Remembering the man who shaped our childhoods: Over 20 years ago, Stephen Hillenburg created one of the most enduring shows of our time

Stephen_Hillenburg_by_Carlos_Cazurro_(original)By Brian Brecker

Senior Writer

Recently, we’ve had to say our farewells to the creative mind behind one of the most beloved cartoons of all time.

On Nov. 26, Stephen Hillenburg, the creator of the long-running Nickelodeon series “SpongeBob SquarePants,” passed away due to complications with ALS, which he had been diagnosed with a year before.

For those of us who grew up in the 2000s, “Spongebob” played a defining and special role in our childhoods.

It has continued on to become the fifth longest-running animated TV show. In particular, seasons one through five and the first film adaptation are to this day critically acclaimed and heavily referenced.

“SpongeBob” remains one of the most influential shows of our generation, and will undoubtedly entertain the generations of young viewers to come.

Hillenburg, born Aug. 21, 1961 in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, began developing the show in 1996 after the cancellation of “Rocko’s Modern Life,” the first series he directed and Nickelodeon’s first in-house production.

Hillenburg has said that his most prominent childhood memories are of the time he spent living in Anaheim, California near the coastlines.

Even from early childhood, he had a fascination with sea creatures and aquatic life, as well as a love of films based off of the life of the famous explorer and scientist Jacques Cousteau. Hillenburg would often collect shells and bring them home with him.

His love of art and animation first emerged in the late 1970s during his teenage years. In high school, he dreamed of becoming both a marine biologist and an artist. Hillenburg was a marine-science major with a minor in art at Humboldt State University in California. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1984 and had a few odd jobs before ending up as a teacher in the Orange County Marine Institute.

His childhood interests in art and the ocean first began to merge when he created a comic book to teach children about life in tidal pools. In this comic he created a character called “Bob the Sponge,” drawn at first as an actual sea sponge, rather than in the familiar square shape we know and love.

It was there that Hillenburg rediscovered his love for animation, and he started attending the animation festivals he visited as a teenager. In 1987, he left the Orange County Marine Institute to at last pursue a career in animation.

He graduated from the Experimental Animation Program at CalArts in 1992, earning a Master of Fine Arts in experimental animation. Hillenburg made his first films there, including his thesis, “Wormhole,” which is a seven-minute experimental animated film about the theory of relativity.

“Wormhole” got picked up by the independent film festival circuit and became a cult success. Even mainstream publications like the New York Times and LA Weekly had blurbs in praise of the film.

In 1993, Hillenburg was hired as a director for episodes of “Rocko’s Modern Life,” and he was later promoted to creative director in 1995. It was during this period when Hillenburg began to work on a concept for his own show based on his educational comics he had created back at the Marine Institute.

Bob the Sponge was redesigned as a kitchen sponge, because Hillenburg felt it fit his personality more accurately. He pitched the show successfully to Nickelodeon executives in 1997—while wearing a Hawaiian shirt, acting out the characters in a terrarium, and playing Hawaiian music.

Despite Hillenburg’s untimely passing, his memory and influence will live with all of us. His vibrant personality and vivid imagination will stick with us all long into the future.

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