His lifelong occupation, or so he thought, was going to be marine biology. His lifelong passion, which he relegated to being a hobby, was art and animation. Stephen Hillenburg thought he would always have to sacrifice the latter to earn a living at the former. But then Hillenburg, who lost his 20-month battle with ALS on Monday, found a way to marry both to create one of the most indelible characters in modern animation history, SpongeBob SquarePants.
A fan of art and animation from a very you age, Hillenburg, inspired by frequent dives to study the ocean life around Laguna Beach, decided to make marine biology his field of study. He earned a bachelor’s degree in natural-resource planning and interpretation, with an emphasis on marine resources at Humboldt State University. He worked at various jobs until he started teaching marine science and maritime history at the Orange County Marine Institute in the mid-1980s.
While at the Institute, he created a comic book called The Intertidal Zone as a teaching aid for his courses. The book featured “Bob the Sponge” as a host that introduced visitors to the various sea life in the inter tidal zones.
It was at this time when Hillenburg decided to visit various animation festivals around the country. This ignited his interest in animation, causing him to quit his job to return to school at the California Institute of the Arts’ Experimental Animation Program. He graduated with a Master of Fine Arts Degree from the school in 1992.
He made a number of small, independent animated films before getting is first professional work on Nickelodeon’s Rocko’s Modern Life as a director. He eventually made his way up to become the creative director of the show.
While working on Rocko, people at Nickelodeon saw Hillenburg’s The Intertidal Zone and encouraged him to expand that into a series of his own. That series would hit airwaves in 1999 and would become what we know today as SpongeBob SquarePants.
The show was an instant hit, not only with kids but with adults. It is currently reproaching its 20th anniversary in 2019. But Hillenburg wanted to end the series after 2004’s The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, wanting to go out on top and not over stay his welcome. Nickelodeon, not wanting to lose a cash cow, had other ideas. As a result, Hillenburg left his role as show runner for the cartoon to take the less-hands-on role of executive producer on the series.
Hillenburg returned to the character in 2012, working on the character’s follow-up feature film, The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water. He continued to work on the series up to and beyond his March 2017 announcement of his sickness.
On a personal note, I can’t claim to be a SpongeBob fan, but my daughter is. And I am thankful for the hours of joy and happiness Hillenburg’s creation brought her. So, thank you Mr. Hillenburg. May you rest in peace.