When he selected animation as a profession, Stephen Hillenburg, creator of SpongeBob SquarePants, was ready for all times as a “ravenous artist”. The animator and producer, who has died of motor neurone illness aged 57, didn’t count on his quirky cartoon set in a tide pool to draw something greater than a cult following.
But SpongeBob SquarePants is now the fifth longest-running cartoon sequence within the US and counts former president Barack Obama as a fan. Superstars who’ve voiced Hillenburg’s characters embody Johnny Depp and David Bowie. The sequence has gained 4 Emmy awards and netted greater than $12bn (£9.1bn) in merchandising income. Hillenburg didn’t need to starve in spite of everything.
Stephen McDannell Hillenburg was born in Fort Sill, Lawton, Oklahoma in 1961. His father labored for the US Military and his mom was a trainer. A 12 months after younger Stephen was born the Hillenburg household moved to Anaheim, California, the place his father started a brand new profession within the aerospace trade.
At college in California, Hillenburg confirmed early promise as an artist. On the similar time, he was fascinated by ocean life. He liked the underwater documentaries of Jacques Cousteau, whereas his curiosity in animation was sparked by a go to to the Tournée of Animation competition on the LA County Museum of Artwork. There he noticed Dutch animator Paul Driessen’s surreal movie The Killing of An Egg. Hillenburg later defined: “That was the movie that I believed was uniquely unusual and that lodged itself in my head early on.”
As an undergraduate, Hillenburg mixed his two pursuits at Humboldt State College the place he studied marine biology, taking artwork as a second topic. When it got here to discovering work, marine science initially gained out.
Quickly after graduating, Hillenburg took a job instructing marine biology to kids on the Orange County Marine Institute.
To assist make his classes extra attention-grabbing, Hillenburg wrote a comic book e-book referred to as The Intertidal Zone. The comedian featured a variety of anthropomorphic sea creatures, together with one referred to as Bob the Sponge. Hillenburg was unsuccessful in getting the comedian printed exterior the institute, however the expertise of writing and drawing the characters reignited his inventive ambitions. He went again to varsity, gaining a grasp’s in experimental animation from the California Institute of Arts.
Whereas finding out for his masters, Hillenburg made a brief movie that attracted the eye of Joe Murray, creator of the Nickelodeon cartoon sequence, Rocko’s Trendy Life. Murray supplied Hillenburg his first skilled job within the animation world, as a director on Rocko. A stint as a author on Rugrats adopted. However quickly Hillenburg wished to create one thing of his personal.
He returned to The Intertidal Zone for inspiration. Bob the Sponge truly appeared like a sea sponge, as befitted his academic function, however Hillenburg wished his new foremost character – SpongeBob – to have a bodily look to match his character. He settled on a sq. kitchen sponge as a mannequin, saying it “appeared to suit the character kind I used to be searching for – a considerably nerdy, squeaky-clean oddball”. SpongeBob SquarePants mixed Hillenburg’s information of the ocean, his ardour for animation and his love of old-time comedians, akin to Laurel and Hardy. SpongeBob was an harmless within the Stan Laurel mould, to Patrick the starfish as Hardy.
SpongeBob SquarePants first aired in the summertime of 1999 and it shortly grew to become clear that Hillenburg and Nickelodeon had a success on their palms. By 2003, it was the very best rated kids’s sequence on tv. With greater than 60 million viewers, it was franchised everywhere in the world. Explaining the present’s worldwide success, Hillenburg steered, “I feel it’s due to its simplicity. Everyone recognises the childlike character.”
In 2004, although Hillenburg had stated he didn’t assume SpongeBob would work in lengthy kind, he wrote and directed SpongeBob SquarePants the Film.
Whereas he felt that the movie was, in his personal phrases, “respectable” and certainly it grossed greater than $140m, he maintained: “I nonetheless actually imagine one of the best reveals are the only brief reveals, for what SpongeBob is … We preserve it easy and preserve it concerning the characters.”
Nevertheless, there was a second SpongeBob film, which out-earned the primary. Grossing $323.4m worldwide, it was the second highest-grossing movie primarily based on an animated tv present, crushed solely by The Simpsons Film. In 2016, SpongeBob was tailored as a Broadway musical, with songs by Cyndi Lauper and Steven Tyler.
Across the time of the primary SpongeBob film, Hillenburg stepped again from being the present’s author to grow to be an government producer and pursue different tasks. He made a brief movie referred to as Hollywood Blvd, USA, which featured animations of individuals strolling.
Collectively together with his chef spouse Karen and their son Clay, Hillenburg moved to San Marino, the place he indulged his hobbies of browsing and scuba diving. A self-described “Band geek” who had performed trumpet as a college boy, Hillenburg additionally discovered time to play rock music together with his son.
All through his life, Hillenburg remained dedicated to the fragile ocean eco-system. Maybe for that motive, he tried to retain a veto over SpongeBob merchandising. In an interview with the The New York Occasions, Hillenburg’s colleague Sherm Cohen described the second when SpongeBob received his personal doll. Certainly a proud second for any cartoon character’s creator? Not so for Hillenburg. Cohen defined,“…Stephen appeared grim. He stated, ‘My largest nightmare is that I’m going to be on the seaside someday, and considered one of these dolls goes to scrub up on the shore like rubbish.’”
Hillenburg additionally did his finest to make sure that SpongeBob was not related to any quick meals manufacturers. Nevertheless, he failed to stop the primary SpongeBob film from having a tie-in with Burger King.
The pursuits of the TV enterprise and the surroundings had been laborious to marry however Hillenburg nonetheless harboured a dream that SpongeBob may contribute to eco-awareness. In 2001, Hillenburg was recognised by Heal The Bay for his contribution to elevating consciousness of marine life. He later informed The Washington Put up: “Folks need to get collectively and [realise] how necessary our oceans are … It takes care of us … Hopefully, for those who watch SpongeBob, you see plankton and crabs and starfish – and also you’ll [want to] deal with our oceans.”
Hillenburg was recognized with motor neurone illness in 2017. He’s survived by his spouse and their son Clay. A 3rd SpongeBob film is at the moment in manufacturing.
Stephen McDannell Hillenburg, animator, born 21 August 1961, died 26 November 2018