When Dan Farr and Chris Creek met Dick Van Dyke at a computer graphics trade show in 1998, they had little idea that it would lead them on a Christmas adventure that would be years in the making.
"He's really into computer graphics as a hobby, and he was interested in some of our product," says Farr.
After the show, and after Christmas that year, Farr and Creek got thinking that it would be fun to create an animated movie using Van Dyke as a central character. In February, they sent him a letter and got a reply back saying that Van Dyke was interested but would have to have the right story.
For several years, they went back and forth, talking about ideas. "He would give us gentle feedback," says Farr. He didn't want anything that was too preachy. But he definitely wanted a spiritual element. He wanted something that was modern but that would also be classic. And he wanted whimsy.
When Farr and Creek left the company they were working at to start their own, DAZ Productions, they took the project with them.
Ideas continued to flow back and forth. Then, says Farr, "we decided to do the story first, do it as a book, and then move on to the movie." Van Dyke, who will turn 80 in December, is still a busy man and has hardly slowed down a bit. "He still is pitched a lot of products. But no one was pitching a book. He liked that idea."
Finally, everything began to come together. "Last Christmas," says Farr, "we sent him a DVD with some of the images and a chest filled with trinkets. And he said, 'Let's do it!'
"There can be a lot of red tape involved in a project like this, but he pushed it through and made things happen."
The result is a children's book, "Mr. Finnegan's Giving Chest" (Shadow Mountain, $19.95), featuring a story about a magical toymaker, based on Van Dyke, and illustrated with lavish computer-generated 3-D animation stills.
The story was written by Farr; Creek was in charge of the art direction, character design and modeling; Chad Smith supervised the computer graphics. "It was really a team project," says Farr. Of course, there were also e-mails, phone calls and personal visits with Van Dyke.
The story tells of a little girl who, with the help of Mr. Finnegan and a special Christmas chest, discovers that the magic of Christmas comes from giving to others. "It's a solid little story," says Creek.
The computer-animated art has both pluses and drawbacks as illustration material. It can be expensive and time-consuming. "If you're not planning on doing a movie, it's hardly the most cost-effective way to go," says Smith. But it also offers a lot of flexibility. "If you do an illustration the normal way, you make the design and commit to it. But we can change the lighting, the expression, the angles. At any stage in the process, we can make changes. It's a lot of fun."
"I can't imagine a children's book out there with more man-hours in it," adds Farr. "But the look you get is worth every penny."
Smith likes to watch the reaction of people as they look at the book. "It's fun to see them enjoy the depth and vibrancy of the art. It's a look that appeals to adults as well as kids."
DAZ Productions has been involved in the creation of animation software on a number of different levels. The company's Web site, www.daz3d.com, offers free downloadable software that lets people have fun doing their own animation. Other packages that help with more in-depth animation are also available, as well as projects such as landscaping. The idea of doing a children's book and following it up with perhaps a full-length movie has been a lot of fun, says Smith.
Although most of the figures were created on the computer, to generate the images of Mr. Finnegan, Creek did some actual sculptures of Van Dyke. That, too, was a back-and-forth process. "We had to get an image that he felt represented him and was happy with."
But they have found Van Dyke easy to work with. "He's so personable," says Farr. "He's not Hollywood, at all. He has a genuine interest in people."
"He had really given us a gift to let us use his name," adds Creek. "We would have done this anyway, but with a different character as Mr. Finnegan. It's more fun with Dick Van Dyke."
The book also includes a CD of Van Dyke reading the story. "We got to go into the studio when he recorded it," says Farr. "That was kind of a surreal experience to hear Dick Van Dyke reading our story."
The book was released last week and has been well-received, according to Farr and Creek. "It's already at No. 3 on Deseret Book's best-seller list."
The book is also a hit with Van Dyke. "He's arranged a book-signing in Malibu," says Creek, "and he told us he took it to the set where he was filming a Hallmark special to show it around. He also took it to the "Today" show. He was there to talk about something else and then pulled out the book to talk about it. That show airs in December, so it will be fun to see whether that gets edited out."
But as much fun as it was working with Van Dyke, they hope the book will be much more than just a celebrity vehicle. "There are several layers to the story," says Farr, "some deeper than others — such as that life goes on. But the main message is about giving.
"At the end of the book, we suggest some ideas about experiencing the magic of giving, maybe setting up your own 'Giving Chest.' We really hope people will turn to that, that it will not just be a story but something that motivates people to action. Your time, your love, your service are often the most-needed gifts of all."