Week sixteen: The Art of The Pitch: A special evening with Stephen Hillenburg!

The creator and executive producer of one of Nickelodeon’s most popular animated series SpongeBob SquarePants will discuss the fine points of pitching an original show. He will bring his SpongeBob pitch bible and will screen the pilot that launched the hugely popular series.

Stephen Hillenburg

Stephen Hillenburg



SpongeBob SquarePants has received numerous Emmy nominations and ASIFA Annie awards. Hillenburg’s first feature film, The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie debuted in 2004 and he is currently writing the sequel.

Stephen received his MFA in 1992 from CalArts in Experimental Animation, and a BS from Humboldt State University in natural science with an emphasis in marine biology. As a graduate student, Hillenburg made several independent animated films, including The Green Beret and Wormholes, which have been exhibited internationally in such festivals as Annecy, Hiroshima, Ottawa, Oberhausen and the Los Angeles Animation Celebration.

"The Green Beret"

“The Green Beret”

Prior to becoming a filmmaker, Hillenburg worked as an exhibit preparator and science educator for kids. “Working as a marine science educator, I had the chance to see how enamored kids are with undersea life, especially tide pool creatures. By combining this knowledge with my love for animation, I came up with SpongeBob SquarePants.”

He also served as creative director on the Nickelodeon animated series Rocko’s Modern Life, in that show’s last season.

SpongeBob SquarePants has received an Emmy nomination 6 times since 2002. The show won a Golden Reel award in 2008. It received an Annie for Best Writing in Television in 2005 and in 2004 for TV Production. In 2002, the series won the Television Critic’s Award for Best Children’s Program. In 2003, Comedy Central nominated SpongeBob SquarePants for its “Commie Awards” in the category of Funniest Animated TV Series. Also in 2002, Hillenburg was the recipient of the Princess Grace Foundation’s Statue Award in film. Hillenburg was honored in 2001 by Heal the Bay (Southern California’s premiere environmental public interest group) with the organization’s highest honor, the Walk the Talk Award. He received this award for elevating marine life awareness through SpongeBob SquarePants.

"Hollywood Blvd., USA"

“Hollywood Blvd., USA”

Tonight in Seminar, Stephen will screen his CalArts MFA 2 film The Green Beret and premiere his new hand-drawn experimental animation Hollywood Blvd, USA.

Steve talks to Hench- DADA students after Seminar presentation

Steve talks to Hench-DADA students after his Seminar presentation

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42 Responses to Week sixteen: The Art of The Pitch: A special evening with Stephen Hillenburg!

  1. Maggie Harbaugh says:

    This was a genuinely fun seminar. How could it not be? I mean, SpongeBob! He seemed so sincere and relatable for being the creator of a majorly successful show and international icon. To see the pitch bible for Sponge Bob was not only entertaining, but really informative. I love how inventive he was with it (including random pictures from magazines, making it appear scientific, etc.) He seemed to have had a lot of fun putting it together, which really reflects the show itself (humor and use of stop motion/live action inserts.) If anything, I learned to just be true to your ideas, love and know your characters, and follow your passion– even if one of those passions is marine biology. Thank you so much for bringing him to seminar. This was a real treat!

  2. linhui wang says:

    Tonight was my first time to know so much things about Spongebob. I had to say it was much more funny than my expecting. Before he started to introduce the creating processes of the SpongeBoy, I didn’t like it very much, but like what we said” we couldn’t judge a book just by its cover”, Stephen was a real comedian! He made it happen, even his short animated films, those were also lots of fun. Anyway, thanks for coming, learned a lot.

  3. Josh Weisbrod says:

    I really enjoyed Stephen’s talk. It was especially inspiring to see his most recent independent film about different walk cycles. It is so cool that he is still making his own independent work on top of his work in TV.

    I am looking forward to the new Spongebob movie, as the last one was a blast. Here’s to 15 more years.

  4. Maggie said it so well – I also loved how Stephen was really advocating just following your interests and being yourself. Of course it’s still mysterious about who will get their personal project picked up and made into a hit TV show or film or whatever, but it really does seem like the people who have enjoyed the most external success (and internal enjoyment) are those who are following their hearts.

    That was such a nice seminar to end the semester on! Thanks, Lisa 🙂

  5. Yifu Zhou says:

    Stephen’s talk is very interesting. I did not know much about sponge bob since sometimes I can’t understand the funny part. But Stephen presentation is definitely interesting and inspiring. I love his character design! I hope one day I can work on my own independent animation and work on a big show at the same time like what Stephen is doing right now.

  6. Evan Harbuck says:

    I appreciated how honest Stephen was about his experiences and it reflects clearly in his work which adds a layer of depth to it. I enjoyed his stories and seeing his new animated short, which I may not have seen otherwise. This was an inspiring presentation which seems fitting for the final seminar of the semester. I liked most of all Stephen’s eclectic interests and the fact that he brought some of the contraptions he made with him to the talk, how cool.

  7. Ruthie Williams says:

    Stephen Hillenburg was a really pleasant and funny person and from his talk and other work, I got the sense that even though his job can be grueling and tough, he still gets some joy out of what he does. I think that is one of the reasons Sponge Bob is such a genuine and endearing show, and I think that was also what made his pitch to Nickelodeon so strong.

  8. Joanna Barondess says:

    Like everyone else, I found Stephen Hillenburg’s talk really wonderful. He’s such a nice, down-to-earth guy and it’s incredibly cool that Spongebob started because of his interest in marine biology. It was nice to see how and where he started. It was also very cool to see his pitch bible for Spongebob Squarepants. I noticed that it was very long, but its length was appropriate for the world that Hillenburg created. Every page had a unique character description or interesting tidbit about the world.

    Additionally, I enjoyed Hillenburg’s new film with walk cycles down Hollywood Blvd. I hope he makes more films like that in the future.

  9. Tim says:

    Steve was inspiring and down-to-earth, and he made character/story creation seem genuinely achievable in a way that other speakers have not. His pitch information was invaluable, and I’m very happy he shared his knowledge so openly. Loved his walk cycle movie, and that creepy alternative Plankton design will haunt me forever!!!!

  10. Joseph yeh says:

    This was such a happy and lighthearted presentation. It was also super inspiring and definitely one of my favorite guests. Stephen seems like such a cool guy to hang out with and he approaches his work with such ease and really goes with the flow. Thank you for the great presentation and so many years of Spongebob Squarepants!!!

  11. This was my favorite presentation of the semester. Stephen Hillenburg showed us his path to realizing the illusive dream job. And this man-boy from California, via Oklahoma, made it look easy … like we could do it too!
    Mr. Hillenburg certainly writes what he knows, and employs his life-long interest and college education in Marine biology – though I’m baffled why he would knowingly imply a household sponge is an ocean sponge.
    He walked us through the Pitch Bible for SpongeBoy (later changed to SquarePants due to copyright rules) explaining it’s How/What/Where/ When/Why. He puts the main focus on the characters. He said: “The chemistry in the show is generated from its personalities.” He went in more depth by showing us the educational comic he made while at the Ocean Institute in Dana Point Harbor. And then we saw the comic book, which seemed to inform the TV series. I was struck by the enormity of his generosity when I realized he wasn’t just feeding us; he was teaching us how to fish.
    Showing his first film, “The Green Beret,” connected the dots from where we are as students to making our first (really big) pitch.

  12. emily says:

    I really enjoy Mr.Hillenburg’s presentation. All his stories and experiences are super inspire. It was cool to see all his works. I can see how he loves his work ,character and story… I think that’s how SpongeBob become the one of the most popular animation in the world.

  13. Yizhou Li says:

    Stephen Hillenburg was a very cool guy, and I loved his talking about Spongebob. He was very inspiring because he was able to combine science and art together into something that so many people enjoy. I really like science too, and it would be fun to make something combining the two like he did some day. It was great to see his design process and how the show was created.

  14. Dustin Reno says:

    It’s really crazy how Stephen Hillenburg was able to carve his own path in animation like he did. He is truly a man of many talents- his painting, fascination with marine biology, moving sculptures, animation, and singing skills were mind boggling. Even more incredible was how clear his influences and life experiences came through in the development of Spongebob to create the flavor the series has. I think my favorite part of the entire evening was seeing his developmental drawings for characters because of how much fun and diversity was present on a single page.

    Mr. Hillenburg speaking about not wanting to compromise his idea’s essential qualities was great because it wasn’t simply deflecting/ignoring feedback but incorporating it in a way that complimented his idea.

    This was a wonderful guest speaker to close the semester with, and I am very glad he was able to come speak to us all.

  15. Fernando Rabelo says:

    This was by far one of the best seminars we have had so far. It was a great opportunity to meet the creator of a very successful cartoon that most of us have become fan over the years. It was also a great chance for us students to learn how a good pitch should be done in order to succeed in the tough animation industry out there. Stephen was a great inspiration for us animators whether we animate in 2D or in any other medium. His lessons and story of success showed me that we should believe and defend our vision and one day we might get to be recognized for our hard work.

  16. jrronzani says:

    Awesome guest! I always appreciate when really big names volunteer their time to give talks. Stephen’s personal animated pieces are amazing! His talk was so informative and thorough. It was great how he went through his entire pitch at Nickelodeon including all the problems he encountered and the compromises he made to overcome them. I’m sure many of the students who want to get into TV animation found that useful. I didn’t realize he decided to get into animation in his 30’s. I think one of the biggest reasons why Spongebob is such a hit is because he’s been able to draw from so many life experiences and combine two things he is really passionate about: marine life and cartoons.

  17. Ryan Gillis says:

    I was scribbling a lot of notes during Hillenburg’s seminar. Over the past year, I feel like I’ve made and reviewed a lot of pitch bibles, and the Spongebob pitch bible was clearly superior.
    I thought I had been doing good work, but nothing I’ve done presented the clear articulation of a vision that way Hillenburg’s pitch bible did. Most importantly, he maintained a weird sense of humor throughout the formatting.
    The message he kept repeating about being flexible but not compromising on the essential qualities was really important. Besides from it’s direct advice, it also implied knowing your idea inside and out. You can’t sell a show that you don’t understand completely. Otherwise you run the risk of losing whatever might have made it special in the first place.
    Very helpful seminar.

  18. After three years of seminars I´ve come to realize what I like and I don´t like in speakers. I think most speakers come with the goal of inspiring people and they are very vague and abstract about their craft. Others just focus on craft and failed to connect with students. It is difficult, I understand. Stephen´s seminar seemed to be very well put together for this reason. It managed to connect the craft of putting together a pitch bible with the personal reasons behind his show. It showed the skill of character development but it was intertwined with personal anecdotes which made it relatable enough to inspire. I can see why Spongebob is such a successful character. It was a great way to end a three year cycle of seminars. Thank you Lisa (and I guess Catmull) for having this one be the send-off seminar.

  19. Andrew Malek says:

    What an amazing guest. I think the most impressive thing about Steve’s creation is that the show still feels fun after over a decade. The proof was in the audience’s reaction to the pitch bible and the episode. It must be strange to think that something you’ve created will live for decades, maybe even more.

    My favorite thing that Steve said was that his creation of Spongebob was 100% genuine. I think a lot of time is spent thinking about what is marketable or what might be safe, when in reality the shows that really break through and last and resonate with society have to be genuine. While it may not be an easy feat Steve is proof of its possibility.

  20. This Guy is crazy cool, Sponge Bob is amazing and his other short films as well. Great inspiration, loved to hear he talking about his former experiences shaping the box universe of Sponge Bob. Also felt deeply humbled by his gestures and attitude, he takes credit for him and his coleagues that support his work. Glad i could see this one. Cheers to him.

  21. Ivan Sayon says:

    I really enjoyed Steve’s presentation. It was incredibly helpful to see the pitch bible he used for Spongebob. Going through it page by page with him elaborating on the creative choices he made while conceiving the idea really puts things into perspective especially when some of us are trying to put together a concept for our own shows/stories. I think a look into Steve’s past interests and how it led him to where he is was very helpful as well, and it was fascinating he was able to combine all of his interests into a career. You can really tell how passionate he is whenever he talks about the taxonomy and classification of marine organisms and seeing him involved in painting, to comic books, and building electronic devices really adds to his character as an artist. Considering how long Spongebob has been on, I’m glad he is still very much apart of the show. And seeing his animated short “Hollywood Blvd., USA” makes me look forward to seeing more interesting concepts from him in the future. I’m surprised we didn’t get to see “Wormholes” during the presentation.

  22. Sijia Huang says:

    Stephen Hillenburg is amazing, and this seminar is one of my favorite. He is so inspiring and interesting. I like the way he developed a character. And I like his altitude towards creating. Those shorts he made is interesting tooo!

  23. Zheng Kang says:

    Stephen’s presentation is so interesting and inspiring. I really love his character design! His pitch information is really helpful, and I’m very happy he shared his knowledge so openly to us! I hope one day I can pitch my own characters and story to studios and can develop them to a great brand like what Stephen is doing right now. Also I really love his walk cycle animation film, so clever and wonderful work. This seminar is awesome!!!

  24. Jake Zhang says:

    It is invaluable to see how the characters of Sponge Bob were came up with and how they are presented to studios. I love the most recent work of Stephen Hillenburg, which is the simple walk cycles inspired from different people in Hollywood. It really makes me feel actually there is not such big gap between “Art” and “Commercial/ entertaining”, Stephen Hillenburg definitely is a good example to work in entertainment industry as an artist.

  25. Amelia says:

    Wow. What an amazing presentation. I especially loved hearing about Hillenburg’s past as a marine biologist and how he used an intersection of his passions to create something truly amazing. I think that’s one of the reasons why SB is so successful, that it was created out of true passions. It is encouraging to think that if we all just follow our own passions, we will be as successful as he is.

  26. Jessie Wang says:

    It’s very fun speech to listen. I think it’s very funny how he make the pitch bible with all those sea creatures finally turns to sponge bob. I wasn’t a huge fun of sponge bob before – I like it, but I wasn’t crazy about it. After listening to his speech, I really want to watch more episodes! Also, he is such a nice person, very passionate about animation and he sounds genuine and honest.

  27. Eric Cheng says:

    Stephen Hillenburg gives us a reallly good pitch. It ‘s amazing to see the creator of SpongeBob’s presentation, As a very successful artist in commercial. He share a lot of useful information like how he got in touch with animation, how he make his interesting into career. I want to do commercial animation too, so, for me , he is a very good purpose to study and follow.
    And also, I am not that familiar with SpongeBob before, but after this seminar I am very interested on make up this blank. I believe I gonna study a lot, also, have a lot of fun through watching it.

  28. Reggie says:

    Steve was a delightful guest. It was cool learning the character and story inspirations for Spongebob. His pitching experience was insightful and inspiring. I learned a couple things from his presentation. Anything from one’s life experience, whether exciting or mundane, can spark creative ideas. Another thing is to maintain show’s core and integrity while adhering to various notes.

    It was great to meet a passionate artist like Steve, and his words of wisdom are invaluable.

  29. Hillenburg seems exactly like the kind of guy that would’ve created Spongebob: just a mild-mannered, humorous, silly individual that just really enjoys doing what he does and the immense impact that his character has had. Spongebob’s an interesting figure in animation at this point because he casted a long shadow for so long that it almost changed the industry for the worse (like when Cartoon Network dabbled in live action to try and compete against Nickelodeon). And while the politics associated with Spongebob (God, that’s an absurd statement) is something to consider (even with Adventure Time, Spongebob is STILL the most watched kid’s program on television), I think Hillenburg is beyond all that. He’s a cartoonist at heart and just a sweet-natured guy that wants to make people laugh with his yellow-hued naive nitwit cartoon character.

  30. Yawen Zheng says:

    Stephen‘s presentation is very inspiring. He is totally different from my imagination, very humble and approachable, also has lot of strange and funny ideas. I love his short animation more than Sponge Bob, it’s more creative and artist. From his presentation, I feel we should love animation more like a friend not a job.

  31. Lanzhu Jian says:

    The best seminar ever, I finally know what to pitch an animation show now.
    the shot Stephen showed in the end are very very creative. I enjoyed very much.

  32. Ning Xu says:

    I was tired during the presentation, but luckily I got the chance to listen to the who pitch experience, That is the most valuable knowledge I can have to the pitch I m thinking about doing.

  33. Li,Xia says:

    One of my favorite seminar。 his graduated animation also awesome . it shows how talented he is. he has lots of interesting as well. not only animation. it is really cool.
    I have a new model.

  34. Simo Liu says:

    The SpongeBob is one of my favorite cartoon TV shows in my childhood. Very nice to have Stephen Hillenburg to tell his story about creating SongeBob and his ideas. His films are also very cool! It’s very fun seminar.

  35. Sophie Xing says:

    Sponge bob Squarepants is one of my favorite cartoon. I couldn’t believe I can see the “father” of sponge bob. He is a simply charming person. Before I though he will be a crazy (in a good way) person,but actually he is a vey kind person, he has a lot of patient. I found out he was a funny person as well. He has many interesting ideas, his humors is simple as a child’ mind but made my day. I’m glad too see his earlier works, I like to see how an successful animator growing.

  36. Catalina Matamoros says:

    I really like Stephen Hillenburg because you can see he is a person that followed what he wanted to do in life and he was able to combine his passions. I really like the SpongeBob bible and is so fun to see the way the creators conceived their character, and hear the explanation behind a character, how do they live, where, why they work in the place they work. and all the universe behind a tv show.

  37. Frank Gu says:

    I am a big fan of the Sponge Bob, so it was great to meet him in person! It was cool to see his personal work,too.Also Ilike his thesis from Calarts.

  38. Christina Brous says:

    This seminar was so exciting! We learned so much about spongebob and even better, about pitching and it’s really great we could hear so much wisdom from a current animation superstar. The only thing I regret is forgetting to ask him why he couldn’t name him sponge boy.

  39. Chaoqi Zhang says:

    One of the best seminar I’ve ever had. It’s so great to see the first hand pitch bible from Stephen Hillenburg, know about his background and the relation to Sponge Bob, about the idea, story, design and music, and most important, to balance the original personality to the commercial requirement. In the end, love his newest short Hollywood Walking cyle, so fun!

  40. Fan Feng says:

    This is so lucky we have the seminar course. This is so lucky we always could have a lot of successful animators and artists. Spongebob is one of the most popular animation in China. I like it very much. I could not imagine I can see Spongebob’s dad in person. I was so inspired by him. From a little original thought to a super famous international cartoon character, he did a good job. After he showed us his walking animation, I decided to do more and more basic motion. That will be very helpful for animation.

  41. he was a great and very charismatic personality and I was kind of hypnotised by his seminar. He follows his passion and does what he really loves, it might sound commonplace but that is what I find inspiring and refreshing. I love his sense of humour and attitude, he things very specifically and with details about every each of the characters he creates and the worlds he builds. i am extremely happy that I got the chance to see his seminar

  42. Brian Rhodes says:

    This was one of my personal favorites. The major message I got from his lecture was “authenticity” is the best way to create meaningful content. Spongebob is by far the most successful show of our generation, and much of that I believe is based upon his personal passions and experiences that are the underpinnings of the show.

    He is a brilliant artist and really seeing the levels of craftsmanship to create something of quality like Spongebob is inspiring.

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