Janet Hetherington talks to the creators of the new VeggieTales movie about the challenges of animating vegetables and making pirates more jolly and less jolly roger.
The new pirate movie coming to the big screen today doesn't feature coarse-talking corsairs of the Caribbean. In fact, the Pirates Who Don't Do Anything are completely scurvy-free, being of the vegetables food group, and they frolic on the high seas in the latest computer-animated installment of the popular VeggieTales franchise -- one that has sold more than 50 million DVDs/videos since its 1993 inception.
"VeggieTales has been a CG property since the characters were first developed in 1990 on an old Silicon Graphics Personal Iris workstation running one of the first seats of Softimage sold into the U.S.," notes VeggieTales creator and Pirates Who Don't Do Anything screenwriter/producer Phil Vischer.
"Today, the animation for VeggieTales continues to be produced by Big Idea in collaboration with various specialized production studios around the world. For Pirates, we teamed up with STARZ Animation in Toronto, which has mastered all of the computer animation with a production pipeline built primarily around Maya."
Pirates -- even ones who don't do anything -- are popular with children, and Vischer believes that they have become, like cowboys to an older generation, symbols for "exotic" adventure.
"Forget about the fact that they were thieves with lousy personal hygiene," Vischer says. "The modern notion of 'pirate' comes no closer to reality than John Wayne's or Clint Eastwood's 'cowboy' personas. As for our three 'pirates,' they're really just three regular guys who long to be heroes. The film is the story of that journey."
The three leads in The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything -- A VeggieTales Movie are a gourd, a grape and a cucumber, who risk their limbless lives on the 17th-century high seas. In addition to Mr. Lunt, Larry the Cucumber and Pa Grape, there's an animated cast of oddballs that includes Rock Monsters, a hoard of evil Cheese Curls and a morally-divided royal family.
"Our villain is a new character, as is the royal family of the fictitious 17th-century land our modern-day heroes must save," Vischer says.
While it may seem that The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything is sailing in the wake of Captain Jack Sparrow, Vischer advises that he actually completed the screenplay before the first Disney Pirates of the Caribbean film was released. "This script was written well before the first Pirates of the Caribbean film hit theaters, and was influenced more by fantastical nautical adventures like C.S. Lewis' Voyage of the Dawn Treader, as well as more contemporary 'loser-turned-hero' films like Three Amigos and Galaxy Quest."
In the new VeggieTales movie, a mysterious ball drops from the sky and a "Helpseeker" is sent from the past in search of heroes. The spherical artifact sets into motion a series of events that drags the vegetable friends from their jobs in a dinner theater back to the 17th century. The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything must face their fears by becoming unlikely heroes in a battle to rescue a royal family from an evil tyrant -- as well as by rescuing themselves from living the life of common couch potatoes.
"VeggieTales really targets kids up to eight years old, but Pirates is a family film that I think kids of all ages will enjoy," Vischer says. "Our humor, often described as G-rated Monty Python, and our silly songs, have kept parents sticking around for the entire show and have given us a following among teens and college kids as well. Any lesson we work into our films, though, we try to make intelligible to a four- or five-year-old."
The Pirates film offers up a lot of music, including a VeggieTales take on "Rock Lobster." Other songs include "Spanish Gold," "Jolly Joe's," "Yo Ho Hero," "Papa's Got A Gumball Nellie," "Look At Us, We're Walking Rocks," "What We Gonna Do?" and "The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything."
"Unlike our first theatrical, Jonah, I didn't set out to write a musical," Vischer says. "But since some of our scenes are set inside a dinner theater, of course we had to throw in a few silly pirate songs. And then a few other songs crawled in as the film developed. For some reason, songs crawl into just about anything Mike Nawrocki and I develop."
"The film was scored by Kurt Heinecke, who has worked on almost every VeggieTales film since 1993," says Vischer.
Averaging one minute of music a day, Heinecke first produced the Pirates score on his studio synthesizer. During the next stage, he added live percussion, brass and woodwinds. The actual movie replaced Heinecke's original run-through with the Prague Symphony's 80-piece orchestra; the result is 80-plus minutes of sweeping cinematic score.
"It's fun writing all the rhythms and styles that seem to say pirates," Heinecke says in the film's production notes. "You hear jigs or 6/8 rhythm, Irish music with whistles or accordion give you a lighter feel... then the big feel of ships and battle."
Shiver No Timbers
Animating vegetable pirates may, at first glance, appear easier than animating human pirates, but attempting to make a cucumber walk and talk and sing can put animators in a pickle. Director/producer Mike Nawrocki has noted that many animators think because the VeggieTales characters don't have limbs that they'll be easy to animate. But he points out that hands help expression and that it's more difficult to work with just heads and eyes.
Vischer agrees. "New animators working on VeggieTales often assume animating limbless characters will be easy, and are surprised to discover it is much harder than you think. I was never all that good at it, frankly. Once we started hiring really gifted animators and seeing what they could do with my characters, I very quickly hung up my spurs."
However, in Pirates, there is a new Veggie character who has arms and legs -- mechanical ones -- and the challenge was how to keep him true to the VeggieTales universe. Production designer Chuck Vollmer, a former Disney artist, reviewed Vischer's vision for the despicable Robert the Terrible, and then gave designers carte blanche to imagine the gadget-master gourd. Rob Corley's drawing eventually became the model for Robert, answering the question, "What would an intimidating vegetable look like?" Character designer Corley and modeler Ian McClucky placed a small gourd atop a large mechanical pirate's body.
Production designer Vollmer guided and coordinated teams of artists, lighting experts, compositors, animators, texture specialists and more to create realistic CG elements for the ocean, bays, the island, palm trees, sand, mountains, pools and ships. He also created the Pirates bible, a frame-by-frame color key and look that determined every character, color, scene, light and texture and how it all would come together, and researched old Caribbean forts along St. Augustine and the Bahamas, and the Caribbean of the 1600s and early 1700s in order to create Robert the Terrible's bay, fortress and dungeon area.
The attention to detail points out the dedication of those working on The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything -- even though the movie itself is meant to be seriously silly.
"You're dealing with talking vegetables. I mean, how can you not have a good day when you're dealing with talking vegetables?" asks producer Paula Marcus in a commercial spot for the film.
But there's also more to the good-natured film than excellent craftsmanship and inspired silliness.
"My goal for VeggieTales was to create a really fun way for parents to pass on Christian values to their kids," comments Vischer. "Eight out of 10 Americans claim to be Christian -- 9 out of 10 believe in God. Yet kids can watch kids' TV 24 hours a day for a year and never hear a character talk about God or about faith. I just felt there should be an alternative. Since Western civilization is built on Judeo-Christian values, there are very few parents who really object to their kids being exposed to VeggieTales' gentle Christian messages. Those who do, of course, can easily avoid VeggieTales and choose other entertainment options. I won't be offended at all."
For those parents and children who do enjoy VeggieTales, there is also a fan club available through the official Pirates movie website offering downloads, games, e-cards, sweepstakes and behind-the-scenes stuff for kids. In addition, the website features merchandise, including plush toys, puzzles, apparel, finger puppets, posters and more, as well as the movie soundtrack and a sing-along DVD.
As for the future of the vegetable buddies, Big Idea reports that VeggieTales is in its second year on network television as the #1 rated show on NBC Saturday mornings, as part of the qubo children's programming block. New direct-to-DVD releases are planned for 2008, as well as future theatrical releases.
For The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything -- A VeggieTales Movie, delivering the story to the big screen was an adventure in itself, as its small army of animators, story artists, technicians and musicians worked for nearly two years to bring the seafaring, swashbuckling vegetables to life.
"Everyone wants to be a hero," comments Vischer. "As soon as we can walk, we're strapping on capes, picking up swords and swinging to the rescue. But as we grow older, we learn that being a hero in the real world is much more complicated. Who are the good guys? Who are the bad guys? What's really worth fighting for? And how can I have time to be a hero when I really just need to figure out how to pay my mortgage?"
Janet Hetherington is a freelance writer and cartoonist who shares a studio in Ottawa, Canada, with artist Ronn Sutton and a ginger cat, Heidi.