Cartoons, TV

Comic-Con 2015: Steven Universe Cast and Creators

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This was, again, a roundtable featuring TR and other nerd sites. Present at the table were creator Rebecca Sugar, supervising director Ian Jones-Quartey, actor Zach Callison, and singer-actress Estelle.

(Thanks to Kyle LeClair for some assists with question compiling.)

Ian Jones-Quartey: I’m Ian Jones-Quartey, executive producer of Steven Universe.

Rebecca Sugar: I’m Rebecca Sugar. I created Steven Universe.

Zach Callison: I’m Zach Callison. I play Steven Universe.

Estelle: I’m Estelle. I play Garnet.

Q: What was the inspiration for the show? How did you figure out what you were going to do with the show?

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

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

RS: Oh – it was great! I’ve been waiting a bit because we’d finished it. I was really proud of it, and really excited about it. Yeah – it was great. I was really wondering what people would think. I know Steven and Avivi, my composers, were really curious about how people would feel about the?reuse of the song. It was great, and Jasmin Lai did the art direction on it. The colors were incredible. I’m really proud of the new opening.

Q: You guys have utilized a lot of techniques that are relatively foreign in Western animation, as far as storytelling and pacing and so on. Obviously the response to the show has been phenomenal, but when you guys set out to do this show, and to do it so different in so many subtle ways, what was your outlook like, and the hopes for how it was going to be received, and your strategy for making this work in this market?

RS: Wow. Hubris is probably a big part of that.

IJ-Q: We kind of had this idea for this sort of multi-layered 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 was like one puzzle piece. So we sort of eventually came to a few different philosophies about how to unspool this.

One of the things was we sort of would take – we would say, “OK, this episode is about one concept,” but then once you know that concept, suddenly in your head, you’re like, “But wait a minute – 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 wondering about – crazy, and then it finally comes up later.?
And so it’s sort of like this huge, multi-tiered puzzle. It took us a while to sort of set up the ground rules of the world, and so it’s like the first 10 or 13 or so kind of move at this pace where you’re like, “OK, where is this going?” But it’s because there’s this whole – we have to set up the rules of the world. It’s kind of like D&D world-building style.

RS: I think I went through something as a cartoon fan where I had that moment where I loved fun, self-contained cartoons when I was little, and then at a certain point, I was like “I only like long, serialized stories. If it’s not over 26 episodes, then what’s the point?”?

But I realized later it’s really hard to make a story that fits – like a cartoon that can start and finish and be complete, and these stories that take 26 episodes to tell, there’s actually something a little easier about that. So I think starting this show, I wanted to do basically the hardest thing possible, which is self-contained stories which are also long, serialized stories, and to see if both were possible on top of each other.

Q:?Estelle,?I love the song “American Boy.” How do you go from that scene in view to Cartoon Network, or to doing voice acting on children’s cartoons?

E: Well, “American Boy” was eight years ago. So there are a bunch of other things in between that. Voice acting was something that I wanted to do. I told my team “I want to do a cartoon! I want to do a cartoon!”

But no, it’s not very hard. What I’ve learned with voice acting is that it pushes you with other levels of using your voice. So it’s not just about singing, it’s not just about having melodies. Singing is purely melodies; it is purely phrasing. This is just sounds, and I learned how to say “Aah!” in 50 different ways. Then I had to do a “Hmph” sound – I never knew that was a sound. [laughter]

It pushed me, and I’ve learned how to do some things, so now when I sing, it’s like a whole other feeling. I can do and have more character in my voice, which is cool. Which is fun for me, personally.

Q: Is it something you’re going to keep doing?

E: Oh, absolutely! Oh, yeah. As long as you’ll have me! [laughs]But I want to do some more. It’s fun! It’s a different way for me to approach being creative, so I like it.

Q: During the recording sessions, do you guys get a chance to improv?

E: Yeah. When we did the episode where I had to be two different people, like two different – they split Garnet. It’s early – I’m sorry. Greg was like, “Just go with two different voices.” I was like, [using different voices]“Is this all right?” “Is this all right?” It was crazy. But again – it was one of those where I learned something new. I had to do it on my end, was the effect realistic, so yeah – we get to – I get to improvise.

ZC: One of my favorite things is when we get the whole cast in there, everybody that’s in there that day 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. But yeah, that’s my favorite thing – everybody gets in there and changes their voice to something weird, and says whatever they want to say. It gets a little wild.

E: Recently, I think it was when -?

RS: Are you talking about ring toss? It was like, how excited can you sound about ring toss? [laughs]?You throw these rings on the bottles, and you sounded so genuinely enthusiastic about it, it was impossible.

ZC: She can be enthusiastic about just about anything.

RS: Almost anything.

Q: When you first approach the role, do you relate to your characters at all?

ZC: When I first got the audition, I basically took it to my voice over teacher, and we hadn’t decided on a voice or anything, but I had this early drawing of Steven and a brief description, and then 10 lines, and then the original theme song. We just kind of took the raw materials and came out with something that I felt really strongly about. Occasionally I’ll have an audition come through that I feel super strongly about, and this was one of the ones that I felt the strongest about that I had ever done.

But the character development was – I wanted to bring out the kid side of him. I wanted him to sound innocent and like a kid that’s just enjoying his time. He wants to grow up, but he’s still a kid at the same time. I feel like even now that he’s growing up on the show, he still retains that. That’s kind of the central core of Steven for me.

E: Well, I got the picture of what Garnet looked like, and we went in the same day and recorded – a day after or two, and I had no real clue other than Rebecca saying to me “She’s the grown up.” I was like, “Well, I’m late.” I have loads of brothers and sisters, and I’m definitely the grown up. I’m the oldest girl. There’s nine of us, and there’s seven below me, so I’m definitely the grown up.?

So it was a natural thing. It wasn’t hard. I play it in my head – how would I want to speak to my little brothers and sisters when I want to be patronizing, when I want to be like “Sit down.” You know, when I want to be like, “Come on!” When I want to be nice – I love that as we’ve been going along, you’ve been seeing a nicer side to Garnet instead of so sarcastic all the time. I love being sarcastic, but sometimes you’ve got to be nice to kids. [laughs]It’s been nice to explore that. It’s been cool.

Q: Have you guys seen some of the fan creations that have sprung up around the show? If so, what are some of your favorites? Like the Gem-sonas?

RS: I love all the Gem-sonas! I was hoping, even from the beginning, that people could make those and then fuse them together. I wanted – I was really hoping that it could become a language for people to kind of draw together and explore what their relationships mean with each other. Seeing that happen within the community – that was the real dream, to see it actually happen. So I hope there’s more of it all the time.

There are so many that I love – let me think. I’ve gotten a bunch of letters that are just amazing. There was one I got – someone sent me a Gem-sona with a huge flaming electric sword. That rules! I think they also had roller blades on. Just everything you could really want. I love them all.?

ZC: Last year at Comic-Con – I think it was last year that Tom was here, right?

IJ-Q: Yeah.

ZC: I was doing an interview with Tom Sharpling, who plays Greg, 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 and someone else – a crossover. I chose a character from League of Legends named Zac, just because it’s my name and I played him all the time, and then I never heard anything back until about three days ago.?

Somebody tweeted me with this drawing of Steven with Zac, and he had the little goo antenna. I was like, this is the greatest thing ever! Somebody watched that interview and thought “Hey, I should draw this and tweet it to him.” So I have to thank them for that. That was kind of special.

Q: Do you still play League of Legends?

ZC: You know, I haven’t played in a few months. It kind of consumed my life for a bit. I’ll be back soon. I love it.?

Q: What was your highest rank?

ZC: I was gold two, but then I got decay this season.

Q: How far into the story do you have in your head? Do you have a giant book? Do you have all of the plots already planned out and everything? Is that how you approach the show and every episode?

RS: I have the stories 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’s 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 that it’s the best way we can tell that story. I feel like I have this story, but the way that we tell it is something that we have to feel.?

Q: The characters have developed so much from when we met them in the first episode. I was wondering where you would like to see your characters go?

ZC: I mean, I love watching Steven grow up. One thing I’m really excited to see is his powers developing more from what they already are. We’ve seen the shield, we’ve seen the healing powers, we’ve seen all the rose powers that he’s inherited, and those are only getting stronger as he matures, so it’ll be fun what cool stuff these guys cook up for that. Animation-wise, too, it always looks beautiful.

E: Oh. Well, I think the same thing. I’d like to see – it would be fun, because I feel like Garnet knows everything, and is everything. Every once in a while, she goes “Oh, something new!” It would be fun to see her kind of gain a new power or explore a new power from something she didn’t know she had. She’s like, “Oh, damn it, I’m more than this! This is wonderful!” That would be even better. I think it would be fun.

Q: What are your favorite moments from the show so far?

IJ-Q: For me, it would have to be the episodes Return and Jail Break. Those were sort of – it was like, when we started the show that was like a really faint, faint glimmer in the distance. Like, “Oh, we want the characters to go to space and fight a bad guy and crash a ship, and it was like “How are we ever going to get there?” And then, yeah – we somehow managed to do it. So, like, yeah – it’ll forever be one of the favorite things that we ever accomplished.

RS: Yeah, that was a long-term dream – 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 is something that I was dreaming about and dreaming about and dreaming about. Me and Jeff Liu kind of teamed up storyboarding it, and I’m really proud of it.

IJ-Q: And also, yeah, because there was like – we were like, “There’s going to be a whole fight!” And then I remember being like “Why don’t we make it a song also?”

RS: Yeah, yeah.

IJ-Q: And then we were like “A fight song!”

RS: I remember asking Estelle about it, because I was like, how – what should – well, I was really intimidated to write a song. I was like “What should we do?” Because it’s like a fight song and a love song and a victory song, all at the same time. And then you sang me a couple bars of “Gold” by Spandau Ballet.

E: Yeah. [singing]“Always believe in your soul.”

RS: Yeah. And the theme from Fame. I wrote it down. I still have the paper. And then I would listen to those over and over again. I was like, it’s got to be this good!

E: It’s good! I mean, my little niece, my mom sends me videos of my family – this is where they see me, because there all still in London. She sent me a video one day, and it was literally her watching a video like this. It was a Stronger Than You clip. She was watching it, like “Uh-uh-what? That’s auntie’s song!” That makes my heart sing, because they get it. They understand it. It was watching her laser focus – it’s the part where she was fighting, and she was like “This is who I am,” and it’s so wonderful.?

That’s how you know it’s a good one, when the kids – and it’s her song, it’s her jam. It’s her song, every day. My mom was like, “This is her ritual. Don’t disturb her. Let her sit and watch this.” So you know, this is how you know when it’s something great. So kudos to you.

RS: Thank you!

Q: What can we expect from this upcoming season’s plot?

RS: I don’t want to say anything.

IJ-Q: Steven Universe, coming out soon!

RS: Yeah, yeah! Please watch it.

IJ-Q:
A brand new challenge for the Gems.

Q: Are there any special guests that you want to be on the show that you’ve had in mind? Maybe a character that you want to bring on?

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

Q: Grease those wheels – make it happen! Put it out there.

RS: It could help it, or it could be jinxed. I feel like if I said, you’d know who it was, so I don’t want to say. Thanks, though.

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

RS: I’ve been very lucky.

IJ-Q: Yeah, we’ve been really lucky.

Q: When it comes to transmedia tie-ins, like the comic books, for example, what sort of creative input do you have, going into how to represent the characters? Especially when Steven?Universe first started, there wasn’t much of the show to build off of.

RS: I think – I wish I could be – I’m very much in the show all the time, and everything that gets a little further, that’s being made somewhere else, it gets a little harder to collaborate on, because the show takes up so much of my time.

So we talk a lot about, sort of, all things about the characters – like 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. She’ll always know.

IJ-Q: So if you see Garnet ask a question in something, it’s not canon. [laughs]

RS: And just broad strokes about the characters. I think, for example, some of the books – I was really involved with the guide book, because I wanted to make sure that they were real answers in that book. So certain things, when something is supposed to be – if we’re going to answer definitive questions, I always want to be very, very involved.?

But I also just love Jeremy and Coleman’s work, so I also just like to see what they come up with. I think everything – it’s amazing to see pieces of the show, almost for the first time, but I still get to have input.

IJ-Q: We do get to be very involved with the game – 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.

ZC:?It’s a lot of video game sounds that I never imagined were even possible.

RS: Yeah, it’s the weirdest thing to hear you say something and I wasn’t there to hear you say it. I feel almost cheated on. It’s like, “When did that happen? Who were you there?” Because I’m there for every record.

ZC: It was a different studio, a different everything. It was kind of weird for me too, to record that.

About Author

Luke Y. Thompson has been writing professionally about movies and pop-culture since 1999, and has also been an actor in some extremely cheap culty and horror movies you will probably never hear much about (he is nonetheless mostly proud of them, as he met his wife on one). As editor of The Robot's Voice since 2012, he can take the blame for the majority of the site's content, all of which he creates because he loves you very, very much. (Although he loves nachos more. Sorry.) Prior to TRV, Luke wrote for publications that include the New Times LA, Los Angeles CityBeat, E! Online, OC Weekly, Geekweek, GeekChicDaily, The L.A. Times, The Village Voice, LA Weekly, and Nerdist