Emmy winner Stephen Hillenburg, creator, writer, producer and director of the long-running animated comedy SpongeBob SquarePants, has died at the age of 57. TV Kids takes a look back at what he told us about the creation of the hit Nickelodeon show in a 2004 interview.
What do science and cartoons have in common? Generally not a lot. But the combination of marine biology and the love of animation lies behind Steve Hillenburg’s creation of one of the most popular cartoon characters ever, SpongeBob SquarePants.
Growing up in Southern California, Hillenburg developed a love of art, painting and drawing, and the ocean, where he surfed and snorkeled off the picturesque beaches. When he entered college, he worried that he might have trouble making a living as an artist. So, to be practical, he studied marine biology, and after finishing school, he taught kids at the Orange County Ocean Institute for three years. Eventually, however, “I realized I was more interested in animation than teaching,” Hillenburg says. He went back to school and got a master’s degree in animation from the California Institute of the Arts. One of his student films was shown at a festival, where it caught the eye of Joe Murray, the creator of Rocko’s Modern Life, and in 1992, Hillenburg landed a job at Nickelodeon working on the series, eventually working his way up to creative director. “I learned a fantastic amount about animation” during that period, he says.
When he began developing some of his own ideas, Hillenburg turned to the sea for inspiration. “I wanted to do something that would be set undersea and that would involve all the things I really love—nautical kitsch, surf culture,” and other elements that would become part of SpongeBob’s world. To pitch the show to Nickelodeon, Hillenburg even brought in a ukulele to sing a theme song he’d written.
Nickelodeon bought the idea, but Hillenburg didn’t have high expectations for the show. “You can’t start making a show about a sponge and think it will be a huge hit,” he says. “I thought it would have a cult audience but no broad appeal.” Nor did he spend a lot of time thinking about merchandising. “My focus was always on making a really funny cartoon,” he says. “Licensing was not something you could count on. I think Mike Judge”—creator of King of the Hill—“said it best when he said, ‘You make something that will make your friends laugh and then you hope other people will like it.’”
SpongeBob was both classic and cutting-edge. Hillenburg pursued a class of animation style that he compares to the old Warner Bros. cartoons, and the show was written to target a wide audience. But he used a very “loose style” of painting to render the figures, and “we took a lot of liberties with the characters and the setting,” he says, creating a strange landscape populated with unusual characters that is filled with both naïve wonder and campy effects. Audiences love it. Unlike many kids’ shows, SpongeBob appeals to many college students and adults, and its hugely successful merchandising campaign has also appealed to both kids and adults. “I wanted something that would attract the whole family,” he says.