09 Dec Interview with Mike Nawrocki
First time to have a vegetable in studio with me! Larry The Cucumber – Mike Nawrocki.
As co-creator of VeggieTales and voice of beloved Larry The Cucumber, Mike Nawrocki has been part of the pulse of Big Idea since its inception in 1993. Mike has created, written and directed most of the extremely popular “Silly Songs with Larry” segments, including fan favorites “His Cheeseburger” and “I Love My Lips.” He has also lent his screenwriting and directing talents to several VeggieTales episodes such as Madame Blueberry, and both of the properties’ theatrical release films, Jonah and The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything.
For more than 25 years, Mike has been in a production environment, landing his first job in video post-production in 1987 while in college. Along with fellow co-worker and friend Phil Vischer, he turned an idea for telling stories, using the then new technology of 3D computer animation, into the phenomenon of VeggieTales. Establishing a homespun business dubbed Big Idea, the two launched the first ever CGI (computer-generated imagery) video series to the consumer market. Mike has gone on to be involved with every facet of VeggieTales production including editing, animation, sound, story development, writing, directing and character voicing.
Mike makes his home in Franklin, TN with his wife and two children
Click to read Transcript
EASLEY: We have the beloved Larry the Cucumber, Mike Nawrocki in the studio. Thanks for coming by.
NAWROCKI: Thanks Dr. Easley. Great to be here. Thanks for having me.
E: It is a delight to have you in studio. Twenty five years years you’ve been producing all kinds of audios and videos. How did this get started?
N: Well you know, I’ve been in the video post industry about twenty five years, but really with VeggieTales, we’re just celebrating our twentieth anniversary, but Phil Vischer and I were in the video post production industry in Chicago in the late 80’s early 90’s and we had previously met at a Bible college and had done some writing and performing together in Crown College up in Minneapolis. I was in pre-med in the University of Illinois and Phil was working in post production. Phil was working on his way to becoming a filmmaker; I was on my way to becoming a doctor. I was working my way through college by working at the post production house that Phil was also working in and we had worked before, as I mentioned, doing student ministry doing writing and performing, and kind of translated those things into the world of video post production that we were in. We were roommates and we’d take the camera home over the weekend and do these little crazy videos and Phil was very entrepreneurial and was like, “Let’s do a show. The Phil and Mike Show, it’ll be great.” I was kind of passing through and was like, “Ok, well this is really fun. I’m paying my way through school. I’m going to be a medical missionary. That’s what I’m going to do.” And so, we’re working on these things and we’re learning how to edit, and do audio, and all these different aspects of production; and computer animation comes along and compositing and nonlinear editing; all these new technologies that are just emerging at this time and we’re kind of these computer guys. We’re starting to wonder, “How can we kind of use this stuff to tell these stories that we told in Bible College?” That’s when the idea started to formulate around doing a computer animated show with simplistic characters that were easy to animate.
E: Silly songs with Larry; His cheeseburger; I love my Lips; also involved with Madame Blueberry; the film released Jonah; and the Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything. That’s got to be one of the winner songs, right?
N: Oh yeah, the Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything, Yeah, that was a fun one. We just had a fun with, you know we were Monty Python fans and Mel Brooks; we shared a very similar sense of humor and wanted to bring that into the stories we told, but at the heart of it was the notion that we wanted to share stories to help parents pass on Biblical values to their kids and just felt like there was a big need for that in children’s media.
E: I raised four children and of course we’re always scrambling for, how do you take that Biblical truth without altering it and yet give it to the heart of a concrete thinking child? I always cringe, Mike, when I hear people say, “Ask Jesus into your heart.” because that concrete child thinks that Jesus shrinks down and goes into his chest, opens the door, sits on a chair.
N: Yeah, absolutely.
E: So you’ve been doing this for twenty plus years so how do you take these theological truths without damaging them, yet making them so a child can embrace them accurately?
N: We love to start with-there’s two notions that we start every show with. One is kind of the overall message of VeggieTales, and it’s that truth that God made you special and He loves you very much and so it’s kind of at the basis of what we feel is important for a child to understand. You are fearfully and wonderfully made. You have a loving Heavenly Father who made you special.
E: In a way, did Mr. Rogers do that?
N: Well there’s a lot behind that. In fact, back in the early days as we were setting up the show, Phil’s mom, Scotty Mae, who’s now a professor at Wheaton College, she was very helpful in setting up that key lesson; if VeggieTales is going to say that one thing, it should say this: Because it speaks to the heart of a child, and it’s something a child can grasp because they get that from their parents;“I’m loved by my parents, my earthly parents, so I can understand to love from my Heavenly Father.” So that’s sort of our key message, and then from there with every episode, we tell a story that deals with a specific topic, whether it be thankfulness or sharing, or loving your neighbor and from there we try to highlight a key verse, a key Biblical principle, and develop that into a nugget of truth; basically in language that is memorable that a child can understand and from that build a story that represents that truth in the way that a child can relate to and have fun with.
E: Why vegetables?
N: The necessity was the mother of invention really. You know computer animation in the early 90’s was so basic and to be able to tell a half hour of animation we just needed really simple characters, with no arms and with no limbs and no clothes. So to able to tell the story, and so in fact, one of the early ideas was Phil was actually modeling a candybar on his little work station and Lisa who’s also his wife, the voice of junior asparagus walked by and she said, “You know what, mom’s are not going to appreciate these stories coming from candy bars.” Well how about vegetables then? So vegetables became the next choice.
Bob and Larry were kind of common names; so we wanted to do common vegetables with common names so Bob and Larry and a tomato, cucumber, were complimentary in color and shape and had very common names.
E: Initial reactions from focus groups?
N: It’s interesting because trying to raise money with the pitch line, “We want to tell Bible stories with vegetables,” it didn’t get too far. It was one of those things, where if you build it they will come and so we were able to create the first show with a handful of people and some seed money to make that first episode, Where’s God and I’m Scared. We took out ads in Christian Parenting magazines to advertise and we had no distribution, it was just all self distribution, so we actually had one work station and three animators, and they would work on three different shifts, and we had a phone with a credit card machine. So whenever somebody saw one of the ads the animator would pick up the phone and write down the information, and when we finished a show we sent out the five hundred VHS tapes that had been ordered.
E: VHS tapes?
N: Yes it was back in the VHS days. One of those came from a record executive here in Nashville, actually. Word Records had opened up a new kids’ label. It was called Everland Entertainment and Wayne, Wayne Zeitner, who had seen that ad was intrigued by it and ordered a copy and loved it and then from there we had a distribution deal with Word.
E: When you look at big idea and the company, what do you hope for?
N: Really that we can continue to bring that message to kids. God made you special; He loves you very much; You have a loving Heavenly Father who cares for you; who wants a relationship with you; then really to continue to be a resource for parents to pass on Biblical values to their kids. I think story plays such a powerful role in our culture for conveying messages, and conveying truth, so we just want to be a part of God being able to use our stories to convey His truth to kids.
E: We’re talking to Mike Nawrocki today in studio. It’s a delight to have you with us. One of the things I always start with the message is what I call “What do they walk away with?”
N: Yes, Yes.
E: At the end of this message, at the end of this sermon, even this broadcast, my hope is what do folks walk away with? You’ve got a wide band with audience because you have parents taking the children to a lot of these, certainly to a feature film.
N: Yes, yeah sure, sure.
E: If you’re a parent like me, you watch the VHS or the DVD to where you have it memorized as well as the child does. Unintended consequences, right? So you’ve got that in mind obviously?
And you stated well, “God loves you, He’s made you special,” but when they walk out that door, what do you want them to feel, to know, to do differently?
N: One of the fun things about the format of VeggieTales, the way that the show’s set up, is that most of the shows, ninety percent, have a countertop so Bob and Larry greet the kids on the countertop and say, “Hello kids, I’m Bob the Tomato; I’m Larry the cucumber, welcome to VeggieTales.” Typically, they’ll get a letter from a child who’s having a problem, and then they answer that letter in the form of the story; they answer the question in the letter in the form of a story, and then at the end they come back and they wrap it up, and that’s when we say, “ This is the story that we told; this is the truth that was conveyed and this is what the Bible has to say about it.” Then Qwerty, who is the computer on the countertop, comes up with a verse, and then Bob and Larry explain the story in the context of that verse.
E: Are you still doing the voices?
N: Oh yeah, still doing the voices (in VeggieTale voice). So really it’s our way of really making sure kids get that take away message at the end of the story because sometimes we can be very literal in the story, sometimes a little bit more metaphor going on. We want to make sure in the end kids know what we’ve tried to teach in the context of the story.
E: What can we look forward to in the future? You guys have got a lot of projects going on?
N: Our current release is Veggies in Space, The Fennel Frontier.
E: The Fennel? What child knows what Fennel means Mike? (laughter)
N: I don’t know. That was for the parents. Well as a matter of fact, so are the Star Wars, and Star Trek, and Dr Who, the paradies that we …So yes, it’s a lesson in sharing, the key verse in that one is: “If you have two tunics, share one, if you have food do likewise. We have fun with that concept of tunic. In the show itself, we turn it into an acronym, twin universal nuclear ignition core. So they’re actually the two engines on the apple pies, so they end up sharing one of their engines to someone who needs one. Anyway, that’s what we’re working on. We’re continuing on our slate of DVD releases, and we’re also working on a NetFlix series, which is also very exciting for us.
E: Go straight to Netflix?
N: Yes, straight to Netflix; a half hour or so. It’ll be a little bit different. The set up is a little bit different than the show, than the DVD releases. It’s more like a cartoon and the DVD releases are more like mini movies. We’re really excited it gives us more opportunities to engage with kids with Biblical truth and so on.
E: Where do you come up with the ideas?
N: A lot of them, particularly in the early days, before we talk to focus groups, came from our own experience as parents. Where’s God When I’m Scared which is the very first episode, Phil’s daughter, Sydney, no I’m sorry Shelby, his older daughter was having problems being afraid of the dark and nightmares, so that kind of drove him for Where’s God When I’m Scared. The first episode that I wrote, Madame Blueberry Thankfulness, I modeled that after, not after my kids, but after my mother. So it’s sort of that life experience that you sort of bring to it; you know having grown up in the church and being Christian parents and having certain things that you want to convey to your own kids and then later as years went on we looked to our fans and said, “What types of lessons are important that you feel that would be valuable to you?” First time we did that was with Lyle, the kindly Viking, was about sharing. Parent’s said we’d love a show about sharing and so we did that. The impetus for the lessons come from a lot of different places and sometimes we have a story that we really want to tell and then we’ll figure out what’s the most appropriate lesson to attach to it and that sort of thing, from a number of different places.
E: As you look at the body of work that you’ve done, you’ve gotten mail, you’ve gotten e-mail, fan mail, hate mail, all kinds of things. We all do, what do you do with that data?
N: You know we had someone that worked with us once that said, “You know my biggest fear is that I’ll get to heaven and be greeted by God and He will say, “So what were you thinking with that VeggieTales thing?”
E: What was going on? (laughter)
N: You know the one’s that are the most meaningful to me, are ones where you can truly see that God has used His Word through our story in a way that’s really made a difference in somebodies life and from there it’s just inspiring to know that you know, ok, we’re doing the right thing here; we’re telling stories that are conveying principles from the Bible; God’s truth and God’s using that to reach into somebodies life to help them and to change them. Those are the letters that I love getting the most and then letters that particularly with kids that are autistic; we get a lot of letters from parents of autistic children who say, “VeggieTales has really connected with our kids and thank you so much, they can really keep engaged and they’re really learning from the stories,” and I just love, love getting those letters.
E: Yes, that’s phenomenal feedback. When a parent looks at a VeggieTales, what do you envision their involvement, their role?
N: Well, we love to make the shows kind of a family affair, to where the kids love watching them, but their parents also enjoy watching the show. In the early days, we were writing shows that made us laugh, and that we enjoyed making. I remember when we first started getting word back of VeggieTales viewing parties happening on college campuses, it sort of shocked us like, “What? really?” Then we thought, “Well that’s kind of cool.”
E: They grew up with it.
N: I guess we could sort of still do that. We would enjoy watching these if we were on the other side, so at first it was a bit of surprising to us. But of over the years, we realized, “You know what, if you can tell a story and have characters that are engaging and use humor, it’ll engage the parents.” I look back at bugs bunny and loving it as a kid, and then seeing it as adults and think, “Wow, you know what that is still think it’s really clever on another level as an adult and it just really works that way.” So that’s what we try to do with VeggieTales, is just to have focus our teaching lesson in language that kids get, that young kids get; just have fun with the story and have fun with the humor and realize that kids may not get some jokes, and that’s ok, but their parents will get them and think it’s funny and the kids will get them eventually.
E: Later on.
N: Yeah, later on, but really have it be engaging for the whole family so the parent and child can watch the episode together and then have a point of discussion afterward and so what did Junior Asparagus learn about fear or what did Captain Cuke learn about sharing and how can that apply to your life?
E: How have your own kids processed all of this?
N: It’s fun because they’ve been involved throughout the years as voices and that sort of thing, and it’s cool because my son, he’s in middle school now so he still uses as street cred. “Hey guess what, guess what my dad does?”
E: Yeah, the payoff. Three tickets to the Titans game.
N: Just to say, “Hey, I know you know what VeggieTales is. Guess what my dad does?” But it’s neat, my daughter who’s in high school now, I’ll meet one of her friends and a couple times it’s happened where they’ll say,”Oh, VeggieTales that’s my childhood. I just grew up on this.” It’s amazing to me, first of all I feel very old when something like that happens. But then to know that God has used it to touch somebody’s life in that way and to have been a part of them growing up is really powerful and meaningful to me. Then just with my own kids, it’s just what it is; it’s been a part of their life and for them their dad has always been Larry the Cucumber and in the early days, they did not distinguish between dad the human, well I could speak to them as Larry, the Cucumber and it would be somebody else talking to them. Well I’d get like a little plush Larry and speak to them as Larry and they’d be talking to Larry, they wouldn’t be talking to dad, but then they grew a little wiser on that.
E: You mentioned that Bugs Bunny, Mel Blanc, Monty Python, I remember one of the interviews; I forget who it was, one of the Python guys saying, “We’re just silly. We’re just silly and we had no intention of this thing going as viral as it did.” You look at twenty years now, and you’re still cranking on this. I mean invariably, God willing, this could go on another fifteen, twenty years.
N: I hope so. You know I really do. I look at Sesame Street, or Bugs Bunny, these properties that just have meant a lot to multiple generations and that’s my hope for VeggieTales that we’ll continue to reach out to kids, generation after generation.
E: What do you think is the biggest challenge? Obviously your childhood and mine were dramatically different.
N: Well, I think there’s a lot of things that changed over the years. I think fundamentally though as humans, we’re hardwired for story and so a good story will always engage; it will always teach; it will always inspire. Our challenge with every episode is to just tell a good story and it’s always the hardest thing to do.
E: But how do you pitch that to a child? And your market band is what? five to…
N: Yeah, well pre-school primarily, preschool and up. Typically, kids will watch VeggieTales till they’re about seven or eight and then they’ll take a break and they’ll come back again in college.
E: It’s cool in college!
N: Yeah, to really just stay engaging with the characters, meaningful in kind of the situations that the characters are in, that kids can identify with and see themselves in, and to be relevant with the child’s life. Like we updated Qwerty a few years ago. He probably needs another upgrade because for years he was like an IBM 386, you know. Then we upgraded him; he’s like an old style iMac now, and we’ll probably have to upgrade him in the near future to stay current with technology and that look. It’s a combination of recognizing that a well told story is timeless and then being able to be aware of what’s going on in the culture and kids lives and inject those into a story.
E: Do you storyboard?
N: I’m not a storyboard artist myself, no.
E: Do you all go through a process once you have a story?
N: Yes, it’s an integral, definitely a really important part of the process.
E: So you storyboard it and at what point do you say, “Ok, this now is that story that we’re going to do.”
N: It’s interesting, because there’s the script phase where you script something out and you feel like, “Ok, this is going to be great.” and then you storyboard it and we do what’s we call a story reel where you do an audio track and you attach the storyboards to it so you have story reel and then the flaws come out in your story. For example: “Well, I didn’t need to say this because I said this fifteen times already; so it’s redundant so we’re going to take this out because it’s communicated through the visuals and all of that. Once you get a story reel that works, then you know your story is going to work. The script is one phase and then the story reel is another phase, but that story reel is really what you count on for locking down what’s going to be your eventual animation.
E: Some creatives, some artists, do not like you touching their product.
N: Oh yes, yes.
E: You have some high ownership and some dialogue, or some part of the story, and the editor says, “No!”
N: You know that’s the thing. A lot of it is working with a group of people who you trust in VeggieTales since there’s folks that obviously have a good head for story, but then also a real heart for message and lesson. We have to have both of those things combined in telling our stories, but any creative when they’ve put a lot of time and energy into creating something is in love with anything they’ve created and it’s hard to…
E: Have someone criticize it?
N: It is. It is. and so that process of being open to hearing that criticism and either being able to argue for it and defend it or to take it in and saying, “Wait a minute, I think you’ve got a point. Let’s try something else if that works better.” It takes time to build up that trust with people and you know to get that kind of a team together, but really that’s what we try to do with the story reel is; it’ll be written and we’ll put it up on reels and then you find the holes and you try to work them out in a way that is best for the story. The story always wins is what we say.
E: You know Mike as a pastor and a preacher, and the way I was trained is exactly the opposite of the way you were trained. I’m that linear guy.
N: Hopefully, I’m not too opposite. (laughter)
E: I’m that linear guy though. I want to see the outline, and the point, and I want to see precisely what the Bible has to say, before you go out there and try and illustrate it. You again at the end of the day, for the child, for the parent, for a person that just stumbles across VeggieTales, what in the world do you want them to get?
N: It’s that simple and profound, and powerful message, that God made you special and He loves you very much. If we can have characters that kids can identify with, that kids can think of as their friends, then they’ll care about what they have to say, and if Bob and Larry bring them a story that teaches a lesson in sharing or thankfulness, or about loving your neighbor, that they’ll care about that message because their friend told them that, and I think that’s what we want to continue doing with VeggieTales.
E: Mike Nawrocki, it’s been great to have you on inContext. Thanks for coming by.
N: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you so much, Dr. Easley.
E: One of the reasons we bring interviews onto inContext, is because we want to show how different people in the body of Christ with their gifting, their talents, their abilities are taking the message of Christ into a context where perhaps, you, nor I could go. The body of Christ is a wonderful thing and when you hear a guy like Mike Nawrocki talk about what he’s doing to express the love of Christ to children, the question for you and for me, what are we doing with the gifts, talents, abilities that we have, that we possess, in the body of Christ. You know, you are unique, you are special in God’s eyes. He lived, He died, and was buried, and He came back from the grave, overcoming sin, to provide eternal life for you and me with Him. In the mean time, on this planet, you and I have work to do. What is your gift set? What are your skills? How are you using them in context, in the Kingdom of God? You know, He will use you uniquely in a way that He can use no one else. This is Michael Easley inContext.