For a generation of aspiring artists and animators, the death of “SpongeBob SquarePants” creator Stephen Hillenburg hit especially hard. Those millennials who grew up watching the hit television show and decided they wanted to join the animation industry came to regard him as a creative inspiration, a muse and to some, he was like a god.
Stephen Hillenburg, the person, never achieved the fame his work did, but when news of his death from ALS surfaced on Nov. 26 many SpongeBob fans flooded the web to pay tribute and share their favorite memories of their animated friend who lived in a pineapple under the sea.
Hillenburg pursued marine biology and became an instructor at the Orange County Marine Institute in the 1980s. While there he used his illustrating skills to create an educational comic, “The Intertidal Zone,” which after a trip to graduate school to study animation he would pitch to Nickelodeon executives while wearing an appropriately styled Hawaiian shirt.
That show, “SpongeBob SquarePants,” became a marriage of his artistic and scientific passions as well as a commercial success unlike anything the kid’s television network had ever seen.
The show’s titular character became an icon. Since it aired in 1999, the show has been nominated for nine primetime Emmys, translated into over 60 different languages and made Nickelodeon $13 billion in merchandising sales.
“They more know him based on the work he did rather than him as a person, which I think is in a way better,” said Kira Pikowitz, a traditional animation major at Columbia College Chicago.
“Finding out when a creator dies is like finding out your god no longer exists,” said Liam Coballes, a traditional animation major at Columbia College. There was a shock felt in the classrooms of the Columbia College animation department when news of Hillenburg’s passing broke.
“I feel like a lot of artists are mourning right now,” Adrian Sandoval said. The SpongeBob enthusiast and Columbia traditional animation major said Hillenburg was responsible for creating an icon for a generation and the 21st century.
As a child, Sandoval would sketch the characters after watching an episode and remembers trying to make a toy SpongeBob out of a few popsicle sticks. He still catches himself re-watching episodes and taking inspiration from Hillenburg’s distinct nautical art style. “In the first few seasons,” Sandoval said, “he was not afraid to push the boundaries.”
Other Columbia College Chicago animation students recognized Hillenburg as a pillar of their childhood, a surprisingly effective animation industry innovator and, in the end, an artistic inspiration.
“Everyone who watched cartoons watched SpongeBob,” April Voytas said. Voytas, who graduated from Columbia College in 2016 in traditional animation, credits Hillenburg for having a major effect on her generation’s sense of humor. She said Hillenburg weaved unconventional, surreal humor into the series. She referenced a scene in which SpongeBob and his sea star friend Patrick are trapped on a ship where their only escape is through the perilous Macy’s-like perfume department where they are relentlessly offered perfume samples sprayed directly into their face.
“That is never something anyone would think of in terms of obvious joke telling,” Voytas said, “but it’s hysterical.”
Jennifer Kozlowski said “SpongeBob SquarePants” was special because of its perfectly timed comedy and unique character designs. “There’s just something about a little, you know, yellow square in the ocean that’s so appealing,” the storyboard artist and senior traditional animation major said.
Marlene Nacaspaca has an entire Pinterest folder dedicated to the little yellow sponge. “There’s so many things you can reference from it when it comes to character design, animation or storyboard art,” the senior traditional animation major said.
“SpongeBob SquarePants” storyboards were different from those of its contemporaries. Today in the animation industry, animators only work on the storyboards, similar to a comic strip, to establish the “key frames” which are the major poses a character does to tell the story. When an episode’s storyboard and script is finished, animators send the work overseas for the actual animation to be done.
Stephen Hillenburg was one of the first in the industry to take control over that entire process. “They would storyboard stuff out and then fill in bits of the script around the storyboard,” Voytas said.
This process made for superb storyboards that many animation students gush over. “They’re so gorgeous,” Columbia traditional animation major Alberto Leon said. “You could just look at it like a comic.” Leon was never a Nickelodeon fan, but he would turn the dial for SpongeBob.
The college animators said there was a lot to be learned from an episode of “SpongeBob SquarePants.” “They [animators] can learn how to tell really good comedies,” Kozlowski said. “And how to understand the value of a ten minute episode.”
Nacaspaca added that Hillenburg’s episodes were written in a wide variety of genres. With a horror-esque episode like “Graveyard Shift,” young animators “could easily learn how to keep (their) audience in suspense,” she said.
“SpongeBob’s one of the shows I feel like that’s going to go down in history as far as animated cartoons go,” Kozlowski said. She said the iconic show “transcends generations” and is something she and her younger sister now bond over by reciting their favorite quotes and gags.
“It’s a part of who I was growing up,” she said.
Almost 900,000 fans signed a petition to support “Sweet Victory,” one of SpongeBob’s unforgettable song moments, to be played at the Super Bowl Halftime show this year in his memory. Fans may not recall the creators name, but they would surely wave their lighters in the air in nostalgic solidarity for the underwater friends who grew up with them.
“His art is going to be more well known than I think his name is, which is kind of a nice thought as an artist,” Voytas said.
Listen to Columbia College Chicago animation students discus SpongeBob’s legacy: