A Stop-Motion SpongeBob Special Means Christmas Comes Early This Year
Regardless of your position on SpongeBob SquarePants’ legacy within the pantheon of television animation, you can’t begrudge the fact that since it first aired in 1999 the show’s popularity and unprecedented longevity are nothing short of amazing. As the first Nicktoon with over 200 episodes, SpongeBob, based on a yellow sea sponge with a tremendously annoying laugh who lives in a pineapple under the sea, is a force to be reckoned with.
Consequently, it’s nice to see the franchise step outside their comfort zone a bit and recreate Bikini Bottom and all its merry and sometimes creepy denizens in a stop-motion Christmas extravaganza. In homage to stop-motion series pioneers Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass, whose holiday specials such as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town remain broadcast fixtures even today, Nickelodeon and series creator Steve Hillenburg have teamed with the production studio Screen Novelties to bring us a clever, funny and expertly crafted animated holiday special.
Since work began in October 2011, 60 pounds of baking soda (for snow), 42 pounds of glitter, 22 pounds of wood chips (Sandy’s tree house floor), 20 boxes of breakfast cereal (Bikini Bottom coral) and a whole mess of Jerktonium-laced fruitcake later, the special will be airing on Nickelodeon this coming Thursday, December 6th at 8 pm.
Screen Novelties, led by Mark Caballero, Seamus Walsh and Chris Finnegan, had worked with the SpongeBob group over the years on various smaller projects, including revamping the SpongeBob title sequence. They had also done some stop-motion creature work, including creation of the Abominable Snow Mollusk for the Frozen Face Off episode. Within the SpongeBob creative team, there was always talk of doing a more involved project together, which eventually turned out to be the SpongeBob Christmas special.
I recently had a chance to talk with Mark and Seamus about their handiwork and the many challenges faced bringing a 2D computer animated undersea world into a three dimensional hand animated puppet world while trying to stay true to a traditional style of stop-motion animation made famous over 40 years ago.
Dan Sarto: Tell us how this project came about? How did you get involved?
Seamus Walsh: The springboard of the idea was the song that Tom Kenny had done a few years ago , “Don’t Be a Jerk, It’s Christmas.” The song proved to be quite popular, so they [the SpongeBob creators] came up with the idea of a story arc where Plankton wanted to turn everyone in Bikini Bottom into a jerk, so that by contrast, he’d appear to be nice and finally get off Santa’s naughty list so he could finally get his Christmas wish of the Krabby Patty formula.
Mark Caballero: They sent us an outline and we put in our two cents creatively. We liked where they were going with it. So after Marc [Ceccarelli] and Luke [Brookshier] boarded it, and it was cut into an animatic, we dissected the scenes to find where would be the good points to play up the goofiness of SpongeBob. But like a lot of the good Christmas specials done by Rankin and Bass, there had to be a part of the story that had heart to it as well. It’s a good story point to have, not to be a jerk for Christmas.
SW: It was also important that it not get too super sweet. We definitely wanted to keep an element of strangeness, even darker, almost scary aspects of the story as well. If you think about all the great Christmas stories, going back to Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, full of ghosts and skeletal hands, of the Ghost of Christmas Future, we didn’t try to edit out any of that more menacing stuff. We went with this tired, grumpy, very strange looking Santa.
DS: He almost has a demonic look to his face.
MC: They gave us all the freedom we wanted on Santa. They actually gave us freedom on the whole project, but on Santa in particular, we expressed our interest. There is one board, not sure if Marc or Luke drew it, where they had him looking pretty tired. We thought that was a great idea. So we came up with our own little backstory where Bikini Bottom is the last stop for Santa. He’s tired, he wants to get home, take his shoes off. You could see it in his face, “Let’s get this over with.” We thought, “Well, you know, he probably would be tired after that whole trip around the world.” We honed in on the old descriptions of Santa being a jolly old elf. We pictured him as humanoid, but not necessarily directly human.
SW: We wanted to put food stains on his beard, ketchup and stuff, but we got shot down on that one.