In 1993, Mike Nawrocki co-founded the Veggie Tales with Phil Vischer and 15 years later, the franchise is still booming. The franchise has sold more than 52 million DVDs and videos, 13 million books and 7 million CDs in that timeframe, not to mention the top-rated VeggieTales Saturday morning cartoon series and two feature films, Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie and Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: A Veggie Tales Movie. Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: A Veggie Tales Movie is coming to DVD on October 14 and I had the chance to speak with Nawrocki, who provides the voice of Larry the Cucumber amongst others and also directed the feature as well, over the phone and here's what he had to say. As it turns out, we had something in common right away: Minnesota roots.
So you met all the creators of Veggie Tales in Minnesota?
Mike Nawrocki: Yeah, yeah. Phil Vischer and I, we both met as freshmen in college. We actually did a - every student coming in needed to do a student ministry. I had grown up in Denver and he had grown up in Chicago and we had both done some puppetry growing up and we had both met on this puppetry team, basically, at Crown College. We stared writing and performing and just having a great time doing that. That eventually led to the creation of Veggie Tales. A lot of the characters found their way in, like the voice I do for Larry the Cucumber, was based off a puppet I did back in those days. So it was almost the birthplace of Veggie Tales.
So you talked a little about how it started, but could you talk a little about how it came into this animated form with all the DVD's?
Mike Nawrocki: Sure. We both ended up in Chicago in the video/post-production industry. This was right around the time of the birth of computer animation and we were looking for a way for computer animation to tell stories, in a similar way we did with puppets. Really, we just started using vegetables out of necessity. They were simple characters, no arms, no legs, no clothes, to be able to tell stories that passed on great values to kids. That's what we wanted to do with the new show. So in 1993, we put together the funds to make our first episode, which is Veggie Tales: Where's God When I'm S-Scared? and, evidently, it was the first computer-animated series done in the United States. There had been some CGI commercials and the first Toy Story was in production, but it wasn't released until the year after that. So it was the very very beginning of computer animationn. We put our first show together, sold about 500 copies through mail-order. One of those orders came from a record distributor who saw the show and loved it and did a distribution deal with us after that. Since then we've done about 30 direct-to-videos, started off on VHS and now, of course, exclusively on DVD, and then two feature films. Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie was our first feature film and then Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: A Veggie Tales Movie is our latest feature film.
I saw the Pirates only had a small performance in the first movie and now they've spawned off into their own feature. Was there a big fan response to those characters that made you want to spin it off into this one?
Mike Nawrocki: Oh yeah, definitely. They actually got their start in a Silly Song, and I believe that song first appeared in 1995 as a Silly Song with Larry. It had always been one of our fans' favorite Silly Songs, we always got a lot of requests and whenever we did Silly Song compilations, it was always requested as a song. We always had a great response from it and that led us to put these characters in the Jonah movie. Then we just decided to give them their own adventure with Pirates Who Don't Do Anything.
I suppose the whole Pirates of the Caribbean thing didn't hurt that much either.
Mike Nawrocki: Yeah. It's funny because they were born a long time before the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and it was just fortuitious. Obviously, Jonah was before Pirates of the Caribbean but we had written those characters before the Pirates of the Caribbean movie had come out.
From your original inception, how much has this series changed up until now? Are there any really vast differences since you started?
Mike Nawrocki: You know, there are a few differences. The major difference is the quality of the animation. In 1993, computer animation was just in a different place than it is now, so over time we've been able to improve on the animation and improve on the art. We've kept the characters the same. The characters haven't changed at all, but the style of animation, the techniques, we've been able to improve upon. We've been able to add visual complexity that we've never been able to do in the beginning, so that's changed. They're a lot longer as well. Initially, the stories were all a half-hour long and now every episode is at least 45 minutes long. They tend to be more like mini-movies than television shows. Every time we do a new episode, we go to a brand new environment. The characters play different roles. It's an ensemble cast, but they assume different roles, whether they're telling a Bible story or we're doing a Star Trek spoof or a spoof on popular literature or something. Really what's remained the same is we're still targeting our messages and the lessons for a four-year-old, in a language they can understand and comprehend with a story that they can follow. In terms of humor, we like to make ourselves laugh and we want to make it every bit as enjoyable for adults as it is for kids.
It seems like you take on a few more characters than you usually do. Can you talk a little bit about the voicing process for this film?
Mike Nawrocki: It's intersting. When we first started, we just lent our voices to most of the characters because we couldn't afford to hire real actors to do them (Laughs). We had done a lot of puppetteering and we kind of had the ability to do that. The characters voices have sort of evolved over time too. Larry's voice is a lot different now than it used to be. Just finding our voices for the characters and finding the voices that realy fit and we'll figure out if it really works or not. If we find a voice works in one show, we'll bring that character back into another show. We sort of have this building ensemble that we've built over the years with the voices. It's just been neat over the years to pull in other people we think would be great for the show. With Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: A Veggie Tales Movie, we actually came out to L.A. and did casting for those voices, working with some really great actors to voice our characters. It's something that started off as necessity, us doing all the voices, it's just kind of grown and we've been able to add a lot more flavor to our characters' voices.
Are there any dream actors you'd like to work with for future voices?
Mike Nawrocki: (Laughs) Oh man. Let me think about that. Martin Short has always been a great animated voice to me. It's interesting because it's all about how the character matches the voice. It's just that magical combination of the voice with the character that sometimes you don't know until you hear it. That's always the fun thing about exploring when we're casting the voice, just listening to a million different takes on a character and figuring out which one works best with it.
Do you have any episodes that are in production right now? Maybe not features but are there any other DVD episodes that you're working on right now?
Mike Nawrocki: Yeah, in fact we're working on a release that's going to come out - the Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: A Veggie Tales Movie comes out on October 14 on DVD - and we're working on our Spring release called Abraham and the Amazing Promise. If you've heard of Delilah on the radio before, she's voicing now for us. We've got a good working relationship and we have her in the show. So we're working on that and our Christmas release next year is our story of Saint Nicholas. We do about two original DVD releases a year and we're continuing that slate into the next few years. We're on television every Saturday morning on NBC, both with VeggieTales and 3-2-1 Penguins!.
So are there other plans for another feature, perhaps?
Mike Nawrocki: You know what? We would love to do another feature film, when the opportunity presents itself. With Jonah, it was a number of years before we started working on Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: A Veggie Tales Movie and it's just when the right story comes along, with the right partners at the right time. We would love to be in that arena again. Any opportunity we can have to tell a really fun story and gain an audience, we want to be there.
It's been 15 years this year since the series started, so where do you see this series in another 15 years? What kind of visions do you guys have for this series down the road?
Mike Nawrocki: I would love Veggie Tales to continue to touch generation after generation. I think properties like Muppets or Winnie the Pooh are properties that my parents grew up on and Veggie Tales can do that as well, where we continue to engage families and kids, generation after generation. If you can tell good stories and remain current and remain engaged, I think you've got a good shot at people wanting to continue seeing your stories. 15 years is a lot for a children's brand and I'm hoping that we'll continue to keep telling stories long into the future.
Finally, the DVD comes out on October 14th. For those who might not be familiar with the franchise or didn't get to see it in the theater, what would you like to say to parents, perhaps, or anyone to try to entice them to pick up Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: A Veggie Tales Movie?
Mike Nawrocki: It's just a really fun story. It's got a lot of great music and it's just a fun, adventure comedy for kids. It's got a great message, so I think people are really going to enjoy it and I think parents are going to enjoy it with their kids.
That's about all I have for you. Thanks so much for your time today, Mike.
Mike Nawrocki: Thanks a lot, Brian. I appreciate it.
Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: A Veggie Tales Movie hits the DVD shelves on October 14.