Thimblerig’s Interview • Phil Vischer, Creator of Veggietales

PVP_card_squareThe Phil Vischer Podcast is one of the few podcasts I listen to consistently. I love the thoughtful conversations about important topics, the relaxed and comfortable atmosphere created by hosts Phil Vischer, Skye Jethani, and Christian Taylor, and the humor. There’s a lot of laughter each week, and considering all the difficulty and trouble in the world, a good dose of laughter is a welcome addition.

Phil is best known for creating Veggietales, as well as for voicing many of the characters on that long-running video series. He has an amazing story, and you can read about it in his fantastic book, Me, Myself, and Bob: A True Story About Dreams, God, and Talking Vegetables. I’ll also link a video from Biola University at the end of the interview, where you can watch Phil talk about the rise and fall of Big Idea Productions. It’s well worth your time. 

I’m so grateful that Phil agreed to take a few minutes to answer some questions so that readers of this blog can get to know him better. I highly recommend that you give his podcast a listen, and also consider joining Phil and the gang in supporting their new Patreon page so Phil can do all sorts of new and fun things!

Phil, most people know your work, even if they might not know your name. Why don’t we start with a little bit about who you. Who are you and where do you come from?

aboutHi, I’m Phil!  I was born in Muscatine, IA, moved to the suburbs of Chicago when my parents split up while I was in junior high, and now live in the vicinity of Wheaton, IL with my wife and two youngest kids.  I make stuff.  Vegetables, puppets, Bible-teaching videos, podcasts and such.  I used to think of myself as a filmmaker, but now I really think of myself as a communicator.

Can you tell us some of the folks who have influenced you the most creatively?

Walt Disney and Jim Henson, obviously.  (Animation and puppets!)  But also Monty Python and the films of Terry Gilliam, Wes Anderson, the Coen brothers and Tim Burton.  I tend to favor witty Brits for some reason.  (Terry Gilliam’s bizarre British children’s film Time Bandits was a huge influence on me.)

How about your spiritual or theological influences?

C.S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton (I tend to favor witty Brits), as well as N.T. Wright, Dallas Willard, Henry Blackaby and A. W. Tozer.

What are your top three favorite films, and why?

That’s tough.  Three films that I love … Gilliam’s Time Bandits, Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, the Coen brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou and The Hudsucker Proxy.

Speaking of films, we talk about Christian films quite a bit on the Thimblerig’s Ark blog. What are your thoughts on the state of the faith-based film industry and where do you see it heading in the future?

We seem to be in the same position as the Christian music industry in the mid-1970s.  Sales were growing and artists started to realize that Christian music was something you could actually do for a living.  Like – for real.  That brought a huge influx of new artists, expanding the industry greatly through the 1980s and into the 1990s.  New record labels, better distribution, higher quality production, more talented artists.  By the late 1990s, Christian music was so good that new artists realized they could sign with secular labels and pursue much broader audiences.  They didn’t need the Christian cocoon to survive, and so Christian labels began to atrophy even as Christian artists made more impact on the world.  This same dynamic could be happening now with Christian film, where suddenly it appears that Christian filmmaking is a viable business.  Right now we’re building the Christian infrastructure (marketers, distributors, financiers).  But ultimate success would be to discover we no longer need distinct Christian infrastructure – that Christian filmmakers are proficient enough that they can move seamlessly in the secular film industry.  That’s a ways out still, but it’s a good goal.

You obviously know your way around family-friendly entertainment, but considering that the Bible is often not very family-friendly, can a Christian artist create content that is not family-friendly without compromising his or her faith? If so, how would you recommend they go about it?

THP3254Sure – there’s a fair amount of non-family-friendly art created by faithful Christians.  I’m thinking of horror films in particular.  Scott Derrickson’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose and the two Conjuring films are two examples of Christian filmmakers succeeding in bringing their point-of-view to art that will never get shown in churches.  The fact that horror films are the example shows something very important:  There has to be an audience for the stories you want to tell.  Scott Derrickson in particular made Emily Rose because it represented an intersection between stories of faith and stories that the world was interested in seeing.  Exorcism.  Horror films are easy to market.  Just like Kendrick brothers films are easy to market.  A non-family-friendly faith film in another genre might be much, much harder.

Turning to your podcast, “The Phil Vischer Podcast” has been one of my favorite podcasts for the past couple of years, although I’m still not a fan of the ukulele. What made you decide to start a podcast, and what have been your biggest challenges as you’ve sought to build your audience?

I can’t answer your question until you apologize to my ukulele.  He’s crying in the corner right now.  I was having these interesting conversations in my head (I’m an introvert), and sometimes at Q&A sessions with college kids after speaking.  I thought I should share those conversations with more people.  As for building an audience, we haven’t really done anything.  As a result, our audience isn’t terribly huge!  But it’s still fun.

Recently, you celebrated your 200th podcast episode. Congratulations! Having started my own podcast that lasted all of five episodes, I know that 200 episodes is quite the accomplishment. On that episode you talked about your new Patreon crowd funding account. Can you talk about what led you to creating the Patreon page, and what some of your plans for using the support you raise?

maxresdefaultI got to the point where the podcast probably needed to get more organized if it was going to continue – which meant I needed a little help.  Which meant I needed to pay someone for that help.  Which meant there needed to be a source of income.  We’ve talked about sponsorship before, and may still do that, but Patreon was a better first step.

Do you have any final advice for Christians looking to get involved in the entertainment industry – Christian or otherwise?

Just do it.  Make stuff.  It’s really easy to make stuff, develop a sensibility and a voice.  Use YouTube and Vimeo and iTunes to get your work out there.  The key is to begin making stuff for zero or near zero budget to see if your sensibility can attract an audience.  If the first thing you want to make is a $40 million feature, forget about it.

What are the best ways people can follow you (Twitter, Facebook, etc)?

Yes and yes!  Go to philvischer.com.  Sign up for my emails.  I’ll then follow YOU all around with email!

Twitter:@philvischer
Facebook: /PhilVischer

Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions, Phil!

You’re welcome!  Keep on rigging your thimble!

That we will, Phil. That we will.


 

Day 20 • The 40 Days (and Nights) of Christian Media Challenge

Half-a-DonutI stand at the midway point of the challenge, with as much lying behind me as lies ahead.  The “donut of misery”, as they say.  And yet, I’ve settled into a comfortable routine, enjoying certain aspects of the process, and disliking others. 

The Pleasures

I’ve enjoyed finding some wonderful Christian-produced media, much that I probably wouldn’t have discovered without the challenge. 

Reel World Theology Podcast – Entertainment is not mindless

More Than One Lesson Podcast – Movie talk for the discerning Christian (which I actually discovered before the challenge, but I’ve been enjoying listening to the back episodes)

Say Goodnight Kevin – youtube channel (watch the reviews for Fireproof and Left Behind)

bored-again-christianThe Bored-Again Christian Podcast – Christian music for people who are tired of Christian music (update: I just realized that this podcast appears to be dead –  not updated for a couple of years, sadly.  Still, the back episodes are worthy of listening)

Skye Jethani’s daily devotions

Rocket Pack Jack – a fun short film for kids

Christiancinema.com – a great source of films

World Magazine – a news magazine I used to enjoy in print form, but have been glad to rediscover online.

Sufjan Stevens – an extremely innovative musician with a Jesus underpinning to his music.

And, as a person who really disliked God’s Not Dead, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find some Pure Flix movies that I’ve enjoyed.  Not to sound snarky, but this has been a big surprise to me, but again – a pleasant one.

Finally, I’m also excited about the growing list of things I want to read/listen to/watch when the challenge is complete.  It will be nice to have choice back again.

The Challenges

At the same time, I have not enjoyed some of the Christian-produced things I’ve encountered, although I have found a growing appreciation for the Christians who are creating media, regardless of what I think of the finished product.  Producing media is extremely difficult, and for a person to take an idea to the finish line is admirable in any situation.  

I just wish I could affect change on much of that finished product…

Speaking of choice, one thing I’ve really disliked is not having any real choices of credible news sources.  Typically, when not doing this challenge, I like my sources to be varied, because I think that is how I can come closest to getting the true story.  Limiting my news to only Christian media outlets has severely limited my ability to get an unbiased perspective on world events.

exodus-gods-and-kings-poster-final-405x600Exodus: Gods and Kings • Thimblerig’s Mini-review

Last night my family sat down to watch Exodus: Gods and Kings.  It seemed appropriate to watch a film about The Passover on Good Friday, and I was all prepared to not like it because of the way so many Christians responded negatively to the film.

But I really, really liked it.

People said the film was boring, but I was completely engaged from start to finish.  I often fall asleep watching movies at night (yeah, I’m that guy), but I stayed awake to the very end.

People didn’t like the film’s representation of God as an 11 year old boy.  I was intrigued by the filmmaker’s choice to do this, and it made me pay attention in a way I might not have if God had simply been a disembodied voice.  By the way, did people get upset that Val Kilmer, the voice of Moses in Prince of Egypt, also provided the disembodied voice of God?

People didn’t like the naturalistic portrayal of the plagues.  This criticism makes me want to pull my beard out.  The plagues, while natural in execution, were obviously supernatural in origin.  That was the whole point of the advisor to Ramses who tried to explain them away as natural, but who ultimately wound up swinging in the gallows, because there was no way they were natural!

Of course, if people have a genuine conviction to not watch a film like Exodus: Gods and Kings, then they should not watch the film.  I do, however, think that many of the critiques I read were simply incorrect.

Here are a couple of good reads about the Christian response to Exodus.

Movieguide – I was very impressed by the five suggestions that the Movieguide people made.  Make sure to read the comments below the article, by the way.

Karen Marya – I’ve linked this article before, but it’s so good I want to link it again.  Karen is a part of the Sacred Arts Revolution, by the way.

Chip Hardy (Ph.D., University of Chicago), Assistant Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages at Southeastern – a fantastic perspective from an expert in the subject matter.   Thanks to Wesley at the Sacred Arts Revolution for the heads up on this.

I’d like to conclude my 20 day wrap-up with this little nugget that occurred to me after watching Exodus: Gods and Kings.

Christian filmmaking apologists will often defend the low quality of Christian-made film by saying that God uses the weak things of the world to shame the wise, and that God can even use a poorly made Christian film to impact the world.  And then, in the same breath, they lambast non-Christian-made Bible films as being heretical and unbiblical, saying that Christians should not see such films.

Isn’t it interesting that these Christians defend the Christian-made material so strongly, but often don’t extend this same courtesy to non-Christian-made films like Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings?

Can’t God use non-Christian-made films to bring people to Himself, and shouldn’t we (as Christians) look for ways to be a part of that happening?

A little bonus cultural tidbit for your reading pleasure.

qing-ming2We’re celebrating the Qingming Festival in China this weekend.  It’s a lunar-based festival where people traditionally go to the tombs of their ancestors and pay respect to the dead.

Family members clear weeds from around the tomb and add fresh soil to show care for the dead.  They also bring the dead person’s favorite food and wine, and burn money (or paper resembling money) so that the dead will have plenty.

This year, it just so happens that the Qingming Festival falls on the same weekend as Easter, when the women went to the tomb to take care of the dead and found that the tomb was empty.

I think that’s pretty cool.

Thimblerig’s Top Five Favorite Podcasts

Crowded_Nanjing_Road_in_ShanghaiI’m always on my feet living in China; walking to the bus stop, walking to the store, walking to the school where I teach, walking, walking, walking.  And riding on buses.  And subways.  And not understanding what’s going on around me most of the time.

The result?   I spend a lot of time listening to podcasts.  Over the years, living in China and Kazakhstan, I’ve found that podcasts have become my primary source of entertainment and information, replacing talk radio, the news, late-night television, and talk shows.  It’s like the people hosting the podcasts have become a part of my expat community and my overseas experience.  They’ve become one of my important connections back home.

Hasn’t the internet made everything weird?

Be that as it may, I’m particularly interested in podcasts that are somehow connected to the American entertainment industry, to screenwriting, to storytelling, to the culture, and how they all connect to the Christian faith.  You’ll find these things reflected in my podcasts of choice, some moreso than others, depending on the podcasts.

And so, I’d like to introduce you – my faithful readers – to my top five favorite podcasts, for your consideration, and in no particular order.

Thimblerig Podcast B

1.  The Phil Vischer Podcast

MV5BMTM5MzA4NTkxMV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzY5NTAyNw@@._V1_SX214_CR0,0,214,317_AL_You might know Phil Vischer as the man who created Veggietales, and provided several of the voices of the characters, including Bob the Tomato.  Phil has an amazing story, which you can read about in his book, Me, Myself, and Bob: A True Story About God, Dreams, and Talking Vegetables

In a nutshell, Phil created the wildly popular kid’s videos featuring talking veggies, and he had lofty aspirations to become the next Walt Disney – but in a God-honoring way – and then lost it all.  Phil’s story is a real-life example of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, as he went through a very dark place but has come through a better man as a result, with an incredible perspective on life, success, faith, and culture.

I just discovered Phil’s podcast a few months ago, and have grown to really enjoy it.  I appreciate that Phil has a great sense of humor (how could you create Veggietales and not have a great sense of humor?), but he can also come through with some really profound perspectives on faith and modern American culture.  maxresdefault

Each week, Phil – along with co-host Skye Jethani and the occasional guest host – discuss cultural issues, the entertainment industry, and current events from a Christian point of view with a refreshing and healthy mixture of seriousness and silliness.

Now, if we could just get Phil to ditch that darned ukulele…

2.  On The Page

Pilar-AlessandraPilar Alessandra‘s podcast about “the craft and business of screenwriting” was one of the first podcasts I started listening to, and is the one I’ve been listening to for the longest time.  I found On The Page while living in Kazakhstan sometime around 2006 (give or take) when I first became interested in screenwriting.  I remember digging in my garden in Almaty while listening to Pilar talking about loglines and treatments, amazed that it felt like I was taking part in an online screenwriting class – with all the fantastic quality content I was receiving.  For free! Actually, I feel like Pilar has been my unofficial online instructor for many years. I even took one of her online courses a few years ago, and enjoyed what I learned. I’m grateful for all that she’s taught me these past few years!

Pilar invites guests from all walks of life in the entertainment world to her podcast, but most commonly writers.  She researches her guests well enough to tailor her interviews and bring out the most teachable moments from the lives and work of her guests, all with goal of helping her listeners to improve in their own writing.  This is what I appreciate the most about On The Page – that I always get important new concepts and information that help me in my writing.  If writing is your thing, particularly screenplays, then you should be listening to On The Page.

3.  Steve Brown, Etc

stevebrownwebWhile I’ve been listening to Pilar’s podcast for the longest time, I’ve actually been listening to Steve Brown for over 20 years, just not in podcast form!

In the late 1980’s, I attended King College with Steve’s daughter, and – as the audio technician in the college chapel – I had the pleasure to run his microphones during the chapel service when Steve visited and spoke.  I was so taken by his focus on God’s grace that it led to me ordering cassette tapes (!) of his talks from Key Life, and always trying to find him on local Christian radio stations when I went from town to town.  I also often subscribed to the Key Life newsletter, where I was encouraged and challenged by Steve’s written outlook on life and the Gospel.

I don’t know when I actually found out that the old white guy had a podcast but I was thrilled when I found out that he did, and even moreso that it wasn’t your typical Christian podcast.  Thanks to the offbeat humor of producer Eric Guzman, and the wonderful variety of guests from all backgrounds, Steve’s focus on the grace of God really resonates.  Steve Brown, Etc can be joyfully irreverent while diving into some very deep waters at the same time, and I highly recommend it to everyone.

You think about that.

4.  Wretched Radio

frielMy family was home for the summer, and we were driving across the south in a rented car that had SiriusXM radio.

Usually, we had to listen to the Disney station (thanks, kids) but every now and then – when everyone was sleeping – I would scan around until I found something interesting.  I remember when I found Wretched Radio, and heard the voice of Todd Friel.

He was brusque, loud, and arrogant.

And the more I listened to him, the more I liked him.

When we returned to Kazakhstan, I immediately went and found Wretched Radio‘s podcast, and began to binge listen to past episodes.  I couldn’t get enough, and considering that he uploads new episodes five days a week, I had plenty to listen to!

Typically, Todd unpacks events of the day, examining issues from a Christian point of view, also with his somewhat warped sense of humor (Todd was formerly a stand up comedian).  But what I really enjoy are the Wednesday episodes, called “Witness Wednesdays”.  In these episodes, Todd goes out into some public place with a microphone and talks to people about spiritual things.  He will often go to a university campus and talk to students, and sometimes a state fair, and sometimes just out on the street.  The more I listened, the more I realized that Todd is not actually brusque or arrogant, he’s just willing to say what he believes with conviction, and he challenges others to think logically about what they believe.

Todd and Wretched Radio have some sort of connection to Ray Comfort’s Way of the Master ministry (although you don’t hear as much about that these days), and so he is quite serious about challenging people to examine their Christian faith critically to see if they really understand what it means to be a Christian.  It’s challenging stuff, and usually pretty entertaining.

5.  Never Not Funny

imgresSome people enjoy Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad.  Others spend hours watching grown men chasing balls all over a field.  My guilty pleasure?  A podcast.  A podcast that is true to it’s name – Never Not Funny.

Hello, everybody, indeed.

Hosted by stand up comedian Jimmy Pardo, Never Not Funny is – by far – the most rated R podcast of the group, and it is also the most consistently laugh-out-loud funny.

Pardo and producer Matt Belknap (who used to also produce On The Page – which is how I found NNF), who have been doing this since 2006, have guests from all over entertainment, including comics such as Weird Al, Conan O’Brien, Richard Lewis, Paul Reiser, Sinbad, and many others who I met through the podcast.  He typically has stand up comedians on the show, but not always, and the reason I like it so much is because I feel like I’m sitting around a table with some of the funniest people on the planet, just listening to them riff off of each other, tell stories, and bust each other’s balloons.

Ideologically, Pardo and I couldn’t be more different, but I would love the chance to get to know the man, and actually sit down and talk to him, because he’s just an incredibly interesting guy.  In fact, with his wit and style, I’ve often thought Pardo’d be the perfect performer to voice the main character in my book, Thimblerig’s Ark, if it were ever made into an animated feature.

Let me make this clear:  unlike the other podcasts I’ve mentioned, you don’t want to listen to NNF with the kids around.  But if you can handle the occasional sailor-like outburst, and if you think it would be fun to hang out with some very funny people for an hour and a half, you should give it a try.

Well, that’s my five.  What podcasts do you like, and why?