Saturday, February 11, 2012

Animondays Interview: Stephen Hillenburg

As an employee on a Nickelodeon production for over eight years, one of my perks was being able to attend company staff meetings where then-Nick president Herb Scannell would warmly explain the state of the company. If that wasn't enough, there was free Snapple. As part of his spiel, there would usually be video clips of upcoming Nick shows or movies. One day the clip introduced a little yellow sponge that would soon take the world by storm.

If you've never taken the SpongeBob plunge, may I recommend seasons 1-3. They are simply magic.

On one hand SpongeBob was simply part of the continuum of Bugs Bunny, Woody Woodpecker, and other trickster characters with big personalities and signature loud laughs. On the other hand SpongeBob was innovative in that he ushered in the modern era of the innocent rube-like character, the naive man-child who looks at the world with unspoiled eyes. Of course this character type has existed before in literature, theatre, film, and TV, but SpongeBob gave us a new spin on the tradition and created a trend-setting phenomenon. Post SpongeBob, this character-type has echoed in animation, influencing such series as Cartoon Network's Chowder and Flap Jack.

While working at Nick in NYC, season one of SpongeBob became our water cooler conversation. So, one day I got the notion to call creator Stephen Hillenburg in Burbank to see if he'd agree to do an interview for the ASIFA-East newsletter. He agreed immediately and sent me back a great set of answers. Without further ado, here's a snapshot of the early days of SpongeBob from an interview dated April 2, 2001, and appearing for the first time in its entirety online. Enjoy!

What was your background in animation before creating, developing and producing

I attended CalArts and participated in the Experimental Animation graduate program under Jules Engel. During this time I produced two animated films, 'The Green Beret'( a short envolving a GirlScout with enormous hands) and 'Wormholes'( a short about a fly landing on a watch in 'relativityland') both of which toured the festival scene. I also created another film of straight ahead animation titled 'Animation Diary' which consisted of 365 drawings (one drawing drawn per day for the year 1991). After graduating I was hired to work on the Nickelodeon series 'Rocko's Modern Life'. I directed for three seasons and was promoted to Creative Director for the fourth season.

What pitch materials did you use to "sell" Spongebob to Nickelodeon?
I created a bible and a few paintings to explain the characters and their world. To supplement this I sculpted SpongeBob, Patrick and Squidward and put them in an aquarium where they were propelled by an air pump. I also recorded a temp theme song on a small tape recorder and mounted it inside a conch shell with a mercury switch, the song would play whenever the shell was lifted to the ear. I was also nude.

How much did the initial vision for Spongebob change or evolve from the original concept?
Did minor characters develop into more prominent roles?

Originally I wanted the show to focus on this innocent, optimistic, overly enthusiastic, sometimes odd and even magical character(SpongeBob) living this nautical fantasy world. I think we've pretty much stayed on course. The key has been finding stories where either SpongeBob prevails innocently or where his innocence causes a conflict for himself. I wanted the overall sensiblity of the world to be wild and surreal yet have logic. Most of the original cast remains with no real change in their importance.

How did you come to meet the people who work on the show like Derek Drymon, Aaron Springer, Mr. Lawrence, Sherm Cohen, and Paul Tibbitt?
I'm lucky I guess! There is a direct relationship between the success of this show and my immensely creative staff. These guys and all the other crew members are hard to find and hard to replace.A few people (Derek Drymon for example) worked on 'Rocko'. Most of the people I find through word of mouth.You have somebody on the staff you like and trust, they recommend someone they think would fit in nicely on the show. Often you're searching for someone that has the right sensibility, the appropriate sense of humor ( someone who 'gets it' ).

What, if any, roles have you taken on in producing Spongebob that you don't enjoy?
Managing people is an essential part of producing a show but managing people can be tiring. I like going to work and being creative. When the other stuff gets in the way it's a drag.

Many of the new wave of television cartoons including Courage the Cowardly Dog, Power Puff Girls and your show feature the storyboard credit prominently before each cartoon, alongside the director's name. What is the role of storyboard artists on Spongebob? In addition to their work on boards, do they make major writing and directorial contributions to the show?
On SpongeBob a writing team writes the premise. Then a Director and Storyboard artist 'team' write the episode in 'comic' or storyboard form. We do not storyboard from script.

The story ideas for spongebob are very simple, well told, entertaining and full of great little touches like the poor fish who keeps getting hit by the anchor toss in the muscle beach competition in the episode where Spongebob gets fake muscle arms. At what point do the smaller details that end up contributing so much to the overall effect get into your show? Where do these ideas come from? Do you ever wonder if one more gag or one less gag could make or break a sequence?

Our overall philosophy has been keep it simple. Try to find humor in a simple situation ( that hopefully reaches absurd proportions). Put the characters together and watch what know like red ants and black ants. We are only doing eleven minute stories so there are not alot of subplots. Sometimes we will build an entire act around one silly concept. SpongeBob and Patrick both have candy bars. Patrick is so stupid that he forgets that he has just eaten his and believes the one SpongeBob holds was his. SpongeBob is now a thief. The humor should always come from character. The ideas come from everywhere and anyone. Things like childhood memories. When developing stories we often play non-linear thinking exercises ( like pulling words out of a hat and writing a situation inspired by the word ). Ultimately the ideas that stick are the ones that consistently make everyone laugh. As far as the number of gags goes, I definitely think the pacing of a section can be bogged down by too many jokes.

Some entire episodes of Spongebob can be understood with the sound turned off....for instance, the episode in which Spongebob delights in the limitless joys of a simple piece of paper. How do you balance the visual to verbal content of the show from each episode's inception?
What probably helps most here is reviewing all drafts of the story ( after the outline stage) either as a storyboard or an animatic,
doing visual and verbal rewrites simultaneuosly.

Several episodes of Spongebob feature terrific song segments that are woven effectively into the plot lines, such as the "friendship song" sung by Plankton and SB, the "ripped my pants" song and Sandy's "wish I was back in Texas". Did the song ideas evolve out of the plot lines or did the plot lines evolve out of the song ideas?
All the above songs were written after the plot was determined.

There is an LA based group of artists that draw heavily upon cartoon (and animation) imagery in their work (Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, etc.) Have these artists or any other contemporary art world influences inspired Spongebob in any way?

I was at this museum once that had a room full of cartoony Mike Kelley drawings that were all really bizarre. A group of elementary kids led by a museum docent entered the room and got really excited about the drawings. A few were examining this depiction of I think Abe Lincoln with brain waves and others were pointing at this one drawing of a goose biting a little boy on the penis. The docent was clearly uncomfortable and quickly ushered them out of the room (against their will ) to the next exhibit. I've always wanted SpongeBob to be that compelling....did I answer the question?

Did you experience any resistance from "the network" in incorporating live-action elements into SB? (Like in "The Suds" episode when the hand reaches in and grabs the characters and washes them out)
No. They were a little worried about 'Patchy the Pirate' though.

How do you maintain the high quality look of your show when dealing with an overseas studio handling the animation?
Our overseas studio is Rough Draft. They are really the best studio in Korea for cartoony animation. Sure there's communication barriers but those guys work really hard and have some talented cartoonists on board. Also they are quite familiar with other Nickelodeon shows such as 'Ren and Stimpy' and 'Rocko's Modern Life' where layouts were done from detailed storyboards.

Did you cast the show yourself? Do you ever do any VOs on the show?
Donna Grillo and I cast the show. I would explain to Donna the specific voices I had in mind for each character and she would recommend a list of candidates. I did the voice of 'Potty' the parrot in the 'Patchy the Pirate' live action segments. Anybody can do a parrot.

What's your personal favorite SB episode to date and why?
Being so close to the project it's impossible for me to have a favorite. I think the shows get better and better. The characters become more developed, the animation more consistent.

Were Spongebob's nocturnal dream traveling adventures at least partially inspired by the Sour Puss and Gandy cartoons made at Terrytoons in the early 1940s?
I'm not sure.That was an idea Doug Lawrence hatched.

The character of Bubble Bass and Spongebob seem to have a Jerry and Newman relationship, a-la Seinfeld. What films, television shows, comics...etc, do you draw creative inspiration from?
For this particular series anything that deals with 'Candide'-like innocence. Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Pee-Wee,
The Muppets. Movies like 'My Life as a Dog' or 'A Christmas Story'. Also Popeye, Beany and Cecil, Krazy Kat, Dr.Suess, Yellow Submarine, Calvin and Hobbes. I should mention that a great deal of the inspiration for the series came from my interest in marine biology and surf culture.

Spongebob draws a large adult following. Are you surprised that adults have taken to your show?
Yes and no. It is Saturday am TV, but since we write things that make us laugh one could assume other adults would also find the show amusing. We definitely don't pander to kids...but we also try not to write over their heads. I was more surprised to hear about college students playing drinking games while watching 'Blue's Clues'.

What animated shows, if any, do you measure your work on Spongebob against or consider your creative competition.
'Ren and Stimpy' and 'The Simpsons' raised the bar for all TV animation. Those shows really inspired us to try to do something memorable or maybe even groundbreaking. At they same time we are fighting hard to not copy them. Always asking 'How can we not be like those shows?'

What independent animators/animated films do you admire?
Jules Engel. He's singlehandedly taught and inspired countless independent animators. His age is a mystery.

Paul Driessen. When I was thirteen I went to a Tournee of Animation and saw 'The Killing of an Egg'. That film made a lasting impression on me.

Richard Condie. 'The Big Snit' has got to be one of the greatest indies ever.

If you had three wishes, what would they be?
1.Pleasure for all things living and non-living.
2.To never have to 'high five' an industry executive.
3.That they resume production of 'Tombow'2B pencil.

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