"The Bible Project"    [ 11 ]   
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Dec 2015
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 The Bible Project

A long-standing American tradition seems to be releasing Christian-based films that are flat-out embarrassing to watch, crippled by lame writing, lame acting, lame direction, and/or lame production values . . .

Why is this?

All through history, Christians have been responsible for some of the most profound social advancement, artwork, and scientific discoveries ever made. So why does it seem so difficult to produce a decent Christian movie? Especially when you're dealing with some of the most profound subjects ever to cross mankind's collective experience?

Yes I know, in its day "The Ten Commandments" (©1956) was Gutsy and Bold and Massive. But for every gargantuan production of this magnitude (numbering in the single digits), hundreds of sincere-but-fundamentally-ugly attempts to represent Genuine Faith on the silver screen have leached into our culture, making about as much of an impact as a three day old hamburger.

What is so inherently difficult about making a good Christian movie?

In the 1980's, "Chariots of Fire" and "The Mission" each certainly made an impression. But it took another decade and the music and dynamic animation of DreamWorks' "Prince of Egypt" (©1998) to really stick the landing, in my humble opinion. (Again with the Exodus story?) THAT was a Christian movie (albeit animated) done right! This seemed to pave the way for more promising releases, like 2003's inspiring and provocative "Luther". The following year, of course, brought Mel Gibson's earnest, spoken-in-Aramaic "The Passion of the Christ" to the world. Hollywood really perked up then, attempting to capitalize on the newly perceived 'faith-based demographic' to knock out some "Chronicles of Narnia", the entire "Love Comes Softly" series (for the ladies), and ambitious but Scripturally-misguided productions like "Noah". Meanwhile, the brothers Kendrick quietly started making decent movies on their own terms, creating a small but increasingly watchable library of entertaining Christ-centered films: "Flywheel", "Facing the Giants", "Fireproof", "Courageous", and "War Room" [to date]. At the same time, Tyler Perry began churning out his slightly saucier brand of Christian entertainment based around his Madea character. So the creative umbrella seems to be spreading wider at long last.  :-)  More recently, the excellent "Amazing Grace" as well as an odd curiosity that is "The Book of Eli" bounced through theaters. And this year, movies like "God's Not Dead" and "Heaven Is For Real" reached for that coveted Well Made Christian Film accomplishment, but still suffered from strained writing, or the worst actress-playing-a-girlfriend. Ever. ~ Occasional gems do rise to the surface, though, like this year's "Old Fashioned".

And watch for "Risen" opening in January/February of 2016. I somehow got tagged on a movie-preview mailing list allowing me (and usually a kid or two) to attend special super-secret advance screenings of major motion pictures months before their release dates. We got to see a nearly finished print of "Risen" almost a year ago. It is BY FAR the BEST Christian movie I have ever seen. Starring Joseph Fiennes and Tom Felton, it postulates what it might have actually felt like to be in Jerusalem and experience the mysterious events surrounding the resurrection of Christ as it happened - the good and the bad of it. I particularly appreciate how Clavius's devotion to the god of war (Mars) is tested, and how his faith and struggles are depicted in a regular, everyday kind of manner. And the very clear life-changes reflecting in the faces, words, and attitudes of Christ's followers after having seen him alive again ~ truly extraordinary! This particular aspect of the film literally charged my spirit in a way I cannot identify with any other TV or movie I have ever seen portraying such things. A couple of set pieces I thought could have benefited from some CGI FX expansion, but that's just my opinion. As for the story, the acting, and the very real chills this movie evokes in certain scenes . . . Let me just say that when this finally hits theaters in the next couple of months, I will drag everyone I can to go see this with me again! (And I cannot say that for most of the pre-screeners I have seen in the last few years . .. like "Terminator Genisys" . . )

    “Risen” — Click to view the trailer
 "Risen"

Right. So anyway, 15 years ago, long before any of these resent productions came to light, I examined my own fledgling animation skills and wondered if I could possibly improve my game enough to be a part of the solution rather than just grumble about it. So I developed an online platform of sorts, intending to showcase not only my creative ideas, but submissions garnered from other like-minded Christian artisans who might share the same vision. I/we could provide an ever-growing menagerie of fun and/or funny Bible-based thematic animations, and best of all, make it accessible and available for FREE! I believe that God's Good News ought to be free for the offering, as He makes it absolutely free to receive. (I'm not going to squabble over 1 Timothy 5:18 and 1 Corinthians 9:14 right now) ~ The image above (top left) is a still shot of the rollover button that would launch this particular section of the "DeepKeys: Tombo Productions" website (the domain "TomboStudios" was not available back then). That Flash logo spun around its dark axis and changed color while the 3D-animated key rotated over it ~ all so Year-2000 and Flashinaciously good!  :-)

Well, life took a few radical and unexpected turns for me over the next decade and a half. I never did get around to developing TomboStudios to meet my original goals. But these many years later, somebody else has! And not only do they produce truly concise and fun animated shorts that feature solid Biblical principles —( much better than I ever could, by the way )— they offer it all online for FREE . . .

And it's not Phil Vischer.

If you are wondering who the heck Phil Vischer is, you may recall a quirky little show called "VeggieTales" and how, about 15 or 20 years ago, VeggieTales stuff was just everywhere! This was a Good Thing because not only was it a great Christian kids' show, excellently produced, but it also offered consistent and genuinely funny material for viewers of all ages, hosts of super-fun songs, and characters and quotes that can still be heard bouncing around pop culture today. At the pinnacle of their success around the turn of the century, entire movie theaters were often rented out just to show their new releases! It was crazy! And fun! And then, somewhere in the mid-2000's, it all just sort of fizzled out . . .

 "Veggie Tales"

"Me, Myself, and Bob: A True Story About Dreams, God, and Talking Vegetables"
 (Phil Vischer) © 2006 / 260 pgs  starz (5) Outrageously Superb Amazon.com

 book: "Me, Myself, & Bob"

If you are curious about the origins and eventual fate of the VeggieTales franchise, then you may want to read this autobiographical book (which is very good, by the way). Phil Vischer is the creative force behind VeggieTales, and continues to this day performing the voices for such characters as Bob the Tomato, Archibald Asparagus, Pa Grape, Mr. Lunt, Jimmy Gourd, Mr. Nezzer, Philippe Pea, and several others. (Producer Mike Nawrocki voices Larry the Cucumber) However, his company from which VeggieTales sprang, called 'Big Idea', took a serious nose-dive shortly after the release of their first feature length film. Basically, Phil is FANTASTIC as a creative force in the world . . but as a CEO, not so much. One of the toughest lessons he learned through this entire experience is found in Proverbs 27:23. For a quick personal review, here are a couple of short videos where he shares his perspective about what happened: Video 1 (2012) and Video 2 (2009). In this 5-part article, he describes just "What Happened to Big Idea?" (2004), and in this more recent 1-pager from last month, "Phil Vischer Shares Regrets About VeggieTales — And How He's Making It Right".

He has since gone on to produce and/or develop a slew of new Bible-based kid-friendly programs ("3-2-1 Penguins" / "JellyTelly" / "What's in the Bible?" / "Galaxy Buck" ) but nothing compares to the juggernaut that was VeggieTales. As for the VT franchise itself, DreamWorks eventually snapped it up and is currently developing a new series called "VeggieTales in the House" which showcases disturbingly re-designed and/or re-imagined characters in anemic sitcom-esque 'plots' ~ in effect sucking the very soul out of what made VeggieTales great. It's like they took a cue from Pixar's worst title and 'Cars'-ified everyone's eyeballs – seriously. Larry the Cucumber now looks like Mater, buck-teeth and all. This cannot be accidental. Along with now alarming, gaping, dark-hole mouths . .. it's pretty nightmare-inducing stuff for anyone who grew up (or raised kids) with the original VT gang. It's strange, because you would think the good guys at DreamWorks would be able to properly manage this kind of property, given their other hits — especially with Doug TenNapel at the helm (I guess that accounts for the new spazzy meat-based character 'Bacon Bill' [i kid you not] who bears a striking resemblance to one Earthworm Jim) ...oh well. The new ..whatever-this-is.. is so bad, I am purposefully not including a link for it on my website, nor a photo of the creepy character redesigns. God bless Phil, who shows up, knocks out some scripted voice recordings, offers a helpful suggestion here or there, and leaves with a nice paycheck to go work on other projects he can control. Good for him. :-)

A complete episode guide for the real VeggieTales is available here, but be warned:
the whole enchilada starts going bad after the second 'Minnesota Cuke' story (2009)

So you may be wondering, if Phil Vischer nothing to do with today's topic, why go on about him here? Aside from his status as one of my contemporary hero-bro's who deserves some cred, I stumbled upon one of those "if you like this, then you might like that" satellite links while checking up on his latest escapades. And that is when I found this:

"The Messiah"

What was this!?

Who were these guys?!

They have captured SO MUCH of the Bible's through-story about Jesus Christ in one five-minute animation filled with repeated themes and symbolistic graphics . . This was my original idea from 15 years ago brought to full and complete life ~ and quite without my involvement. A second click demonstrated even more theological goodness, with a flick of truthful edginess you just don't find in most religious presentations:

"Heaven & Earth"

While this, of course, does not replace daily Bible study, church attendance, regular fellowship and sermons, it ABSOLUTELY DOES meet the need to quickly and efficiently introduce some pretty heady Biblical concepts to any curious viewers, all with a dash of infographics-like fun for today's McGimme·It·Now culture. All for free, and all spot-on (so far as I can tell) with its over-arching Biblical exegesis!

This is phenomenal!

The same vision that I had years ago brought to reality by someone else!

Part of me feels a bit sad about this, as I missed out helping to create such great material. But I am quick to admit that these presentations are better by far than anything I might have produced on my own accord. So naturally, I wanted to find out a bit more about these two guys who look like the prince of nerds (those glasses!) and Keanu Reeves' lost step-brother... (Take that, you Visionaries!)

       
   Pastor Tim Mackie
Tim Mackie
Tim is a writer and creative director for The Bible Project. He has his PhD in Semitic Languages and Biblical Studies. He is a Pastor at Door of Hope Church. (Here is Tim's personal website)
 Jonathan Collins
  Jonathan Collins
Jon writes and creative directs for The Bible Project. He is a co-Founder of Sincerely Truman and Epipheo. (Here is Jon's personal website)
 
       
All kidding aside, they are just dynamite at what they do! Here are a couple of lynx for ya:
   The Bible Project  
 

The Bible Project homepage
(excellent snappy web design)

Their main Youtube page
(including behind-the-scenes vids)
A short index of their Video Playlists
 

I am not over-hyping this. Here is a recent interview article on Patheos called the "Bible Resource You MUST See!" (10/2/15) that is worth reading if, like me, you are interested in learning more about what makes these guys tick and their origins as creative partners — Check it out .. . I'll wait . . .

Curious to learn about their backgrounds, professionally speaking, I investigated Jon's 'Sincerely Truman' site, as well as 'Epipheo', enjoying the many examples of the latter's work. My first click played this bit (below) which addresses something I have been planning to blog about for some time, but just haven't gotten around to it yet. Again they beat me to the punch! Naturally Epipheo encapsulated the entire topic in a video less than four minutes in length (which is precisely why I favored animation in my original plans):

~     What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains    ~

Epipheo is amazing. Here is more or less a demo reel of their creations (May 2015) showcasing the fantastic work they do. I just * LOVE * their diversity of style and creative sensibilities! So it is obvious that Tim and Jon (along with Gerry Breshears, PhD, also on their board of directors) lean on Jon's production experience as demonstrated in Epipheo to produce these marvelous animated shorts. I mean, just take a look at "Atonement", explaining the Scriptural and spiritual need for animal sacrifice in the Old Testament, a topic that has traditionally been a bit sketchy for Western minds to properly understand:

"Atonement"

Almost has kind of a "Secret of Kells" sort of vibe to it, eh? And in addition to these thematic videos, they are also busy putting together Book Videos that sort of come across as animated flannel boards (remember those?) ~ but on steroids. On a lark, I clicked on their overview of the tough-to-get-through (for me) book of Numbers in the Bible. What they created not only served to flesh out what Numbers is really all about, even glossing over some of the more memorable stories, but it actually compelled me to rush to my Bible and start reading it all myself anew! — This is really saying something ~ inspiring real life action in a way never available before!

"Numbers"

What a ridiculously wonderful use of today's technology! What a captivating presentation of Bible truths! What a creative and effective ministry! All their efforts published to date are available for free viewing (and/or to download) at their website: The Bible Project. With such incredible talent already in play, I cannot presume to stumble my way toward The Animation Light in some gimpy part-time attempt to reinvent the wheel.  No ~ I will gladly help support their efforts instead, a ministry God already seems to be clearly blessing!

 
Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might!
—  Ecclesiastes 9:10  
 

If your dream cannot come to fruition for yourself, doesn't it stand to reason that supporting someone else, who is already properly accomplishing that work, is a grand thing to do? I am * THRILLED * that such good work exists, whether I had a hand in it or not! Not everyone can be a missionary, but every missionary needs a network of support! Not everyone is called to be a Phil Vischer, or a Tim Mackie, or a Jonathan Collins, but we can certainly help those who are! And it's not like "it's all over" for my own creative aspirations — not on your life! God grants gifts to ALL His children as He calls them to serve. Mine just seem to not be animation-oriented after all ~ and that's just fine.  :-)  Plenty of books and blogs and letters to write, classes to teach, music to learn and play (maybe compose again?) — loads to do from my little corner of the world . . . AND I can help these fellows along the way as well!

 
For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.
—  Romans 12:4-8   
 
Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others,
as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.
—  1 Peter 4:10   

In closing, I will share with you a different sort of video that ranks as one of the most impactful I have seen this year. I discovered it rather recently, and perhaps it's just a reflection of where I am in life these days, but I have a hunch his 26-minute message detailing some hard-won observations and recommendations will minister to you as well . . .

Phil Vischer: "My Life as a Tomato" (12/6/10)
 
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