In the interim came a sad news with a shocking wave that favourite cartoon serial SpongeBob Squarepants Creator Stephen Hillenburg has passed away following a battle with ALS,” a Nickelodeon spokesperson said.
Stephen Hillenburg, the man who used his background in marine biology to create the wildly popular cartoon series SpongeBob SquarePants for Nickelodeon, has died from ALS, the network announced Tuesday. He was 57.
“We are incredibly saddened by the news that Steve Hillenburg has passed away following a battle with ALS,” a Nickelodeon spokesperson said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. “He was a beloved friend and long-time creative partner to everyone at Nickelodeon, and our hearts go out to his entire family.”
Hillenburg revealed last year that he had been diagnosed with the disease but vowed to continue working on the TV show, which has been running since 1999. ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, is a neurodegenerative disease that affects cells in the brain and spinal cord.
Hillenburg made his first animated works, short films The Green Beret and Wormholes (both 1992), while at CalArts. The Green Beret was about a physically challenged Girl Scout with enormous fists who toppled houses and destroyed neighborhoods while trying to sell Girl Scout cookies.Wormholes was his seven-minute thesis film, about the theory of relativity. He described it as “a poetic animated film based on relativistic phenomena”, in his grant proposal in 1991 to the Princess Grace Foundation, which assists emerging artists in American theater, dance, and film.
The foundation agreed to fund the effort, providing Hillenburg with a Graduate Film Scholarship.“It meant a lot. They funded one of the projects I’m most proud of, even with SpongeBob. It provided me the opportunity just to make a film that was personal, and what I would call independent, and free of some of the commercial needs,” he said in 2003.Wormholes was shown at several international animation festivals, including the Annecy International Animated Film Festival, the Hiroshima International Animation Festival, the Los Angeles International Animation Celebration, the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, and the Ottawa International Animation Festival, where it won Best Concept. LA Weekly labeled the film “road-trippy” and “Zap-comical”, while Manohla Dargis of The New York Times opined that it was inventive.
Some evidence shows that the idea for SpongeBob SquarePants dates back to 1986, during Hillenburg’s time at the Orange County Marine Institute. He indicated that children’s television series such as The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse (1987–1988) and Pee-wee’s Playhouse (1986–1991) “sparked something in [him].” He continued, “I don’t know if this is true for everybody else, but it always seems like, for me, I’ll start thinking about something and it takes about ten years to actually have it happen, or have someone else believe in it… It took me a few years to get [SpongeBob SquarePants] together.”
During the production of Rocko’s Modern Life, Martin Olson, one of the writers, read The Intertidal Zone and encouraged Hillenburg to create a television series with a similar concept. At that point, he had not even considered creating his own series. “After watching Joe [Murray] tear his hair out a lot, dealing with all the problems that came up, I thought I would never want to produce a show of my own.”However, he realized that if he ever did, this would be the best approach “For all those years it seemed like I was doing these two totally separate things.
I wondered what it all meant. I didn’t see a synthesis. It was great when [my two interests] all came together in [a show]. I felt relieved that I hadn’t wasted a lot of time doing something that I then abandoned to do something else. It has been pretty rewarding,” Hillenburg said in 2002.He claimed that he finally decided to create a series as he was driving to the beach on the Santa Monica Freeway one day.
SpongeBob SquarePants is Nickelodeon’s first original Saturday-morning cartoon. It first aired as a preview on May 1, 1999, and officially premiered on July 17. Hillenburg noted that the show’s premise “is that innocence prevails—which I don’t think it always does in real life.”It has received positive reviews from critics, and has been noted for its appeal to different age groups.James Poniewozik of Time magazine described the titular character as “the anti-Bart Simpson, temperamentally and physically: his head is as squared-off and neat as Bart’s is unruly, and he has a personality to match—conscientious, optimistic and blind to the faults in the world and those around him.” On the other hand, The New York Times critic Joyce Millman said that the show “is clever without being impenetrable to young viewers and goofy without boring grown-ups to tears. It’s the most charming toon on television, and one of the weirdest. … Like Pee-wee’s Playhouse, SpongeBob joyfully dances on the fine line between childhood and adulthood, guilelessness and camp, the warped and the sweet.”
As a child with a passion for art, Hillenburg also became fascinated with the ocean after watching Jacques Cousteau documentaries on television.
In a 2012 Nerdist podcast interview, he recalled going diving for the first time and discovering the underwater world didn’t resemble the black-and-white pictures he had seen.
“It just was a shock for me,” he recalled, “and I was riveted by that experience.”
With his passion for drawing a side hobby, he opted to study marine biology in college. “The art part of me, it came easy,” he said. “The research and studying for [marine biology] was much harder, and I never really saw the two of them coming together.”
After teaching at the Orange County Marine Institute, he opted to return to school to study animation and a master of fine arts. He then joined Nickelodeon, working as a director and writer on Rocko’s Modern Life.