Phil Vischer—The Father of VeggieTales

Many of us have had a "bad day" at work. But imagine working for yourself for over a decade, building up an internationally recognized product, and then losing it over some legal issues that are later deemed to not be your fault. I don’t know about you, but by that point I’d be bitter, twisted and ready to give up.

Yet that’s exactly what Phil Vischer, creator of the lovable animated vegetables known throughout the world as VeggieTales, has faced. Lately Phil has been in the news a little more after the company he formerly owned penned a deal with NBC to have the veggies become part of the Saturday Morning cartoon block.

Did I say "former?" Yes, Phil no longer owns Larry the Cucumber and Bob the Tomato. Even I was out of the loop about what was going on in Phil’s life until the NBC issue cropped up (if you don’t know what happened, check this link []. For those of you not up to speed, the characters Phil sweated over since 1990 were suddenly lost after a deal went sour and a legal battle ensued. He lost everything, only to have verdict overturned two years later—yet he still didn’t get anything back.

So after building a mini-animation empire and selling over 30 million tapes of the cool bible stories, this creator lost his entire company—including the kitchen sink (if you’ve watched any of his videos, you’ll get the joke).

After reading all the details, I couldn’t help but wonder what made this guy "tick," and how come he was still willing to keep going. Being curious about underdogs like Phil (and, admittedly, needing a good source of inspiration for my own misguided company), I decided to give him a call.

I think the conversation will be enlightening, and perhaps inspiring for parents to share with their children

Rod Gustafson: Phil, I’ve watched your videos with my kids, and often wondered about the guy who came up with an idea to turn vegetables into kid’s heroes. Where did all of this start? Tell me about your childhood…

Phil Vischer: I started playing with puppets when I was six when my grandfather bought me a hand puppet. I had a sense of humor people seemed to enjoy. When I tested it out in public it got me in trouble. In first grade and in Sunday School I exercised my weird mind verbally. The Sunday school and first grade teacher both called me and my parents in for conferences. I didn’t like getting into trouble, so I just stopped and put a lid on it and kept it inside. I stated playing with puppets behind the couch.

I used to wait for the new fall season to start and watched the new cartoons and at eight I learned to make my own animated films. My dad bought a very early video camera—one of those big black and white ones connected to a reel-to-reel recorder. I clicked it on and off as fast as I could. My first animation was a Batmobile going across the floor.

By the time I was 14 I knew I was gong to make films. [My religious influence came from] my great grandfather who was a radio announcer in Omaha Nebraska on WOW Radio. He was known as Reverend Brown and broadcast from 1923 to 1965 and his show stayed on the air until 1978.

This gave me this mix of missionary influences that said "You need to go to Africa and South America [to give service]." But I had a real love of storytelling. Then MTV started, and I was sitting on the couch watching MTV. I had two reactions: This was so cool. This is trouble.

Even as a high school kid, I could see the values I learned in Sunday School were not the values coming across in most music videos. That’s when I realized that’s what I’m supposed to do. I wasn’t supposed to chain myself to Madonna’s tour bus, but use the same creativity to create biblical truth.

Rod: So where did you go to school Phil? Who was offering training in digital animation in those days?

Phil: After three semesters of Bible College I was not invited to come back. I never did get to film school. Then I got an internship at a video production company owned by a Christian. I jumped in and started reading manuals and taught myself all sorts of things. He offered me a full time job after leaving Bible College. I worked as a grip. Then he bought one of the very first computer animation systems, and he chose me as the artist.

I got sent to the training program for the animation system and was an artist at 19. I thought, "Wow! I can do this and make a living at it!" Three years later at 22 I decided to start my own company. I figured I would do commercial work by day and tell my own stories by night. In 1990 I finally saw the technology get to the point where I could tell a story with computer animation.

Rod: I remember computers in 1990. Animation was still tough "leading edge" stuff.

Phil: I sat down to create characters that were very simple—no arms legs or clothes. I started playing with a candy bar. I’d put a lot of time into the eyes. Computer generated images [at that time] were rigid and blocky. But "squash" and "stretch" had just been developed, and that allowed me to manipulate the candy bar in new ways.

Then my wife saw the candy bar and said, "Moms will be mad if their kids fall in love with a candy bar!" So I thought let’s use a cucumber and that’s when Larry was born—November 1990.

The cucumber was alone and it was not good…

Rod: And the rest is history. So after facing all the barriers you have, why do you keep going? You obviously have the talent and experience required to go work for some big company. What’s your motivation, Phil?

Phil: That’s what God wired me to do is to try and use today’s technology and creativity to communicate biblical truth to families. I’ll be doing that like my great grandfather. That’s when I will stop telling stories that have truth in them. And I’m a technology nut. I’m looking at broadband and wondering what can that be used for?

I’m looking at the effect Nickelodeon and Disney are having on kids, and all those companies are motivated solely by profit and not by benefit. They will choose profit every time. I want to be a voice that is a parent’s ally. So much of TV makes our job as parents harder. I want to use the medium to make a parent’s job easier.

Watch for Part Two of Rod’s interview with Phil next week, when he shares his views on his reaction to the NBC decision to cut God out of VeggieTales and his views on religion and the media. Finally, Phil reveals the next audience he hopes to reach.

More details about the movies mentioned in this post…