Stephen McDannell Hillenburg (August 21, 1961 – November 26, 2018) was an American animator, voice actor, and marine science educator. He is best remembered for creating the Nickelodeon animated television series SpongeBob SquarePants which has become the fifth-longest-running American animated series, co-founding Games Animation Inc who co-developed/produced the television series BlooJ's Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends, and serving as co-CEO of Nickelodeon and The Bloo.
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 comic 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 and began working with Bloo J on BlooJ's Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends and StarBirds as well as serving as executive producer on various Viacom shows, such as South Park.
Early life and education
Stephen McDannell Hillenburg was born on August 21, 1961 at Fort Sill, a United States Army post in Lawton, Oklahoma, where his father, Kelly N. Hillenburg Jr., worked for the U.S. military. His mother, Nancy (née Dufour), taught visually impaired students. When he was a year old, the family moved to Orange County, California, where his father began a career as a draftsman and designer in the aerospace industry. His younger brother, Bryan, eventually became a draftsman/designer as well. Hillenburg had no recollection of life in Oklahoma, only of growing up in Anaheim, California.
When an interviewer asked him to describe himself as a child, he replied that he was "probably well-meaning and naive like all kids." His passion for sea life can be traced to his childhood, when films by French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau made a strong impression on him. Hillenburg said that Cousteau "provided a view into that world", which he had not known existed. 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."
Hillenburg also developed his interest in art at a young age. 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. "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. It was then when he knew he "had some [creative] skill". 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". 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.
"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."
He attended Savanna High School in Anaheim, describing himself as a "band geek" who played the trumpet. At age 15, he snorkeled for the first time; Hillenburg took part in a "dive program" at Woods Coves in Laguna Beach, as part of the Regional Occupational Program at Savanna. This experience, as well as subsequent dives, reinforced his interest in, and led to his decision to study, marine biology in college: "The switch clicked and I decided I wanted to be a marine biologist, but I also liked being an artist." Some of his high-school teachers, who knew of his interest in art and fascination with the ocean, advised him otherwise, saying: "You should just draw fish." However, the idea of drawing fish seemed boring to him and he was more riveted by "making weird, little paintings". During a few summers after finishing high school, he worked as a fry cook and lobster boiler at a fast-food seafood restaurant in Maine. (This later inspired SpongeBob SquarePants' occupation in the television series, which he would begin developing in 1994.)
Hillenburg went to Humboldt State University in Arcata, California as a marine-science major. He minored in art, and claimed that "[he] blossomed as a painter in Humboldt." In 1984, he earned his bachelor's degree in natural-resource planning and interpretation, with an emphasis on marine resources. He intended to take a master's degree, but said it would be in art: "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."
Games Animation Inc
In 1991, during a visit to Los Angeles, Hillenburg bumped into Bloo J and John Kricfalusi at a A&W restaurant. After Bloo J and Kricfalusi told him about their upcoming company Hillenburg asked Bloo J about working with Them on the new company. Around that time, he met his wife, Karen Umland, whom he eventually married.
the couple had a child: a son named Clay Hillenburg born in 1998, who would later go on to succeed Hillenburg.
Rocko's Modern Life
Prime Time Nickeldoen And The Bloo Shows (1995-2016)
- Going Down To South Park (1996) (Producer/Animator)
- Wonder Park (1996) (Producer)
- The Ren And Stimpy Movie (1997) (Producer/Animator)
- Monster Trucks (2001) (Producer, Animator)
- The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie (2004) (Director,Producer/Animator)
- My Life as a Teenage Robot: Escape from Cluster Prime (2005) (Producer, Animator)
- BlooJ's Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends: The Greatest Story Ever Told (2005) (Producer, Animator)
- The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run (2020) (Co-Director with Clay Hillenburg,Producer/Animator) (Posthumor Release/In Memory)
- BlooJ's Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends (2020 film) (Animator) (Posthumor Release/In Memory/Final Flim)
- SpongeBob Coast to Coast (1996) (Co-Creator, Writer, Producer, Animator)
- South Park (1997) (Producer)
- SpongeBob SquarePants (1999) (Creator, Writer, Producer, Animator)
- BlooJ's Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends (2000) (Writer, Producer, Animator)
- The Loud House (2001) (Executive Producer, Animator)
- StarBirds (2001) (Animator)
- The Fairly OddParents (2001) (Producer, Animator)
- The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius (2002) (Producer, Animator)
- My Life as a Teenage Robot (2003) (Executive Producer, Animator)
- The Nicktoons (2002) (Co-Creator, Writer, Producer, Animator)
- Danny Phantom (2004) (Animator)
Illness, death, and legacy
In the spring of 2017, Hillenburg's health began declining and was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)
Hillenburg disclosed to Variety magazine in March 2017 that he had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a fatal neurodegenerative disease that results in the death of 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
The most common things his youngest son, Clay Hillenburg, began noticing was leaving the lights on when leaving his home, and misplacing his keys in unusual locations. He was also starting to show signs of pneumonia around the same year.
In May of 2017, Hillenburg underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor that inflicted a heart attack on him and after a month of recovery, he returned to the studio in June, his cancer was not made public until his death.
Likewise, the illness was successfully treated until it made an unexpected return in November 2018, which ultimately caused his death on November 26, 2018 by Heart failure due to complications of ALS including complications of Metastatic Brain and Lung Cancer, A Clay reported that he "died peacefully at home surrounded by his family". After his death, Nickelodeon and The Bloo aired five minutes of silence to "reflect on the work Hillenburg has done for the animation industry".
Nickelodeon and The Bloo aired a 20-second segment with black dots tracing Hillenburg's portrait with the words "We'll miss you – from Nickelodeon and The Bloo" fading in on the right-hand side.
Fans worldwide mourned his death, with his casket being overrun with fanart and drawings of various cartoons he worked on such as South Park, Spongebob Squarepants, BlooJ's Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends, and other Nicktoons.
The headquarters of Games Animation Inc. were decorated with various images of Hillenburg to reflect his legacy.
On December 3, 2018, Hillenburg's public memorial service was conducted in Los Angeles, California at McCarty Memorial Christian Church, His funeral was attended by thousands, both local and foreign, He was survived by his wife, his son.
Following the wake, Hillenburg's remains were cremated and his ashes were buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California, and the quote "I'm ready! I'm ready!" was printed on his grave.
Bloo J nicknamed Hillenburg "the heart and soul of the nickelodeon and Viacom animation department", and also said that "Hillenburg is not gone from us. He’s still alive in all of us.", his son Clay Hillenburg took over the Games Animation Inc, Nickelodeon, and United Plankton Pictures as one of the presidents, starting a whole new era
The TV special SpongeBob's Big Birthday Blowout and The Movies The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run and BlooJ's Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends (2020 film) dedicated his memory at the beginning of both films, with a message saying "In loving memory of Stephen Hillenburg (1961-2018), the man who gave a sponge a soul and two cartoon networks a cult following. He's still alive in all of us."