After more than two decades, Nickelodeon is expanding the SpongeBob SquarePants universe with a CG spinoff: Kamp Koral. Sub-titled SpongeBob's Under Years, the prequel show shines a light on the denizens of Bikini Bottom when they first met at summer camp as children. Longtime fans were naturally wary of the new project (created by late series creator Stephen Hillenburg), a sentiment that was also felt by the actors who have lent their voices to the franchise since the very beginning.
"If you've been doing it for 20 years, every new thing that they wanna do, you always go, ‘Geez, I don't know,'" Carolyn Lawrence, the voice of Sandy Cheeks, tells SYFY WIRE during a Zoom conversation with the entire cast. "And every single time, it just takes your breath away how awesome it turns out."
"I loved it when I saw it, but I was like, ‘Do we really need to mix the peanut butter and the jelly in the same jar? Do we really need that? Do we need to have Goober Grape on this show?'" Tom Kenny, the voice of SpongeBob himself, admits.
On the other side of the spectrum, there's palpable excitement for a new era of SpongeBob animation. Roger Bumpass, who voices the clarinet-loving Squidward Tentacles, describes Kamp Koral as "very refreshing." He continues: "It's also more nuance in the characters' expression and, of course, their textures as you mentioned. I'm seeing little subtleties of acting and delivery that we didn't really have when it was 2D hand-drawn. It's like seeing the characters again, even though we've done it for 20 years and it gives us a little more fleshing out of who these characters are and how they act."
"I always appreciate whenever the extremely creative people that write the storyboards have an opportunity to express their incredible creativity and their humor," Bill Fagerbakke, who plays Patrick Star, adds. "There's stuff they can do with CGI that is just really surprising and delightful. We've had ADR sessions on Kamp Koral where I just can't stop laughing at what they're doing with the characters' expressions."
As Bumpass states above, the embracing of modern CG technology opens the door for a lot more detail in character designs. Given that Sandy is a mammal living under the ocean, Kamp Koral gave the animators a chance to really show off the dichotomy between her and the maritime natives.
"Our show has always been so visual and it's neat seeing it in a new way. I just think it's a really cool [thing]. Like seeing Sandy's fur is amazing to me. Those little things are phenomenal," Lawrence says.
"Every flea," Kenny jokes.
"Now you can see Squidward's skin tags. It's really detailed," Bumpass adds.
And since this is a bona fide prequel, the cast had to consciously de-age the voices they've been doing for over 20 years. Well, everyone, except Clancy Brown, who voices Kamp Koral director, Mr. Krabs — a single father raising baby Pearl.
"It's pretty much in the writing. I say that as the only adult in both series," he says. Well, that's not entirely accurate. Mrs. Puff (Mary Jo Catlett) and Plankton (Mr. Lawrence) are also employees of the camp, serving as the arts and crafts teacher and resident cook, respectively.
"There was something with Squidward because he's kind of a teenager in Kamp Koral. I was trying to incorporate him with his voice cracking. I haven't really done it yet," Bumpass reveals, going on to provide an example of a hormonal Squidward that prompts Lawrence to declare: "Emo Squidward."
"Like Clancy said, a lot of it is in the writing," Kenny explains. "Obviously, they're written as kids, so you play that when you're performing the script. But there is some subtle stuff that all these guys do in their acting that I assume is conscious or maybe it's unconscious. But yeah, they go to a different, younger read on the characters. It's definitely there."
If anything else, Kamp Koral is certainly proof that you can teach an old, salty sea dog new tricks — an adage that applies to the cast and animators.
"A lot of the people that are working on [Kamp Koral] are the people that have always worked on the SpongeBob mothership TV series," Kenny says. "They didn't really know from CGI, so the same way that we're having to learn all this new stuff, a lot of our producers and artists had to re-educate themselves after working in the 2D realm for 20 years on SpongeBob.
"Now, they've had to reeducate themselves and rewrite their brains, so I think, like Roger said, that's kind of refreshing to be forced out of your comfort zone," he continues. "Initially, it's kind of scary and terrifying, but once you master something new, you feel good about it. It's nice to feel good about something."
Speaking with SYFY WIRE last year, the seasoned voiceover artist remarked that cartoons "seem to be the pandemic-proof area of the entertainment industry," an opinion he reiterates during our new interview. "Here we are in this new pandemic world where we're all having to learn new tricks," he adds. "All these old dogs are having to learn new tricks. We're all recording at home. I never even owned a microphone before; I like going to studios where the guy running the board actually knows what he's doing."
"I miss the studios because they had better food in their kitchens than I do," Bumpass says, half-jokingly.
As our short Zoom call winds down, SYFY WIRE asks the cast how the prequel series builds out the long-running SpongeBob mythos. The word "mythos" spurs Brown, a veteran of The Mandalorian's first season, to drop a cheeky Star Wars reference: "Kylo Ren has no place in Bikini Bottom. I'm gonna say that right now."
"It expands the universe. It expands everyone's experience of these characters," Bumpass continues. "Now you're given backstory — you see a little bit of the origins of how these characters go to be where they are in the classic version of our show. It's really just filling up that universe a little bit more and here again, I keep using the word refreshing to see this."
"It is fun that we can play characters for so many years and still find out new things about them," Lawrence says. "That's amazing, that we're still like, ‘Oh, she did that? Oh, that's why she does this? Oh, cool!'"
"Our job is the same," Kenny concludes. "No matter what the format of the show is or whatever the visual style of the show is, our job is to make those characters live and breathe vocally. You just gotta be the character and just do it. Be Mr. Krabs or be Squidward, which isn't as easy as it sounds. Really, our job has stayed the same, except for having to record it all from home when some of us are Luddite/technophobe/Amish cavemen."
Kamp Koral: SpongeBob's Under Years debuts on Paramount+ this coming Thursday, March 4. The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run, which ties directly into the new series, premieres the same day.