Purpose in Practice: Nathan Dewild’s Passion Project
Updated: Aug 10, 2018
By Nathan DeWild/Emily Long
Nathan DeWild has been making films for nearly half his life. It all began his junior year at Georgia-Cumberland Academy when he was asked by the chaplain to make a series of videos for Friday night vespers. The series, which he called Gleamer, consisted of 10-minute episodes and featured puppets. “I’ll be the first to admit not all the episodes were good,” Nathan laughs. “But the chaplain continued to have faith in me and was always very supportive. That encouraged me to keep going.”
Despite Nathan’s reservations, the videos were a hit. The students and faculty loved them and, by the time he graduated, he had made over 30 episodes. He was hooked.
By the time he headed to college, Nathan knew what he wanted to do. He enrolled in the theology and film programs at Southern Adventist University with the end goal of somehow telling stories, but decided after his first semester to concentrate on film. “I opted for film over theology, but still hoped that some day I’d be able to use some of my talents for ministry.”
After graduation, Nathan moved to Washington D.C. to work for a company that made documentaries for PBS. He spent the next five years creating hard-hitting pieces but still longed to make the light-hearted shows of his high school days.
“I remember attending a film festival where I heard one of the participants say they wished there was more positive content for their children. That sparked an idea,” Nathan says. “I thought to myself, what if I was to make a children’s Bible show? I knew versions of these kinds of shows already existed, but I thought if I could find someone who believed in the project, I could make a show that felt new and creative but also felt like the kid’s shows I used to watch back in the day.” And so, in 2016, Nathan decided to move back to Chattanooga to pursue his passion.
The show would be a Mister Rogers-style throwback, but instead of the same general lessons, it would teach kids about the Bible. The more Nathan shared the idea with people, the more positive feedback he received. Their excitement energized him to dedicate himself to making this dream a reality.
“I reached out to Hope Channel and they liked the idea right away. They agreed to support me while I made a pilot that I could present to them. I was so excited to be able to create the concept that, up until that point, had only been in my head!”
It took about a year to secure the funding, write the scripts, and build the set. “In the beginning we didn’t have much money but I really wanted the set to be a space that kids would enjoy and want to explore. Out of necessity, I ended up building it in my in-laws’ basement.” Nathan laughs,
“Talk about low budget film making!” But the space worked out perfectly and provided Nathan with the flexibility to design it however he saw fit. He called it the Bible Den as a nod to the family room turned film set.
Back in the early days, while he was workshopping and presenting the idea, Nathan had been taking on the role of the story teller, mostly because he was the only person who knew the content of the show. It was never his intention, however, to become the host. But Hope Channel loved Nathan’s enthusiasm so much, they suggested he continue on as co-host.
For the show’s other host, Nathan recruited a Southern Adventist University classmate, Stephen Majors. “I always remembered Stephen being so full of energy and super creative,” Nathan says. “This was exactly how I wanted the stories to be told. I knew we needed someone who could make them interesting to kids and Stephen was perfect for the job.”
Stephen remembers when Nathan first approached him about the show. “I felt a bit of disbelief. This is the kind of experience that someone in my position dreams of. Being able to work while doing something I love and serving God by ministering to children is an amazing opportunity. I was a bit nervous but also excited about the potential I saw in the show. The most exciting part, though, was that we weren’t preaching to children, we were talking to them, engaging them, and getting them thinking.”
Another of Nathan’s goals was to keep the storytelling as accurate – and engaging – as possible. To that end, he recruited Ethan Fishell. Ethan, another Southern alum and the owner of Right Brain Puppetry, was tasked with creating custom puppets that would break up the storytelling with fun Bible facts. Ethan brought his distinct love of creation into the mix.
“Puppetry is one of the few things I truly enjoy doing,” Ethan says. “It’s an interesting art form because it brings art into the fourth dimension. Drawings and paintings are in the second dimension and sculpting and modeling are three dimensional, but puppetry is a four dimensional artform. You essentially take a sculpture and bring it to life.”
Ethan, who took great care in hand-crafting each puppet, remembers how he felt when Nathan presented him with the project. “I think he realized that ‘high quality’ and ‘Christian kids programming’ rarely go hand-in-hand. He wanted to do his part to break that stereotype.”
Adding to the legitimacy of the project was the level of professionalism Ethan brought to the characters themselves. “The puppets being used for the show are not $30 store bought puppets,” Ethan explains. “Each one is built by hand and is made from the same fabric (Antron fleece) the Jim Henson Company uses.”
Hand-drawn graphics were also incorporated to keep the stories fun, and cover about 50% of each episode. Deliberately styled in a simplistic way that kids can mimic at home, Nathan hopes these graphics will give kids a reason to re-watch each episode and draw along with the story.
Through hard work, dedication, and a lot of support, Nathan and the team began filming the show at the start of 2018 with the hope of airing the first episode this summer. With 13 episodes slated, and puppets, music, and entertaining storytelling, Nathan hopes the series will draw children to God in a new and inviting way. Another goal?
“I want this show to be based completely on the Bible, not on my own opinions,” Nathan says. “This can be a challenge sometimes because the Bible can be very deep and even brutal at times, but it’s important to present it to our children in the proper way, rather than hiding it from them.”
As a result, the tone of the show was heavily considered. “We try to make sure we’re never talking down to kids,” Nathan explains. “We want to show them that we’re still kids at heart and to see that we’re the telling the stories we love to hear in the way we love to hear them.”
“There is nothing quite like this,” Stephen says. “Of course there are other ‘kid shows’ but they’re ultimately not geared towards kids. There’s nothing in the Christian market that’s tailored to today’s children. That’s what drew me to the project. I knew that Nathan was going to get it right.”
“I’m so excited to finish the series,” Nathan says. “I want to see kids watching the show, laughing at the jokes, wanting to hear more Bible stories, and growing a thirst for the Word.”