Interview: Steven Universe‘s Rebecca Sugar Talks Music, Animation, and Inspiration
The Saturday of New York Comic Con could’ve been re-named Rebecca Sugar Day, and no one would’ve batted an eye. Her signing had to be capped, because the line was humongous, and she was bouncing back and forth between appearances and panels. Thankfully, I got to snag a couple of minutes with the Steven Universe creator!
In an exclusive interview for TMS, Sugar talks about her connection to music, her long road to the animation industry, and her biggest inspiration – her younger brother, Steven.
Teresa Jusino (TMS): Obviously, music is a big part of what you do. Are you an animator who fell into music? Are you a musician who went into animation? Or is it both? What is the connection for you between those two things?
Rebecca Sugar: I’m a comics artist and an animator first. I never thought that I would be doing music as part of my job. It was a hobby that only my closest friends and my brother, Steven, ever even knew that I did. So, it’s a little surreal that that’s become such a big part of my job, because it’s a really personal thing. I learned a little about music – when I was younger, I played the hammered dulcimer, I learned a little piano… In “Fionna and Cake,” I really wanted to give Cake a dulcimer, because a lot of people didn’t know what it was. So, I was like, I’m gonna put it in something so at least there’s some frame of reference.
And then, I think with ukulele, some of my family is from Hawaii, and it’s very easy to play, and it’s very portable, which a hammered dulcimer and a piano are not. So that’s pretty much it.
But I get a lot of help from my composers, helping me make sense of what I’m doing, because I’m not really trained.
TMS: So, you do lyrics and they help on the music side?
Sugar: Well, I do the music and the lyrics for a lot of the songs. Some of them are Jeff Liu, my storyboard artist, he writes a lot of music. And my writer, Ben, he plays the bass, and he helps write a lot of music, too. But I’ll usually do lyrics and melody and the chorus all at the same time, and I’ll send it to them to see what they think – my composers – or Jeff, or Ben, and they’ll help me flesh it out. For the credits song [“Love Like You,” the ending credits song], aivi & surasshu, my composers, they actually wrote that melody first and send it to me, that’s the only song I’ve done like that. And I had to sort of retrofit the syllables of the words onto the melody they wanted, which was a really strange puzzle, but I had a lot of fun doing it.
They were very insistent that I sing it myself, which I wouldn’t have done if they didn’t really want me to do it. [laughs]
TMS: What was your path into this industry like? How did you end up getting into writing and animation?
Sugar: Well, I knew that I wanted to work in animation, but I was very impatient, and I was also reading a lot of comics, so I started doing comics, because it was something that when I was a teenager and when I was a kid, I could do it without any of the equipment I needed to animate. I went to animation camp and I wanted to go to animation school, but in the meantime, I just had to start. So, I started doing comics. And my early comics are very bad. [laughs] But you kinda have to do a lot of bad pages of comics before they start to not be as bad. So, I did a lot of comic books, and I would take them to small comic conventions like SPX, which is in my hometown in Maryland, and I would trade my comics with people and give them to people I admired and I’d ask their advice, which is how I learned a lot about drawing.
I remember Erik Larsen who does Savage Dragon telling me that my perspective was all wrong. And Eric Powell, who does The Goon, gave me a bunch of advice, and he even sent me my first inking brushes, and he taught me how to do grey tones, and he ended up publishing one of my books. So, I learned a lot about comics. But then I went to school to be an animator, because I figured I’ll get some job in animation, and then I’ll get by, and I’ll go home and do comics at night, and that’s how I’ll keep doing my own ideas. I didn’t really know there were storyboard-driven shows where you could express yourself in the way that I ended up getting to do on Adventure Time and that I now get to with my show. So those worlds kind of merged for me in getting to do my own stories. I also did short films in school.
I think comics helped me so much, because I had a lot of practice trying to make ideas work. And I’m still using some of my old comics ideas, images that I never got around to that I now get to use on the show. So, I really recommend comics – doing them on your own, independent comics.
TMS: One of the things I love most about Steven Universe is that the comedy isn’t snarky. It comes from a very genuine, pure place. So much of animation these days is snarky, ironic humor. Do you think that kind of earnest humor is something that’s unique to your show? Or do you think it’s something that audiences generally are craving and want more of?
Sugar: Yeah, I think that it’s been the conventional wisdom that comedy has to be mean, and I think that people are pretty tired of it. I mean, I know that I’m not particularly interested in that anymore. I think I really enjoyed that when I was a kid in the nineties. I loved how mean-spirited everything was. But now, as an adult, that kind of thing makes me really tired, because I just want to have a nice day and be around people that I like. [laughs]
In large part, for me, that’s why I wanted to make it about my brother, Steven. Because we have a really close friendship, and it’s always something that’s been really positive for me, even when I was that snarky teenager. It didn’t feel like that when we were hanging out. So, I got to have that friend that I could always count on in my brother, and that’s the kind of feeling I want to think about all day when I’m working on this. I think I’d burn out if I were brainstorming the meanest thing anyone could say to someone else, and using that as a joke constantly.
TMS: Now, obviously Steven is based on your brother – but what inspired the Crystal Gems, the strong female mentors that guide him on the show?
Sugar: Well, they’re all based on different aspects of my relationship with my brother. Part of me was always very overprotective of him, and wanted to tell him “This is the right way to do things.” So, that became Pearl. Another part of me can only be a horrible slob when he’s around, because I really don’t care if he sees me that way. So, that became Amethyst. And then another part of me just wishes I could be Garnet to him; someone that is strong enough to be that support system for him and that he thinks is really cool. That’s more my sort of wish than maybe the reality.
But it really started from there. I think early on in the show, too, I felt like I was writing it about these role models I wanted to be for him. But the truth was that the way he would always be there for me when I was in trouble, it sort of became more about that, because that’s the truth. And he works on the show – he’s a background artist on the show – so as I was going through the show, and trying to figure things out, and really under a lot of pressure, he really was there for me. Literally, in that way, in real time as I was writing about him. So, it just kind of evolved naturally from there.
The Steven Universe Guide to the Crystal Gems (the book that I had Sugar sign) is out now, and it’s a must for any Steven Universe fan! And obviously, you can catch Steven Universe on Cartoon Network (as well as Amazon and on Hulu).
—Please make note of The Mary Sue’s general comment policy.—