Stephen McDannell Hillenburg (August 21, 1961 - November 26, 2018; aged 57) was an American teacher of marine science, artist, and the creator of SpongeBob SquarePants. He developed the idea for the series while working at the Ocean Institute in California.
He was the showrunner from 1999 until 2004, when the first movie was completed. He continued to be credited as the executive producer for seasons four to twelve, but his role was much less involved; he received this credit for every episode, regardless of whether or not he contributed at all, making it a "vanity credit" rather than an actual one. According to Vincent Waller, Hillenburg did not do any drawing, directing, or writing whatsoever after the first movie; his only job was "being Steve."
Other than behind-the-scenes work, he was the original voice of Potty the Parrot before the role was passed onto Paul Tibbitt. Tibbitt succeeded Hillenburg as the showrunner for seasons four to nine.
Hillenburg was a strong and firm proponent of "cute, stiff, on-model" animation for the characters. He was well known for being adamant about his visions for the show and for never changing his mind; he was even known to stay at the studio "late every night, going over all the storyboards, making sure SpongeBob was cute in every panel." However, as his health deteriorated, the show's new crew from season 10 onward was able to get him to "loosen up" on a few of his former rules for the show. Mainly, they changed the animation from "on-model" to extremely off-model in the vein of Ren & Stimpy, which many of the new crew members had worked on.
It was announced he was diagnosed with ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) on March 13, 2017. His deteriorating health made it difficult for him to speak or offer input on the series. However, he continued to occasionally visit Nickelodeon Animation Studio to check on progress.
Hillenburg passed away on November 26, 2018, due to complications linked to ALS.
In 1984, Stephen Hillenburg graduated from Humboldt State University with a bachelor's degree in Natural Resource Planning and Interpretation, with an emphasis on Marine Resources. He became a marine biology teacher at the Orange County Marine Institute--now known as the Ocean Institute--in Dana Point, California. Hillenburg's love for the sea and its creatures inspired him to create teaching tools for his students with characters that would later become the main characters of SpongeBob SquarePants.
In 1987, Stephen Hillenburg pursued a degree in Experimental Animation at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia and earned his Master of Fine Arts in 1992. Also during the same year, he won an award for Best Animated Concept at the Ottawa International Animation Festival for his animated short "Wormholes," which was shown at several international animation festivals. From 1993 to 1996, he worked on the Nickelodeon animated series Rocko's Modern Life; during this time, he continued to fine-tune the aquatic series concept that he had begun in the 1980s. It would eventually be pitched to Nickelodeon as SpongeBoy Ahoy! and subsequently renamed SpongeBob SquarePants.
In 2007, a frivolous lawsuit, claiming that a toy inventor named Troy Walker came up with the SpongeBob concept, was filed against Nickelodeon and Hillenburg by a plaintiff wanting a "ridiculous" total of $1.6 billion from Nickelodeon. The claimant, Troy Walker, did not do enough research on his claims before making them, setting his implausible story in 1991, years after Hillenburg had started work on his concept. A summary judgment quickly ruled in Viacom's favor over the flimsy claims.
In March 2017, Hillenburg revealed that he had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a terminal illness that affects and causes the death of neurons that control the brain and the spinal cord. He tried to work on the series as best as he could from then on.
On November 26, 2018, Hillenburg passed away from ALS-related complications. He was cremated and his ashes were scattered across the coast of California, close to where Bikini Bottom resides. The future of the show is currently in doubt, though Vincent Waller has stated that the show would still continue.
Sometimes, he is referred to as "Steven or Steve Hillenburg."
Stephen Hillenburg drew inspiration from his own life while designing the main characters. Mr. Krabs was based on Hillenburg's former manager at a sea-themed restaurant. Pearl was inspired by his regular supervision of whale watches while working as a marine science educator. SpongeBob's design was influenced by Hillenburg's appearance as a young child, with "nerdy gapped teeth."
Following the release of The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie in 2004, Stephen Hillenburg left the series, because he wanted it to end. However, Hillenburg did not leave the series entirely; he still served as an executive producer during his lifetime.
Vincent Waller has confirmed on Twitter that Stephen Hillenburg was alive during the storyboard and writing phases of the episode "SpongeBob's Big Birthday Blowout." However, he did not contribute to the episode's boarding or script.
Additionally, a thank you and farewell message for Stephen Hillenburg appears at the end of "SpongeBob's Big Birthday Blowout," dedicating the episode to him.
According to Vincent Waller, he was about 5 feet, 8 inches tall.
When the Bikini Atoll island is shown at night, a human finger is visible in the water to portray a reflection of the moon. According to the "Christmas Who?" audio commentary, Stephen Hillenburg filmed the Bikini Atoll island at Steve Belfer's house in his friend's pool in California.
During the start of SpongeBob, he made several rules and restrictions for the series.
SpongeBob should never get his driver's license, no matter what he does. This is because Hillenburg loved the dynamic between SpongeBob and Mrs. Puff, so SpongeBob getting his license would end it. Another reason is that it saved the show from being butchered by Nickelodeon executives who wanted to turn SpongeBob into a kid.
No revealing the identity of Pearl's mother or the Krabby Patty Formula and keep them a secret throughout the series.
SpongeBob should not have a romantic interest, so he made him asexual like real sea sponges.
According to Vincent Waller on Twitter, Stephen Hillenburg himself said he hated the idea of SpongeBob having a crossover episode with another cartoon. The only episode of another Nickelodeon show featuring a SpongeBob character is "Big Time Beach Party" from Big Time Rush, which features Patchy the Pirate. Since Big Time Rush is a live-action sitcom and Patchy is a live-action character, there has still never been an official SpongeBob crossover episode with another Nick show outside of video games and promos.
It is also known that Stephen Hillenburg himself said he didn't see any potential spin-off series for SpongeBob before he passed away, which had been misconstrued as him hating the idea. In fact, there have been petitions from fans trying to cancel these spin-off productions. According to an interview with Paul Tibbitt: "Steve 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.'"
He also worried about the excessive merchandising of the show and the consequences it would have on the planet. In a New York Times interview here,Sherm Cohen recalled that Hillenburg told him: "My biggest nightmare is that I'm going to be at the beach one day, and one of these dolls is going to wash up on the shore like garbage." According to Cohen, "being a marine biologist who also surfs, [Stephen] doesn't want to be responsible for bringing a glut of garbage into the world."
In the same interview, he treated one of his old classmates with disdain after said classmate introduced him as the creator of SpongeBob, due to his resentment towards the show's popularity.
In some interviews, he recalled that when he first pitched SpongeBob, Nickelodeon executives said they would only greenlight the show if he made SpongeBob and the gang into children. He was about to quit Nickelodeon and give up on the show until he came up with a compromise (putting SpongeBob in a boat driving school so he could remain an adult-aged character).
Stephen Hillenburg is the first creator of any Nickelodeon series to pass away.
In "Help Wanted," Stephen Hillenburg's name is misspelled as "Stephen Hilleburg," missing the "N" in his surname.
Nominees: : Chiho Oyamada Carr, Nicolas Carr, Mishelle Fordham, Daisuke Sawa, Monette Becktold, Jeff Hutchins, Timothy J. Borquez, Tom Syslo, Eric Freeman, Dan Cubert, Lawrence Reyes, Jason Stiff, Tony Orozco and Kimberlee Vanek (for "Suction Cup Symphony;" 2009) • Chino Oyamada Carr, Nicolas Carr, Mishelle Fordham, Monette Becktold, Jeff Hutchins, Timothy J. Borquez, Eric Freeman, Tom Syslo, Keith Dickens, Jason Stiff, Sergio Silva, Tony Orozco and Kimberlee Vanek (for "SpongeBob SquarePants vs. The Big One;" 2010)
Best Sound Editing – Sound Effects, Foley, Dialogue and ADR Animation in Television
Nominees: Devon Bowman, Justin Brinsfield, Nicolas Carr, Andrea Anderson, Mishelle Fordham, Monette Becktold, Jeff Hutchins, Eric Freeman, Tony Orozco and Danny Tchibinda (for "Gary's New Toy;" 2013) • Mishelle Fordham, Monette Becktold, Jeff Hutchins, Timothy J. Borquez, Tom Syslo, Eric Freeman, Bobby Crew, Keith Dickens, Gabriel Rossas and Tony Orozco (for "It's a SpongeBob Christmas!;" 2013)