Thursday, 19 March 2020

The Paleoart of Spongebob Squarepants

Fig. 1: Ah, l’océan préhistorique. When bivalves built reefs and brachiopods were not boring.
It is a common trope for cartoons aimed at children to have at least one episode centered around dinosaurs or prehistoric times. Normally these are rather generic affairs, featuring anachronisms and inaccurate designs, and are rarely worth discussing. However, if there is one thing that is far from normal, it is a certain Spongia officinalis(?) living in an Ananas comosus. A thing that I always admired about the original creator of Spongebob Squarepants Stephen Hillenburg, now sadly gone from us since November 26th 2018, is that he managed to create a cultural icon that has now arguably surpassed Mickey Mouse not through meticulous and soulless focus-testing, aggressive marketing or selling his soul to the Flying Dutchman, but instead by literally just being passionate about his interests. Before beginning work as a cartoonist and animator for Nickelodeon in the 90s, Hillenburg had worked as a teacher in marine biology for the Ocean Institute of Dana Point, California. He specifically taught about life in the tidepools and nautical history. To engage his artistic interests, he created a comic specifically for his students called The Intertidal Zone, in which anthropomorphic sea-creatures educate the reader about life in the shallow waters. Many of the characters in The Intertidal Zone would later evolve into those we see in Spongebob Squarepants. It is this passion for sea-life that created the show. Much of its beloved nautical nonsense, the thing that arguably is responsible for Spongebob’s success, actually makes sense from the view of a very nerdy marine biologist. The fact that clams are Bikini Bottom’s equivalent to birds is likely based on the fact that scallops can actually actively swim through the water by clapping their shells. The Goo Lagoon, a sea under the sea, is likely inspired by real world deep-sea brine-pools. Sheldon J. Plankton is a cyclops because planktonic copepods only possess a single naupliar eye and Patrick Star’s advanced stupidity is probably in reference to the fact that starfish do not possess a brain. Many of the bizarre buildings in Bikini Bottom are actually sunken boat-parts and other scrap-material on closer inspection. The Krusty Krab is a repurposed commercial lobster trap and Spongebob lives in a pineapple because the fruit was a common crafting material of the maritime Polynesian cultures and seen as a symbol of hospitality during colonial times. The French narrator is a parody of documentary-filmer Jean-Jacques Cousteau. The main character himself is a sea-sponge because that was the weirdest animal Hillenburg knew of (and I bet that most people originally watching in the 90s did not even know this was a real animal instead of a kitchen utensil). Many other such examples can be found all throughout the first three seasons of Spongebob and judging by early sketches, Hillenburg wanted to originally lean into the biological and perhaps even educational aspect even more, as Patrick was originally supposed to have the spikes typical of echinoderms and Spongebob was supposed to look like an actual sea-sponge.
Fig. 2: The credits for the episode Ugh/Spongebob BC, showing trilobites that are probably meant to be the Cambrian genus Elrathia.
It is for reasons like these that Spongebob Squarepants becomes interesting when it delves into the prehistoric, as in addition to generic dinosaurs and cavemen we also get many elements from invertebrate paleontology, which is rather unique as far as cartoon-shows go. As a marine biologist, Hillenburg likely had at least some basic knowledge about extinct invertebrates and I believe some of that actually managed to bleed its way into these episodes, alongside influences from artists such as Zdeněk Burian and Ernst Haeckel.

SB-129

The first episode in which we see prehistoric Bikini bottom is SB-129, featured in episode 14 of season 1, written and directed by Aaron Springer and Erik Wiese. The title is an in-joke as it was the 29th individual episode of season 1 of SpongeBob (though technically it was the 28th). It was first aired on December 31st 1999, alongside many futuristically themed episodes of other Nickelodeon shows, as this was the height of the Y2K scare, the belief that the world was going to end on the beginning of the year 2000 due to a fatal programming error in the world’s computer systems. The 90s were weird. The episode begins with the typical motif of Squidward being annoyed by Spongebob, who wants to go jellyfishing with him even though his neighbour would rather play his clarinet. As it is Sunday, Squidward gets the idea to simply hide out in the closed and empty Krusty Krab, but by doing so he accidentally locks himself in the restaurant’s freezer. Despite his hope that someone will notice he is missing and go look for him, he instead remains frozen for 2000 years. By pure coincidence the room’s door breaks open after this time and the encased cephalopod is found and freed by Spongetron, a future robot-descendant(?) of the poriferan. Interestingly, a calendar in the background indicates that the date is March 6th 4017, meaning that the beginning of the episode took place in 2017, seventeen years after it actually aired. In reality March 6th 2017 was a Monday, however. After being freed, Squidward is of course very shocked that he is greeted by a robotic version of his neighbour, of whom exist 486 clones (for each letter of the new English alphabet), and that everything in the future, literally everything, is in chrome now. After an unpleasant meeting with the two-headed Pat-tron and a room-sized can-opener, Spongetron allows Squidward to use the Krusty Krab’s resident time-machine to go back to his own era. Instead of doing so, however, the cephalopod goes far, far into the past in order to escape both present and future versions of Spongebob.
Fig. 3: The primordial sea of SB-129. On the left we see crinoids and an ammonite, on the right trilobites, anemones, corals and the silhouette of a prehistoric sponge.
As he exits the machine, he finds himself in an alien landscape. The water has a greenish-brown, murky colour, the vegetation consists of strange, tree-like corals, sea-anemones and crinoids and a large ammonite swims by in the background. In general the landscape seems similar to Zdeněk Burian’s paintings of the Cambrian and Ordovician, however the coloration is more reminiscent of other prehistoric artwork, namely Fantasia. Squidward comments that he likes the “old world charm”. He is truly a man of taste. The ground is littered with trilobites, though they are inanimate and act more as part of the scenery. While too simply drawn for an exact classification, they seem to be of the classic redlichiid-type and are likely meant to be Elrathia and/or Paradoxides. This, together with the abundance of crinoids, makes it likely that Squidward found himself somewhen during the Middle Cambrian period about 500 million years ago. Of course that does not exactly add up, as ammonites like the one we see would not appear until the Devonian period and strange, whale-like noises can be heard in the distance (giving the entire scenery an even more eerie and extraterrestrial feeling). It was perhaps unintentional, but in one shot one of the trilobites also appears to be based on Praecambridium, a proarticulate from the Ediacaran. Squidward theorizes that he arrived at a time before manners were invented, because as he walks out of the time machine he gets spooked by a large, worm-like creature appearing and swimming right in front of him. It has actually been difficult for me to figure out what that thing actually is. The very flat ribbon-shape and two-eyed head seem to indicate a turbellarian flatworm, perhaps some member of Polycladida, though the antennae on the front and end do not exactly match. The first thing it made me think of was a painting of polychaete worms by Ernst Haeckel, so I think it could also be meant to be a stylized bristle worm of the type found in the Burgess Shale or Sirius Passet. If you have a better guess please tell me. 
Fig. 4: Squidward gets surprised by a worm-like creature. Bottom left is a concept design that bears antennae on the head which are not present in the final version. Bottom center is a flatworm of the genus Pseudoceros. Left is a drawing of various polychaetes by Ernst Haeckel. 
After the encounter he meets prehistoric versions of Spongebob and Patrick. The former has become a now defunct meme, with many people calling him Spongegar, but the actual Spongegar is the one that appears in the episode Ugh, while the one here has no name. Disappointingly neither the prehistoric Patrick nor the prehistoric Spongebob are based on a fossil echinoderm or sponge respectively, even though there is a wide variety they could have chosen from, such as homalozoans or archaeocyathans. Instead they look like ape-man versions of their present counterparts and behave in the same way. Squidward leaves them alone at first to play his clarinet, but his peace is interrupted by the painful screams of the two troglodytes as they play hot potato with a jellyfish. Interestingly the jellyfish looks the same as one from modern day Bikini Bottom, probably because these buggers have not bothered to evolve for the past 700 million years. Literally, some of the oldest jellyfish from the 635 million year old Doushantuo Formation still largely look the same as the ones today. To give them an occupation that does not bother him, Squidward teaches the two how to jellyfish. Now finally in peace and quiet he begins to play his instrument, but he is so awful at it that the sound turns the prehistoric Spongebob and Patrick absolutely mental and they start chasing him in a wild frenzy. Squidward manages to escape back into the time machine, but accidentally breaks it and lands in a dimension of absolute nothingness. At first he appreciates the solitude, but the isolation begins to make him paranoid and he starts panicking. After he admits that he misses his own time period and even Spongebob, the time machine transports him back into the present. Spongebob and Patrick were already waiting for him there to ask him to go jellyfishing with them. Annoyed again, Squidward asks who even invented that stupid hobby, to which the two answer that it was he himself. Squidward looks in terror as he realizes he has created a causal time loop.
Fig. 5: A Silurian ocean as drawn by Zdeněk Burian. Compare with the scenes from Spongebob.

Ugh

Unlike the previous episode, which had a regular 11 minute runtime, the also minimalistically titled Ugh - the alternative title is Spongebob BC with the BC part standing for Before Comedy – was an entire special, meaning it was twice as long. It was the fourteenth episode of season 3, was directed by Paul Tibbitt and Kent Osborne and first aired on March 5th 2004. As the narrator tells us, we begin in Encino, California 100 million years ago and are greeted by Patchy the Pirate (played by Tom Kenny) greeting us in caveman-attire inside a Flintstones-themed set. Patchy is apparently not only president of Spongebob’s fan-club, but also a big fan of prehistory, which is the reason for this special. His pet parrot Potty does however not share the same enthusiasm and instead of wearing the pterosaur-costume Patchy made for him, he dons a futuristic outfit, complete with jetpack and Geordi La Forge-goggles. Patchy and Potty ensue into an argument over whether the past or the future is cooler (a fight we probably all had at least once on the playground) and as nobody seems to be able to win the debate, Patchy starts the actual episode.
Fig. 6: An imaginary prehistoric whale and a “stegosaurized” Gary.
We begin with the familiar shot of the small island in the Bikini Atoll, however the sky is again in a murky brown and a Pteranodon flies overhead. So far this pterosaur is only known from the Western Interior Sea of North America, though it is probably not impossible that some species may have flown around the Proto-Pacific. The camera pans down into the prehistoric sea. The landscape is roughly similar to the one seen in SB-129, with strange corals and crinoids, however trilobites are largely absent in the episode except for the title card. That is an interesting attention to detail, because trilobites went extinct before the Mesozoic, which is when this episode seems to take place. As the morning sun rises above the primordial ocean it wakes up a herd of strange, whale-like creatures. The Spongebob fandom wiki calls these Dorudon, which is an extinct species of Eocene four-flippered whale related to the more famous Basilosaurus. That is however just what the fandom came up with and there is no hint that the actual creators of the show intended this to be Dorudon, as it really looks more like a humpback whale with Stegosaurus-backplates. I therefore think this is not meant to be any real species, but just some imaginary prehistoric-looking sea-creature that the animators came up with. As they wake up, they let out a call that resembles Spongebob’s foghorn alarm-clock, which wakes up Spongegar. We see the primitive poriferan get ready for the day and walk his pet, a prehistoric version of Gary, now dinosaur-sized and even featuring a thagomizer and a caveman unibrow. In case you are curious, the actual largest snail known from the fossil record is the Eocene Campanile giganteum, whose shell grew nearly a meter long. Spongegar meets his neighbours Patar and Squog. After unintentionally annoying Squog, Spongegar shows Patar his tool with which he produces soap bubbles. Lightning hits the device and starts a fire (this is of course possible to happen underwater as this was before the laws of physics were invented). At first they are scared of the fire and burn themselves, but in a moment that obviously parodies 2001: A Space Odyssey, Spongegar discovers that it can be used to cook food. Amazed at how well it tastes, the three cave-invertebrates cook every possible thing they can find, from plants and Mr Krabs’ ancestors to literal sand and wood.
Fig. 7: The two rappers Eminem was too scared to diss. Funnily enough they are played by Spongebob and Patrick's voice-actors, so it made sense that they became friends in the end. 
Act 1 ends and we come back to Patchy and Potty, whose argument has severely escalated. Patchy is apparently such a big fan of prehistory that he brings in an actual caveman (played by Patrick’s voice-actor Bill Faggerbakke) which he thawed out of an ice block with his mother’s hair-dryer. Potty counters this with an actual robot from the future (voiced by Tom Kenny). Chaos ensues as the robot and the caveman get into a fight and we go back to Act 2 of the actual episode. After having eaten the entire prehistoric landscape into emptiness, the finally satiated cavemen decide to go home, but soon a fight ensues over who gets to keep the fire for themselves. A Looney Tunes-esque chase-scene begins, which ends when a short burst of rain extinguishes the fire. Patar and Spongegar realize that they almost destroyed their friendship, but Squog wants to hit them over the head with his club for ruining the fire. As he strikes out, however, he is hit by lightning. Patar and Spongegar go on to grill a few veggies over his smoking body and we return back to Encino, California. Patchy sits depressed in front of his cave-house because Potty ruined his special. The parrot comes to him and tells him that he feels sorry about it and found a way to make it up to him. They go back inside, Patchy sees that the caveman and robot have now become friends and they start performing a breakdance number and song about how both the future and the past are great and can coexist as friends. It did not make sense back then, even in context, and it does not make sense now, but goddammit, this was our jam back in the day. Patchy is amazed and Potty tells him that he also made him a present, an authentic one “right from the stoneage”: A living Tyrannosaurus rex, portrayed in glorious stop-motion. It starts chasing Patchy and bites and lifts him up by the legs. While it tickles Patchy with its teeth, the pirate tells us a hearty goodbye and the episode ends. While maybe a bit stiff, the T. rex is actually quite decently animated for the few seconds it appears. What is quite surprising in retrospect is that despite probably being a shoutout to the old Ray Harryhausen movies like 1 Million BC, the dinosaur here is actually quite up to the standards of the time. It walks with the spine held horizontally and does not drag its tail, while its head actually matches the shape of the real fossil skull (not always a given with popular depictions of T. rex). For a 2004 episode of a Nickelodeon cartoon, that is one good dinosaur. Come to think of it, this might be one of the few times where a proper Dino Renaissance-style theropod was actually portrayed in stop-motion. The only other rare instances that come to my mind are Prehistoric Beast, a 1985 short-film by Phil Tippett, and some of the test-footage for Jurassic Park before they decided to go with CGI. 
Fig. 8: A Tyrannosaurus rex that looks quite decent for 2004, but is made unique through the fact it was portrayed through stop-motion in a time when CGI began to reign supreme, even in cartoons.


In conclusion

Of course two Spongebob episodes are not the greatest examples of paleoart of all time, but they may be among the most charming ones. These used to be among my favorite episodes as a child and their image of primordial seas is one that has actually ingrained itself into my skull to such a degree that the Cambrian Bikini Bottom from SB-129 is at least one of my mental images that still comes up when the word “prehistory” is mentioned. I was therefore very pleased when I went back to these episodes (now having a better understanding of marine invertebrates thanks to geologic university lectures) and found at least some hidden depths, such as the detail on the trilobites and the Paulian stop-motion T. rex. While the artwork was also probably inspired by popular paleoart of the time, the animators successfully added their own cartoony spin to it that made it memorable and enjoyable in its own right. It probably also goes without saying that the humour still holds up. Much of the charm in these two episodes comes from taking pop culture tropes about the past, future and time travel and lampooning them into the spongy absurd instead of playing them straight. An interesting common motif in both SB-129 and Ugh is the conflict/contrast between the past and future. Regarding paleoart and dinosaur-media in general, this is perhaps more relevant today than back when the show first aired. In spite of a certain very tired movie-franchise trying its hardest to regain its former glory, the days of the 90s Dinomania are long over. While we live in a golden age of paleontology, it feels like today’s children are not as interested in dinosaurs and prehistory anymore and are instead more involved in the exploits of modern technology, such as the internet, mobile devices, gadgets and space-travel. That is not a bad thing and I am sure there will come a time when this will reverse again, but it shows that this conflict of interest in time periods is, ironically, rather timeless. The most important lesson to take away is to not see these interests as being rivals, they should rather compliment each other.
Fig. 9: “Well, thanks for watching Spongebob BC, kids. Bye! Ouh, now he’s ticklin’.”
Shortly after Hillenburg’s death, Nickelodeon announced that it planned to make a spin-off show (something Stephen was always against) centered around a young Spongebob in summer camp. In my opinion, if they really had to make a unique spin-off, they should have rather made one set in the world of Ugh. The idea of a prehistoric Spongebob interacting with all sorts of extinct marine creatures in this landscape sounds very entertaining, at least to me. The showrunners curiously do seem to somewhat keep up with current paleontology, which would make such a show very interesting. An episode of season 10, titled Lost and Found, features Spongebob riding a Tylosaurus (alongside a Tanystropheus) in a short scene and the animal actually sports the dorsal tail-fin we now think mosaurs had in life (making Spongebob's mosasaur actually slightly more accurate than the one we see in Jurassic World). But alas, it will probably take a long time before we get another prehistory-centered thing from Spongebob. It reminds me that a couple of years ago I actually tried writing a children’s book about Ediacaran sea creatures, with humour very much inspired by the show, but that project never went anywhere. Perhaps I should repay it a visit.
Fig. 10: A very stylized, but still somewhat accurate Tylosaurus from a more recent episode of Spongebob.

Related Posts:

Literary Sources:

  • Everhart, Michael J.: Oceans of Kansas. A Natural History of the Western Interior Sea, Bloomington 2005 (Second Edition).
  • Mayr, Helmut: Fossilien, München 2011.
  • Schalansky, Judith: Die Verlorenen Welten des Zdeněk Burian, Berlin 2013 (Naturkunden 8).
Online Sources:

Image Sources:

  • Fig. 4, bottom center: Wikimedia
  • Fig. 4, bottom right: Wikimedia
  • Fig. 5: Schalansky 2013, p. 82-83.
  • All other images were taken either directly from the episodes (Copyright Viacom) or from the Spongebob fandom wiki.



2 comments:

  1. Well, the T. rex does have pronated and hands and show have its tail higher....

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    Replies
    1. The thing about theropod hands was only known since 2002 and even many paleoartists took some time to adapt to that, so I cut them some slack there.

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