'Steven Universe' Creator on Crafting A Show About Family, Love - and Aliens

After making a name for herself as a writer, storyboard artist and songwriter on "Adventure Time," Rebecca Sugar stepped into the spotlight as the creator of her own animated series: "Steven Universe." The Cartoon Network show, which begins its third season on May 12, follows the story of Garnet, Amethyst and Pearl -- three humanoid aliens known as Gems -- who are raising a young boy named Steven, himself a half-Gem.

It's a show about how the Gems rebelled against their home world in order to protect Earth. It's also a show about change and growing up, about coming to understand what often feels like an overwhelmingly dangerous world. The way Sugar and her talented team or writers, animators and voice actors have combined a pulpy science fiction story, a certain style of animation, a coming of age story, and an interest in telling tales about friendship and family life, is striking, to say the least. That it has made the show such a unique critical and popular success is even more impressive.

Sugar spoke with SPINOFF ONLINE shortly after the announcement that the show was renewed through its fifth season. During the course of our conversation, the veteran animator made it clear that despite "Steven Universe's" success, she doesn't take anything for granted, and remains concerned with making sure that the show concludes in a way that makes the journey worthwhile.

Alex Dueben: It's clear watching Season 1 that you had a bigger story to tell. You've been renewed through Season 5 now, and knowing you have at least this much space to play with, does that change how you work or what you're going to do?

Rebecca Sugar: I've always had the plans for the long-term story. Really, after [the Season 1 finale] "Jail Break," it's the show. Up until then, people hadn't seen the show. I want it to keep changing because I'm changing, and everyone on the crew is changing. I have a lot of thoughts about the plot, and always have, but the feeling that it has is evolving as I'm changing as a person. What I want to say about the story is rigid, and its flexible. Every time I get more room, I like to think about the nuance of what I want to say in that overarching story I've always wanted to tell.

There's a story I want to tell, and it's why I wanted to make it about my brother, because he's such an important person in my life. He's working on the show with me, and our relationship keeps changing in the way that he's there for me. I want to thank him for being there for me and there keep being more ways I want to thank him.

A lot of times when people tell longer stories there's a point where a lot of the color and texture and what made it so unique and interesting are lost because it becomes all about plot machinations. Is this something you're really conscious of going forward?

I completely know what you're talking about, and I think that the challenge at this point is making sure plot doesn't override characters. The feeling is the most important thing. I suppose the story is the most important thing, because story is different from plot, and it's those things interwoven with what you want to say and why and the words you use. It's really challenging, but it's really exciting to get to the point where we're going to get to pay off things that we introduced.

I'm sure there's plenty of things you've introduced that we haven't even noticed.

We're still doing Season 1-style things now, but they get to be mixed in with the conclusions of stories we started earlier. It's fun. I feel like the thing that I've learned from doing it is finding the one thing that I want something to be about, and then having all those elements support it. With those early episodes, there's so much we wanted to plant that some of them are just seed gardens of future episodes. [Laughs] Now we're tending a garden, which is really rewarding -- but also really challenging.

With such a talented team, how do you see your role as the executive producer? Is your primary job to maintain that core idea and feeling?

For me, the characters in the show are so personal that keeping them true to themselves is probably the number one thing I'm trying to do. I think that carries through because I work on every stage of production. Because I'm coming from animation, I'm really hands on when it comes to the animation part and not just the story part. When we're planning and writing premises and outlines, that's when these broad strokes really matter. You're setting people on this trajectory that's going to define everything that's going to come after, but there are times when I will come in and draw on the actual frames so the animation is right.

The other day, there was a shot where Greg is throwing a fishing line into the water that was supposed to have bait on it -- but there was no bait, so I animated the bait on the hook. This is a hugely important story of Pearl's arc that I'm writing, but I'm going to spend two hours drawing bait on a hook. That's my job; everything, from the macro to the micro. We're always working on about ten episodes at once -- some of them are getting finished, some of them are getting started, some of them are halfway through. I try to keep track of everything and talk to everyone as they're working, about what we really think the message should be, how we really think the characters should act, and why we wanted to do it in the first place. That's something that's very easy to forget. You get partway into an episode, and it'll be like, why did we really want to do this? Or if it wasn't a good reason, let's turn it into a good reason.

We're in a time of "Avatar" and "Korra" and "Gravity Falls," and it feels like audiences and executives are willing to embrace this format of finite series. Did you say from the beginning, I want to make a series with an ending?

It didn't actually come up that much. I think everyone knew that it was something I was really interested in. I really liked doing that on "Adventure Time." I really love the format of self-contained episodes that are subtly telling a longer story. I think the best episodes fit into a larger story, but also work by themselves.

We have been doing more sequential arcs, and they're so fun because they're their own challenge. You'll see later the scope of things get really big. I think everyone knew it was something I was really interested in, and they wanted to see how I'd make that work in the 11-minute format, if things could still stand alone. It's been interesting to see how everyone's been so receptive to these miniseries and these arcs. I remember when "Over the Garden Wall" was happening; we were working on the Peridot redemption arc, and they asked us about doing something that had an overarching story. I was like, I'm on it! [Laughs]

I'm curious, how do you describe "Steven Universe?" And has that changed as you've developed the show?

[Laughs] I think the one thing that's stayed the same is how incapable I am of describing the show.

Did you make a pilot so you could say, "OK -- this is the show"?

All throughout, I've had loglines, and I've always tried to have a thing I could pull out and say in interviews -- but it's a feeling. The way that it felt like to be hanging out with my brother when we were kids, and to have this best friend that I could always count on. To me, all the sci-fi/fantasy, fun, plotty elements are secondary to this feeling of knowing that someone will be there when I get home, and will hang out and be friends. That was such a huge part of growing up for me. I've seen people describe the show as "comfy." I think there are people who will have a huge spiel about what it means that the Gems have rebelled against their planet and all of these plot things, but I feel like the people who say the show is comfy are almost more in tune with the point of it.

In other words, you still can't explain it.

Yes. [Laughs] I hope people feel the feeling I'm trying to convey. Okay, I'll try. Aliens have rebelled against their home planet to protect Earth for the sake of peace and love and -- I just can't do it. [Laughs]

You write music and songs for the show's really interesting voice cast. People like Tom Scharpling, who was host of The Best Show podcast, Estelle, who's a great singer -- all these very different people with different backgrounds, who aren't typical voice actors. You bring them together in an interesting way, and I can't help but think that's you thinking musically.

I suppose. I would say it's just greediness on my part to work with the people whose work I love. The Best Show was so special to me and helped me when I was moving out to LA from New York. I used to listen to WFMU, and that helped me get through moving and being separated from Ian and being on the other coast from my family.

In terms of the feeling -- which I had an impossible time describing -- Tom Scharpling was also that for me, and I was so excited to get to work with him. Before the show even started, I wanted Tom to be a voice. That was a huge priority for me. Also, Patti Lupone. I saw her in "Sweeney Todd" when I was living in New York.

The bare bones production where she played Mrs Lovett?

Yes -- where she played the tuba! It just blew my mind. There was a way that she performed the character of Mrs Lovett that really changed my thinking about drama and comedy. The way that she was this awful person, but she was so likable. The way that Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney Todd performed them, reveling in this disgusting situation and couldn't get enough of each other. The way she did was funny and sad -- two things I really like. [Laughs] I want to bring everyone together that touched me and my sensibility.

Even before this conversation, I would have guessed the show consists of this very organic combination of many things that you're interested in, that you love, which is very diverse.

Intersectional feminism is something I really care about. To me, the show is specifically about intersectional feminism. The characters are very, very different from each other. What they're struggling with is very different; they will hurt each other's feelings by accident, wires will get crossed, and things will get confusing. It's a challenge for them, as characters, to coexist, but they care about each other so much that they work through it. That's just something I think about often and try and convey.

The show is called "Steven Universe" and it's about aliens and this interstellar conflict, but at its heart it's a show about family and intersectional feminism.

Yes. Thank you. I'll use that blurb. [Laughs] It's about love. I think intersectional feminism is about love. That's the thing that's really exciting to me.

It's about the fact that there's not one way to be or to do things.

I think that's where the loves comes in. There's a song coming up later about flexibility love and trust, because I think those are the three things you need, and they inform everything else. To me, that's the core of the show.

There's a lot I want to say in terms of plot and politically, but at the core of everything is flexibility, love and trust, because it makes you able to practice these things in your life. Everything becomes simpler when you realize you can get things wrong, and the people that you love and trust will be there for you. Unconditional love is really what the show is about, that in working through really difficult situations and really making colossal mistakes, there could be unconditional love in your life that will ground you through all of it. It's not about being correct, it's about how love can help you live. Because you will change, and that's really scary if you don't love yourself and the people around you. If you do, that's something that will ground you through everything. I feel lucky that I get to be surrounded by people I love so much, and that's helped me understand how to write the show. Working on it with Ian Jones-Quartey, who I love, with my brother, who I love, makes me never forget that that's the ultimate point. Then, everything else will fall into place.

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