Tuesday, March 02, 2021

Tim Hill Talks ‘The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run’

Originally published: Friday, June 12, 2020.

There are not many animated characters that can still inspire the kind of devotion SpongeBob SquarePants does after 12 successful seasons over two decades on the air and two hit movies. Created by Stephen Hillenburg, who died in 2018 after a battle with ALS, the beloved yellow character and his Bikini Bottom pals are ready for another feature adventure this summer in The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run.

Update (3/2/2021) - After being delayed, The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run will debut on Paramount+ and PVOD on Thursday, March 4, 2021!

The new outing centers on SpongeBob’s search for his lost pal, Gary the Snail, who has been abducted by King Poseidon. Along the way, SpongeBob and Patrick (voiced hilariously as usual by Tom Kenny and Bill Fagerbakke) travel to the lost city of Atlantis to track down the good gastropod. In addition to Kenny and Fagerbakke, the movie also features the rest of the show’s original voice cast (Roger Bumpass, Clancy Brown, Mr. Lawrence, Jill Talley, Carolyn Lawrence) as well as some surprising live-action star turns from Snoop Dogg, Keanu Reeves, Awkwafina and Reggie Watts.

This third movie in the SpongeBob cinematic experience is animated by the team at Montreal-based Mikros Image, and is co-written and directed by Tim Hill, a veteran of the TV show and the first SpongeBob movie, whose credits also include Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties (2006), Alvin and the Chipmunks (2007), Hop (2011) and Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever (2014).

Hill, who met Hillenburg when they were both working on Rocko’s Modern Life in the early ’90s, says he was drawn to the new movie because of its clever storyline and characters. The director met up with a group of SpongeBob series veterans and Hillenburg to explore fresh ideas for a third movie featuring the character. “I was asked to put together an outline, and then asked to take a stab at the script, and eventually they asked me to direct the movie,” Hill recalled to Animation Magazine. “The studio had plans for a different version of the movie, but that one was scrapped. Steve was always a fan of grounded, relatable and simple stories. I think the previous script was a bit too far-fetched. So we opted for this story which is about SpongeBob losing Gary as he’s kidnapped by a very vain King Poseidon (voiced by British comic Matt Berry, The IT Crowd) who uses snails to make his skin shiny and young.”

An Homage to Hillenburg

The director says the film’s story is very relatable as everyone can identify with losing a pet or a good friend. “I think it has a great theme and is built as an homage to Steve Hillenburg,” he notes. “Everyone comes together to help SpongeBob because of all the things he has done for them. We thought in a way it’s about what this character has meant to people over the years. It’s a celebration of creativity and humor, and by extension, it’s an homage to what Steve gave to all of us during his lifetime. That’s why I wanted to do the movie, because there was something deeply personal about it, which goes beyond just having a great story and memorable characters.”

Hill says he cherishes some great memories of working, hanging out and going to the movies with Hillenburg. “I met him when we were both in our 20s. When I look back, it’s Steve’s art and sense of humor that really stand out for me. I loved his perspective and ironic sense of humor. He loved art and movies. We used to catch revivals of movies of the silent classics … Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin. We went to animation retrospectives, National Film Board of Canada shorts. He would play guitar and we would all jam in his office. He painted, too. He was a real Renaissance man.”

The helmer says in the earlier stages of development, there were questions about whether to take the traditional 2D approach or push for a CG-animated movie that wouldn’t “break” the look audiences associate with SpongeBob. “Sometimes, I feel that CG doesn’t always serve human characters very well,” says the director. “During our development period, we took a lot of time looking at old clips from the first SpongeBob movie and translating them to CG. We tried a lot of approaches, but I think we ended up with a great solution. It feels a little bit like stop-motion; it’s snappy and more forgiving than general CG. It’s like film animation, we did it on ones and twos (one frame of film per movement or two frames of film). In that way we got the animation to look similar to what we’re used to on the show.”

To animate the project, the studio tapped Mikros Image Animation (Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, The Little Prince) with the production mainly done in the Montreal studio. “It was a bit of a learning curve because they are a digital studio and they don’t come from a 2D world,” says Hill. “We were looking for snappy animation, because it’s more comedic that way. We took the time to get everybody up to speed with the style. One of the show’s original timers went to Montreal to help them with the timing, and they got pretty good.”

According to Hill, the film’s background also presented some challenges since a lot of the show’s sets were more graphic. “For example, a wall would be just a color, but we had to make it all dimensional and put lighting on it and make it a little tactile and real. We had to do stuff with the lighting like caustic and atmosphere and rays coming from the surface to keep it feel like the water is moving round and affecting the plant life. All of those things give it a little verisimilitude and give you this feeling that they all live in a fish tank.”

Of course, there is always the issue of how to make a CG-animated version of the characters look and feel like their 2D counterparts. As Hill explains, “We had to be very subtle with our character modeling and surfacing. For example, we had to figure out how to treat SpongeBob’s shadow side: Does it go green like it does on the show? We had to be careful with the way SpongeBob’s flat top can become too angular if you use the wrong lens. Or take Plankton: He is a kind of a cell organism, so you have to have transparency, but also a little bit of a wet surface. It’s all about dialing it in until it looks right. You just know when it looks right.”

Hill also points out how important the overall colors of the movie were in the whole process. “SpongeBob is such a vibrant show, but in this CG world, the colors get saturated very quickly, so we have to weed out a lot of the specularity,” he notes. “You know, this is my first fully-animated feature, so I’m just telling you what I learned!”

Building a Better Sponge!

Sponge on the Run’s animation supervisor Jacques Daigle says he feels like he’s been living in Bikini Bottom for the past 28 months. He and his team at Montreal’s Mikros Animation have been working hard to make sure SpongeBob and his pals look as funny, cartoony and tactile in CG as they do in 2D. “We had all three first seasons of the series to look at to understand all the timing techniques,” says the animation veteran, whose many credits include Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, The Little Prince, The Smurfs 2, Mune: Guardian of the Moon and The Star.

“One of the most important things for our team to understand was the timing techniques of the show, which is crucial in comedy,” says Daigle. “Tim Hill and some of the other animation directors on the show trained us to really understand the timing. Our team at Mikros was very open and excited to make the project as honest as possible, and not try to reinvent anything.”

Daigle, who worked with about 80 people in the animation department at the Montreal studio, says the most important thing was to ask the right questions about the final goal. “In terms of the designs of the camera in 3D, we really cheated to the camera a lot,” he notes. “Comedy has to be in your face, so we ended up forcing the perspectives a lot. After all, SpongeBob is a square, so sometimes the top of his head would be hidden in CG. There’s a comfort zone where you can add all your cheats and get away with it, and it doesn’t become too noisy or questionable. It’s funny, because the original show is in 2D, which is all about drawing to make the world look 3D — while we have a 3D movie, which we wanted to make look like a 2D show. It was a cyclical argument!”

“Because of perspectives and the camera, [SpongeBob’s] back limbs looked smaller, for example, so we had to beef him up,” adds Daigle. “SpongeBob is a different Bob in every single shot. We had to simply trust the system and the original rules we were given. Why use six poses when you can just use two or three poses in five seconds to make it work? You don’t need that extra blink. We really tackled it as if we were working in hand animation. It was all about making it snappy and really understanding the language of SpongeBob. We used Maya, but we built a lot of specific tools for the movie, because there was a lot to figure out!”

Daigle says the whole experience was a great exercise in restraint for all the animators involved. “We are used to moving everything, but we just had to accept that we don’t move everything all the time. Tim Hill was relying on us to provide the comedy in our animation. He would give us a slight nudge and we’d sit down and talk about how to make it as funny as possible. We were all so proud of working on this movie. It was such a special project, and every single one of us knew that this was an experience that we were all going to remember. It made us grow so much and become better as animators and as people.”

Live-Action Surprises

The movie also features about 12 minutes of live-action footage. Hill says this was a strategy to give the audience something special, an element that would really make it a cinematic experience for everyone. “When you have a popular IP like SpongeBob, that has had so many episodes and two movies already, you have to think about things that will excite people and get them to come see it on the big screen.”

Hill says it was a good thing that all the live-action footage, the animation and the dialog was done by the time the entertainment industry had to shut down because of COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic precautions. “By the time you’re done with the animation, it’s usually just the director dealing with the editor, putting in new shots or adjusting them,” he explains. “The movie was originally scheduled for May, so most of the work was done. It just made it a little hard to do real-time notes and editing and the music. But we were just doing the post stuff — final lighting, music, effects and dubbing. We got lucky!”

When asked about the timeless appeal of SpongeBob, Hill believes it’s the intelligence, heart and playfulness at the core of the show that has made it such a phenomenal success over the years. “It’s always about friendship and relationships,” he says. “The show also comes up with creative solutions and surprising ways SpongeBob gets around things. The characters remind me of those wonderful silent movies in a way. They all work so well together. It’s truly a wellspring that Steve created and gave the world.”

Paramount is scheduled to release The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run on August 7. The movie might be available on VOD if theaters remain closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

From Animation Scoop:

INTERVIEW: Tim Hill Is Ready To Unveil “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge On The Run”

Alvin and the Chipmunks, Hop and The War with Grandpa director Tim Hill’s latest film is finally making waves in the U.S. Following a theatrical run in Canada last summer and a Netflix debut overseas in the fall, The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge On The Run is premiering in the U.S. this Thursday March 4th on Digital platforms and the new Paramount+ streaming service.

This is the third feature film starring Nickelodeon’s iconic sponge, who leaves Bikini Bottom with pal Patrick to look for pet snail Gary. It’s a storyline that was first highlighted on a 2005 episode of SpongeBob SquarePants (“Where’s Gary?”) But according to Hill, it’s one that always stuck with the show’s late creator, Stephen Hillenburg. Hill talks about his time with Hillenburg, as well as the major influence of a classic holiday movie on Sponge On The Run.

Jackson Murphy: The legacy of this franchise is so incredible, and you’ve been involved in it, on and off, over the past 25 years. What were your initial goals for this third movie?

Tim Hill: Well, make a funny movie. I think that’s sort of always been how we started the show. Whatever made us laugh. We never tried to make it for kids. It was just kind of Steve Hillenburg’s brain, and I was glad to get in there and help him develop it. It was always whatever we liked, and so I tried to keep that as an ethos. A goal. It’s fun, it’s funny, it’s silly, it’s stupid, it’s emotional, it’s action, it’s a lot of physical comedy, it’s a road trip. The driving story. All those elements kind of come second after you want to keep it within the SpongeBob. But then going CG and all these other things happening…

Tim Hill: [The] story was bigger when we started. It was like a 120-page script. So I had to widdle that thing down. There were a lot of songs in it. Originally it was a pretty ambitious musical extravaganza. But songs are the first things to go. Just for story and brevity and playability, I think we made the right choices. There’s still some really fun songs in it. You have your big ambitions and then you meet reality and go, “Oh. It’s too long.”

JM: Wow. There’s so much there that I want to bounce off of, Tim. You’re right in that there are still some terrific songs in the movie, including one towards the end. And you have this big, surreal sequence with Snoop Dogg and some others that you kept in. Those live-action elements embody what SpongeBob is all about, which is surrealism. How was it for you with the live-action?

TH: It’s kind of my jam: doing the live-action and having animated characters in there and having actors react to them when they’re really just looking at a piece of wood. You try to make it real for everybody. I really like doing that. It takes a lot of visualization and planning. And I had some of my old crew from my other movies who’ve done it before, so it made it a little easier. And then great actors to work with. Really fun. Danny Trejo and his great tacos.

JM: Yeah! With the restaurant!

TH: Yeah, it was really enjoyable. We had a really good time shooting that.

JM: And Keanu Reeves is hilarious too as Sage. You also directed Alvin and the Chipmunks and Hop, so yes, you’re well known for the live-action/animation combo. And speaking of songs, the soundtrack in this is so fun because you incorporate some iconic songs: “My Heart Will Go On”, “Take On Me”, “Livin’ La Vida Loca”. Did you really have free reign with the budget to choose what songs you wanted?

TH: No one ever said “No” in terms of money. The collaboration was to find the best music and we have a great music supervisor. “La Vida Loca” just came out of a “crazy time in Las Vegas” vibe. SpongeBob and Patrick going wild in a casino world and losing their focus and getting lost in it.

JM: So vivacious. Them going to the casino and losing focus AND losing money and enjoying themselves is so entertaining. And that whole Lost City of Atlantic City is so detailed. It’s amazing. How difficult was it designing that?

TH: We had great people working on it. I just remember Atlantic City as being the stepsister of Las Vegas with all the thematic stuff. I thought it was a perfect world for SpongeBob with Goofy Goobers and themed restaurants and casinos. We wanted to build it up pretty big because it is the sea of power for the king. Fun avenues. There were a lot of cool designs that we couldn’t quite get in there. We saw some funny electric carts from the ’50s on the boardwalk of Atlantic City with people driving around in them. We made funny SpongeBob versions of that. I wanted to use more but the movie got a little long, so not all of it got in, but enough to make it really powerful and colorful and a really cool set. I’d love to do more in that set. There’s so much there. Ferris wheels.

JM: Yeah. All the colors. I would love to see maybe a return there at some point. I remember when the title of this movie was going to be “It’s a Wonderful Sponge”. And as I’m watching the third act of “Sponge on the Run”, there’s a very well done, emotional scene involving many of the main characters up on a stage talking about SpongeBob. And I feel like that embodies that “It’s a Wonderful Life” feel. How much of that “It’s a Wonderful Life” concept, besides that sequence, made it into the final product of the movie?

TH: That theme is still there, and I think it’s pretty strong. The idea of someone who… At the end of “Wonderful Life” everyone chips in and replaces the money that Uncle Billy lost. And they do it for Jimmy Stewart’s character because they love him and they’ve always been there for him. And that’s sort of what we drafted off of for that idea. Originally, there was a little bit more to the beginning because Camp Coral was more of a linear construct. [The film] started in Camp Coral and then we kind of dissolved to 20 years later.

Part of what the impetus for the movie was… a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the show. But then COVID happened, so I guess we’re on the 21st (laughs). But that was why we wanted to make it kind of epic: celebrate the whole thing, see how they all met, see them all as kids. And we eventually put that into those testimonials that you mentioned instead of opening the movie that way. What happened was we ended-up having two first acts, which is never good. We had a whole Camp Coral thing and then you start the movie. It was a prologue that was too long. But it did set-up the “Wonderful Life” idea a little better. That tracks with what Frank Capra did. But it’s still there and still really strong.

JM: Yes. And this sequence is fantastic. You’re right that this story and these emotions are bigger than the show. They really work. For somebody who’s grown up with SpongeBob and has had SpongeBob as a part of his life for a long time, that sequence means a lot. And I’m sure Steven Hillenburg would’ve loved how this film turned out. How was it working with him before his passing on this particular project?

TH: The idea kind of sprung from his brain. They wanted to make a movie. They knew they had this goal of the anniversary of the show and Steve was still involved in the series. We would get together and meet and he had this idea based on a SpongeBob episode where Gary goes missing (“Where’s Gary?”) He ends-up in this crazy cat [snail] lady’s house. I think he always liked what that did for the character emotionally – the loss of a pet starting a story and driving it for the whole movie, which it does. We talked about that, and then we started talking about this skincare idea. Apparently parts of snails are used in some cosmetics.

JM: Yes, that’s explored deeply in the movie.

TH: If you didn’t know that, here it is! It also gave us an ecological theme about how we treat our fellow creatures. Steve was pretty big on that. That’s a big thing for him as he was a Marine Biologist. He graduated with that degree and he actually helped kids. I think he was involved in a program where he helped kids discover sea life down at the Marina. He was really into the ocean and keeping it from getting too far gone and spoiled.

JM: He was able to teach kids about undersea creatures and undersea life and then through the show teach them even more. You’ve had this and The War with Grandpa, which you also directed [basically] release back to back. Are you taking a little break or do you have another project lined up?

TH: I’m pretty much sitting at home, to be honest. I’m looking at stuff and taking meetings. But I don’t know if the world is really back in full force in development and making movies. I guess that’ll happen. It’s been pretty quiet since last January for me. So I’m ready!

JM: I’m ready: perfect SpongeBob phrase!


From TV Line:

How SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run Willed Keanu Reeves to Appear — Plus, Kamp Koral Prequel Scoop

SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run stages the franchise’s most epic run-in yet when the film’s porous and absorbent lead finds much-needed spiritual guidance from a magical tumbleweed named Sage (played by Keanu Reeves), bringing two larger-than-life characters together on screen.

According to writer and director Tim Hill, who also penned the first SpongeBob Movie and served as a writer on the animated series, no one but Keanu was suited for the ethereal guest appearance.

“When I wrote the character, I kept having Keanu in my head so I never really had another person that we were thinking about. It was so lucky that he was like, ‘Sure, I’ll do that,’” Hill shares. “We made little Keanu drawings so long before he actually agreed, he was kind of in the movie. We had temp voices doing him and the momentum was too much.”

Sponge on the Run — which premieres Thursday, March 4 on Paramount+ (currently known as CBS All Access) — follows our titular hero and his best friend Patrick on a wild journey to Atlantic City to save Gary, who’s been snail-napped by the mighty King Poseidon. Their quest puts them in the path of many other colorful characters, including the Chancellor, who is voiced by actor and comedian Reggie Watts. This was a unique experience for the Late Show With James Corden house band leader, who is excited to see his character come alive on film.

SPONGEBOB MOVIE: SPONGE ON THE RUN - Chancellor (voiced by Reggie Watts)

“It’s just crazy,” says Watts. “The thing about animation is you do the voice and you see maybe a picture of a character and then you just go away. It was cool to see what I did and how it contributes to the story. I wasn’t expecting it to be as wild as it was, actually.”

SpongeBob and Patrick’s adventure also includes a flashback to the Bikini Bottom bunch’s younger years, setting up the forthcoming series Kamp Koral: SpongeBob’s Under Years (also set to stream on March 4). The 3D-animated series will follow the adolescent gang as they “build underwater campfires, catch wild jellyfish and swim in Lake Yuckymuck at the craziest camp in the kelp forest, Kamp Koral,” per the official description.

Hill reveals that the film began as an early idea for Kamp Koral before being consolidated into a flashback and then spun off into its own series. “It was never intended to launch a series,” he explains. “It was just something Nickelodeon picked up on and decided to do a whole thing on.”

With Kamp Koral set to explore the gang’s younger years, fans will get to see these familiar faces in a new light, while for the cast, it’s an opportunity to uncover interesting new tidbits about their characters. Just look at Carolyn Lawrence, who was intrigued to find out “that Sandy wasn’t always the smartest in the room” since that’s how the underwater squirrel usually views herself. Meanwhile Clancy Brown, who voices Mr. Krabs, joked that he was surprised to learn that “my daughter Pearl was once smaller than I was.”

Rodger Bumpass, who voices Squidward, is looking forward to the teal-tinted octopus flexing a bit more power in the prequel series. “I have my little room in the back and when I hear the insanity, I get to storm out like R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket. I get a little bit more authority than at the Krusty Krab, so that’s fun to do,” he says.

Meanwhile Bill Fagerbakke, who plays Patrick, is excited for fans to see the franchise’s signature earnestness shine through in Kamp Koral “because I think that’s important, especially for young children. I am always very appreciative of that kind of narrative when it manages to find its way into a story.”

Tom Kenny at Sponge on the Run premiere

It’s been nearly 22 years since SpongeBob SquarePants (created by the late Stephen Hillenburg) premiered on Nickelodeon, arriving at the turn of the millennium when dial-up internet was standard and rewatching episodes meant either waiting for the rerun to air or recording it on VHS. Tom Kenny, who voices the title character, reflects on the show’s two-decade history and how the process has changed amid a global pandemic.

“SpongeBob arrived just before the Internet became such a giant component. There was no streaming 20 years ago,” Kenny explains. “We [recorded] the same way where you go into a studio and we’re all standing around our microphones. We always record together, which is really fun, and obviously we can’t do that now. But  you try to be as real and do it as sincerely as you can, because I think people would smell it if we were phoning it in after 20 years.”

While he enjoys the “eight-second commute” to work, Bumpass says making the new film and series while apart from his costars has been difficult: “Us not being able to be together, to me, it does affect us a bit. We’re professional enough to do the characters, but not being there with people and interacting with my fellow actors in the same room is a little bit isolating — literally and figuratively.”

“You gotta push yourself a little harder to get that cojones-to-the-wall energy that just comes naturally when you’re standing in a room with everybody,” Kenny adds. “It’s more of an act of will to make it happen. It’s a different process, for sure.”


More Nick: 'Kamp Koral: SpongeBob's Under Years' and 'The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run' to Debut on Paramount+ on Thursday, March 4!

Originally published: Friday, June 12, 2020.

H/T: Anime Superhero Forum /@SweetShop209.

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