Birds the Word
Six Pepperdine alumni join forces to produce the first New Testament-only themed animated children’s series.
In the late 1800s, when missionaries first traveled to Japan to spread the Gospel to the locals, they were met with unexpected opposition from those they encountered. Many in Japan particularly disliked the use of the word “religion” in the evangelists’ messaging and, as a result, were not as receptive to their efforts.
To reopen the conversation, the missionaries took cues from the locals and incorporated the word iesodo, Japanese for “the way of Jesus,” in their communication, which encouraged the locals to discuss their faith and beliefs unrestrained and without the pressure of conversion.
When Seaver alumnus Jared Hankins (’01) and a friend, Orange County-based music minister Tim Timmons, first came together in 2010 to develop an educational animated children’s series that communicates the stories, teachings, and message of Jesus, they thought of the Japanese word and its broader implications.
“It summed up what we were trying to do,” says Hankins. “We didn’t want to simply share the religion of Christianity, we wanted to share the message of Jesus, the way that he showed us to live.”
Motivated by their own struggle to find quality entertainment that was both enjoyable and educational for their three children, Hankins and his wife Natalie (’01) were determined to create a series that would give parents the peace of mind that they themselves were searching for.
Iesodo (pronounced YAY-sa-doe) tells the story of the title character, a white dove representing Jesus, and his feathered friends who live in a cypress tree on the shores of a vast lake (Galilee) in the Holy Land, spreading messages of hope to the entire bird world. Joining forces with a collaborative team consisting of four additional Pepperdine alumni,Iesodo successfully broke into the Christian market in 2010. This year, over four years, three DVDs, and six episodes later, it will reach a wider audience when it becomes available on Amazon.com.
The October release of the series’ Christmas special will also be available in Walmart stores.
In contrast to other animated Christian series, Iesodo avoids traditional depictions of Jesus as a religious entity and, instead, portrays the title character as a historical figure in order to reach a wider audience in sharing the messages and teachings of Jesus.
“The series features Jesus, the man who grew up in Nazareth,” says Jared. “We feel that, whether you think he’s the Son of God or not, he certainly is the most influential man of all time and will be for the rest of this existence.”
Iesodo also incorporates other biblical characters represented by the various bird species that travel through the Hula Valley, allowing the team to develop characters of multiple ethnicities that speak with different accents and in various dialects. Through the narration of Rocky, a bulbul bird that represents Peter, viewers get a “bird’s-eye view” of the story in each episode. Maggie, a Palestinian sunbird, represents Mary Magdalene and Tom, an excitable kingfisher, represents Thomas.
In order to better depict the scenery of the time, Emmy-nominated writer/producer Rob Loos, who holds producer credits on the series, traveled to Israel to capture the native landscape of the Holy Land. The photos taken on these trips were used to structure all of the animation throughout the series.
“The tree that’s the home to all of our main bird characters is a cypress tree that you would really see in Israel and the birds are true to the species that exist in the area,” says Natalie. “We’re taking real photos of where Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount or prayed in the desert. Viewers get to see Jesus interact with the people around him, so kids are able to get a picture of what the world looked like when Jesus was in it.”
To further engage families in conversations about the stories seen in each episode, the DVDs include bonus features that encourage viewer interaction. Timmons takes viewers inside the Bible verses that inspired each episode, while “Natalie’s Nest” shares a mother’s perspective on the messages. Additional features include behind-the-scenes looks at the making of each episode and two original songs for the whole family to sing along.
“For our family, it has started conversations about things that we may not have had the chance to talk about otherwise,” says Natalie. “Our kids will watch it and ask, ‘Did that really happen? Did Jesus really put mud on someone’s eyes?’ It opens up the opportunity for us to all talk in the family about Jesus.”
“I could see in his eyes when first shared it with me, that this was something that God put on his heart to do,” says Natalie. “That’s why Iesodo has made it this far: because it was a motivation from the heart.”
The series was brought to life by Rollman Entertainment, Inc., Zaya Toonz, LLC, and Kombine Media, Inc., a production company jointly led by president Mike Hofferth (’00) and directors Dave Garcia (’00) and Jared Hankins (‘01). The project also involves the efforts of executive producer Natalie Hankins (‘01), marketing partner Cara Withers Courtesy of Zaya Toonz LLC Shaw (MBA ’02), and accountant Emily Evans (MBA ‘09).