Childhood & Early Life
Stephen Hillenburg was born on August 21, 1961, in Lawton, Oklahoma. His father Kelly N. Hillenburg Jr., worked for the US military. His mother Nancy Dufour worked as a teacher for visually impaired students.
Soon after Stephen’s birth, his father quit working for the military and started working as a draftsman and designer for an aerospace organization. The family subsequently moved to California. Stephen grew up with a younger brother named Bryan, who eventually followed in his father’s footsteps to become an aircraft designer.
As a kid, Stephen was inspired by the underwater world. He developed a passion for sea life after watching films made by a French oceanographer named Jacques Cousteau. He later said that Cousteau’s films provided him a view of the underwater world, which he never knew existed until watching the oceanographer’s films.
By the time he was in third grade, Stephen had also developed an interest in art. He recalled in an interview that one of the earliest drawings that he made was of an orange slice. He was once appreciated by his teachers when he drew a group of army men kissing and hugging each other instead of fighting.
He was also inspired by his maternal grandmother who was an excellent painter. He also played music while studying at ‘Savanna High School.’ Around the same time, he took scuba diving lessons which strengthened his aspiration of becoming a marine biologist.
Following his high school graduation, he attended ‘Humboldt State University’ in California and studied marine-science. He also studied art in college and prepared himself for a future in art and marine science.
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After graduating college in 1984, he took up several jobs. One among them was his job as a park service attendant in Utah. He also worked as an art director at a company in San Francisco.
He then landed a job as a teacher at the ‘Orange County Marine Institute,’ where he taught children marine biology and maritime history. He also explored his artistic side while working as a teacher.
Upon the request of one of the educational directors, he created a comic book about marine life to make the subjects more interesting for the students. He created the book ‘The Intertidal Zone’ based on the animal life of tidal pools. He then used it to teach his students in a way that was artistic as well as engaging.
While working as a teacher, he realized that he would be more interested in working as an artist. He attended many animation festivals where he witnessed several animated short films that were made by the students of ‘California Institute of the Arts.’ He then made up his mind to attend ‘California Institute of the Arts’ and hence quit his job as a teacher in 1987.
He joined the ‘California Institute of the Arts’ in 1989 and enrolled for ‘CalArts' Experimental Animation Program.’ He studied under Jules Engel, who was impressed with Stephen’s work in ‘The Intertidal Zone.’ Stephen graduated with a Master of Fine Arts degree in experimental animation in 1992.
While at the institute, Stephen made two experimental animated short films titled ‘The Green Beret’ and ‘Wormholes.’ Both his films combined animation with science and philosophy and were highly appreciated.
His film ‘Wormholes’ was later screened at various international animation film festivals and won many accolades. Following his graduation, he applied for jobs at various animation companies and eventually landed a job at Nickelodeon in 1993.
He was assigned to work on the show ‘Rocko’s Modern Life,’ Nickelodeon’s first in-house cartoon project. Stephen was first hired as a director but was eventually given the responsibilities to perform as a storyboard writer, executive producer, and story writer. The series ran until 1996 and was quite successful.
While Stephen was working on ‘Rocko’s Modern Life,’ one of the writers of the show saw ‘The Intertidal Zone’ and found it to be interesting. He asked Stephen to come up with an animated television series based on the same idea. Until then, Stephen had not considered developing a series of his own, but the suggestion stayed with him.
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Eventually, he decided to go ahead with it. He was also excited about the project as it allowed him to combine his passion for animation and the underwater world. He included several of his other ideas and laid the foundation of ‘SpongeBob SquarePants,’ a comedy animation series about talking aquatic animals. In 1998, he started his own production company named ‘United Plankton Pictures,’ which currently produces ‘SpongeBob SquarePants.’
Meanwhile, the executives at ‘Nickelodeon’ liked the idea and ‘SpongeBob SquarePants’ was developed further in the mid-1990s. The show premiered as Nickelodeon’s Saturday morning series in the year 1999. Since its beginning, the series has had a successful run. Not only among the children, but the series became popular among adults as well, owing to its dialogues and subtle symbolism about the issues prevalent in the modern world.
The series eventually became a major pop culture phenomenon. In 2004, Stephen directed ‘The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie,’ which was originally intended to be the series finale. But the ever-growing popularity of the series had the producers hooked on to it. The series won several accolades and earned Stephen two ‘Emmy Awards’ and six ‘Annie Awards.’
Stephen also worked on several other animated projects, most of which remain unreleased. A short film titled ‘Hollywood Blvd, USA’ was eventually showcased at film festivals. The short film received appreciation from the critics.
Awards & Honors
Stephen Hillenburg was honored with several awards during his lifetime. In 2010, he won the ‘Emmy Award’ for ‘Outstanding Special Class Animated Program.’ In 2014, he won his second ‘Emmy Award’ for ‘Outstanding Sound Editing – Animation’ for the show ‘SpongeBob SquarePants.’
He was also honored with ‘Walk the Talk’ award in 2001 by the nonprofit organization ‘Heal the Bay’ for his efforts to spread awareness about aquatic life. In 2018, he was given the ‘Winsor McCay Award’ at the ‘Annie Awards.’ In the same year, he received special recognition at the ‘Daytime Emmy Awards.’
Family, Personal Life & Death
Stephen Hillenburg married a chef named Karen Umland in 1998. Stephen and Karen were blessed with a son named Clay. Stephen is known as ‘Steve’ among his close family members. He was an active philanthropist and gave much of his time and money to social and humanitarian causes.
While ‘SpongeBob SquarePants’ became one of the highest rated American animated series of all time, Stephen also faced many criticisms for it. He used his series to comment on social injustices. He was once blamed for promoting homosexuality when a promotional video showed the characters of the series promoting diversity and tolerance.
In 2017, Stephen was diagnosed with ALS. He passed away a year later on November 26, 2018.