Rebecca Sugar is an artist, composer and director who is best known for being a writer and storyboard artist on the series Adventure Time. Ian Jones-Quartey is a storyboard artist, animator and voice actor who supplies the voice of Wallow in Bravest Warriors. He has also served as a storyboard supervisor for Adventure Time and storyboard artist for Secret Mountain Fort Awesome and as art director for The Venture Bros.
Please note that this was a roundtable interview the four other participants other than myself. Questions by myself are marked as “ASM”—questions asked by the other participants are marked as “RT.”
Round Table: Where did the ideas for Steven Universe come from?
Rebecca Sugar: Well, Steven is actually based off my little brother, Steven—so he was always the first idea of the show. From there I wanted to bring together all of my favorite Fantasy elements and I’m really interested in playing fantasy against reality so it [Steven Universe] is always grounded in reality because of my brother and I wanted to find little bits of reality inside of The Gems too—just play with grounding them in the real world when they’re sort of not accustomed to that. Also elevating him [Steven] out of that—to play the concept of escapism.
RT: [Directed to Rebecca] How does it feel to be the first female creator of a Cartoon Network show? It’s a big deal!
RS: Uh…there’s so much going on, it’s hard to think about it.
RT: [Directed to Ian] You’ve been on a few shows, Venture Bros, Adventure Time, shows with tons and tons of characters—how does [Steven Universe] compare?
Ian Jones-Quartey: I would say […] a lot of the stuff I worked on before was very into crafting these real-feeling worlds, to make sure the world felt real and complete within itself, so that you could imagine the characters when they’re offscreen doing things together or they’re events that are happening before and after that episode and I think that Steven definitely continues that. We made a world and we made a plot line, but then we really try to ground it in characters and make sure that what you’re watching it for is the characters; but if you want to watch every episode and start to see all the connections between certain characters and certain items, there might be little details in the background in one episode that after seeing another episode, suddenly makes a little bit more sense. We’ve definitely tried to go overdrive on that.
RT: Were there any series you felt directly inspired Steven Universe?
RS: We’re really big fans of Future Boy Conan.
IJQ: Yeah, Future Boy Conan is a anime by [Hayao] Miyazaki that was done in the 70s.
RS: [Steven Universe] is, aesthetically, really inspired by that show.
IJQ: Also it has a really complete-feeling world and a lot of child-like wonder.
RS: And I really love One Piece.
Zachary Clemente for Amazing Stories: As creators in the animation world, a lot of times people even very high up end up wearing multiple hats—can we expect all kinds of different roles from both of you?
RS: Oh sure.
IJQ: Yeah, I have a few voices in a few tiny parts. I’ll pop up in Steven Universe from here to there. Mostly behind-the-scenes, while we do have to do the day-to-day running of the show, […] we really get in there—make sure we storyboard parts of the show, Rebecca likes to jump in to do certain sequences and stuff.
RT: [Directed to Rebecca] A lot of fans have been wondering what model ukelele you play.
RS: Gosh, I have a bunch. Actually today, I have a Gold Tone Banjolele which I really recommend. They’re really sturdy and they’re louder. When I lived in New York, sound carried just a little further than a normal ukelele.
RT: [Directed to Rebecca] How did you develop your musical style and what draws you to the ukelele as you instrument?
RS: Oh gosh, I started on the hammered dulcimer when I was 10, then I switched to piano—it was really hard and the ukelele is really easy! I have another instrument too, which is the omnichord, which is even easier than the ukelele because it’s just a series of buttons and when you hit one a chord comes out. So really, the easiness was the draw—I have a lot of family in Hawaii too […] I started around the time when I got the travel to visit them, or a little after. I was studying Irish music on the hammered dulcimer and I learned to sort up improvise, then when I started learning more technical things on the piano, my teacher would get kind of mad because I would change classical music and she really hated that. Now I’ve taken everything I didn’t quite finish learning and I just try to cobble together something that sounds good. […] The ukelele is low-pressure.
RT: Do you think there’s a synergy between the two art-forms of animation and music?
RS: Gosh, I think it’s all really connected. I really like drawing to music also. My mother and my grandmother were both modern dancers and I didn’t want to do that, I was shy, but I always like to draw a lot of dancing. Since I always liked to listen to music while I drew—I also wanted to be able to play it. It’s all just expressions and it’s all very connected. But I don’t think you necessarily need to play music to draw but it definitely helps me to think about both things having a little bit of the other.
RT: So what do you have planned for the first season of Steven Universe, what can we expect to see as viewers?
RS: That’s really a big question.
IJQ: It’s really varied. […] We both come from shows that are more action-adventure oriented and we do a lot of that stuff.
RS: We’re trying to really make it a sci-fi/fantasy/action/comedy—everything, and have those pieces inform each other and not hurt your ability to feel each part of it. I’m hoping that it will be funnier because it’s cooler and it’ll be cooler because it’s funnier than other shows. And that it’ll be funny because it’s beautiful and it’ll be beautiful because it’s funny—I know that’s really corny […] but I’m really trying to make it art in the sense that it’s really exploring what you can do on a really broad level as a cartoon. We’re putting really personal elements into it that are so specific that it could almost be shocking and not just do that myself, but have everyone on the team put a lot of themselves into it so that it’s just people making a thing that they want to see represented – all fields represented in a piece of popular media, unlike before, and hopefully there are other people who feel the way we feel and feel heard in a way they haven’t been.
RT: How much of the real Steven made it into the show?
RS: Oh, tons. And he’s there, he does backgrounds for the show. He was one of our original crew and we always drew together when we were kids growing up, we drew comics together as teenagers. He’s gotten so good—he was good when he started and he phenomenal now.
IJQ: His backgrounds are really good—you’ll see a lot of them in the show.
RS: If we’d get stuck for ideas, we used to bug him. This is the best, when we were working on the show’s bible, we would talk about “Oh, what is Steven afraid of?” And we were all drawing a blank and went “Oh, Steven, what are you afraid of?” and he was like “Being alone.” [Both laugh] That was really good.
IJQ: It’s kind of perfect.
RS: It’s that kind of stuff. […] He’s real—he’s a cartoon character and he’s a real character, he’s both. I feel that creates a thing that is very interesting to me.
ASM: Can we expect something from Boom!, like the Bravest Warriors/Adventure Time spin-offs?
IJQ: I don’t know, I think it’s pretty up in the air, but for now there’s going to be a Steven Universe preview in the Halloween Adventure Time comic.
RS: I really hope for it—I came from comics, I really hope for comics.
IJQ: So many people on our staff are comic artists and they’ve done independent works.
RS: [Directed to ASM] Are there any artists you like in particular?
RS: Shelli! I met Shelli at Otakon, because I’m from Maryland. I actually took a photo of her because she was cosplaying as Sanji and I did a painting of it for my high school painting class and it’s still framed in my house and we weren’t friends yet.
ASM: Have you told her?
RS: Yes, I told her! And I saw her later and we became friends and went “Ohmygosh that’s you!”
RT: I was really excited for the diversity of the character design and they each look very different. What was the inspiration towards having that diversity in the way the characters were represented?
RS: Well it was a mix of wanted to do exactly that and also that is what makes designs good—if everyone looks the same, it’s not a very good design theory. I really wanted to make sure that they were really distinct and even all the way through color [I wanted to make sure] that they related to each other but were radically different, even when you paired two of them up at a time, you would have a totally different impression of what that looked like in color and in shape language, having that reflect the differences between them. When Pearl and Steven are together, it feels totally different than when Garnet and Steven are together, etc.
IJQ: I just feel that it’s really, really good design in animation if you see an animated show and there are four characters, why would all of them need to be the same height? You’re locking yourself off of a lot of visually interesting things that you could do. Characters that are different heights, how do they relate to each other? What is it like when the smaller one yells at the bigger one or vice versa? It’s just good design.
RS: I feel like we’ve set up a lot of things that make the show hard for us to make on purpose because we want it to be challenging but it really makes you stage shots in interesting ways because you just can’t go like this [forms rectangle from thumbs and forefingers] almost always. It looks terrible unless you pull really far back, you have to go down, you have to go up, and you have to compose for them [the characters], because they’re different.
RT: Did the varying character design make it easier to pitch or more difficult?
RS: I got a lot of freedom in terms of what I wanted it to look like and it was really me putting myself to the task of making it something really new and different—what I really wanted to do and I hope that I succeeded.
ASM: I really enjoy the diversity in the voices, especially the three currently useful Gems, and with Amethyst’s raspier voice. Where did you find these actors?
RS: Michaela Dietz is who you’re talking about—she is amazing because she’s just so hardcore as a person and she also played a dinosaur on Barney for years. She is just the coolest person.
IJQ: Her voice has this really great quality to it, you can see why she would have been a dinosaur on Barney for years because it’s one of those voices that jumps out at you.
RS: But she’s a comedian and she’s hilarious.
IJQ: So to hear her with something that’s closer to her own comedy, or her own talking style is really, really fun.
RT: You’ve said you want it to be cool and funny, are there going to be any serious themes that are going to creep in?
RS: Oh sure, I don’t think that anything can be cool or funny if it’s not serious.
RT: Since it’s kind of a coming-of-age story, will there be any “cutting-edge” topics which you’ll be tackling?
IJQ: Probably not anything topical or “very special” episodes kind of things.
RS: We’re always trying to represent real feelings that real people have that are confusing and complicated. [We] use even the fantasy in the show as a metaphor for that.
IJQ: So we may not call it out as being about a specific topic but maybe it’s the feelings that someone has when they’re dealing with a certain thing, we basically try to go at it by describing a feeling or describing what a character is going through rather than hooking onto some specific topic-of-the-day.
RS: There are a lot of themes, growing up, loss.
IJQ: And what it feels like to be a kid.
RS: The magic in the show is sort of there to represent what is happening when you’re young, with adults, that you don’t understand. It’s fun to just inject all sorts of cool, strange things that are that thing that can do double-duty for this stuff that seemed fascinating but later you realize it was normal. To The Gems, everything is normal to them—they have this rational explanation to it and it’s simple, but to Steven, it’s confusing and sometimes he really likes it, but sometimes it’s really upsetting.
IJQ: It’s just like being a kid.
RT: It’s like you said: the real-life Steven has a fear of being alone and that fits with the Steven on screen, he wants to hang out with The Gems, he doesn’t want to be alone.
RS: I’ve always liked that because I have that problem in a serious way. I get very strange when I’m not around people. When I was in college, I did a film about it called Singles about being in a room by yourself, being with a million different versions of yourself and how bad that feels. Everyone deals with that.
ASM: [Directed to Rebecca] For both you and Ian, your careers really started launching with online platforms such as Tumblr became very widely used to track minuscule aspects of fandom to an Nth degree. How would you say your careers have been affected by extraordinarily heavy fandom on the parts of a show you work on?
RS: We were both the kind of kids that paused our recording of cartoons that we made and looked at who did what and we were like “oh this episode was written by this guy, that must be why it’s different” and I used to be a super-big fan on the internet—I guess it’s easier now, so that’s very strange to me. I used to try to dig stuff up, role play and do fanfics, and do fan comics. Now I guess the only thing that really shocks me is that you can do that without feeling like you’re the only person or one of maybe 15 people doing that—there can be 1,500 people doing that.
And as it is now, it’s just easier to find people who are you are “oh, this person can do this thing!” I don’t know we did it before, because now you can just go online and we’ve seen stuff going “I really like this work, I wish they were working with us” and now they are!
IJQ: There’s almost no excuse now because it’s a platform and if you’re an artist, you should just put yourself out there [as soon as you can], you don’t have to hold it back because there are always people who, like us, are trying to look at as many things as we can – we try to research different artists, contact them to say “hey we really like your stuff” just to talk to them.
RS: We used to independent comic-cons, like Small Press Expo and that’s how I would find peoples’ work and now you don’t even have to do that.
RT: [Directed to Rebecca] What fanfics did you used to do when you were younger that you wouldn’t be embarrassed to tell us about?
RS: I would do [Legend of] Zelda fan stuff, some One Piece fan stuff. Lots of stuff, Ed, Edd, n’ Eddy. It’s all embarrassing [both laugh].
RT: I’d love to hear more about you developing your visual style.
RS: Oh! Gosh. It’s definitely an amalgam of a lot of my favorite artists…
IJQ: That’s a really tough question…
RS: Well […] I went to school for visual arts and even before I was going there I did a lot of figure drawing and the best thing about observational drawing, when you’re a cartoonist, is that you start to understand why people are making all the choices they make. If you’re deciding and eye, or a nose, or a mouth should look like this, I remember the moment in high school where I realized that people draw that line from your nose to your mouth, that’s not this thing [points to a part of her face], it’s this thing [points to a different part of her face] when you’re looking at it from the side and once you can decode the language everyone has been speaking in their drawings, you can start to decide which you did and didn’t like, what version of an interpretation of a face makes sense to you and you can add new things to it—maybe no ones noticed that a face can do this. Start trying to boil that language down into simple terms add some of the language, which feels really natural because it feels how language actually works.
ASM: There’s been a definite influence on semi-associated shows like Bee & Puppycat and Steven Universe which seem to be influenced by the magical girl anime genre – was that something you looked at?
RS: Yeah! I’m a really big fan of Revolutionary Girl Utena so I feel like I’m looking really specifically to that. What I love about that in particular is that they [the transformations] physically happen—things are pulled out of peoples’ bodies, things are happening to peoples’ bodies – they’re not going somewhere else, it’s really happening right then and there in front of you. In terms of the magical girl genre, I’m especially drawn to that facet of it because I think that that stuff is really fun but there’s a point where it can even cross over from fun into this powerful escapist idea that’s part of the reality to you now.
IJQ: And I’d say, in general we don’t really try to echo stuff from a particular genre, because there’s these hallmarks of these genres of magical girls and superheroes—all kinds of stuff—but we don’t try to take specific things from that, it’s not the kind of thing where we’re not making direct references to any of that stuff, but it did form some of the really far back, original ideas.
RS: Yeah, it’s grown a lot. The thing that I’m interested in is the escapism and how that feeling is generated in other things, so that’s one sort of piece of escapism that I think is really interesting but we try to incorporate a lot of fantasy across the board, fantasy in a pulp sense—the kind that’s always been needed by people.
ASM: Wonderful, thank you.
RS & IJQ: Thank you.
Both Ian Jones-Quartey and Rebecca Sugar live in Los Angeles, CA and make cartoons. They’ve both worked on Adventure Time and created Steven Universe, which airs November 4th, 2013 on Cartoon Network.