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Stephen Hillenburg

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Stephen Hillenburg
Stephen Hillenburg by Carlos Cazurro.jpg
Hillenburg in 2011, presenting the original series bible for SpongeBob SquarePants
Stephen McDannell Hillenburg

(1961-08-21)August 21, 1961
DiedNovember 26, 2018(2018-11-26) (aged 57)
Alma mater
  • Animator
  • writer
  • producer
  • director
  • marine biologist
  • storyboard artist
Years active1984–2018
Known forSpongeBob SquarePants
Karen Umland
(m. 1998; his death 2018)
Scientific career
FieldsMarine biology
InstitutionsOrange County Marine Institute
Stephen Hillenburg

Stephen McDannell Hillenburg (August 21, 1961 – November 26, 2018) was an American animator and marine science educator. He is best remembered for creating the Nickelodeon animated television series SpongeBob SquarePants. Hillenburg served as the showrunner for the first three seasons of the show, which has become the fifth-longest-running American animated series.

Born in Lawton, Oklahoma and raised in Anaheim, California, Hillenburg became fascinated with the ocean as a child and developed an interest in art. He started his professional career in 1984, instructing marine biology, at the Orange County Marine Institute, where he wrote The Intertidal Zone, an informative picture book about tide-pool animals, which he used to educate his students. In 1989, two years after leaving teaching, Hillenburg enrolled at the California Institute of the Arts to pursue a career in animation. He was later offered a job on the Nickelodeon animated television series Rocko's Modern Life (1993–1996) after his success with The Green Beret and Wormholes (both 1992), short films that he made while studying animation.

In 1994, Hillenburg began developing The Intertidal Zone characters and concepts for what became SpongeBob SquarePants. The show has aired continuously since its premiere in 1999. He also directed The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie (2004), which he originally intended to be the series finale. Hillenburg resigned as showrunner, but Nickelodeon continued to produce more episodes after he departed the series. He resumed making short films, with Hollywood Blvd., USA in 2013, but continued to be credited as an executive producer for SpongeBob SquarePants. Hillenburg co-wrote the story for the second film adaptation of the series, The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water, which was released in 2015.

Besides his two Emmy Awards and six Annie Awards for SpongeBob SquarePants, Hillenburg also received other recognition, such as an accolade from Heal the Bay for his efforts on elevating marine life awareness, and the Television Animation Award from the National Cartoonists Society. Hillenburg announced he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in 2017, but stated he would continue to work on SpongeBob SquarePants as long as possible. He died on November 26, 2018 at the age of 57.

A species of marine sponge, , is named in his honor.[1]

Early life and education[]

Stephen McDannell Hillenburg[2] was born on August 21, 1961 at Fort Sill,[3][4][5][6] a United States Army post in Lawton, Oklahoma, where his father, Kelly N. Hillenburg Jr.,[7] worked for the U.S. military.[8] His mother, Nancy (née Dufour),[7] taught visually impaired students.[3][4][5] When he was a year old,[8] the family moved to Orange County, California,[3][5] where his father began a career as a draftsman and designer in the aerospace industry.[8] His younger brother, Bryan,[7] eventually became a draftsman/designer as well.[5] Hillenburg had no recollection of life in Oklahoma,[8] only of growing up in Anaheim, California.[8][9]

When an interviewer asked him to describe himself as a child, he replied that he was "probably well-meaning and naive like all kids."[10][11] His passion for sea life can be traced to his childhood, when films by French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau made a strong impression on him.[5][8][9] Hillenburg said that Cousteau "provided a view into that world", which he had not known existed.[8] He liked to explore tide pools as a child, bringing home objects that "should have been left there and that ended up dying and smelling really bad."[11]

Hillenburg also developed his interest in art at a young age.[8][12] His first drawing was of an orange slice. An illustration which he drew in third grade, depicting "a bunch of army men ... kissing and hugging instead of fighting", brought him the first praise for his artwork, when his teacher commended it.[8] "Of course, this is 1970 ... She liked it because, I mean, obviously that was in the middle of [the Vietnam War]. She was, I would imagine, not a hundred percent for the war like a lot of people then. ... I had no idea about the implications, really, because I just thought it was a funny idea. I remember that still, that moment when she said, 'oh my gosh, look at that'", Hillenburg elaborated.[8] It was then when he knew he "had some [creative] skill".[8] He asserted that his artistry came from his mother's side, despite his father being a draftsman, noting that his maternal grandmother was "really, really gifted" and a "great painter".[8] In the 1970s, someone took Hillenburg to the International Tournée of Animation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He was "knocked out" by the foreign animated films, including Dutch animator Paul Driessen's The Killing of an Egg (1977). "That was the film that I thought was uniquely strange and that lodged itself in my head early on," he recounted.[13]

"I've always been interested in art and making things, but I chose not to go to art school because I thought I needed to do something else. Art was a tough way to make a living. I've always done both. I just kind of figured that the marine biology would be a career and the art would be something I did for my own self-expression."

 Stephen Hillenburg[10]

He attended Savanna High School in Anaheim,[5][10][14] describing himself as a "band geek" who played the trumpet.[8] At age 15, he snorkeled for the first time;[4][5][10] Hillenburg took part in a "dive program"[8] at Woods Coves[10] in Laguna Beach,[4][5] as part of the Regional Occupational Program at Savanna.[8] This experience, as well as subsequent dives,[8] reinforced his interest in, and led to his decision to study, marine biology in college:[4][5][8][10][14] "The switch clicked and I decided I wanted to be a marine biologist, but I also liked being an artist."[12] Some of his high-school teachers, who knew of his interest in art and fascination with the ocean, advised him otherwise,[8] saying: "You should just draw fish."[8][15] However, the idea of drawing fish seemed boring to him and he was more riveted by "making weird, little paintings".[8] During a few summers after finishing high school, he worked as a fry cook and lobster boiler[16] at a fast-food seafood restaurant[5] in Maine.[16] (This later inspired SpongeBob SquarePants' occupation in the television series, which he would begin developing in 1994.[16])

Hillenburg went to Humboldt State University in Arcata, California as a marine-science major.[8] He minored in art,[8] and claimed that "[he] blossomed as a painter in Humboldt."[17] In 1984, he earned his bachelor's degree in natural-resource planning and interpretation, with an emphasis on marine resources.[4][5][14][18] He intended to take a master's degree, but said it would be in art:[8] "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."[5]

Early career[]

Hillenburg taught marine ocean biology to visitors of the Orange County Marine Institute (pictured) in Dana Point, California during the mid-1980s.

After graduating from college, Hillenburg held various jobs in 1984, including as a park service attendant in Utah and an art director in San Francisco, before landing the job he wanted: teaching children.[8] He hoped to work in a national park on the coast,[12] and eventually found a job at the Orange County Marine Institute (now known as the Ocean Institute),[12] an organization in Dana Point, California, dedicated to educating the public about marine science and maritime history.[19] Hillenburg was a marine-biology teacher there for three years:[4][5][20] "We taught tide-pool ecology, nautical history, diversity and adaptation. Working there, I saw how enamored kids are with undersea life, especially with tide-pool creatures."[10][21] He stayed at the Dana Point Marina[14] and was also a staff artist.[8][16][22] Although "[i]t was a great experience" for him,[12] during this period, Hillenburg realized he was more interested in art than his chosen profession.[20]

While working there, one of the educational directors asked him if he would be interested in creating an educational comic book about the animal life of tidal pools.[8][12][23] He created a comic called The Intertidal Zone, which he used to teach his students.[23] It featured anthropomorphic forms of sea life, many of which would evolve into SpongeBob SquarePants characters[24]—including "Bob the Sponge", the comic's co-host, who resembled an actual sea sponge, as opposed to his later SpongeBob SquarePants character, who resembles a kitchen sponge.[25] He tried to get the comic published, but the publishers he approached turned him down.[8][12]

During this time, Hillenburg also started going to animation festivals such as the International Tournée of Animation and Spike and Mike's Festival of Animation where films made by students from the California Institute of the Arts (colloquially called CalArts) were shown.[8][13] He determined that he wanted to pursue a career in that field.[8][13] Hillenburg had planned to take a master's degree in art, but instead of "going back to school for painting",[8] he left his job in 1987 to become an animator.[24][25]

Hillenburg enrolled in CalArts' Experimental Animation Program[5][24][25] in 1989.[12] About this decision, he said: "Changing careers like that is scary, but the irony is that animation is a pretty healthy career right now and science education is more of a struggle."[26] He studied under Jules Engel,[27][28] the founding director of the program,[28][29] whom he considered his "Art Dad" and mentor.[28][30][31] Engel accepted him into the program impressed by The Intertidal Zone.[8][25] Hillenburg said, "[Engel] also was a painter, so I think he saw my paintings and could easily say, 'Oh, this guy could fit in to this program.' I don't have any [prior experience in] animation really."[8] Hillenburg graduated in 1992,[5][10] earning a Master of Fine Arts in experimental animation.[5] During his time at CalArts, he briefly drew comics for the surfing magazine KEMA in 1990.[32]

Animation career[]

Early works[]

Shots from The Green Beret (top) and Wormholes (bottom)

Hillenburg made his first animated works, short films The Green Beret (1991) and Wormholes (1992),[33] while at CalArts.[4][5][6][26] 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][5][6] Wormholes was his seven-minute thesis film,[25][34] about the theory of relativity.[4][5][34] He described the latter as "a poetic animated film based on relativistic phenomena" in his grant proposal in 1991 to the Princess Grace Foundation,[35] which assists emerging artists in American theater, dance, and film.[36] The foundation agreed to fund the effort, providing Hillenburg with a Graduate Film Scholarship.[35][37] "It meant a lot. They 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," he said in 2003.[35] Wormholes was shown at several international animation festivals,[26][35] including: the Annecy International Animated Film Festival; the Hiroshima International Animation Festival; the Los Angeles International Animation Celebration; the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen;[38] and the Ottawa International Animation Festival,[39] where it won Best Concept.[40] LA Weekly labeled the film "road-trippy" and "Zap-comical",[41] while Manohla Dargis of The New York Times opined that it was inventive.[29]

Hillenburg explained that "anything goes" in experimental animation. Although this allowed him to explore alternatives to conventional methods of filmmaking, he still ventured to employ "an industry style"; he preferred to traditionally animate his films (where each frame is drawn by hand) rather than, for instance, make cartoons "out of sand by filming piles of sand changing".[8] Hillenburg had at least one other short film that he made as an animation student but its title is unspecified.[13][22]

Rocko's Modern Life[]

Hillenburg's first professional job in the animation business was as a director[22][25] on Rocko's Modern Life (1993–1996),[4][22][24] Nickelodeon's first in-house cartoon production.[42] He "ended up finding work in the industry and got a job" at the television network after he met the show's creator, Joe Murray,[35] at the 1992 Ottawa International Animation Festival,[13][22] where Wormholes and Murray's My Dog Zero were both in competition.[39] Murray, who was looking for people to direct Rocko's Modern Life at the time,[22] saw Hillenburg's film and offered him a directorial role on the television series.[8][22][25] He "[had] friends that [gave him] a hard time about [the offer]. ... but doors opened when [he] stepped into the animation world," so he accepted it.[22] He "was planning on being a starving artist": "[I spent] several thousand dollars to make a film and [realized] I may not make it back—I had loans out. Fortunately, Joe Murray saw my film ... and he took a huge chance," Hillenburg related.[13]

Hillenburg worked closely with Murray[43] on Rocko's Modern Life for its whole run on the air.[5] Aside from directing, he also produced, wrote and storyboarded for some episodes, and served as the executive story editor.[4][5] In 1995,[5][43] during the show's fourth and final season,[44] he was promoted to creative director, where he helped oversee pre- and post-production.[4][5][43] Working on the series enabled him to repay his loans.[12] He later related that he "learned a great deal about writing and producing animation for TV" from his stint on Rocko's Modern Life.[45]

SpongeBob SquarePants[]


Some evidence shows that the idea for SpongeBob SquarePants dates back to 1986, during Hillenburg's time at the Orange County Marine Institute.[46] He indicated that children's television series such as The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse (1987–1988) and Pee-wee's Playhouse (1986–1991) "sparked something in [him]." He continued, "I don't know if this is true for everybody else, but it always seems like, for me, I'll start thinking about something and it takes about ten years to actually have it happen, or have someone else believe in it... It took me a few years to get [SpongeBob SquarePants] together."[22]

During the production of Rocko's Modern Life, Martin Olson, one of the writers, read The Intertidal Zone and encouraged Hillenburg to create a television series with a similar concept. At that point, he had not even considered creating his own series:[8] "After watching Joe [Murray] tear his hair out a lot, dealing with all the problems that came up, I thought I would never want to produce a show of my own."[43] However, he realized that if he ever did, this would be the best approach:[8][25][47] "For all those years it seemed like I was doing these two totally separate things. I wondered what it all meant. I didn't see a synthesis. It was great when [my two interests] all came together in [a show]. I felt relieved that I hadn't wasted a lot of time doing something that I then abandoned to do something else. It has been pretty rewarding," Hillenburg said in 2002.[5] He claimed that he finally decided to create a series as he was driving to the beach on the Santa Monica Freeway one day.[43]

"It finally dawned on me that if I was going to do my own show, all those things I lectured about and obsessed about would make for an interesting world."

 Stephen Hillenburg[44]

As he was developing the show's concept, Hillenburg remembered his teaching experience at the Orange County Marine Institute and how mesmerized children were by tide-pool animals, including crabs, octopuses, starfish, and sponges.[4][5][43] It came to him that the series should take place underwater, with a focus on those creatures: "I wanted to create a small town underwater where the characters were more like us than like fish. They have fire. They take walks. They drive. They have pets and holidays."[43] It suited what Hillenburg liked for a show, "something that was fantastic but believable."[43] He also wanted his series to stand out from most popular cartoons of the time exemplified by buddy comedies such as The Ren & Stimpy Show (1991–1995). As a result, he decided to focus on one main character: the weirdest sea creature that he could think of. This led him to the sponge:[8] "I wanted to do a show about a character that was an innocent, and so I focused on a sea sponge because it's a funny animal, a strange one."[44] In 1994,[16] Hillenburg began to further develop some characters from The Intertidal Zone,[8][16] including Bob the Sponge.[8]

Bob the Sponge is the comic's "announcer".[8] He resembles an actual sea sponge, and at first Hillenburg continued this design[8][22][25][48] because it "was the correct thing to do biologically as a marine-science teacher."[43] In determining the new character's personality, he drew inspiration from innocent, childlike figures that he enjoyed, such as Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Jerry Lewis, Pee-wee Herman, Abbott and Costello, and The Three Stooges.[8][22][46][49] He then considered modeling the character after a kitchen sponge, and realized that this idea would match the character's square personality perfectly:[8][22][25] "[I]t looked so funny. I think as far as cartoon language goes he was easier to recognize. He seemed to fit the character type I was looking for—a somewhat nerdy, squeaky clean oddball."[43][50] To voice the central character of the series, Hillenburg turned to Tom Kenny, whose career in animation had begun with his on Rocko's Modern Life. Elements of Kenny's own personality were employed in further developing the character.[51][52]

While pitching the cartoon to executives at Nickelodeon, Hillenburg donned a Hawaiian shirt, brought along an "underwater terrarium with models of the characters", and played Hawaiian music to set the theme. Nickelodeon executive Eric Coleman described the setup as "pretty amazing".[25] Although Derek Drymon, creative director of SpongeBob SquarePants, described the pitch as stressful, he said it went "very well".[25] Nickelodeon approved and gave Hillenburg money to produce the show.[53]


SpongeBob SquarePants was Nickelodeon's first original Saturday-morning cartoon.[15][54] It first aired as a preview on May 1, 1999,[9][55] and officially premiered on July 17 of the same year.[9][15] Hillenburg noted that the show's premise "is that innocence prevails—which I don't think it always does in real life."[53] It has received positive reviews from critics, and has been noted for its appeal to different age groups.[5][44][53] James Poniewozik of Time magazine described the titular character as "the anti-Bart Simpson, temperamentally and physically: his head is as squared-off and neat as Bart's is unruly, and he has a personality to match—conscientious, optimistic and blind to the faults in the world and those around him."[56] On the other hand, The New York Times critic Joyce Millman said that the show "is clever without being impenetrable to young viewers and goofy without boring grown-ups to tears. It's the most charming toon on television, and one of the weirdest. ... Like Pee-wee's Playhouse, SpongeBob joyfully dances on the fine line between childhood and adulthood, guilelessness and camp, the warped and the sweet."[57]

SpongeBob SquarePants was an immediate hit.[53] Within its first month on air, it overtook Pokémon (1997–) as the highest-rated Saturday morning children's series.[54] By the end of 2001, the show boasted the highest ratings of any children's series on television.[14][58][59] Nickelodeon began adding SpongeBob SquarePants to its Monday-through-Thursday prime-time block. This programming change increased the number of older viewers significantly.[60] By May 2002, the show's total viewership reached more than 61 million, 20 million of which were aged 18 to 49.[60] Hillenburg did not expect the show would be very popular even to adults: "I never imagined that it would get to this point. When you set out to do a show about a sponge, you can't anticipate this kind of craze. We just try to make ourselves laugh, then ask if it's appropriate for children. I can tell you that we hoped it would be liked by adults. But we really thought the best we could hope for was a college audience."[61] SpongeBob SquarePants has gone on to become one of the longest-running series on Nickelodeon.[62] "Ten years. I never imagined working on the show to this date and this long. It never was possible to conceive that. ... I really figured we might get a season and a cult following, and that might be it," Hillenburg said in 2009 during the show's tenth anniversary.[13] Its popularity has made it a media franchise, which is the most-distributed property of MTV Networks.[63] As of 2015, it has generated $12 billion in merchandising revenue.[64]


In 2002, Hillenburg halted production of the show after the third season was completed to focus on the making of The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie which was released in 2004:[65] "I don't want to try and do a movie and the series at the same time. We have 60 episodes and that is probably as many as [Nickelodeon] really needs. It is a standard number for a show like this. I have done a little research and people say it is just crazy doing a series and movie at the same time. I would rather concentrate on doing a good job on the movie," he noted.[33] He directed the film from a story that he conceived with five other writer-animators from the series: Paul Tibbitt, Derek Drymon, Aaron Springer, Kent Osborne, and Tim Hill.[66] The writers created a mythical hero's quest: the search for a stolen crown, which brings SpongeBob and his best friend Patrick to the surface.[67] In 2003, during the production of The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, his mentor Jules Engel died at the age of 94.[68] Hillenburg dedicated the film to his memory.[69] He said that Engel "truly was the most influential artistic person in [his] life."[30][31] The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie grossed $140 million worldwide,[70] and received positive reviews from critics. The review-aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes rates it 68 percent positive based on 125 reviews, with an average rating of 6.2/10. Its consensus states in summary, "Surreally goofy and entertaining for both children and their parents."[71]

"It reached to a point where I felt I'd contributed a lot and said what I wanted to say. At that point, the show needed new blood and so I selected Paul [Tibbitt] to produce. I totally trusted him. I always enjoyed the way he captured the SpongeBob character's sense of humor. And as a writer, you have to move on—I'm developing new projects."

 Stephen Hillenburg on leaving SpongeBob SquarePants as the showrunner[13]

After completing the film, Hillenburg wanted to end the series "so [it] wouldn't jump the shark."[13][72] "We're working on episodes 40 through 60 right now, and I always looked at that as a typical run for an animated show. [The Ren & Stimpy Show] lasted about that long, for example. And I thought now was a good time to step aside and look at a different project. I personally think it's good not to go to the point where people don't want to see your show anymore," Hillenburg said in 2002.[5] However, Nickelodeon wanted to produce more episodes: "The show was such a cash cow for the station that it couldn't afford not to," storyboard director Sam Henderson observed.[72] Initially Hillenburg doubted that the network would continue the show without him, saying: "I think [Nickelodeon executives] respect that my contribution is important. I think they would want to maintain the original concept and quality."[5] Consequently, he resigned as the showrunner[73] and appointed his trusted staff member Paul Tibbitt to the role.[13][74][75] Although he no longer had a direct involvement producing SpongeBob SquarePants, he retained his position as an executive producer[46] and maintained an advisory role, reviewing each episode.[73][76] Tibbitt started out as a supervising producer but rose up to executive producer when Hillenburg went into semi-retirement in 2004.[77] While he was on the show, he voiced Potty the Parrot[78] and sat in with Derek Drymon at the record studio to direct the voice actors while they were recording.[79] During the fourth season, Tibbitt took on voicing for Potty,[80] while Andrea Romano replaced the two as the voice director.[79]

In 2014, Tibbitt announced on his Twitter account that Hillenburg would return to the show. However, he did not specify what position the former showrunner would hold.[81] As early as 2012, Hillenburg had already been contributing to another film based on the series,[8] which was first reported in 2011[82] and officially announced the following year,[83] with Tibbitt as director. Tibbitt also wrote the story with Hillenburg,[84][85] who "[had] been in the studio everyday working with [the crew]."[85] Besides writing, Hillenburg also executive-produced.[86] He said in 2014: "Actually when [the film] wraps, I want to get back to the show. ... it is getting harder and harder to come up with stories. So Paul [Tibbitt] and I are really going to brainstorm and come up with fresh material."[12] Called The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water, the second film adaptation was released in 2015[87] to positive critical reception, currently holding a Rotten Tomatoes approval rating of 80 percent and an average rating of 6.5/10.[88] It earned $323.4 million worldwide,[89] becoming the second highest-grossing film based on an animated television show, behind The Simpsons Movie (2007).[90]

Other pursuits[]

A still from Hollywood Blvd., USA

In 1998,[91] Hillenburg formed United Plankton Pictures Inc., a television and film production company, which produces SpongeBob SquarePants and related media. From 2011 to 2018, the company published SpongeBob Comics, a comic-book series based on the cartoon.[92][93] Hillenburg announced the venture in a 2011 press release, where he said, "I'm hoping that fans will enjoy finally having a SpongeBob comic book from me."[92][93] Various cartoonists, including James Kochalka, Hilary Barta, Graham Annable, Gregg Schigiel, and Jacob Chabot, have contributed to issues of the comic.[92][93]

According to Jeff Lenburg, in his book Who's Who in Animated Cartoons, Hillenburg was co-writing and co-directing a second animated feature film based on Rob Zombie's comic-book series, The Haunted World of El Superbeasto, which was slated for a 2006 release.[94] He helped to write Diggs Tailwagger, a 2007 pilot by Derek Drymon.[95][96] Hillenburg stated in 2009 that he was developing two other television projects that he did not want to discuss.[13][97]

In 2010,[8] he began working on Hollywood Blvd., USA,[17] a new short film for animation festivals.[8] In making the two-minute film,[12] he videotaped people walking and animated them in walk cycles.[8][12] Hillenburg said in 2012, "I hope to get [the film] done. It takes forever." He was aiming to finish it that fall.[8] In 2013,[98] three years after production began, Hollywood Blvd., USA was released to festivals.[12] Hillenburg characterized it as a "personal film" and said that "it's not a narrative. It's just really about people in our town."[8]

Personal life[]

Hillenburg married Karen Umland,[99] a Southern Californian chef[100] who teaches at the New School of Cooking in Culver City,[6][33] in 1998.[101][102] Hillenburg deemed her to be the funniest person that he knew,[33] and the character of Karen Plankton was named after her.[103] Also in 1998, the couple's first and only child, son Clay, was born.[6][33] Hillenburg formerly resided in Hollywood[33][61] and in Pasadena,[7][20] and he lived with his family in San Marino, California,[104][105] until his death.[106] His hobbies included surfing, snorkeling, scuba diving, swimming, and performing "noisy rock music" on his guitar.[5][6][33] He jammed with his son, who is a drummer, which Hillenburg called "a great way to bond with each other."[107] He also enjoyed birdwatching at home,[107] but said that he was always "an ocean freak".[11]

He was known informally as "Steve" among his family, friends, and fans.[101] According to his colleagues, Hillenburg was "a perfectionist workaholic".[20] He was also known for his private nature. Julia Pistor, co-producer of The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, noted that Hillenburg was "very shy". She went on to say, "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."[20] Hillenburg said about himself, "I make animation because I like to draw and create things. I have no real interest to be on camera or to be a celebrity. It's not that I don't like people, but I like having my privacy."[65]


Hillenburg, with his wife Karen, had endowed numerous projects and organizations through the United Plankton Charitable Trust,[105][108] which the couple established in 2005.[109] The foundation, the name of which was adopted from Hillenburg's United Plankton Pictures, supports areas of the two's personal interest,[108] giving under $500,000 annually as of 2017.[105][108] Grantees include large, established arts-related organizations such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Society for the Activation of Social Space through Art and Sound,[105] in which Karen is co-chair.[100] Health accounts for most of their grantmaking;[105] they had gifted to Planned Parenthood (where Karen is member of the board of directors as of 2014[110]) and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, among other national health organizations.[105]

In education, they donated to schools, including the Polytechnic School in Pasadena (which their son attended), CalArts, and Humboldt State University.[108] Donations to the latter helped fund the HSU Marine Lab[17] and the Stephen Hillenburg Marine Science Research Award Endowment, which the couple created in 2018 to support the university's marine-science research students.[111] The previous year, the Princess Grace Foundation introduced the Stephen Hillenburg Animation Scholarship, an annual grant from the Hillenburgs to emerging animators.[112]

Illness, death, and legacy[]

Hillenburg disclosed to Variety magazine in March 2017 that he had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a fatal neurodegenerative disease that affects the motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord. He released a statement to the publication, in which he said that he would continue to work on SpongeBob SquarePants "for as long as [he is] able." He added: "My family and I are grateful for the outpouring of love and support. We ask that our sincere request for privacy be honored during this time." Hillenburg was in the early stages of the disease at the time, according to a source close to him.[113] During his last days as executive producer, he had difficulty speaking, and it came to the point where he eventually stopped coming to the office.[114]

Hillenburg died at his home on November 26, 2018 at the age of 57, due to the complications.[101] According to his death certificate, his body was cremated and his ashes were scattered in the Pacific Ocean at least 500 yards (460 m) off the coast of California[115] the next day.[116] His death was announced by the SpongeBob SquarePants Twitter page later that day.

During the halftime show for Super Bowl LIII, the performing band Maroon 5 arranged to use a clip from the SpongeBob episode "Band Geeks" (which uses the song "Sweet Victory" as part of a spoof of a football halftime show) during their show as a means to pay tribute to Hillenburg.[117] A full clip of the "Sweet Victory" song, including a dedication to Hillenburg, was played inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium, but not during the game, which angered many fans.[118] The song was later included in a promo for ViacomCBS' Paramount+ streaming service during Super Bowl LV.[119]

The TV special SpongeBob's Big Birthday Blowout and the theatrical film The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run are dedicated to him and his great career.

In 2019, a spin-off of SpongeBob SquarePants began production, featuring younger versions of the characters attending summer camp. Former showrunner Paul Tibbitt stated that Hillenburg would have disliked the idea; he commented, "Steve [Hillenburg] would always say to me, 'You know, one of these days, they're going to want to make SpongeBob Babies. That's when I'm out of here.'"[114] Tibbitt also released a statement stating, "I do not mean any disrespect to my colleagues who are working on this show ... [but] they all know full well Steve would have hated this."[120] The concept of Kamp Koral came from a season 12 meeting in October 2018, a month before Hillenburg died.[121] Hillenburg is credited as the creator of Kamp Koral, and is credited on other spin-offs as the characters' creator.[122][123]

Awards and honors[]

In 1992, one of Hillenburg's early works, Wormholes, won for Best Concept at the Ottawa International Animation Festival.[40] For SpongeBob SquarePants, Hillenburg was nominated for 17 Emmy Awards, winning in the categories of Outstanding Special Class Animated Program and Outstanding Sound Editing – Animation in 2010 and 2014, respectively. The show has also received several other awards and nominations, including 17 Annie Award nominations, winning six times, as well as winning two British Academy Children's Awards, out of four nominations. In 2002, SpongeBob SquarePants won its first TCA Award for Outstanding Achievement in Children's Programming nomination.

In 2001, Heal the Bay, an environmental nonprofit organization, honored Hillenburg with its Walk the Talk award.[5][124] He was recognized for raising public awareness of marine life[5] through SpongeBob SquarePants.[124] The following year, Hillenburg was given the Television Animation Award from the National Cartoonists Society,[5][125] and the Princess Grace Statue Award from the Princess Grace Foundation.[5][37] In 2018, Hillenburg received the Winsor McCay Award at the 45th Annie Awards,[126] and a special recognition at the 45th Daytime Emmy Awards "for his contribution and impact made in the animation field and within the broadcast industry."[127]

The marine demosponge species , known from mangrove habitats off the coast of Paraíba, Brazil, was named in honor of Stephen Hillenburg.[1][128]



Title Year Role Notes Ref(s)
The Green Beret (short film) 1992
  • Director
  • Writer
  • Animator
Wormholes (short film)
  • Director
  • Writer
  • Animator
The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie 2004 Parrot (voice)
  • Director
  • Producer
  • Storyboard artist
  • Writer
  • Creator
  • Story
Hollywood Blvd., USA (short film) 2013
  • Director
  • Producer
The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water 2015 Baby in Stroller (voice)
  • Executive producer
  • Story writer
The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run 2020
  • Executive producer
  • Posthumous release
  • Dedication of memory


Title Year Role Notes Ref(s)
Rocko's Modern Life 1993–1996
  • Creative director
  • Director
  • Executive story editor
  • Storyboard artist
  • Storyboard director
  • Producer
  • Writer
SpongeBob SquarePants 1999–2018
  • Creator
  • Executive producer (season 1–12)
  • Showrunner (season 1–3)
  • Voice director (season 1–3)
  • Voice actor (season 2–3)
  • Writer (season 1–3)
  • Storyboard director (season 1)
  • SpongeBob’s Big Birthday Blowout dedicated to his memory
Diggs Tailwagger 2007 Additional writer
The Mighty B! 2008 Special thanks Episode 1.1: "So Happy Together/Sweet Sixteenth"
Square Roots: The Story of SpongeBob SquarePants 2009 Himself Documentary [135]
Kamp Koral: SpongeBob's Under Years 2021 Creator, executive producer; Posthumous release


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