The Hammerstein Ballroom just a few blocks outside the Jacob Javits Convention Center was filled to the brim with Steven Universe fans eagerly awaiting the entrance of the show’s creator, Rebecca Sugar, and various members of the cast. Before their entrance, panel moderator and voice actor Eric Bauza invoked the audience to clap for a quick rendition of a song from the episode “Mr. Greg” where Mr. Bauza voiced and sang as the lead bellman. After the little romp came the panelists, many of whom were gathered for the very first time. In attendance besides Rebecca Sugar was director Kat Morris, Tom Scharpling (the voice of Greg Universe), Charlyne Yi (the voice of Ruby), AJ Michalka (the voice of Stevonnie), Jennifer Paz (the voice of Lapis Lazuli), and Shelby Rabara (the voice of Peridot).
Considering the fact that Steven Universe has inspired and touched so many people, Mr. Bauza asked Ms. Sugar what her own inspirations were. She said the show’s team and cast inspired her as she has gotten to know them all better, and they have helped her evolve the characters on the show. Mr. Bauza then asked director Kat Morris about why sometimes characters were able to fuse on the show without doing a fusion dance. Ms. Morris answered that the dance part really isn’t important and that it was more about mutual understanding. Mr. Bauza’s sights then turned to Tom Scharpling, and he asked him if his booming voice and background in radio has helped him get into the character of Mr. Universe. Mr. Scharpling joked that he actually just talks louder than most people, which he thought has helped him appear more talented than other people. As to working with his old radio partner and close friend, Jon Wurster (who voices Greg Universe’s evil manager, Marty), Mr. Scharpling thought it was great being able to do something together with him on Steven Universe even though they fought in their scenes. Next, Mr. Bauza asked Charlyne Yi about the many Rubys she got to voice this season and which was her favorite to voice. Ms. Yi said Eyeball was her favorite since, in her mind, she thought she sounded like Batman when voicing Eyeball.
Turning to AJ Michalka, Mr. Bauza recalled San Diego Comic-Con’s shared Steven Universe and Adventure Time panel. After the panel, Mr. Bauza was with Tom Kenny, the voice of Ice King on Adventure Time, who said the crowd went nuts “like it was the Beatles or something” when they showed a clip of a fusion during the Steven Universe portion of the panel. Mr. Bauza then asked Ms. Michalka about how it felt to be a part of something on the level of the Beatles, at least according to Tom Kenny anyway, and she said she thought it was so cool, especially after hearing Mr. Bauza’s story about Tom Kenny’s comment. This was Ms. Michalka’s very first con, and she felt very lucky to play Stevonnie. She thought Rebecca Sugar created something very special with Stevonnie. This was also Shelby Rabara’s first con, and Mr. Bauza asked her if working on the show has changed her life in any way. Ms. Rabara answered that working on Steven Universe has been her favorite experience, and she’s been thankful to be able to work with such a talented group of people on a groundbreaking show.
Mr. Bauza then asked Rebecca Sugar about her new book, The Answer, which debuted last month and is currently on The New York Times Bestseller list. Ms. Sugar said she had been stunned by the response and was really excited to work on the book since it’s based on her favorite episode in the series. She had felt the story could lend itself perfectly for a book, and writing the book itself had been a little dream whose response had went far and beyond what she could ever had imagined. It also gave Ms. Sugar the chance to work with Tiffany Ford and Elle Michalka who also work as part of the crew on Steven Universe.
Turning back to AJ Michalka, Mr. Bauza asked what she thought made Stevonnie unique. Ms. Michalka thought that when Steven and Connie combined, a powerful courageous leader emerged (made apparent in “Crack the Whip” in which Stevonnie saved Amethyst). She thought both Steven and Connie are such interesting characters by themselves with their own individual leadership qualities, so when they combine, they become a really powerful otherworldly force. Ms. Michalka’s favorite thing about Stevonnie is Stevonnie’s laugh. She said she loved combining both Steven and Connie’s laugh for Stevonnie’s laugh which can be heard through their individual specific giggles.
Rebecca Sugar then took out her ukulele and performed “Here Comes a Thought” from the episode “Mindful Education,” which drew a roar of appreciation from the crowd. Mr. Bauza asked how the songs came to be included in the episodes. Some songs get put in very late into the development of an episode, but a general idea of how the song would go is discussed among the staff. However, for “Here Comes a Thought,” the episode was developed around the song itself. Although the entire song wasn’t completely finished before work began on the episode, both the song and episode were completed simultaneously.
Mr. Bauza then addressed the unlikely roommates, Lapis Lazuli and Peridot, and asked Jennifer Paz (Lapis) and Shelby Rabara (Peridot) about how they thought their characters get along so well and if they used any personal experiences in tackling their interaction between one another. Ms. Paz thought that Lapis and Peridot were indeed an odd couple while Ms. Rabara just thought that opposites attract. Ms. Paz felt that Peridot is the free spirit of the 2 while her character, Lapis, is very chill and still trying to figure things out. Ms. Rabara said that Peridot has no filter when she speaks, but in real life, she does try to filter things, somewhat, sometimes. Ms. Rabara added that she thought that Lapis and Peridot are unlikely friends, but after spending some time with each other, they’ve come to a certain mutual understanding. Ms. Paz then added that she loves that her 3-year-old son understands the show gets to see positive healthy representations of relationships. Ms. Paz also noted though that her son loves hearing Peridot instead of Lapis. Mr. Bauza said he liked the fact there are many Filipino actors on the show, himself included, and he thanked Rebecca Sugar for helping keeping them employed.
Next, a clip was shown from the next new episode of Steven Universe, “Gem Harvest,” a half-hour special which will premiere in November.
Mr. Bauza asked Rebecca Sugar what she hoped Steven Universe would inspire in others. Ms. Sugar said she has always wanted to make something that would make others draw. Mr. Bauza noted that he himself used to draw, and every time he saw an episode of Steven Universe, he wished he could draw something from it. Ms. Sugar added writing music too would be something she hopes to inspire in others as well. Back in art school, Ms. Sugar said that Kat Morris was one year ahead of her, and she was always peeking at what Ms. Morris was drawing in model drawing class and thought her work was so good. On the other hand, looking back at her own work, she thought it was really bad in comparison to Ms. Morris’ drawings. Mr. Bauza disagreed on Ms. Sugar’s assessment looking at what has come about now, and Ms. Sugar added she did pass art school.
Rebecca Sugar then surprised the audience with a performance of a new song from the upcoming episode “3 Gems and a Baby,” sung by herself and Tom Scharpling as Greg Universe called “I Can Never Be Ready” which ended the formal portion of the panel.
Next came Q&A from the audience.
- The first question asked was how was the show got animator Takafumi Hori of Studio Trigger in Japan to collaborate with them on the episode “Mindful Education,” and if there would be any more such collaborations in the future? Rebecca Sugar said Takafumi Hori had been chatting with show storyboarder Jeff Liu via Twitter. As soon as she had some time off, Ms. Sugar went to Japan and stopped by to meet Mr. Hori at Studio Trigger. She asked him then if he would be interested in such a collaboration, and he said, “Yes.” Ms. Sugar hoped they could do another collaboration if possible.
- What is Ms. Sugar’s favorite song and what prompted her to write it? Ms. Sugar answered her favorite song is “Everything Stays” from Adventure Time from the episode of the same name. Adam Muto of Adventure Time had asked Ms. Sugar out-of-the-blue to write a song for the show, and even though she was already doing Steven Universe at the time, she still loved Adventure Time and her time working on the show. It gave her a chance to do something for Adventure Time again.
- What would Ms. Sugar’s gem weapon be if she had one? Ms. Sugar said she is a very non-violent person, so it would have to be something protective. In the end, Ms. Sugar answered it would be the power of music.
- For all the panelists, which episode had been the most memorable? Ms. Sugar said it was “Mr. Greg” since it had always been her dream to write a musical. Tom Scharpling added that “Mr. Greg” had been something Ms. Sugar had discussed for a while, but when it finally came to be, there were a ton of songs he had to perform for it. Mr. Scharpling said “Mr. Greg” was awesome though and very special since it was the culmination of what Ms. Sugar wanted. Kat Morris wasn’t sure she could choose since she worked on all the episodes, so it was like choosing your favorite child. She did think though that “Jail Break” was something special since she couldn’t believe they made such an episode. Ms. Morris added she had some more memorable episodes, but they were all upcoming episodes she couldn’t discuss at the moment. Charlyne Yi said her favorite was “The Answer” which she watched with her husband. Ms. Yi said she tried not crying while watching it but couldn’t, so she tried excusing herself by saying she was going to go get a quesadilla. When she got back though, she said she bawled while eating the quesadilla because it was so great. AJ Michalka said her favorite was “Alone Together” since it was the first time she went into the studio to create the voice of Stevonnie. Ms. Michalka said she just loved the fusion scene with Steven and Connie and seeing Stevonnie stare at her feet and hands for the first time and realizing that they were now one. Jennifer Paz added that “Alone Together” was among her favorites as well, but her one favorite would have to be when Lapis slaps a watery hand down on the Crystal Gems in her first appearance in “Mirror Gem.” Ms. Paz said it was a declaration of who Lapis was to the world and display of presence. Rebecca Sugar had shown Ms. Paz the scene while she was in the studio recording for a later episode, and she teared up thinking about her son watching this and seeing such strong characters. Shelby Rabara said her favorite episode was “Too Short to Ride” because we get to see Peridot have a very strong emotional outburst in reaction to her computer pad being taken away and discovering she has metal powers. She also felt it was a defining moment character-voice-wise because we got to see Peridot’s vulnerability. Another favorite emotional episode for Ms. Rabara, even though Peridot wasn’t in it, was “Lion 3: Straight to Video” which brought her to tears.
- How was writing the book, The Answer, compared to writing an episode? Ms. Sugar said she wrote the book while she was doing the show as well, and she wished she could have stopped what she was doing for the show just to write the book because it became very frenzied to do both. Ms. Sugar said format wise, things are very different. Her background is from comics, so one has to think about the composition of the page and the story to the illustration which is different than animation where everything is very literal.
- After Steven Universe finishes, could Ms. Sugar see herself writing a musical for the stage? Ms. Sugar said she would love to, which Tom Scharpling added it would star him. Would she collaborate with someone from musical theater or from the show for the musical? Mr. Scharpling answered for Ms. Sugar saying it would be him, and the musical would be called Hamilton 2.
- Was the homage to Looney Tunes and Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner cartoons in “Kindergarten Kid” intentional and what other old cartoons were inspirational to Ms. Sugar? Ms. Sugar replied that, “Yes, it was very much on purpose,” adding she loved the old Looney Tunes cartoons and Chuck Jones especially which she had watched all the time with her dad as a kid.
- Were the show’s storylines always along the lines of how Ms. Sugar had intended they went or were there any surprises and unexpected directions in which the story went? Ms. Sugar said there were several surprises and new directions which deviated from the original story just from working with the crew and brainstorming together. One of the brainstorm sessions resulted in Amethyst’s kindergarten backstory. Amethyst was always going to be younger and different than the other gems, but there was no reason or details as to why until the brainstorming sessions. The details of Garnet as a relationship also evolved over the course of the show with Ms. Sugar and Ian Jones-Quartey’s working relationship for the show. Working with one another all the time and keeping their relationship coordinated and strong was something that translated into Garnet’s character and relationship as well.
- Are the corrupt monster gems based on first the gem itself or just concept designs of the monsters themselves? Ms. Sugar said it varies from monster to monster, but the ones that Steven meets in the snow for “Gem Hunt” were specifically designed to be from jaspers so Jasper would more easily want to fuse with them since they are like gems which is more ‘correct’ in her mind. Most of the time, Ms. Sugar said that whatever looked cool would be the monster design they go with, whether they were based on gems or not.
- Advice for other women going into the film or animation industry? Ms. Sugar suggested to just produce a lot of stuff, and you’ll see what things are working for you and what doesn’t.
- Why the ukulele out of all the other instruments to choose for the music? Ms. Sugar said she has family in Hawaii actually, but the first instrument she picked up in high school was something like an inside-out piano which wasn’t very portable. She said it was very hard to play, and she wanted to play something easier, so she picked up the ukulele and started messing around with it. She never thought it would play a part in her work.
- Is there a process to creating a character? Ms. Sugar said that when she creates characters, there’s usually a lot of herself or people she knows in their personality. It may or may not be intentional, but she said instead of avoiding making characters like yourself or your friends, it’s better to try and figure out who the character reminds you of. It might even be based on another character you like from another story too. Once you figure that out, you can then make the character more specific to yourself and turn it into something completely different.
- What’s Ms. Sugar’s biggest inspiration? Ms. Sugar replied the crew and her actual brother who works on the show as a background designer, so much of the world seen on the show is Steven Sugar’s. Also listening to music and looking at non-cartoon art help Ms. Sugar’s process.
- How was Smokey Quartz designed? Ms. Sugar said Smokey was a huge collaboration from everyone that works on the show. Ms. Sugar had drawn the initial drawing for Smokey and passed it around the office to everyone who added their say in the design. Smokey was always going to be someone who would be larger than life and powerful with moments of vulnerability. The earliest aspects of Smokey that were kept were the 3 arms and yo-yo weapon. Ms. Sugar admitted that early on, she didn’t do much research into the meanings behind the gems, but now, she liked to look at the meanings for inspiration. For instance, smokey quartz represents positivity and changing negativity to a positive which became the basis for her personality.
- Does Ms. Sugar have a plan for the end of the show? Ms. Sugar said she did, but didn’t want to say anything more than that since anything would spoil the series.
- What was the process in pairing up 2 storyboard artists? Ms. Sugar said she’s noticed that sometimes it’s good to form a team with 2 artists whose styles are very different like when she worked back on Adventure Time with Adam Muto. Mr. Muto was very technical and focused while she was very emotional, and their storyboards reflected this dichotomy, which actually complimented one another. Kat Morris added that it’s not necessarily just a team of 2 storyboard artists though. Sometimes, during story pitches, the entire crew would gather with several storyboard artists collaborating together while ideas were being tossed around.
- Finally, are there any specific artists or musicians Ms. Sugar would like to collaborate with on Steven Universe? Ms. Sugar said she’s already been fortunate to collaborate with so many people that she’s loved, so it’s already been a dream come true. She added that Estelle (the voice of Garnet) introduced her Emily King’s music which she really loved and hasn’t worked with yet.