You don’t have to be a child to appreciate the genius of Stephen Hillenburg. I think that’s why his passing especially hurts. I still watch Spongebob and Rocko’s Modern Life regularly. And I’m pretty sure both are even better as an adult.
Before he was an animator, Stephen Hillenburg taught marine biology. As a visual aid to his course curriculum, Hillenburg wrote and designed an informative comic book titled The Intertidal Zone. It was about anthropomorphic tide-pool animals and featured a particular sea sponge - one who would go on to warm the hearts of millions. As the story goes, the educational comic eventually developed into the fifth longest-running animated series in American history - Spongebob Squarepants.
Hillenburg always had a passion for the arts. When he was in third grade, in 1970 and during the Vietnam War, his teacher commended him for an illustration that he did featuring “a bunch of army men… kissing and hugging instead of fighting.” It was at that moment that Stephen’s creative talent (and potential) was first recognized. After getting the nautical comic book idea turned down by publishers (it still is unpublished), Hillenburg followed his artistic ambitions and enrolled in animation school at CalArts.
‘The Green Beret’
Stephen Hillenburg created two animated shorts while at CalArts, both in 1992. The first was The Green Beret. It was about a Girl Scout with enormous fists who toppled homes while trying to sell cookies. Rife with political satire (George Washington in the war trenches) and a hint of farce directed at American excess and television culture, the short contained the same tongue-in-cheek humor that made Hillenburg’s later works so satisfying. The Green Beret kind of reminds me of Meet the Fat Heads, the absurd in-universe cartoon program that had several cameos in Rocko’s Modern Life.
The only online evidence of ‘Wormholes’
Hillenburg’s thesis film was a seven-minute animation titled Wormholes. It was based on the theory of relativity and while the short does not exist anywhere on the web, Hillenburg has been quoted as describing it as “a poetic animated film based on relativistic phenomena.” The film was shown at several international film festivals, including the 1992 Ottawa Film Festival, where Hillenburg met Joe Murray, creator of Rocko’s Modern Life. After seeing Wormholes, Murray offered Stephen the directorial role on his new cartoon for Nickelodeon. And the rest was history.
It is without a doubt that Stephen Hillenburg has inspired something special within us all. May he rest in peace.
Watch Hillenburg’s first animated short film ‘The Green Beret,’ after the jump…