakers are those that are kind of outside the system, the Cohen brothers [Joel and Ethan], Wes Anderson, Tim Burton or Terry Gilliam. Terry was a member of Monty Python and then started creating things on his own. They are not always wildly successful, but they have a very distinct point of view. I tend not to watch a lot of television as I prefer making programs rather than watching. But I like watching people make things on reality television shows like Face Off and special effect shows. We have to think about the time we lose if we are constantly watching TV versus engaging and relating to real people.
Risen Magazine: What was it like to build your company, Big Idea, starting with a handful of employees and then growing it to over 200, and then having to file bankruptcy and sell it to another company?
Phil Vischer: It was lousy. It was horrible. I was working so hard. I thought I was doing everything for God and I thought the least God could do is show up and keep it going. I didn’t understand. I felt like I had fallen down the stairs in slow motion and God did not lift a finger to help me. He just wanted to watch me bounce down the stairs. Afterwards, I could finally hear his voice because I slowed down enough.
“Were you happy during all those years? Were you happy chasing that dream?” I was miserable. I was working so hard it was affecting my health and my marriage. God said, “I never called you to be miserable. I called you to just walk with Me.” I realized that He let it all fall apart, because He loved me so much, not because He didn’t love me. He wanted to save me from myself and my own ambition. That turned my whole life upside down. I realized that I was more important to God than anything I could do for God and He would love me even when I wasn’t doing anything at all.
That was revolutionary to me so I make it a point to share it with everyone I meet especially in Christian ministry as so many people are living on the edge of burnout. God does not need you to do anything. God’s will, will happen with or without you. So just calm down, rest and be in Him. We can also believe the lie that just because something was successful that God was in it. That isn’t always true. God’s economy is different.
Risen Magazine: Your latest venture, Galaxy Buck uses puppets in a culture filled with the latest technology and graphics. How did you decide to use puppets for this series?
Phil Vischer: I had two heroes growing up. One was Walt Disney and the other was Jim Henson. I actually started playing with puppets before I was animating. I started playing with puppets when I was six or seven years old and started experimenting with animation when I was nine. Also, computer animation has come so far and is so complex. It is hard to do anything with computer animation that doesn’t cost $50 million if you really want to get kids’ attention.
At the same time, kids will just watch just funny cat videos on Youtube. It isn’t really about the technology, it is about the creativity. Going back to puppets enables me to tell stories inexpensively, which means I can tell more stories and get them to more kids. I went more on the Jim Henson versus Walt Disney. At the end of the day it is more about the quality of the creative versus the budget of production. With Galaxy Buck, we built the sets by hand and we used miniatures. I wanted to have physical sets. Everyone is going back to artisanal roots whether it is making your own craft beer or homemade pickles. I thought I want to do that with a movie and make it the old fashioned way.
Risen Magazine: Throughout the film, the character Buck believes that, “God wants you to do something big.” He later learns that “God just wants you.” What advice do you have for our readers, many of whom are trying to figure out their calling and profession?
Phil Vischer: Calling is an interesting thing. We all have a general calling, to love God and to love our neighbors. We want to know our specific calling and we want to know right away. Noah didn’t receive his specific calling until he was 500 years old. What did Noah do with the first 499 years of his life? In Genesis it says that Noah was a righteous man and that he walked with God. That is why God chose him to do something very specific.
If we just walk with God and He puts someone in your path and you can help the person, help him. Look for ways to help. We get too caught up on the exact specific way that is really going to make a difference. That may come when you are 80, 60, 40, 20 or not at all. God does not promise to give you that. But He does promise that He will be with you. Walking with God is a valuable life whether you are a barista or a missionary. We think that only a couple positions—missionary and pastor—have value. Growing up, I had examples of people that did big things for God. It was hard to not think that if I don’t do something big that I don’t have value, at least in this family, if not in heaven. God doesn’t care about how many people you serve. It doesn’t make any difference if that is what He has called you to do.
Risen Magazine: You had a nontraditional career path. What words of advice do you have for those that want to go into film, animation, or production?
Phil Vischer: My first advice is to be aware of your dreams. Quite often the things that we want to do the most have more to do with our brokenness and less to do with God’s will. My dream was to be Walt Disney. That was literally all I wanted. I wanted to be Walt and build the Christian-version of Disney. And then I lost all of that in 2002 when my company, Big Idea Productions went bankrupt. I lost the characters. I lost everything I had done for 14 years. God taught me that I had made the work I was doing for Him more important than my relationship with Him. I was worshiping my dream and not my Creator. He had to get me to a point where I was willing to let go of that and say, “I don’t need to be Walt. I don’t need to have a studio. The only thing that I need is Jesus.” And that was the part of my ministry that I really had to start over.
When I talk to college kids, I ask them, “What are you dreaming of doing for God? Are you okay if that never happens?” You can tell by their response how tightly they are holding on to their dream. Working for God starts by letting go of our dreams and desires and our will. Instead, we need to rest in Him and allow His gifting to speak through us to find what He wants us to do. In American culture, we idolize the dream. It is in every Disney movie and every commercial. Even for grown ups, “your dream is out there. Find it and protect it and never let go of it.”
We have turned dreams into idolatry. When you say, “what is a dream?” It is a deep longing. You have to take a step back and ask, “Just because I want it, does that make it good for me?” When has that ever been true? When have the things I wanted automatically been good for me? You have to be able to let go of your wants and instead ask God to give you what you need for the day. It will change your perspective.
Interview originally published in Risen Magazine, Winter 2015