FLASHBACK: “Don’t Blow SpongeBob” by Yas Takata

On Monday, giant screen theater operators and other industry professionals will be meeting at Moody Gardens, Galveston, TX, for a demonstration and discussion of giant screen digital projection systems.  Today we look at Moody Gardens in 2005 and the film that opened its 4D Theater, “SpongeBob SquarePants 3D.”  Originally conceived for Paramount Parks, we asked the film’s director, Yas Takata of Blur Studios, to give us an inside look back in 2003.  “Don’t Blow SpongeBob” by Yas Takata originally appeared in the July/August 2003 issue of The SFC Review. (C) 2003 LPN Media/Joseph L. Kleiman

Don’t blow SpongeBob.

OK, this wasn’t Blur’s only mantra in bringing Nickelodeon’s SpongeBob SquarePants to the big screen as a 3-D adventure, but it was one of the guiding principles. Sure, we’d successfully turned Star Trek, Star Gate, The Mask and Stan Lee’s 7th Portal into excellent performing large format attractions, but this one was different.

Our concern stemmed from the fact that we weren’t dealing with any sponge, but SpongeBob SquarePants, Nickelodeon’s hugely successful cartoon and soon to be feature film. If you are not yet familiar with him, he’s the porous yellow fellow with the high pitched laugh that you’re always tripping over at stores, amusement centers, and anywhere else where products our peddled.  Currently, he’s more famous than the Beatles…

Blur’s first project for Paramount Parks, Stan Lee’s 7th Portal, was another 3-D simulation film based on a 2-D property, but unlike SpongeBob, The 7th Portal was an unknown property broadcast to a small audience via the internet using Flash Animation. For the 30 fps 870mm attraction film, we went way beyond the simple graphics used in the internet distributed ‘webisodes,’ and went instead for an environment with real textures and lighting, but with bright, primary colors – a comic book come to life. The relative anonymity of the property allowed us to develop a unique look that would perhaps later become incorporated into the brand, and even into the webisodes. It was hoped that the launch of the large format attraction would drive interest to the website and vice versa. In the case of SpongeBob, the fan base is well established – We knew that kids would protest en masse at Blur’s front doors if we didn’t get it right.

Don’t blow SpongeBob.

Our success or failure would hinge on how we were able to incorporate ridefilm and 3D gag
moments into a narrative that remained true to the original material. It had to BE SpongeBob.  Executive Producers Anthony Esparza and Dean Sharits, then of Paramount Parks, and coproducer Jon Corfino of Attraction Media and Entertainment (AME), and now distributor of the completed film, reminded us of this task.

The first hurdle – Could we create a credible facsimile of the show using computer graphics, and more importantly, could we convince Nickelodeon that we could? (We heard they were concerned about the use of CGI for their tent pole character who is normally rendered using traditional 2-D techniques) Co-director Paul Taylor of Blur conducted a simple test – SpongeBob and pal Patrick running towards each other on the beach – a typical scene from the show, with backgrounds and foregrounds carefully matched to the show. Enter Albe Hecht, then president of Nickelodeon, who took one look at the 10 second test, and said… absolutely nothing. Did he hate it? Or like it?  We couldn’t tell. Only later (after we were awarded the show) did we realize that his non-reaction was perfect – it said that nothing he saw was different from the show. We were on the right track.

DEVELOPMENT

They had bought our story, but now it was time to develop one for their film. Blur prides itself on it’s writing and development contributions on whatever project it embarks upon, and such would be the case here, but Tim Miller, president and creative director of Blur made an early call that would pay off in the final product – we would engage the writers and creators of the television show, something we had never done on any of our previous large format projects. Sherm Cohen and Kent Osborne, storyboard artist / creative and writer of the series, respectively, were enlisted to help pull the concept together. It was fruitful collaboration. The SpongeBob guys fought for everything that makes their show so unique, and Paul, Tim and I worked to ensure that it all had a ridefilm and / or 3-D component to support it. The real objective of the collaboration was to write a story that would provide the perfect balance of storytelling vs. ridefilm and 3D thrills. The two concepts aren’t mutually exclusive, of course, but trying to achieve both within a single scene isn’t easy – try thinking about Kant while riding a roller coaster….

We wanted each scene to have one objective, be it storytelling, ridefilm thrills, or 3D gags – Are we telling story here, or teasing them with a Krabby Patty dancing in the air within arms length?  It was juggling with 3 differently sized and weighted objects. Experience has taught us that trying to mix two, and even worse, all three in one scene can lead to confusion, ineffectiveness, and worst of all nausea. “It was great!! I laughed, I cried, I threw up!!”

Eventually, we settled upon a simple story – SpongeBob goes on an all or nothing quest to find the last remaining pickle, so he can finish a customers Krabby Patty, but it’s been stolen by his best friend Patrick, who is really a robot controlled by evil but ineffectual arch enemy, the diminutive Plankton…. In the viewing, it’s quite simple.

It is easy in a 4:40 minute film to have a majority of fast moving footage and in your face 3-D gags. But the TV shows mainstay is wordplay and character development, and as I have mentioned numerous times, we needed to stay true. Working with the creators of the show during the development process kept us on the correct path.

PRODUCTION

For the nearly 2 dozen Blur animators, the greatest challenge was to re-create the cel shaded look of the TV show in a stereoscopic 3-D environment. Modeling and animation was done using the animation package 3D Studio Max, and the program Toon Shader was employed to re-create the cel animated look and textures of the show. With the production schedule running tight, Jon Corfino decided that the creators of SpongeBob, in addition to approving the story concept and larger milestones, would be brought aboard at key mid-point junctures to pre-approve our work.  To this end, artwork, elements, animation tests, color swatches, whatever, were sent to series creator Steven Hillenburg and series Creative Director Derek Drymon prior to anything being put up for final approval by Nickelodeon or Paramount. This ‘pre-approval’ step greatly improved efficiency and sped up the process. A second, equally important aspect of their feedback was that it reduced the amount of ‘do-overs,’ the bane of an animators life. Too many do-overs and you’ve got a grumpy and irritable staff, not a environment conducive for their best effort.

Not helping our schedule was Blur’s decision to include an additional :40 seconds of running time, (without additional renumeration or production time) something we felt was necessary to adequately tell the story AND include the requisite ridefilm and 3D moments. Any less would compromise one or the other, something we were not prepared to accept. Blur producer Sherry Wallace took all these issues in stride, and kept the staff moving confidently toward to the finish.

Daily stereo comps were pre-vised with LCD shutter glasses on Blur monitors, and more finished comps were projected at Max Penner and Tim Thomas’s Paradise FX facility in Van Nuys, using inexpensive DVD’s to test the 3D at a larger scale.

POST PRODUCTION

Who knows how SpongeBob’s world sounds better than the guys who do it? We commissioned the sound effects and audio production talent of Jeff Hutchins and music supervisor chops of Nick Carr, both longtime contributors to the show. For the pre-show we called upon veteran SpongeBob show editor Lynn Hobson to edit the pre-show, which utilized cuts from the TV show which are then interwoven with Blur produced footage of SpongeBob languishing in a long, interminable queue line just like the one the guests will see at the venues.

Despite the complexity of the show, the limited production schedule in which to complete it, and the importance of the show to all involved, everybody, Blur and clients alike, pulled together and completed the film without complication. In the end, we believe we have successfully re-created the feel of the TV show, but with the ride film thrills and 3-D gags that audiences will expect.  Surprisingly, only about 25% of the film is standard, forward moving ‘tunnel blast’ simulator footage, a staple of all ridefilms and effective yes, but hardly the place for characters to express themselves through body language or dialogue. Almost half of the film (2:10) has neither fast moving motion OR obvious 3D gags, but is there for all the other parts – all the parts that make SpongeBob SquarePants so beloved. In fact, because there is comparatively so little traditional ridefilm footage, what there is becomes even more effective. That goes for the 3D effects as well – A little does go a long way.

MULTIPLE FORMATS

Because Paramount had planned to enter the film into general distribution in non-competing territories, the film needed to be framed for multiple formats. Paramount is projecting the film in 570mm, but there is also an 870 mm negative and prints available for other venues. A line was burned into all our pre-vised comps and animatics to ensure that the film would play equally well in both 570 and 870. This posed a challenge to the animation team, as one gag that worked in 870, would not be as effective in the narrower 570 format. Trial and error, and of course, compromise was required to keep everybody happy.

Also, because the project is archived, we can create additional formats or frame rates, sequels, whatever, and not have to start from scratch. After spending many years in traditionally filmed motion controlled models and miniatures, this is a most welcome feature.

Says Esparza, “Paramount Parks is dedicated to providing its guests with entertainment at the highest level and have aggressively pursued popular brands like SpongeBob SquarePants. We are happy with this film and the process it went through at Blur Studio. It came out on budget, it installed on time, and people love it. It’s rare that you get all three. We are thrilled.”

Don’t blow SpongeBob. And we didn’t.

CREDITS
Client: Nickelodeon

“SpongeBob SquarePants” Creator: Stephen Hillenberg
Creative Consultants: Eric Coleman
Derek Drymon

Client: Paramount Parks Inc.
Executive Producers: Anthony Esparza
Dean Sharits

Client: Attraction Media & Entertainment, Chatsworth, California
Co-Producer: Jon Corfino

Production Company: Blur Studio, Venice, California

Creative Director: Tim Miller
Director/CG Supervisor: Paul Taylor
Director: Yas Takata
Assistant CG Supervisor/Character Animator/Scene Assembly: Derron Ross
Producer: Sherry Wallace
Production Assistant: Amanda Powell
Lead Character Animator/Modeler: Marlon Nowe

CGI Company: Blur Studio, Venice, California

Modelers:

Irfan Celik
Sam Gebhardt
Modeler/Character Rigger/Scene Assembly: Sze Chan
Scene Assembly: Tom Dillon
Modelers/Scene Assembly: Juan Granja
Brook Kievit
Character Animators: Bryan Hillestad
Jeff Wilson
Character Rigger: Paul Hormis
Modelers/Character Animators/Scene Assembly: Mak Koyama
Leo Santos
Effects Animation: Seung Jae Lee
Modeler/Character Rigger/Character Animator: Cemre Ozkurt
Character Animator/Scene Assembly: Dave Vallone
Systems Administration/Support: Duane Powell
Daemeon Nicolaou
Barry Robison
Dave Humpherys

Additional Support:

Writer: Kent Osborne
Storyboard Artist: Sherm Cohen
Sound Effects and Score Supervisor: Jeff Hutchins
Music Supervisor: Nick Carr
Editor, Pre-Show: Lynn Hobson

Film-Out: Iwerks Entertainment/SimEx

Film-Out: Scott Shepley

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