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SDCC2015: “Steven Universe” Roundtable Interview

Steven Universe Giant Woman
Steven does his best to convince Amethyst and Pearl to fuse together and become a giant woman.

Steven Universe Marble MadnessSteven Universe, Cartoon Network’s gem of a show about a boy named Steven and the adventures he has with three magical defenders of the planet, was created by Emmy and Annie Award-nominated writer and storyboard artist Rebecca Sugar.

Toonzone News, along with other members of the press, sat down with show creator Rebecca Sugar, supervising director Ian Jones-Quartey, Zach Callison (Steven), and Estelle (Garnet) at San Diego Comic Con 2015.

QUESTION: What was the inspiration of the show?

REBECCA SUGAR: It’s based off my younger brother, Steven Sugar. He works on the show as a background artist. A lot of it was inspired by when we were growing up and being kids together and how sci-fi fantasy nerdiness is pervasive in our friendship as siblings. I wanted to make a show that was like the feelings about hanging out with him growing up.

Q: What was it like watching fan reaction to the new opening?

REBECCA SUGAR: It was great. I’ve been waiting a bit because we finished it, and I was really proud of it, really excited about it. It was great, I was wondering what people would think. I know Steven and Aivi, my composers, were really curious, how people would feel about remixing the song. It was great. Jasmin Lai did the art direction on it. The colors are incredible. I’m really proud of it.

Q: Any chance we’ll see the Gem Homeworld this season?

REBECCA SUGAR: I don’t know, that’s a big one. Maybe.

Steven Universe Amethyst Steven Pearl GarnetQ: When you set out to do the show, what was your outlook like for how it would be received and your strategy for making it work in this market?

REBECCA SUGAR: Hubris. That’s probably a big part of that.

IAN JONES-QUARTEY: We have this idea for a multi-layer puzzle that takes a really long time to unwrap, but because we’re also working in children’s television animation, we wanted to make sure that every episode is one puzzle piece. We eventually came to a few different philosophies about it. We would say okay, this episode is about one concept, but once you know that concept, suddenly in your head you’re like, if this is true, then these two other things are true, and so maybe one of those two other things becomes its own episode and one of the other things becomes something you’re just wondering about crazy and then it finally comes up later. So it’s sort of like this huge multi-tiered puzzle, and it took us a while to set up the ground rules of the world. The first ten or thirteen or so move at this pace that’s like where is this going, but because we have to set up the rules, it’s like this D&D style world.

REBECCA SUGAR: I think I went through something as a cartoon fan, I had this moment where I loved fun, self-contained cartoons when I was little, and then at a certain point, I only liked long serialized stories. If it’s not over 26 episodes, what’s the point? But then I realized later, it’s hard to make a story that fits, a cartoon that starts and finishes and can be complete, but with stories that take 26 episodes to tell, there’s something a little easier about that. With this show I wanted to do, basically the hardest thing possible, which is self-contained and serialized, see if both were possible.

Q: Estelle, how do you go from singing to voicing a cartoon?

ESTELLE: “American Boy” was eight years ago, so I had other things in between that. Voice acting was something I always wanted to do. I want to do cartoons. It’s not really hard. What I learned with voice acting is it pushes you to other levels of using your voice. With this I learned how to say “AH!” in fifty different ways. I learned how to do a sound I never knew was a sound. It pushed me to do different things, which was fun for me.

Q: Do they give you guys the chance to improv during recording sessions?

ESTELLE: As much as possible, yeah. When we had to do the episode where I had to do two different people, I was split, Ruby and Sapphire. Rebecca was like, go with two different voices, and I was like “This isn’t right”. But at the end I learned something new. I had to do it back to back, so yeah, we get to improvise.

ZACH CALLISON: One of my favorite things is we get to do crowd walla. Something funny always comes out of that. But as far as Steven goes, every now and then I’ll improv a little something or change a line a little bit just to see what it does and have options. Get in there, change their voices to something weird.

TOONZONE NEWS: How did you first approach your roles? Do you relate to your characters?

ZACH CALLISON: When I first got the audition, I took it to my voice over teacher, not to settle on a voice or anything, but I had this early drawing of Steven and a brief description and ten lines and the original theme song, and just kind of took the raw materials and came out with something I felt strongly about. Occasionally I’ll have a role I’ll feel super strongly about. This was one of the ones I felt strongest about. I wanted to bring out the kid side of him. I wanted to sound innocent like a kid that’s just enjoying his time. Wants to grow up and is still a kid at the same time, and I feel like even now he’s growing up on the show, he still retains that, and that’s the simple core of Steven.

Steven Universe Future VisionESTELLE: I got a picture of what Garnet looked like and they offered it to me, and I was like, “She’s the grown up.” I have brothers and sisters, I’m the oldest girl, I’m definitely the grown up. There’s nine of us, and there’s eight below me. I know I put it in my head, how do I speak to my little brothers and sisters? Will I be patronizing? Will I be like “Sit down”, or like “Come on” or be nice, and I love that as you go along you can see her nicer side. I love being sarcastic, but sometimes you have to be nice to kids.

Q: You guys seen some of the fan creations. What are some of your favorites?

REBECCA SUGAR: I was hoping, even from the beginning, people would make those and then fuse them together. I was really hoping that people would draw together and explore what their relationships mean with each other. I’ve seen that happen within the community. Favorite? There’s so many that I love. Got a bunch of letters that are just amazing. There’s one that had a huge flaming electric sword, and I said, that rules. Everything you can really want. I love them all.

ZACH CALLISON: Last year at Comic Con, I was doing an interview, and somebody asked me if you had to pick one fan art that you could see, what would it be, a fusion of your character Steven in a cross over. I chose a character from League of Legends named Zac, just because that’s my name and I play him all the time, and I never heard anything back until about three days ago, somebody tweeted me this drawing of Steven with Zac and he had the little goo antenna and I was like this is the greatest thing ever. A year later somebody watched that interview and was like hey, I should draw this and tweet it to him, so I have to thank him for that. That was kind of special.

Q: Still play League of Legends?

ZACH CALLISON: I haven’t played in a few months. I’ll be back soon.

Q: How far into the story do you have in your head? Do you have all the stories planned out?

REBECCA SUGAR: I have the story that I want to tell. It’s loose because I also want to be able to make it with my team, so we don’t script things out. We make outlines that are then boarded, so there is a fluidity to the process, but I have the arcs that I want to do and I’m constantly talking to my team about them because I want to make sure it’s the best way we can tell that story. I feel like I have the story, but it’s the way we tell it is something we do as a team.

Q: The characters have developed so much from the first episode, where would you like to see your characters go?

ZACH CALLISON: I love watching Steven grow up. One of the things I love to see is watching his powers developing. We’ve seen the shield, we’ve seen the healing powers and the Rose powers that he’s inherited, and those are only going to get stronger as he matures, so it’ll be fun to see what cool stuff these guys look out for. Animation wise, it always looks good.

ESTELLE: Same thing. I’d like to see that with Garnet. It’d be fun to see her gain a new power she didn’t know she had, oh, look, wonderful.

Steven Universe The Return Jail BreakQ: Favorite moments on the show so far?

IAN JONES-QUARTEY: For me it would have to be the episodes “The Return” and “Jailbreak.” It was like when we started the show, that was a faint, faint glimmer in the distance. We want our characters to go into space and fight a bad guy and crash a ship and it was like how are we ever going to get there, and then we somehow managed to do it, so it’ll forever be one of the favorite things we ever accomplished.

REBECCA SUGAR: How to finally see Garnet and understand. For a long time I was trying to figure out the best way to show that. To introduce her to Steven and to everyone. The moment where they come together was something I was dreaming about it, dreaming about it, dreaming about it, and me and Jeff Liu teamed up storyboarding it, and I’m really proud of it.

IAN JONES-QUARTEY: And also because there has to be this whole fight, and I remember asking, “Why don’t we make it a song also?” A fight song.

REBECCA SUGAR: I was like, what should he do because it’s a fight song and a love song and a victory song all at the same time, and Estelle sang me a couple bars of “Gold.” And the theme from Fame, and I wrote it down, and then I was listening to it over and over again.

ESTELLE: It’s good. My little niece, my mom sends me videos of my family, and this is where they see me. She sent me a video one day and it’s her watching the “Stronger Than You” clip, she’s watching it and she’s like “Auntie Stell” and that makes my heart sing because they get it, they understand it. It’s watching her focus and she’s at the part where she’s fighting and going “this is who I am” and it’s so wonderful. It’s her song, and my mom is like, this is her ritual. Don’t disturb her, let her sit and watch this.

Q: Are there any special guests you want to be on the show?

REBECCA SUGAR: I do, but I don’t know if I should say.

ZACH CALLISON: We’ve had some seriously awesome special guests, though.

IAN JONES-QUARTEY: Yeah, we’ve been really lucky.

Steven Universe Love LettersQ: When it comes to tie-ins like the comics, for example, what kind of input do you have?

REBECCA SUGAR: I’m very much in the show all the time, and everything that gets made somewhere else is like a little harder to collaborate on because the show takes up so much of my time, so we talk broad things about the characters. For example, Garnet never asks questions. Ever. She’s sure of everything she says, so if you’re putting this in, she’ll never ask a question.

IAN JONES-QUARTEY: If you see Garnet ask a question in something, it’s not canon.

REBECCA SUGAR: Broad strokes about the characters. For example, some of the books, I was really involved in the guidebook because I wanted to make sure there were real answers in that book. If we’re going to answer definitive questions, I always want to be very very involved. But then I also just love Jeremy and Coleman’s work, so I like to see what they come up with, and I think it’s amazing to see pieces of the show for the first time, but I still get to have input.

IAN JONES-QUARTEY: We did get to be very involved with the Steven Universe game. We actually got to write the plot for it and influence a lot of the design of the world, so that was a lot of fun.

REBECCA SUGAR: If it’s something that I wasn’t there for, I feel like this weird cheated on feeling, it’s like when did that happen? Who were you with? Because I’m there for every part of it.

ZACH CALLISON: It’s a different studio. It was weird for me too.