Stop Motion Casts a Spell on SpongeBob

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How the talented team at Screen Novelties brought a familiar 2D toon to 3D life in It’s a SpongeBob Christmas! special.

You can call it the Rankin-Bass legacy—the reason we tend to enjoy our classic animated holiday programming spiced with a touch of stop-motion magic. It’s only natural that kids who grew up watching Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town love to see the same technique applied to today’s favorite animated characters. So when the creative team behind Nickelodeon’s long-running show SpongeBob SquarePants decided to create a new Christmas special this year, they went straight to the folks at L.A.-based studio Screen Novelties, which specializes in stop-motion magic.

Screen Novelties had worked with SpongeBob creator Stephen Hillenburg and exec producer Paul Tibbitt on the 2008 theatrical release and the show’s 10th anniversary special opening titles, so it made sense that they’d also produce the animation for this Christmas special. Plus, they have also done some amazing stop-motion work for TV shows such as Robot Chicken, Moral Orel, Chowder, MAD and The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack. They even collaborated with film legend Ray Harryhausen on the 2002 Annie-winning short The Story of The Tortoise and the Hare.

“They dug one of our shorts that we’d done a while back, which was called Graveyard Jamboree with Mysterious Mose, and wanted to have us apply our sensibilities to SpongeBob,” says Screen Novelties co-founder Seamus Walsh who co-directed the special with partner Mark Caballero. “We come from the same planet as far as our sense of humor and comic sensibilities are concerned. But we also wanted to make sure that it felt like a SpongeBob episode.”

It’s a SpongeBob Christmas!

It’s a SpongeBob Christmas!

The half-hour-long It’s a SpongeBob Christmas!, which debuted on CBS last month and airs on Nickelodeon on December 8 finds Plankton turning everybody in Bikini Bottom from nice to naughty by feeding him some jerktonium-laced fruitcake. After several months of research and development, work on the show began in October of last year. Among the cool stats we dug up on the shoot: Six sets were constructed on which 60 pounds of baking soda were used as snow, 42 pounds of glitter added sparkle to the magic, 22 pounds of wood chips were used to create Sandy’s tree-house floor and 20 boxes of cereal covered the coral rocks.

One of the team’s biggest challenges was making sure the stop-motion version of Bikini Bottom resembled the 2D world of the series. There was also the issue of making the yellow absorbent hero of the show resemble his 2D self.

“We had to make sure SpongeBob felt like SpongeBob,” says Caballero. “It actually took us a few months of going back and forth to make sure it didn’t feel too plastic-y and ultrarealistic We ended up using a type of cushion foam that was pretty malleable and gave off a bit of a translucent yellow glow off him. It had feel cuddly and happy-go-lucky as well as having that extra crazy element. It’s not easy to translate a 2D character into a puppet: It can get ugly if you’re not careful.”

It’s a SpongeBob Christmas!

It’s a SpongeBob Christmas!

SpongeBob veterans Hillenburg and Tibbitt provided hands-on feedback on the production on a weekly basis.

“They’d check out the weeklies and go back and forth with us on the various gags,” says Walsh. “It was really a pleasurable experience when they came to visit, because we come from the same planet. It all felt very easy and natural.”

About 30 people worked on the special over at Screen Novelties.

“When we were doing the initial animation, it was a very busy period for all of us,” says Walsh. “We came in at about 8:30 in the morning and didn’t leave until midnight some days. But it all zipped by pretty quickly. We felt pretty lucky because usually executives involved with productions look at the stop-motion process as annoying, but on this special, they were very jazzed and gung-go about it. Plus, the stop-motion community is very small, and everyone seemed to be thrilled to work on the show.”

It’s a SpongeBob Christmas!

It’s a SpongeBob Christmas!

When asked to pick a favorite part of the special, both Caballero and Walsh point to the beginning minutes during which SpongeBob wakes up and meets the different characters.

“You track down in Bikini Bottom as he wakes up, and there’s a cute sincerity about the whole segment,” says Walsh. Caballero adds, “We got to do some multi-media mixing of techniques here. There are some strange puppet cutaways. We wanted to keep the weird element in there. Everything that we direct has to be charming and a little bit odd as well. We believe that our heroes Rankin and Bass started it with Rudolph. You need to have a little bit of creepy in your holiday entertainment. It even goes back to Dickens when he introduced ghosts in A Christmas Carol!”.

Now that they’ve re-imagined SpongeBob and his pals as stop-motion heroes, the Screen Novelties guys are getting ready again to work on their own original material. In addition to several new projects, they are shopping around a feature based on their popular Monster Safari short. The pic revolves around a pair of bumbling crypto-zoologists who spring into action to save the world’s most famous monsters from a ruthless big-game hunter. They’ve also delivered a LEGO piece for Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time and stop-motion work for Nick’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series. In addition, they are working on a special holiday fundraiser at L.A.’s Cinefamily to raise money for the Bob Baker Marionettes, the city’s 50-year-old children’s theater.

It’s a SpongeBob Christmas!

It’s a SpongeBob Christmas!

“It’s our way of thanking Bob Barker, who was one of the original animators at the George Pal studio,” says Caballero. “It’s our way to saying thanks. It was because of people like Bob that we got into stop-motion animation.”

“The animation landscape has changed so dramatically over the past 15 years,” adds Walsh. “Directors can choose how they do their movies. People like Wes Anderson can do stop-motion, and you have all these people coming out of the woodwork trying their hand at different kinds of animation.”

“There’s more stop-motion happening in Los Angeles than ever before,” says producer Chris Finnegan, who co-founded the shop with Caballero and Walsh in 2003. “We seem to have more TV work coming from Disney, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon. And this year, especially, we’ve seen such an appetite for stop-motion in the world of features [ParaNorman, The Pirates! Band of Misfits, Frankenweenie, etc.]. Of course, it may never go head to head with CG in terms of mass appeal, it’s more of a niche audience. We are always happy to do it for people who get it.”

It’s a SpongeBob Christmas!

It’s a SpongeBob Christmas!

Of course, one of the reasons the team at Screen Novelties has been able to succeed in the competitive world of indie animation is their flexibility and ability to adapt to the changing needs of the market.

“You have to be nimble and keep the overhead manageable,” says Finnegan. “We have to be able to maintain our studio facility, keep our key staff employed, and be mindful of not getting too big. In addition to stop-motion, we also do some Muppet-style hand puppets, cutout animation and experimental stained-glass techniques. We also do 2D animation and might be working in CG in the future as well. It’s all about being nimble and riding the waves. For a small company like ours, it’s challenging and exciting at the same time.” And that sounds a lot like life with SpongeBob in Bikini Bottom.”

It’s a SpongeBob Christmas! airs on CBS on Friday (Nov. 23) at 9:30 p.m. and on Nickelodeon on December 6 at 8 p.m. The special is also available on DVD (Nickelodeon Home Ent., $14.98). To learn more about Screen Novelties, visit www.screen-novelties.com.

It’s a SpongeBob Christmas!

It’s a SpongeBob Christmas!