Stephen McDannell Hillenburg (born August 21, 1961) is an American marine biologist, cartoonist, animator, director, producer, writer, and voice actor, who is best known for creating the Nickelodeon animated television series SpongeBob SquarePants. Born in Lawton, Oklahoma, Hillenburg grew up in Anaheim, California and attended Humboldt State University, earning a bachelor's degree in marine resource planning and interpretation in 1984. After graduating from college, Hillenburg taught marine biology at the Ocean Institute in Dana Point.
In 1992 he enrolled at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) to pursue a career in animation. After graduating from CalArts and changing careers, Hillenburg met Joe Murray, creator of Rocko's Modern Life, and joined the show as a writer, producer, and storyboard artist. He began developing SpongeBob SquarePants in 1996 after Rocko's Modern Life was cancelled, asking Rocko's colleague Tom Kenny to voice the titular character. SpongeBob SquarePants premiered on May 1, 1999 and has since aired 201 episodes. Hillenburg also directed the film adaptation of the series, The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, for which he received an Annie Award nomination in 2005 for Directing in a Feature Production. Once the film was completed, he resigned from the television show as the showrunner, appointing staff writer Paul Tibbitt to the position. He worked on the 2015 sequel as the executive producer and story writer.
Hillenburg has won two Emmy Awards and six Annie Awards for SpongeBob SquarePants. He has also received other awards such as the Heal the Bay's Walk the Talk Award for his efforts on elevating marine life awareness through SpongeBob SquarePants, and the Television Animation Award from the National Cartoonists Society. In 2002, he received the Statue Award in film from the Princess Grace Foundation. Hillenburg owns a production company called United Plankton Pictures whose primary productions are SpongeBob SquarePants and related media.
Early life, education and career
Stephen Hillenburg was born on August 21, 1961 at the United States Army's Fort Sill in Lawton, Oklahoma, the son of Nancy (Dufour) and Kelly N. Hillenburg, Jr. (July 16, 1936-August 30, 2006) His father was a draftsman and designer for aerospace companies — including McDonnell Douglas and Rockwell Collins — and had contributed to the Apollo program. His mother taught visually impaired students. Hillenburg has said that his artistic skill comes from his mother's side and that his grandmother was "really, really gifted" and a "great painter". His younger brother followed in their father's footsteps, becoming a draftsman and designer. Hillenburg's family moved to Orange County, California in 1962, when he was a year old. He grew up in Anaheim, California and attended Savanna High School. Hillenburg was a self-avowed "band geek" in high school, playing the trumpet.
Hillenburg's passion for sea life can be traced to his childhood, when several films by the French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau made a strong impression on him. Subsequent exploration of diving, as well as snorkeling experiences in Laguna Beach reinforced his interest, and led to his decision to study marine biology in college. He earned a bachelor's degree from Humboldt State University (HSU) in 1984, majoring in marine resource planning and interpretation. He also minored in art, and had some of his work exhibited at local museums. Hillenburg said that "I blossomed as a painter in Humboldt."
Hillenburg held various jobs, including: park service attendant in Utah; art director in Bayview-Hunters Point, San Francisco; and fry cook at a fast food restaurant. After graduating from college, Hillenburg taught marine biology at the Ocean Institute in Dana Point (then known as the Marine Institute) for three years, from 1984 to 1987, and lived at the Dana Point Marina. During this period, Hillenburg realized he was more interested in art than his chosen profession.
While working at the Ocean Institute, Hillenburg wrote a comic book entitled The Intertidal Zone, which he used to teach his students about the animal life of tidal pools. The comic starred various anthropomorphic forms of sea life, many of which would evolve into SpongeBob SquarePants characters, including "Bob the Sponge", who was the co-host of the comic and resembled an actual sea sponge, as opposed to SpongeBob SquarePants who resembles a kitchen sponge. Hillenburg tried to get the comic professionally published, but was turned down by the publishers he approached.
Seeking a return to the arts, Hillenburg left the institute in 1987 to pursue his dream of becoming an animator. He enrolled in a master's degree program in experimental animation at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in 1992. Hillenburg said that "initially I think I assumed that if I went to school for art I would never have any way of making a living, so I thought it might be smarter to keep art my passion and hobby and study something else. But by the time I got to the end of my undergrad work, I realized I should be in art." Hillenburg graduated from the CalArts program in 1993, earning a Master of Fine Arts in experimental animation.
Hillenburg worked as an animator on the children's television series Mother Goose and Grimm while attending CalArts. During this time, he made several independent short films, including The Green Beret (1991) and Wormholes (1992). The Green Beret was about a physically challenged Girl Scout with enormous fists who toppled houses and destroyed neighborhoods while trying to sell Girl Scout cookies. Wormholes was his CalArts thesis film about the theory of relativity. He described the film as "a poetic animated film based on relativistic phenomena ..." in his grant proposal to the Princess Grace Foundation (PGF) in 1991. The foundation agreed to fund the effort, providing Hillenburg with a Graduate Film Scholarship. Wormholes was shown at several animation festivals, including the Ottawa International Animation Festival in October 1992, where it won the Best Concept award.
It meant a lot. [The PGF] funded one of the projects I'm most proud of, even with SpongeBob. It provided me the opportunity just to make a film that was personal, and what I would call independent, and free of some of the commercial needs.— Hillenburg, on the PGF's funding of his 1992 film, Wormholes
Rocko's Modern Life
In 1992, Joe Murray, the creator of Nickelodeon's Rocko's Modern Life, met Hillenburg at an animation festival and offered him a job as a series director. Hillenburg became a writer, producer, and storyboard artist during the series' third and fourth seasons. He later said that he "learned a great deal about writing and producing animation for TV" from his time on Rocko's Modern Life. During the last of his three years with the show, he was promoted to the position of creative director and helped oversee pre- and post-production. He also served as the show's executive story editor.
While working on Rocko's Modern Life, Hillenburg met writer Martin Olson. After Olson saw The Intertidal Zone, he suggested that Hillenburg create a series based around marine animals. Hillenburg also became friends with Tom Kenny on Rocko's Modern Life, who he would later ask to voice SpongeBob SquarePants. "Steve described SpongeBob to me as childlike and naïve," Kenny said in an interview.
When Rocko's Modern Life ended in 1996, Hillenburg began working on SpongeBob SquarePants, teaming up with several Nickelodeon veterans and Rocko crew members. Originally the main character's name was SpongeBoy and the show's title was SpongeBoy Ahoy!. However, after animating the seven-minute pilot in 1997, Hillenburg discovered that the name SpongeBoy was already being used for a mop product. As a result, the name was changed to "SpongeBob". He added "SquarePants" as a family name because it was descriptive and "had a nice ring to it".
In 1997, while pitching the cartoon to Nickelodeon executives, Hillenburg donned a Hawaiian shirt, brought along an "underwater terrarium with models of the characters", and played Hawaiian music to set the theme. The setup was described by Nickelodeon executive Eric Coleman as "pretty amazing". After the network gave Hillenburg's team, which included Derek Drymon and Nick Jennings, limited funds and a two-week deadline to create the pilot episode ("Help Wanted"), the team returned with "a performance he wished he had on tape," according to Nickelodeon executive Albie Hecht. Although Drymon was stressed, the pitch went well and executives Kevin Kay and Hecht had to step outside because they were so "exhausted from laughing".
SpongeBob SquarePants first aired on May 1, 1999. During its second season, the show flourished, becoming Nickelodeon's No. 2 children's program, after Rugrats. Nearly 40 percent of the show's audience of 2.2 million were aged 18 to 34. The show eventually passed Rugrats during its third season, becoming the highest rated children's show on cable. It had a 6.7 rating with 2.2 million children, ages 2 to 11, in the second quarter of 2002, up 22% from 2001. Forbes called the show "a $1 billion honeypot," and said it was "almost single-handedly responsible for making Viacom's Nickelodeon the most-watched cable channel during the day and the second most popular during prime time." Of the 50 million viewers who watched the show every month, about 20 million were adults.
Hillenburg directed the film adaptation of the show, called The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie (released in 2004). After completing the film, Hillenburg wanted to end the television series "so the show wouldn't jump the shark," but Nickelodeon wanted to do more episodes. Consequently, Hillenburg resigned as the series' showrunner and appointed his trusted team member Paul Tibbitt, who previously served as the show's supervising producer, writer, director, and storyboard artist, to the role. After stepping down as showrunner, Hillenburg continued to review episodes and offer suggestions. While he was on the show, Hillenburg voiced the character of Potty the Parrot (Tibbitt now voices the character since 2005). For the first three seasons, Hillenburg and Drymon sat in on the record studio, directing the actors. In the fourth season, Andrea Romano took over the role as the voice director.
Despite its widespread popularity, the series was involved in several public controversies. In 2005, a promotional video, which showed SpongeBob along with other characters from children's shows singing together to promote diversity and tolerance, was attacked by an evangelical group in the United States because they saw SpongeBob being used as an "advocate for homosexuality". James Dobson, of Focus on the Family, accused the makers of the video of "promoting homosexuality due to a pro-tolerance group sponsoring the video." The incident led to questions as to whether SpongeBob was homosexual. In 2002, Hillenburg denied the issue, despite the fact that SpongeBob's popularity with gay men grew. He clarified that he considers the character to be "almost asexual". After Dobson made the comments, Hillenburg repeated this assertion that sexual preference was never considered during the creation of the show. Dobson later asserted that his comments were taken out of context and that his original complaints were not with SpongeBob, the video, or any of the characters in the video but with the organization that sponsored the video, We Are Family Foundation.
Hillenburg worked on The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water, the sequel to the 2004 film, as the executive producer and story writer. The film stars Kenny, Fagerbakke, Rodger Bumpass, Clancy Brown, Carolyn Lawrence, and Mr. Lawrence, was directed by Tibbitt, produced by Mary Parent, and was released on February 6, 2015 by Paramount Pictures.
On December 13, 2014, it was announced that Hillenburg would return to SpongeBob SquarePants in an unspecified position.
In 1998, Hillenburg formed United Plankton Pictures, a television and film production company, which produces SpongeBob SquarePants. The company helped fund the Humboldt State University Marine Laboratory. It also publishes SpongeBob Comics, a 32-page bimonthly comic book series based on SpongeBob SquarePants and distributed by Bongo Comics Group. Hillenburg first announced and released the comic in 2011; it was also the first time he authored his own book. He said in a commentary that "I'm hoping that fans will enjoy finally having a SpongeBob comic book from me." Chris Duffy, the former Senior Editor of Nickelodeon Magazine, serves as Managing Editor of the comic. Hillenburg and Duffy met with various comic book writers and artists—including James Kochalka, Hilary Barta, Graham Annable, Gregg Schigiel, and Jacob Chabot—to contribute to each issue of the comic.
Hillenburg stated in 2009 that he was developing two other TV projects that he did not want to discuss. Since 2010, Hillenburg has been working on a short film, called Hollywood Blvd., USA, for animation festivals. He called it a "personal film", and animated and painted it by himself. He videotaped "people walking" and animated it in walk cycles. In a 2012 interview with Thomas F. Wilson, Hillenburg said that "I hope to get [the film] done. It takes forever." He further said that he was "hoping" to finish the film "before [that] fall."
Hillenburg is married to Karen, a chef who teaches at a cooking school. The couple have a son named Clay (b. 1998). Hillenburg formerly resided in Pasadena, California, and currently lives with his family in San Marino in Southern California. His hobbies are surfing, snorkeling, scuba diving and playing "noisy rock music" on his guitar. He also paints "surreal seascapes" based on "something that's happened" and said that "there's something personal about it." Hillenburg is a big fan of the Australian band Tame Impala, calling them "these young guys reinvestigating psychedelic rock, and it does not seem ironic."
According to his colleagues, Hillenburg is "a perfectionist workaholic." Kenny called him "this sweet, soulful surfer/artist/animator/marine biologist." Julia Pistor, the producer of The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie and senior vice president of Nickelodeon Movies, said that "[h]e's very shy. He doesn't want people to know about his life or family. He's just a really funny, down-to-earth guy with a dry sense of humor who puts his family first and keeps us on our toes in keeping our corporate integrity."
Hillenburg considered Jules Engel (1909–2003), his mentor at CalArts, his "Art Dad". Hillenburg was accepted by Engel into the institute because he was impressed with Hillenburg's previous work. During the production of The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, Engel died at the age of 94. Hillenburg decided to dedicate the film in his memory, and said that "[h]e truly was the most influential artistic person in my life."
In 2007, Troy Walker, a cartoonist from Fairfield, California, sued Hillenburg, claiming that the marine biologist stole his ideas from his 1991 comic strip, Bob Spongee, the Unemployed Sponge. Walker argued that the concept and design of Hillenburg's SpongeBob SquarePants character was lifted from his "Bob Spongee" homemade toy. In his original concept, Walker drew a face on a kitchen sponge and attached plastic googly eyes. He placed the model in a transparent bag that included the comic strip, and sold it in Northern California as collectibles at flea markets and through the mail in 1992. Walker claimed that he produced 1,000 of the "drawn-on" dolls. After learning about the show SpongeBob SquarePants in 2002, Walker concluded: "It obviously fell into the hands of one of the producers of the show. It's a clear pattern of duplication."
He filed the lawsuit against Hillenburg, Paramount Pictures, Nickelodeon, and their parent company Viacom in a United States district court in San Francisco. He had demanded $1.6 billion in damages, and alleged that the accused used his idea without his permission. He said that "[t]hey took all of it." Walker said in his complaint that "[i]t is more than ironic that two working class sponges are named Bob. Both characters are unemployed. Both characters live in a house concept." In a public statement, Viacom stated that they believed that Walker's claim was "baseless". A settlement conference between Walker and Viacom, filed on May 13, 2008, was conducted at the Northern District Federal Courts in San Francisco. As a conclusion, the court granted the defendants' motion for summary judgment.
|1991||The Green Beret||Animated short film|
|1991||Mother Goose and Grimm||Writer|
|1993–96||Rocko's Modern Life|
|1999–present||SpongeBob SquarePants||Potty the Parrot (2000–04; voice, five episodes)|
|2004||The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie||Parrot (voice)|
|2009||Square Roots: The Story of SpongeBob SquarePants||Himself||Television special|
|2015||The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water||Baby in Stroller (voice only)|
|Hollywood Blvd., USA||Director||Animated short film|
In 1992, one of Hillenburg's early works, Wormholes, won at the Ottawa International Animation Festival for Best Concept. Hillenburg has been nominated for fifteen Emmy Awards for SpongeBob SquarePants, winning in the category of Outstanding Special Class Animated Program in 2010. His show has also received several other awards and nominations, including 17 Annie Award nominations, which it has won six times, and four BAFTA Children's Award nominations, winning twice.
In 2001, Heal the Bay, an environmental advocacy non-profit organization, honored Hillenburg with its highest honor, the Walk the Talk Award. He received the award for raising awareness of marine life among the public through SpongeBob SquarePants. In 2002, the National Cartoonists Society bestowed upon him the Television Animation Award. That same year, he also received the Statue Award in film from the Princess Grace Foundation. Hillenburg appeared on the cover of the Current Biography magazine for its April 2003 issue.