April 2017 – Gone are the days when an entire family can sit around a television and watch a show that engages children while entertaining adults. And in the secular media, it is unheard of to expect an entertaining show to convey spiritual truths.
But that is what American Family Studios has accomplished with its latest project, Ryan Defrates: Secret Agent. The first three episodes will be available May 1 online at afastore.net.
“Part of the original vision of AFA was to show the entertainment industry that America wants wholesome, family-centered entertainment,” AFA president Tim Wildmon said. “For 40 years they haven’t really listened. So we created this show not only to demonstrate that it can be done, but that it can be done well. I think we have exceeded our own expectations.”
Creators Kendra White, an AFS staff member; and her brother Jeremy White, a children's pastor; joined AFS director Jeff Chamblee to share with AFA Journal their excitement about this new family-friendly series.
AFA Journal: Whose idea was the series?
Jeremy White: In hindsight, I really see how God has guided this project all along. It started 10 years ago when I was a children’s pastor. I created Ryan as a secret agent to grab kids’ attention with an action-packed story. Then, I’d use the story to teach a biblical principle. Each Sunday morning episode ended with a cliff-hanger. Parents began telling me their kids couldn’t wait to hear another story the next Sunday.
AFAJ: When did AFS first have the idea for developing Ryan Defrates?
Jeff Chamblee: For years, we’ve been concerned about what children see on TV and online. We had just hired Jeremy, whose sister, Kendra, was already on staff, when we became aware of his creation of the Ryan character.
We were intrigued by Jeremy’s creativity, the hysterical characters, and plot lines, so AFA decided we wanted to do something with this on a large scale.
Kendra White: This started as an audio drama series. Jeremy and I grew up listening to Adventures in Odyssey on family road trips, and as adults, we thought it would be fun to make something similar. Jeremy’s stories became our starting point.
Then we met a team of animators looking for stories that would make great children’s cartoons. They listened to our pilot audio episode and fell in love with the story. After some prayer and consideration, we agreed an animated children’s series could reach a far greater audience than audio. Television was where the dark battle was being fought. We wanted to bring light to the darkness.
AFAJ: Why the unlikely son-and-mother team for characters?
KW: Jeremy created the character of Ryan, this super cool spy who thinks he knows everything and likes to work alone. I felt like Ryan needed a partner, someone completely different who would challenge him and provide the story with comical tension.
Enter, Deb Defrates. Deb is cautious and thoughtful. She always seems to save the day due to her wisdom and practicality. And it’s just plain fun to see the overly confident Ryan get out-shined by his coupon-cutting, purse-swinging momma.
JC: On one hand you have Ryan, who is adventurous and bold, and then you have a nurturing mother figure. Almost no secular children’s programs have positive parental role models, and we wanted to buck that trend. The mystery as to the identity and whereabouts of Ryan’s father will be explored as the series progresses.
AFAJ: How do you determine the message to be taught in each episode?
JW: Well, you begin with prayer. Always prayer. Pray about the message you want to get across and prayerfully create a story around that message or theme.
KW: We talk about some of the spiritual struggles that kids face – unforgiveness, selfishness, disobedience, etc. From there we work together to come up with a story that will best introduce the virtue we want to discuss.
AFAJ: What steps does a writer take in this process?
JW: As a children’s pastor, I learned what engages kids. First, you study what the Lord has said in the Bible about a virtue or subject you want to teach – courage, humility, forgiving others.
Next you identify a verse or short passage of Scripture to be the theme verse, something not too complex for kids. You wrap your story around that, and finally, you follow the story with a direct wrap-up that explains the theme on kids’ level.
AFAJ: How do you incorporate scriptural truths into the story?
JW: The important thing with faith-based projects is that the faith angle must be integral to the story. With kids of my own now, I see how the media affects kids. We sometimes wonder where our daughter got a certain attitude, and we’ve learned to look at what media she’s consuming. That’s where a lot of kids’ bad behavior comes from.
KW: The story and the spiritual truth really go hand in hand. For instance, in an episode we’ve just finished writing, Ryan struggles with getting rid of a grudge.
We have him carry around a giant, heavy stink bomb he’s been working on for years! It’s a great symbol of the weight we carry when we hold onto unforgiveness. And it’s hilarious when he accidentally drops it, and it goes off in his face. Peeyyew!
JC: For us, it isn’t enough to simply state moral truths without saying where these truths come from. We have an animated Jeremy and Kendra appear at the close of each episode to draw a connection between the moral theme and a biblical example that shows the source of that truth.
Master animator directs series
Robert Fernandez, director of Ryan Defrates: Secret Agent, has a 17-year history of successful children’s animated programs. He is a producer at Herald Entertainment, a company committed to producing quality media for the enjoyment and edification of all ages. The popular Torchlighter series is one of their projects.
“As a child,” Fernandez told AFA Journal, “I had a lot of questions that did not get answered until I came to Christ at the age of 14.” That was when he began asking God to show him what to do with his life.
“I never thought of doing what I do,” Fernandez added, “but I have no doubt it’s been His purpose. I know God uses media to reach people in ways we don’t always understand.”
“Working with Robert to bring Ryan Defrates into the world of animation is key,” said Jeff Chamblee. “Robert has a wonderful sense of what works for children and is central to the creative process.”
Fernandez sees a great need for entertaining productions that offer layers of learning. “Ryan does that,” he said. “We hope it reaches lives around the world.”