The Patrick Star Show, a family sitcom starring SpongeBo’s best buddy Patrick and his kooky family, premiered earlier and proved yet another successful addition to the SpongeBob franchise receiving the green light for 13 more episodes to the first season. With Halloween back in full force this year, Nickelodeon is getting into the spirit with “Terror at 20,000 Leagues” a Patrick Star Halloween Special combining stop motion and 2D animation.
To create the stop motion segments, the producers have once again enlisted the services of Screen Novelties, a Los Angeles-based stop-motion animation production company. This isn’t the first time the SpongeBob crew has collaborated with Screen Novelties whose stop motion work can be seen in previous episodes in specials including “It’s a SpongeBob Christmas!” from 2012 “The Legend of Boo-kini Bottom” from 2017. If you’ve been watching The Patrick Show, you’re well aware of the regular stop motion segments that imagine antagonist Plankton as mad scientist Dr. Plankenstein while Patrick and SpongeBob play the role of Igor and Frankenstein monster respectively. The stop motion segments are featured very prominently in the new Patrick Star Halloween Special.
The Beat had the chance to talk with the show’s co-executive producers Vincent Waller and Marc Ceccarelli as well as Screen Novelties co-founder Seamus Walsh about the challenge of producing this Patrick Star Halloween special in the midst of the pandemic as well as their overall experience in creating the show overall.
Dar: How much of the production for The Patrick Star Show was done before the pandemic and were there any hiccups working on the show remotely?
Vincent Waller: Most of the development happened in the studio. Once we were in production we were pretty much locked down.
Marc Ceccarelli: We have a pretty well-oiled machine. We’ve been doing SpongeBob for over 20 years. I’m not really surprised but we didn’t have any hiccups at all with the lockdown. If anything they got more work out of us.
In the old days when we were at the studio, you’d have to go across the building to each new meeting. Then each meeting would take about 15 minutes to get started. Now you hang up on one meeting and push the button to start the next meeting.
Dar: Animators figured out pretty quickly how to work from home during the pandemic but obviously that’s not possible for stop motion animation. What did the production entail for you and Screen Novelties for these segments and this Patrick Halloween Special?
Seamus Walsh: It’s funny because stop motion animation is already notorious for being slow because you’re animating puppets frame by frame. The pandemic made it a little more difficult because we have a crack team of people that all work really well together and a lot of times we get on the stage at once. The art department is setting up all the props and dressing the set while the animator and I are discussing all the action and the lighting crew is also in there because we’re trying to be as efficient as possible to create stop motion in a timely manner. The pandemic did make that harder because now the art department has 15 minutes in there, then lighting, etc. and so it had all had to be broken. But we got it into a pretty good groove after a few weeks.
We would have multiple stages set up at any given time. We could bounce back and forth if it was getting too crowded in one stage. A stop motion stage is pretty small, usually about a 10-foot by 20-foot little area. We usually take one bigger sound stage and break it up into these little black boxes where you can control the light on a frame-by-frame basis. All in all, it was nice to get back to production again. We had all the safety protocols in place and no one got sick while we were shooting. We’re kind of somewhere between animation production and live-action production.
Dar: These Dr. Plankenstein stop motion segments lend themselves perfectly to a Halloween episode. Were they created with the intention for a Patrick Star Halloween special, if not how did they develop?
Waller: Not just for the Halloween show, we created it to be part of the show ongoing. Any chance we get to work with Screen Novelties we always bend over backward to try to find something they can sink their teeth into.
Ceccarelli: We’ve done the SpongeBob Christmas Special and we also did the SpongeBob Halloween Special. Those were some of the most fun experiences that I’ve had. Going to their studio and getting to see all the models and doing the same approval process that we have with our 2D show. As somebody who grew up watching Ray Harryhausen movies, any excuse we get to go down that stop motion path we do. It seems like stop motion lends itself to that creepy Halloween vibe. We’ve used them a lot in that subject matter.
Dar: Was the lead time for producing these segments shortened due to the pandemic?
Walsh: This one was a little bit shorter mainly because we were concentrating on the three characters and there weren’t background or ancillary characters to worry about. So it was a little bit scaled-down overall so we’re able to build everything fairly quickly. We have translated all the Bikini Bottom characters before but this was a new interpretation. We were able to use a lot of our old tricks in terms of translating the 2D characters into these appealing-looking puppets. Sometimes a character that looks good in 2D takes a while to find their dimensional form that exudes the energy they do in 2D.
It’s a very challenging part of the process but we really like it. It was really cool to take what we had learned from making the first Patrick puppet who’s just a really fun puppet to work with and make him this Igor version of Patrick. He has this hunchback and we had to move his head into a completely different area than it usually is from the puppet we made before. It was condensed and there was a lot to figure out but I think everything we had learned from doing them before helped make this new build go fairly quickly.
Ceccarelli: We have a certain budget for the stop motion segments and we just have to figure out strategically how to make them work within that budget. We’ll have a segment in one episode and another segment in another episode. We kind of write them that way across the whole season so it feels like they’re plugged into the whole show.
Dar: These new segments are in black and white invoking that old-school horror vibe and you actually painted the puppets in various shades of grey as opposed to filming it in black and white. I’m reminded of the challenges that the WandaVision production team encountered when they were filming those early black and white episodes, so were there any difficulties for you and Screen Novelties?
Walsh: That was really fun and something that we had been wanting to play with for a while. The first time we spoke with Vincent and Marc about these episodes we all immediately said, “We’re doing this in black and white, right?” Everyone was super excited. We briefly considered shooting it in black and white but then we thought there could be some fun to have it feel black and white but sneak little bits of color in. It does make it harder especially with stop motion. These models have a lot of detail on them. The black and white can get challenging if you don’t have different colors to help separate characters from the background. But we just went through and Alicia our painter get a lot of testing on this and did a great job on it. We were playing with warmer colors for all the backgrounds and cooler colors and grays on the foreground characters to help separate them.
Back in the days of black and white television, if you look at color photos from behind-the-scenes of the old Addams Family show which was black and white but things are painted all these bizarre colors. Some of the background things are painted pink or this baby blue color because the art direction knew what things were going to read well once they were photographed in black and white. It’s pretty fascinating. All that kind of knowledge is lost for the last 60 years because of color television. So we’re kind of going back to that. We do like to experiment with monochromatic and complimentary colors. In a way, it was similar to that but this was an extra level of trying to simplify and use lighting to create separation between characters and background. It just helps the animation read better if there’s not a lot of extra detail.
Dar: During my press junket interview with the Patrick Show voice actors we discussed the Pee Wee’s Playhouse vibe of The Patrick Star Show. Is that indeed an influence?
Ceccarelli: That was definitely a big influence on a lot of the people on the show. In our writers’ room, one of our head writers Kaz was part of the production group. I know he did some packaging artwork for some of the products that they made for that show. He knew all those guys. He was in RAW magazine with Gary Panter who designed Pee Wee’s Playhouse. We have that weird connection.
It just felt like creativity with the lid off like anything goes. A big smorgasbord of different weird creative ideas. We were trying to key into that kind of feeling. There’s a lot of other shows that were influences like The Ernie Kovacs Show. We grew up with The Carol Burnett Show. Back in the ‘70s, it seemed like there were a lot more variety shows back then.
Waller: There were like three a night. Cher, Jim Stamford, anybody you could think of.
Ceccarelli: Even if you look at Nickelodeon’s history it started in the ‘80s with You Can’t Do That on Television. They always seemed to have a variety show in their pipeline so I feel like we’re carrying on that tradition in our own sort of weird way.
Dar: The Patrick Show received an additional 13 episode order to the first season. Will we see more of these stop motion segments?
Walsh: I believe they want to consider doing Patgor and Dr. Plankenstein segments. I think we did over the course of the season. We got a lot of footage in the Patrick Star Halloween special. I think over the course of the season we did maybe 10-12 minutes worth of footage. So I’m hoping we did more chances to explore these characters. There’s more cool things we can do with the lab and dungeon and the turrets. We got glimpses of those in the first season but there’s all this unexplored territory. The way the 2D world comes in and invades the 3D world was just so fun and a fun challenge. I hope we get to delve deeper into the sandcastle, so to speak.
Ceccarelli: Oh yeah definitely.
Waller: We use several different genres and completely different drawing styles throughout the season. It’s just another tool in the toolbox that we love.
Dar: Finally, what’s the challenge in juggling three different SpongeBob shows (the main show, Kamp Koral, and The Patrick Star Show), and how does each differ?
Waller: They’re all fun! [Laughs]. It was definitely easier when we were leapfrogging doing SpongeBob, Patrick, Koral. And now we’re doing SpongeBob, Patrick, Koral all at once!
Ceccarelli: Each of the shows is structured slightly different. I think that keeps it interesting and exciting for us, especially in the writers’ room. The SpongeBob and Kamp Koral episodes are a bit more traditional 3-act story structure. When we knew were going to have to do another spinoff with the Patrick Show, just for our own sanity we decided to go down a route where the story wasn’t quite as important. It was more about the digression and that variety show format. It made the episodes more gag-centric. While the other shows were always trying to find excuses to write simply and pile on the comedic gags, this made it even easier for us to do that. We didn’t have to service the story.
Waller: The Patrick Show is a cartoonist’s dream gig. To quote [animator] Sherm Cohen, “I love on the Patrick Show! More please!” [He] realized the story is more free-form and you’ve got a style change halfway through the storyboard. It just really keeps your mind active. You’re definitely not bored.
The Patrick Star Halloween Special “Terror at 20,000 Leagues” airs tonight at 7:00 p.m. (ET/PT) on Nickelodeon
Patrick Star Halloween Special Fun Facts!
- It took two main stages and two ancillary stages running for several months to create the nearly 12 minutes of stop-motion footage in “Terror at 20,000 Leagues.”
- Dr. Plankenstein’s castle is a sandcastle somewhere on the spooky outskirts of Bikini Bottom and the “forest” around the castle is made of those “drip castles” often made on the beach as kids.
- The special features oatmeal! It took about six different formulas to come up with visually satisfying animatable oatmeal.
- Real oats were mixed with wax, classic “elementary school science project” slime, and other secret ingredients. Then the animation took days to accomplish, so it had to hold its shape for many hours at a time.