With the release of The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, Taylor Jessen chronicles what happened to Stephen Hillenburg for him to give up being a marine scientist and create the ever-optimistic sponge, who lives in a pineapple under the sea.
Tom Kenny, the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants, recently had a dinner date with a friend in a Los Angeles restaurant. Unlike most celebrities, in daily life Kenny doesnt get the blank stare, the crowds of doe-eyed fans. Hes famous for his voice, not his face; so this was a normal night out, if anything even more pleasant than usual since his guest had absolutely no awareness of Kennys signature character. He was active with a charity, though, and Kenny gladly agreed to exploit his celebrity status by autographing some SpongeBob items for auction. No sooner had he taken pen in hand to sign the plush toys than the whispering began. A bus boy approached. Hey, could you sign something for my daughter? Yeah, how old is your daughter? Fifteen months. Then the Maitre D: Im sorry to bother you, but could you sign something for my son? Hes five. From the next table: Could you sign something for my daughter? Shes 19. A hip young couple: Are youwho we think we are? Could you sign something? Yeah, whos it for? Well its for us!
At least then he didnt have to explain SpongeBobs appeal to his friend, Kenny says. I said, `See? This is what Im talking about. I just signed autographs for a 15 month-old, a five-year-old, a 19 year-old and a 30 year-old hipster couple. And Ive gotten letters, literally, from people in nursing homes saying `Could you send a picture of SpongeBob to the woman in the room next to mine? Shes 93 years old and she really likes your show.
When you finally get a chance to do your own thing, says series creator Stephen Hillenburg, it definitely is liberating. Creatively you can just think `Well, what would I do? and try to do it. Hillenburg got liberated in 1996 when Nickelodeon took a chance and bought his idea for a cartoon starring a man-child who was not just endlessly enthusiastic but absorbent, yellow and porous. Since its 1999 debut, SpongeBob SquarePants has evolved from an under-the-radar cult item to a cross-generational financial juggernaut, spawning books, DVDs, bedsheets, videogames, and a talking doll named Babbling Bob. Happily, Hillenburgs liberation has become his crews, and his audiences as well.
The nautical cartoon series is set in the undersea burg of Bikini Bottom, awash in the big friendly yellow, blue, and green shades of classic cartoons. Kenny stars as a friendly yellow sponge who lives in a pineapple with a pet snail named Gary. SpongeBob works at a burger joint called The Krusty Krab, owned by money-mad crustacean Mr. Krabs (voice of Clancy Brown), with cashier Squidward Tentacles (Rodger Bumpass), an uptight sourpuss squid whod like nothing more than to stay home and play the clarinet.
SpongeBobs best buddy is Patrick Star (Bill Fagerbakke), a deep-voiced, hot-pink starfish in swim trunks who shares SpongeBobs adolescent fixations for ice cream and jellyfish hunting. Also in the cast are Sandy Cheeks (Carolyn Lawrence), a go-getting squirrel in a diving suit who moved underwater in search of a challenge; and Plankton (Doug Lawrence), evil-genius proprietor of rival eatery The Chum Bucket: a bottom-feeder intent on taking over the world.
In 2002 SpongeBob SquarePants shifted from being a popular series made by a relatively small crew to a prospective feature film made by, to everyones delight, the same small crew. The team that made this movie is largely the team thats been making the show for five years, says Kenny. They did the heavy lifting. And it is relatively small compared to a big DreamWorks feature with 30 writers and a zillion guys working on it.
That said, the scope is definitely bigger; there are new characters, including King Neptune (Jeffrey Tambor), his lovely daughter (Scarlett Johansson) and a perfidious, sunglasses-over-his-sunglasses bounty hunter (Alec Baldwin). There are new horizons of seascape and shoreline; there are monsters and peril. If The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie has any analogue in cinema, its The X-Files movie, made by a TV production crew at a time when the show was still on the air. (Unlike The X-Files, SpongeBob is not the sequel to a series cliffhanger, as funny as that may have been.)
The story of the movie, then, is part and parcel of the story of the series, all of which originally sprang from the head of writer/director/producer Stephen Hillenburg. The Anaheim, California-raised artist/scientist originally earned a degree in marine science from Humboldt State University, and in the 1980s taught kids about marine life at the Orange County Ocean Institute in Dana Point. But art and marine science had always inspired him in equal parts, and Hillenburg remembers a particular creative flashpoint in the late 1970s when he first saw animator Paul Driessens short film The Killing of an Egg. It stuck in my head for a long time, Hillenburg says. I always thought Id just be in that world, and I suppose if SpongeBob hadnt succeeded Id still just be interested in making festival shorts.
Hillenburg eventually left the Institute and enrolled at CalArts, from which he graduated in 1992 with a degree in experimental animation and his own short, the hysterically funny The Green Beret. Many of the directors trademarks are already visible in this three-minute tale of a spurned Girl Scout, including found objects, unusual pets, and round, lidless eyeballs. Nickelodeon hired him as a storyboard artist on Rockos Modern Life, and Hillenburg stayed with the series through 1996, eventually earning the title of creative director.
On the series he met the core group he would eventually take with him to create SpongeBob, including storyboard artists Derek Drymon, Paul Tibbitt and Sherm Cohen. Interestingly all these artists cite a shared influence, Ralph Bakshis short-lived 1987 series Mighty Mouse, The New Adventures, a show Hillenburg says got him hot for art school in the first place.
I grew up in the `70s, and I had never looked at TV animation, says Drymon, who became Hillenburgs right-hand-man on SpongeBob. There wasnt anything there. My first year of college is when Mighty Mouse came out, and it was mind-blowing. Pee-wees Playhouse was out. Those things came on, and for the first time youd notice TV animation `Okay, you can actually do something there.
Pee-wee Herman, that idea of a boy-man, that was certainly a big influence, says Hillenburg. I was interested in making a character based on the classic childlike man, like Laurel and Hardy. When he eventually had his Aha! moment, imagining just such a character in the form of a little yellow sponge, Hillenburg set about developing a new series for Nickelodeon called SpongeBoy.
With Hillenburg at CalArts was writer and storyboard artist Tibbitt, who earned a degree in character animation while secretly wishing he could pack up his desk and move to experimental with Hillenburg. Tibbitt was working on CatDog at Nickelodeon when he first noticed SpongeBob on a wall of upcoming pilots. It was an early concept painting Squidward behind the cash register and SpongeBob peeking up from behind the order window, Tibbitt says. You could see it all there, Squidwards personality and SpongeBobs. I was immediately drawn to it. I remember going by and saying, `I want to work on that show!
Storyboard supervisor Sherm Cohen was working on Hey Arnold! when he got turned on to this new pilot. I never dreamed Id work on it, Cohen says, because I was working on a much more reality-based show, more like Peanuts. But Hillenburg had seen one of Cohens self-published comic books, Cancerman, sitting in the back of Derek Drymons car, and Cohen was invited on board. Derek put out about 12 issues of a comic book called Funnytime Features, Cohen says. All these guys have created their own comics for years and years, just for their own enjoyment, just like we all do.
When we started the show, people werent 100% sure what was going on, says Drymon. Steve had this core group of people that all had worked together on Rocko. We all were clear on what we wanted, so we were able to push through that first couple months. Then once film started coming back, everybody really got on board.
Even going full bore, SpongeBob still had a smaller crew than other shows, a fact that crewmembers agree has had a lot to do with the continuing quality of the series. I think the network ordered something crazy like 120 episodes of CatDog all at once, says Tibbitt, so they had two crews running at the same time. It was harder to get that intimacy, that cohesion we got on SpongeBob. It was too big to have that quality control that Steve had. Here he was able to have his hand on every aspect.
There was also a conscious effort to get artists to buddy up. On Rocko, says Drymon, there were teams of two storyboard guys, and they would write and draw. That carried through to SpongeBob. Steve hired me privately before he sold SpongeBob to Nickelodeon. Id go to his place at night after work, and he would pitch things, and wed brainstorm. It helps having someone else there to bounce things off of.
Cohen agrees, The reason we put storyboard artists in pairs is that one person working alone can start to tread water. Theres no friction to move forward. If you have an idea, but you dont know where to go with it, you just talk to your partner, and theyll say `Well, what about this? And you go, `Oh yeah! Then we could do this!
Actor Kenny did several voices on Rockos, and in 1996 Hillenburg pitched him SpongeBob and offered him the title role. Kenny, whose countless character voices include the Mayor of Townsville on The Powerpuff Girls and Dog on CatDog, found SpongeBob in his optimism, and uses that happy streak to bring him back daily. Every voice actor, Ive noticed, has a key phrase, Kenny says. Youll see him saying it in the booth by himself before he goes into character. For SpongeBob, just to get yourself in the zone, you go `Im READY! Im READY! Im READY! Or This is going to be the BEST DAY EVER! You nail that positively, and it finds you the voice placement and the attitude in one handy-dandy line.
SpongeBob has a uniquely nautical giggle. The laugh is mostly dolphin, but slightly seagull, Kenny says. We were thinking, how do you make a laugh sound nautical? Whats in the sea? Creaking rigging, that weird cry of seagulls, and then we mixed that with the way a dolphin will stick its head up above the water and do that weird HEH YEH HEH YEH HEH YEH. The laugh also requires Kenny to jab his neck repeatedly. When you do this stuff, he says, indicating his callus, you dont realize that youre still going to be whacking your throat six years later.
Stylistically, with its bright blocks of color, exaggerated off-model character takes, and use of still paintings, Ren & Stimpy is an obvious influence. You cant escape it, Tibbitt says. That cartoon really changed everything. But most of the show comes from Steves art background the different visual styles, the live-action cutaways. The security guard that let you in the parking garage today made a few appearances. In one episode Aaron Springer does a rim shot after a really bad joke. Its almost like Monty Python in reverse, where instead of the cartoon invading the live action, its the live action invading the cartoon.
The cutaways come up when you dont expect them, says Cohen. There isnt a drum roll. And oftentimes theyre really low-tech looking, which is a lot of the garage-band ethos that goes into the show. We like it to look like its made by hand. The first live action image I recall seeing was a shot of the Krabby Patty floating in midair and turning. It just looked like some cheesy local commercial from the 1960s.
The apotheosis of the SpongeBob style is probably the episode, Graveyard Shift, where Squidward and SpongeBob are stuck on the night shift, and Squidward is trying to scare him with a ghost story. (Squidwards story contains a throwaway line thats not just one of the funniest lines of the series, but something like Satori: In the middle of his tale, which hes making up as he goes, Squidward claims the Hash-Slinging Slasher died after being hit by a bus and at his funeral, they fired him!)
Right before the Slasher strikes, Squidward says, the lights flicker, the phone rings, and finally the Slasher comes to get you on the ghost bus. No sooner has Squidward told his story than the lights do flicker, the phone does ring and a bus arrives to drop someone off but its only a false alarm. Its just a guy looking for work, and he phoned earlier. But if hes the one who called who was messing with the lights? Cut magnificently to the classic silent horror flick Nosferatu. There in the doorway, hand on the switch, is Max Schreck, complete with cosmetic pointed ears and a guilty-little-boy grin.
Its unhinged surrealism like this that earns SpongeBob its nine-to-90 audience and gets Tibbitt out of bed in the morning. Someone comes up with a joke, someone tries to top it, and eventually Nosferatus flipping the light switch off and on, Tibbitt says. Its a great way to work. This is why I went to school.
We stay up late until the storyboards get finished, says Cohen, because the timeline works in such a way that we have to pitch the board on a certain day. If its not funny on Thursday, and you need to pitch it on Friday, youre staying along with everybody else until it gets done. And sometimes you get a bit loopy at night. Jay Lender came up with the Nosferatu gag, and our art director Nick Jennings made this little puppet animation out of Max Schreck.
Theres a palpable feeling in SpongeBob that the traditional barriers between writers and story artists havent just been removed, theyve been nuked. Anybody with an idea can be heard. Theres no barrier for anyone, says Cohen. Revision artists might be chomping at the bit `Oh, I want to start writing my own boards! And its like, `Hey, if you want to come up with some gags, show them to us.
Cohen cites the example of Carl Greenblatt, a comic artist and ad copywriter who came to the series as a rough cleanup artist. He took it upon himself to storyboard an entire show. He did it on his own, just to show what he could do. They paired him up with Aaron Springer, and Carl and Aaron produced some of the funniest shows in the second and third season.
The creators of the show also wanted to make a conscious effort to preserve their storyboard artists rough thumbnails, the often crazy drawings that teem with life but can be problematic for the Korean studio where the show is laid out. Cohen was promoted to storyboard supervisor to help with this artistic translation. He helped define the look of the show so there wouldnt be as many question marks when it went overseas, says Tibbitt. If there was a crazy drawing, rather than saying `Okay, heres the board, animate it, wed say `Heres the board now for this pose, heres a special page, and this is exactly what we need you to do.
Cohen is a Harvey Kurtzman fan, and Kurtzmans Jungle Book taught him that liveliness transcends perfection. If theres a really weird expression in a rough board, Cohen says, well try to preserve it through the whole process until it gets on the air. Its like, `Dont kill it! Dont kill it! And there were many times in the movie when Steve would put a flag on one of the panels indicating `Go back to the rough because we didnt quite nail it.
In The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, as in the series, funny trumps everything, particularly narrative logic. Some series get way too caught up in their continuity, Cohen says, whereas there have been a couple of times that Bikini Bottom has been blown up by an atomic bomb. We just come back tomorrow, fade up on SpongeBobs pineapple. Everything is good again. Its good old-fashioned cartooning.
With the series running hotter than ever in 2002, the network requested either more episodes or a movie. I dont think Steve wanted to do either, Tibbitt says. He wanted a break, because hed been at it nonstop from getting the pitch together, making the pilot, right into boarding and writing and producing three seasons worth. Luckily there was a core group that stayed the whole time.
We came together in late September 2002, and we sat with Steve and Derek and Tim Hill, the story editor, and went over the outline and laid out a plan. We all sat in a room through mid-December just hammering out the outline and making sure we had a skeleton we could hang the jokes on.
Then the group split up and did rough boards for each section of the movie, pitched them, revised them, plugged in more ideas, and pitched them again. The process continued for a year, and by December 2003 they had a story reel to take to Paramount. The studio was very accommodating, Tibbitt says, because they knew that when it came to SpongeBob, Plankton Pictures knew best. They didnt mess around with it too much, like you would think movie executives might do. If we felt a certain conviction about a joke, they seemed to be really good about saying `This is your thing, youre the ones that made it successful.
Going in, the crews mandate was to make the movie bigger than the series, but not a different animal. Cohen says the biggest difference between the two was they could afford to lavish more attention on the movies look. You could come up with a new color palette for a sequence, Cohen says, reinforce the mood, track the time of day throughout the whole thing, make the shadows a slightly different color each time.
Making SpongeBob SquarePants into a feature presented a unique challenge. Go completely episodic, Ã la 1001 Rabbit Tales, and you might as well stay home and rent a SpongeBob DVD; make a Disney-esque heart-tugger, and you lose the anarchic spirit of the original cartoon. In the end, the movie strikes a nice balance between theatrics and pure insanity, providing a beginning, middle and end, as well as David Hasselhoff shooting the main characters from his pectorals.
The best thing about the movie is the story doesnt follow the Hollywood roadmap, Cohen says. Really, you dont have any idea whats going to happen next. Its just a product of people trying to come up with something thats funny okay, thats funnier than that thats funnier than that and eventually the mind goes to a place where the most ridiculous answer falls out of the sky right onto their brain. And theres many moments like that in the movie.
The movies last musical sequence certainly qualifies as such a moment. Not to spoil anything, but it does suggest shades of Rocky Horror and spurs an interesting question thats been weighing on too many fans minds: Patrick is a community college graduate. Hes cute, hes pink, hes shirtless. Could he or SpongeBob possibly be sexual beings?
I think SpongeBob and Patrick dont have much going on underneath their shorts, Kenny laughs. Theyre just goofballs. Theyre six years old. Its like a dog chasing a car. If the dog catches the car, he cant drive whats he going to do? SpongeBob and Patrick would have no idea what to do with a girlfriend if one turned up. Theyre definitely pre-sexual, or asexual. Theyre Ken dolls all the way.
So on they go, through a feature, a fourth series and beyond: chaste, goofy, and gloriously flat. Which reminds me wasnt 2D supposed to be dead?
When we started the movie, says Derek Drymon, it was the beginning of the end of all the 2D Disney movies. Im sure you agree, it just seems sad. For me it was never like, `Oh boy, were going to make a 2D movie will people go see it? Look at The Simpsons! Thats been running for 100 years.
I just feel good knowing that we didnt have to shoehorn a 3D sequence into the movie, says Cohen. We cant be competing with 3D on a technological level. Our strength is in the beauty of the drawn line. I have to admit I dont think much about the future of the medium, but I hope as a culture we never lose the love for stuff thats got a hand-drawn feel.
So why is SpongeBob such a hit? No one can explain it, notes Kenny, because then everybody would be making that show. Its a happy accident. Its lightning in a bottle. But it all comes from the creator. Everything about the show that people dig was there in the pitch that Steve showed me in 1996. Basically a nice, soulful, funny guy made a nice, soulful, funny cartoon. The thing people like about this show is what they like about Cheers or Frasier. They like the characters, and want to come back and hang with them some more.
Steve let us have a lot of freedom, says Tibbitt, and thats always good. You just get better work from people that way. It was more sitting around talking out ideas than just someone typing them up. Each phase of the making of the cartoons had that element of true collaboration. Most people would like to work that way. Its easier.
Cohen tends to forget his audience, immersed as he is in the feeling that hes doing it for the sheer love of cartooning. I honestly forget this show is actually aired. There was an episode in which I was wearing a Rastafarian wig, and one day somebody came up and said `I saw you on TV! And I thought, `What, was I on the news? I didnt realize that other people were watching this!
The cool thing about SpongeBob is that its done by cartoonists instead of by corporations, or writers, or toymakers. And its nice that weve kept a close-knit core throughout the whole run. The projects been going over five years now, and people jump on and jump off, but theres still a very small group of people that have gone through the whole show and can keep the heart of it pure.
No matter how long it stays in theatres this crowded holiday season, The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie will remain as an artifact of a classic cartoon series at the peak of its popularity. Like Mystery Science Theatre 3000, SpongeBob gets funnier the more people you see it with, and the movie gives fans worldwide a chance to spend some quality time flopping like fish with100 like-minded friends.
Stephen Hillenburg also finds satisfaction in the thought that, with Finding Nemo and Shark Tale, the SpongeBob movie represents yet anther tool for gently nudging a generation of youngsters toward the joys of marine biology. That would be great, he admits. I was inspired early on by Jacques Cousteaus films. They really planted a bug in my head. Any time you get somebody thats inspired by popular culture to go in that direction is fantastic.
Meanwhile Kenny faces the odd prospect that 700 years from now, some lucky archaeologist is going to unearth a Babbling Bob, and Toms voice will issue forth from beyond the grave to animate the peppiest sponge the world has ever seen. That is weird, Kenny says. Like Planet of the Apes. Dr. Zaius is going to find a SpongeBob toy in the Forbidden Zone! `Cornelius, you must not speak of this to anyone. This square person with the necktie You didnt see anything!
Taylor Jessen is a writer living in Burbank. He is the creator of Purple Passion, the imaginary energy drink that contains only as many calories as you think it does.
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