The creators behind The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie speak!
It has taken a long time for SpongeBob Squarepants to make it to the big screen. A successful Nickelodeon cartoon since 1999, the brainchild of Stephen Hillenburg. Now that he has completed the cinematic opus, Hillenburg had a chance to reflect on the humble origins of the ocean sponge.
"In the spring of 1996, I was working for Nickelodeon on a show called Rocko's Modern Life and I was interested at the time in doing a show about the ocean, an undersea show," Hillenburg said. "I am an ocean lover and fish watcher and had studied marine biology and even taught marine sciences before I got into animation. I had this interest in that field and those animals and while working on Rocko, which was an animal show, [and] I thought, ‘What about a show that stars undersea creatures, and some of them are those you rarely see animated?’ So from there I started drawing different animals in a setting that was this nautical world that was not realistic but was a fantastic environment. But you need a star, so I wanted to do a show about an ‘innocent,’ a kind of Laurel and Hardy character who is a boy/man and kind of an oddball in this world, so that you could have the comedy come from this character. And so the question became ‘What marine animal would be the most suitable for this kind of square peg?’ So I started drawing these sponges because I thought it would be really funny if it was a sponge because they are so different from everyone else. So I started drawing these sponges for a while with googley eyes, looking for this kind of Jerry Lewis character. And then I drew this sink sponge and I started talking to some colleagues about it. I thought it was perfect because he is literally a square peg and he is squeaky clean, and it just seemed as though he was the perfect oddball inside or outside the sea community. It seemed like he was much different than anyone else because he is rectangular and they are smooth-shaped and streamlined for moving around in the water. The main idea was that ‘Here is this innocent and naive kid-like character who is going to bring this silly point of view and cause lots of trouble for himself and for the characters around him as they take advantage of him. Or even for himself if he were to learn this curse word and not know what it meant, being a kid.’ So all of those things were important in writing stories, and they come from this little sponge and his point of view."
Hillenburg brought Tom Kenny on to voice the child-like character. "I knew Steve from another show, and he knew that I was the guy for Spongebob from the beginning, but he had to convince the powers that be that there wasn't some celebrity who should do it," Kenny said. "So I had Steve going to the mat for me from the get-go. I was Spongebob from before he pitched it."
Bill Fagerbakke, who plays SpongeBob’s faithful buddy Patrick, was not so sure. "I had a pretty standard auditioning experience, other than the fact that it was unconventional because usually you're in a studio, you got the can, you got the thing, blah-blah-blah," Fagerbakke said. "But Steve was in a room like this and he had this little '70s cassette player and he had a picture of Spongebob and a picture of Patrick, and he said Spongebob is way up here, and so I did my low thing, and well I was lucky enough to sound right for
Though Kenny and Fagerbakke did not know who they were up against, Hillenburg said he was never looking for a celebrity name. "On TV it is more efficient to use voice-over people because it is really hard to get celebrity voices to recur in a series," Hillenburg said. "It is tough. And to be honest, there is a special gift for doing voice-overs and the people who did the voices in the SpongeBob cast are excellent at cartoon voice-overs and they bring something extra to the reads. Tom is so funny and I saw him on Rocko so often steal the show and he was playing a secondary character and I thought, ‘If I make him the main character he won’t have his thunder stolen by someone like Bill Fagerbakke.’ He is hilarious and he is a great sidekick. Put them together and you have Tom who is really amazing funny and Bill who is incredible and they have great chemistry."
Now the voice actors are celebrities in their own circles because of the voices. "Kids want to hear it because they like to, but adults want to hear it because they think the voices are artificially enhanced electronically and they want you to do it," Kenny said. "They think it's like the Chipmunks or something, and I'm like 'No, its real' and say [in Spongebob Voice], 'OK, I will, put that in your electronic picture and smoke it.'"
Fagerbakke’s kids used to ask for the Patrick voice all the time. "They outgrew wanting to hear the voice," he said. "There was that identifying me with the character a lot more when they were younger, and my oldest I remember when she was 8 or 9 was saying, 'Dad, you are so stupid!'"
From the beginning, Hillenburg had a reason for everything, including the pineapple where SpongeBob lives. "It is not as random as it appears, at least not to me," Hillenburg said. "The world he lives in is inspired by nautical things, like from a marine gift shop. [There is] Polynesian and Hawaiian both in the music and in some of the imagery and in the sky. There are these flower shapes that are in the background that are clouds in that world and in the case of the pineapple it is a common image in Polynesian fabric. When I was drawing things for the characters to live in I was working freely with what was there and I drew a pineapple to see what would happen. I drew a door and a chimney on it and later I thought, ‘If I laid out a rock, a pineapple an Easter Island head and an old rubber boot what would he pick?’ and it was the pineapple. He is an optimist. He would like the smell. For me it is not random which is what I was saying."
Smell? Underwater? "I don’t know if the marine animals would be attuned to it but they really use a sense of smell a lot," Hillenburg continued. " Crabs for instance can find scavenge by just chemical sensing, so if you have an old fish head for instance, they will find it with a sense of smell. It’s very important to a lot of marine animals."
With explanations like that, it wasn’t hard to sell the actors on the concept. "He brought me in and said he had this idea it's about a sponge, and I have you in mind, and come on over and I can't explain it, come on over," Kenny said. "He had beautiful drawings and water color paintings of Spongebob's pineapple and a beautiful water color painting of Squidward's tiki head house, and a description of every character that was very telling and right on, and I thought it was one of the coolest things I ever saw and it looked totally new and different but also kind of retro and familiar. I could see Crum in it and Max Fleisher in it."
Fagerbakke was lost, but went with it anyway. "Not being as astute as Tom, it was nonsense to me," Fagerbakke said. "’Who's ready? I'm ready?’ asking them twice, and I wondered why, and I thought he was cutting into the Teletubbies crowd. And then we had helium in the room when we had to do the voices of the anchovies, and we had balloons with helium. The whole cast is going "eh eh eh eh," and this is in the pilot, but I finally saw the pilot and I got it, I got the actual feel and tone of the show and since then it's been nothing but delightful."
SpongeBob and Patrick’s big screen adventure, The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie hits theaters Friday.
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