Stephen Hillenburg

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Stephen Hillenburg
Stephen Hillenburg by Carlos Cazurro.jpg
Hillenburg holding the SpongeBob SquarePants show bible, 2011.
Born Stephen McDannell Hillenburg
(1961-08-21) August 21, 1961 (age 52)[1]
Lawton, Oklahoma, United States
Other names Steve Hillenburg
Education Savanna High School
Alma mater
Occupation Marine biologist, animator, director, writer, producer
Years active 1991–present
Known for
Net worth US$90 million[2]
Spouse(s) Karen Hillenburg
Children Clay Hillenburg
Signature Stephen Hillenburg signature.svg

Stephen McDannell Hillenburg[3] (born August 21, 1961) is an American marine biologist, animator, director, writer, producer, storyboard artist, and occasional voice-over artist. Although associated with several animated television series, he is best known for creating the Nickelodeon animated 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. He subsequently enrolled at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in 1992 to pursue a career in animation.

After graduating from college, Hillenburg taught marine biology at the Ocean Institute in Dana Point. 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 188 episodes. Hillenburg also directed the film adaptation of the series, The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, for which he received an Annie Award for Directing in a Feature Production nomination in 2005. Once the film was completed, he resigned from the show as the showrunner, appointing staff writer Paul Tibbitt to the position. He is currently working on the sequel film as the executive producer and story writer.

Hillenburg has won an Emmy Award 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 and education

Stephen Hillenburg was born at the United States Army post of Fort Sill in Lawton, Oklahoma on August 21, 1961.[1][4] His father was a draftsman and designer for aerospace companies—including McDonnell Douglas and Rockwell Collins—who had contributed to the Apollo program.[5] His mother taught visually impaired students.[1] 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."[5] His younger brother followed their father's footsteps, and became a draftsman and designer.[1] Hillenburg's family moved to Orange County, California in 1962, when he was a year old.[1][5] He grew up in Anaheim, California and attended Savanna High School.[5][6] Hillenburg was a self-avowed "band geek" in high school, playing the trumpet.[5]

Hillenburg became an animator during his period of study at the California Institute of the Arts.

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.[1][5] Subsequent exploration of diving and snorkeling experiences in Laguna Beach reinforced his interest[5][5] and led to his decision to study marine life in college.[1][6] He earned a bachelor's degree from Humboldt State University (HSU) in 1984, majoring in marine resource planning and interpretation.[6][7] He also minored in art and exhibited at local museums.[5] Hillenburg said that "I blossomed as a painter in Humboldt."[8]

Seeking a return to the arts, Hillenburg enrolled in a master's degree program in experimental animation at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in 1992.[1][9][10] 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."[1] In the 1970s, as a child, he was taken to an International Tournée of Animation festival at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and saw the Dutch animator Paul Driessen showcase his cartoon titled The Killing of An Egg.[11] Hillenburg said of the experience: "That was the film that I thought was uniquely strange and that lodged itself in my head early on. I was interested in drawing my whole life. I dunno—it didn't help me till later, when I rediscovered Driessen."[11] He graduated from the CalArts program in 1993, earning a Master of Fine Arts in experimental animation.[9]

Early career

Cover of the The Intertidal Zone by Hillenburg.

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.[4] After graduating from college, Hillenburg taught marine biology at the Ocean Institute (then known as the Marine Institute)[12] for three years from 1984 to 1987 in Dana Point and lived at the Dana Point Marina.[6] During this period, Hillenburg realized he was more interested in art than his chosen profession.[12]

Hillenburg taught marine biology to visitors of the Ocean Institute for three years in the mid-1980s.

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.[13] The comic starred various anthropomorphic forms of sea life, many of which would evolve into SpongeBob SquarePants characters,[9] 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.[14] Hillenburg tried to get the comic professionally published, but was turned down by the publishers he approached.[5]

In 1987, Hillenburg left the institute to pursue his dream of becoming an animator.[9][14] He eventually attended CalArts in 1992 after Jules Engel became impressed with his work.[9][10] He began envisioning the idea of a project that would involve a cast of anthropomorphic sea life. Although he drew several rough sketches of the concept, it took close to a decade to bring this idea to its eventual fruition.[14]

Film career

Early works

Screenshots of Hillenburg's early works, The Green Beret (1991; top) and Wormholes (1992; bottom)

Hillenburg worked as an animator on the children's television series Mother Goose and Grimm while attending CalArts. During this time, he also 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.[4] Wormholes was his CalArts thesis film[14] about the theory of relativity.[1] 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.[15] The foundation agreed to fund the effort, providing Hillenburg with a "Graduate Film Scholarship".[15][16] Wormholes was shown at several animation festivals,[14] including the Ottawa International Animation Festival in October 1992,[17] where it won the Best Concept award.[18]

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.

— Hillenurg, on the PGF's funding of his 1992 film, Wormholes[15]

Rocko's Modern Life

In 1995, 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.[14][19][20][21] Hillenburg became a writer, producer, and storyboard artist during the series' third and fourth seasons.[14][21][22] He later said that he "learned a great deal about writing and producing animation for TV" from his time on Rocko's Modern Life.[23] 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.[1]

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.[5] Hillenburg also became friends with Tom Kenny on Rocko's Modern Life, who he would later ask to voice SpongeBob SquarePants.[24] "Steve described SpongeBob to me as childlike and naïve," Kenny said in an interview.[25]

SpongeBob SquarePants

While working on Rocko's Modern Life, Hillenburg met Tom Kenny (pictured). He later asked Kenny to provide the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants.

When Rocko's Modern Life ended in 1996,[26] Hillenburg began working on SpongeBob SquarePants teaming up with several Nickelodeon veterans and Rocko crew members.[14][27] Originally the main character's name was SpongeBoy and the show's title was SpongeBoy Ahoy!.[28] However, after animating the seven-minute pilot in 1997, Hillenburg discovered that the name SpongeBoy was already being used for a mop product.[29] 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".[30]

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 Nick executive Eric Coleman as "pretty amazing".[31] 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"),[10] the team returned with "a performance he wished he had on tape", according to Nickelodeon executive Albie Hecht.[32] Although Drymon was stressed,[10] the pitch went well and executives Kevin Kay and Hecht had to step outside because they were so "exhausted from laughing".[32]

SpongeBob SquarePants first aired on May 1, 1999.[33][34] During its second season, the show had flourished into 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.[35] The show eventually passed Rugrats during its third season, becoming the highest rated children's show on cable. It had a 6.7 rating and 2.2 million kids 2 to 11 in the second quarter of 2002, up 22% from 2001.[35][36][37] 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."[35] Of the 50 million viewers who watched the show every month, about 20 million were adults.[38][39]

Hillenburg directed the film adaptation of the show, called The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, in 2002.[40] 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.[41][42] Consequently, Hillenburg resigned as the series' showrunner[43] 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.[44][45] and "totally trusted him."[11] After stepping down as showrunner, Hillenburg continued to review episodes and offer suggestions.[43][46] Tom Kenny and Bill Fagerbakke and the rest of the crew confirmed the completion of four new episodes for broadcast on Nickelodeon in early 2005, and planned to finish about 20 total for the then-fourth season.[47][48]

Hillenburg voiced the character of Potty the Parrot in the show.[49] After his departure as showrunner in 2004, Tibbitt was given the role voicing Potty the Parrot.[50] For the first three seasons, Hillenburg and Drymon sat in on the record studio, and they directed the actors.[51] In the fourth season, Andrea Romano took over the role as the voice director.[51]

"Everybody is different, and the show embraces that. The character SpongeBob is an oddball. He's kind of weird, but he's kind of special, I always think of them as being somewhat asexual."
—Hillenburg, on SpongeBob's sexual orientation[52]

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[53] was attacked by an evangelical group in the United States because they saw SpongeBob being used as an "advocate for homosexuality".[54] 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."[54] The incident led to questions to whether or not SpongeBob is 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".[52][55] After Dobson made the comments, Hillenburg repeated this assertion that sexual preference was never considered during the creation of the show.[56] 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. Dobson indicated that the foundation posted pro-homosexual material on their website, but later removed it.[57]

Hillenburg is currently working on SpongeBob SquarePants 2, the sequel to the 2004 film, as the executive producer and story writer.[5][58][59] The film stars Kenny, Fagerbakke, Rodger Bumpass, Clancy Brown, Carolyn Lawrence, and Mr. Lawrence, directed by Tibbitt, produced by Mary Parent, and will be released on February 13, 2015 by Paramount Pictures.[58][60]

Other pursuits

In 1998, Hillenburg formed United Plankton Pictures, a television and film production company, which produces SpongeBob SquarePants.[61] The company helped fund the Humboldt State University Marine Laboratory.[8] It also publishes SpongeBob Comics, a 32-page bimonthly comic book series based on SpongeBob SquarePants and distributed by Bongo Comics Group.[62][63] Hillenburg first announced and released the comics in 2011, and it was the first time he authored his own books. He said in a commentary that "I'm hoping that fans will enjoy finally having a SpongeBob comic book from me."[62][63] Chris Duffy, the former Senior Editor of Nickelodeon Magazine, serves as Managing Editor of the comics.[62][63] 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 issues of the comics.[62][63]

Hillenburg stated in 2009 that he was developing two other TV projects that he does not want to discuss.[11][64] Since 2010, Hillenburg has been working on a short film called Hollywood Blvd., USA for animation festivals.[5][8] He called it a "personal film", and animated and painted it by himself.[5] He videotaped "people walking" and animated it in walk cycles.[5] In a 2012 interview with Thomas F. Wilson, Hillenburg said that "I hope to get [the film] done. It takes forever."[5] He further said that he is "hoping" to finish the film "before this fall."[5]

Personal life

Hillenburg is married to Karen, a chef who teaches at a cooking school.[4] The couple have a son named Clay (b. 1998).[4] Hillenburg had formerly resided in Pasadena, California,[12] and currently lives with his family in San Marino in Southern California.[1][65][66] His hobbies are surfing, snorkeling, scuba diving and playing "noisy rock music" on his guitar.[4] He also paints "surreal seascapes" based on "something that's happened" and said that "there's something personal about it."[66] Hillenburg is a big fan of the Australian band Tame Impala.[66] He called them "these young guys reinvestigating psychedelic rock, and it does not seem ironic."[66]

According to his colleagues, Hillenburg is "a perfectionist workaholic."[12] Kenny called him "this sweet, soulful surfer/artist/animator/marine biologist."[12] Julia Pistor, the producer of The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie and senior vice president of Nickelodeon Movies, said that "He'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."[12]

Hillenburg considered Jules Engel (1909–2003),[67] his mentor at CalArts, his "Art Dad".[68][69] Hillenburg was accepted by Engel into the institute because he was impressed with Hillenburg's previous work.[9][10] During the production of The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, Engel died at 94. Hillenburg decided to dedicate the film in his memory and said that "He truly was the most influential artistic person in my life."[68][69][70]


External images

Bob Spongee, the Unemployed Sponge promotional advertisement

Troy Walker's comic strip, published in 1992

In 2007, Troy Walker, a cartoonist from Fairfield, California, sued Hillenburg, claiming that he stole his ideas from his 1991 comic strip Bob Spongee, the Unemployed Sponge.[71] Walker argued that the concept and design of Hillenburg's SpongeBob SquarePants was lifted from his "Bob Spongee" homemade toy character. 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 in flea markets and through the mail in 1992.[72][73] Walker claimed that he produced 1,000 of the "drawn-on" dolls.[74] In 2002, after learning about SpongeBob SquarePants, Walker concluded, "It obviously fell into the hands of one of the producers of the show. It's a clear pattern of duplication."[72] He filed the lawsuit against Hillenburg, Nickelodeon, Paramount Studios, and parent company Viacom in a United States district court in San Francisco.[75] He had demanded $1.6 billion in damages, and alleged that the accused used his idea without his permission.[71][72] He said that "They took all of it."[72] Walker also pointed the show's pilot episode, "Help Wanted", (in which an unemployed SpongeBob gets his job at the Krusty Krab) as proof that the defendants stole his concept.[74] Walker said in his complaint that "It is more than ironic that two working class sponges are named Bob. Both characters are unemployed. Both characters live in a house concept."[72][74]

In a public statement, Viacom stated that they believed that Walker's claim is "baseless."[76] 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.[77]



Year Title Role Notes
1991 The Green Beret
  • Director
  • Composer
Animated short film
1992 Wormholes Director
  • Animated short film
  • CalArts thesis film
2004 The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie
  • Director
  • Writer
  • Producer
Parrot (voice)
2009 Square Roots: The Story of SpongeBob SquarePants Himself Documentary film
2015 SpongeBob SquarePants 2
  • Executive producer
  • Story writer
TBA Hollywood Blvd., USA Director Animated short film


Year Title Role Notes
1991 Mother Goose and Grimm Writer
1993–1996 Rocko's Modern Life
  • Writer
  • Director
  • Storyboard artist
  • Creative director (1995–1996)
1999–present SpongeBob SquarePants
  • Creator
  • Writer (1999–2004)
  • Storyboard director (1999)
  • Executive producer
Potty the Parrot (2000–2004; voice; 5 episodes)

Awards and accolades

One of Hillenburg's early works Wormholes won at the Ottawa International Animation Festival for Best Concept in 1992.[18] Hillenburg has been nominated for 15 Emmy Awards for SpongeBob SquarePants, and won 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, out of which it has won six times, and four BAFTA Children's Award nominations, out of which it has won twice.

In 2001 Heal the Bay, an environmental advocacy non-profit organization, honored Hillenburg with its highest honor, the Walk the Talk Award.[1] He received the award for raising awareness of marine life among the public through SpongeBob SquarePants.[1] In 2002, the National Cartoonists Society bestowed him the Television Animation Award.[1][78] That same year, he also received the Statue Award in film from the Princess Grace Foundation.[1][16] Hillenburg appeared on the cover of the Current Biography magazine for its April 2003 issue.[1]


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Works cited

  • Banks, Steven (September 24, 2004). SpongeBob Exposed! The Insider's Guide to SpongeBob SquarePants. Schigiel, Gregg (Illustrator). Simon Spotlight/Nickelodeon. ISBN 978-0-689-86870-2. 
  • Neuwirth, Allan (2003). Makin' Toons: Inside the Most Popular Animated TV Shows and Movies. Allworth Communications, Inc. pp. 50, 252–253. ISBN 1-58115-269-8. 
  • Lenburg, Jeff (2006). Who's Who in Animated Cartoons: An International Guide to Film & Television's Award Winning and Legendary Animators. Hal Leonard. ISBN 1-55783-671-X. 

External links