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Interview with Rebecca Sugar, creator of Steven Universe

Last 2014, during the Annecy International Animation Film Festival, we had the incredible chance to interview one of the most fascinating and talented creators in current times: Rebecca Sugar, responsible for many of the most beloved episodes on the iconic “Adventure Time” and currently...

Last 2014, during the Annecy International Animation Film Festival, we had the incredible chance to interview one of the most fascinating and talented creators in current times: Rebecca Sugar, responsible for many of the most beloved episodes on the iconic “Adventure Time” and currently breaking new ground and establishing a high point for innovation in all-ages animated programming with her own creation, “Steven Universe”. During our conversation, we debated her goals with the show, the influences of her origins as a comic-book artist, her process as a song composer and even some personal matters. Enjoy!

Animac Magazine: Thank you so much for your time! We loved your previous conference, in which you mentioned conducting an experiment: making your characters grow. Could you tell us more about that?

Rebecca Sugar: One of my goals for Steven Universe is that, because it’s a coming of age story, from being a kid to being some kind of miniature adult. Lots of things have happened before the show started that Steven doesn’t totally know about! What I’m really trying to do with the show is… sort of reveal the complexity of the world of all these people who are older than him. It’s also based of on me and Steven –Rebecca Sugar’s real brother, Steven Sugar– at that time. All I wanted to do is help him not to make the same mistakes I made when I was going through that transition. The show is very much about that. As Steven is learning things, the audience is learning with him. And so we can just keep expanding his world, but it’s never small, it’s always big, and he’s just learning about it, with you. That is my way of sort of keeping it self-contained and consistent. The world is the way it is for a reason, and Steven is learning that. Shifting from this kind of self-centered universe that you live in, where everyone and everything is being done because of you… to seeing that it’s not really that. In that way, we want to explore each character and how are they dealing with Steven.

Animac Magazine: It’s truly interesting, also because basing Steven on your brother provides you with a real reference. How old is he now?

Rebecca Sugar: Twenty-three.

Animac Magazine: We asked you during the conference about your first comic, Pug Davis, which you published in your website years ago. Did it also influence the show?

Rebecca Sugar: Oh yeah! (laughs) Actually, I laugh because, you know what, the show gets more and more Pug Davis all the time. I find myself returning to a lot of the things that I really like doing when I was just doing Pug. And a lot of the characters are similar. I think that Pug and Blouse have a lot to do with Amethyst and Pearl in a sort of way… and Garnet. Really, everyone, their origins… are really me and Steven and the people that I knew. I’m so glad I got to do all that stuff, that I did a lot of comics in advance. You start to realize that you keep doing the same things for a reason, because you just love certain kinds of stories and certain kinds of characters. If I hadn’t done a lot of comics I wouldn’t have known that yet. I would be probably be falling backwards for the first time but now I can be like “Oh, man, I just really like this neurotic-like character, I just want them in everything.”

Animac Magazine: For us, it’s very important that finally a woman has created a TV series in Cartoon Network, in a male-dominated industry. The show has a different sensibility, one that has an impact right now on children, since many times they search for their role models in their favorite cartoons. How do you feel about that?

Rebecca Sugar: I feel like, when you’re a kid… everybody draws, everyone wants to draw, drawing is fun! Everyone who is working in cartoons now drew a lot when they were kids. But, at some point, when you’re growing up, someone tells you “this is not something you can actually do for a living” or “this is not actually a good drawing” and you just stop or you just keep going, because you push ahead, or you’re delusional and you think you can really do it. Anyone can, you have just to keep drawing – as a teenager, as an adult – and then you’re trying to find balance, and to keep caring about it. And when something like this is so personal, when you expose yourself – it’s your artwork! – it’s hard to put yourself out there, there’s this feeling of “I can’t ever do this”. I think that anyone who just keeps drawing despite everything, and will not be deterred from coming up with ideas - and it doesn’t matter what they are - and knows they’re not wrong… if you can just push through that, then you’re going to be fine. Nobody has to tell you to make stuff, you can just do it. When you’re doing comics, nobody can stop you, you just do that. And you print them out and you staple them by yourself and you’re done, it exists! And people will judge it, but who cares? As long as you don’t stop, you can make as much art as you want. It’s important to just keep doing it, without that fear that it’s illegitimate. It’s hard to keep that up. I’m from Maryland, and animation’s not really a thing, there’s not an animation community in Maryland… There’s so many reasons to quit and if you just don’t pick any of these reasons and you don’t quit, then you’ll definitely do it, because you just do it yourself right now. I got way off track of the question, but I think there are a lot of people with things to say that think no one would listen to for whatever reason. Here in Annecy lots of people talk about being a cartoonist in Europe compared to America… there’s so many things to say about being in these other countries, but then you see people approximating the way that cartoons look and act in America! And there’s no reason, there’s got to be a lot to say about what a European cartoon is. And everyone can say it, can do it, but since there’s precedents, people shoot for those precedents. At the end of the day, the really tough thing that everyone should do is just fight through all fear of everything and just make the thing that actually means something to you, even if nobody cares. That’s so much more valuable than some really boring thing that got picked up because it’s so much like everything else.

Animac Magazine: Could we discuss a couple things about your work in Adventure Time? We’re really interested in your musical origins.

Rebecca Sugar: I don’t know if they even knew I did music. I did the score myself for my short Singles, just whistling, and I did that with my friends when I was back in New York. Music was a hobby that I didn’t share to anybody, just my brother and my closest friends. I would write little songs but they were really silly and they were all about drawing comics, they weren’t sophisticated songs. I didn’t think about doing that in any sort of professional circumstances. And then, there have been songs in Adventure Time before, and I love musicals and I was really excited for the chance of trying that. Actually, when I think of musicals I think about big showy numbers, and if you try to do that it’s really intimidating, but Pen [Ward] was like “if you’re gonna make the song, think it’s a small intimate thing for these characters”. There’s a much lower pressure, which is how I actually play music with my friends. The fry song, I wrote the lyrics but Pen added the part of the French fries. It was a back-and-forth process.

Animac Magazine: Let’s end with a personal question, if that’s okay with you. Your partner is also your co-worker. How do you manage to live together and work together? Is it hard?

Rebecca Sugar: He is brilliant, a brilliant artist whose work I’ve always, always loved. I think that working with him… It wouldn’t matter, regardless, I would wanna work with him, because I’ve been such a fan of his work since we first met and I became aware of his animation –he’s such a good animator. And I think so much about the way we talk and connect, because we’re both so, so obsessed with cartoons, it’s part of our identities and we really have totally opposite approaches to it. I think that working with him for so long and knowing him for so long has been so huge for me, because I’m very obsessed with my work, I get very close to it and I always think: “if I just work harder on this, I just work MORE on this, it’ll be better”. And it’s not his system at all. He feels the exact opposite. If you labor over something, if you overwork something it won’t be fun anymore. I suppose I never thought I can’t engineer fun by forcing it into existence, it’s impossible, and I think he’s right about that. I have the feeling we’re both two lemons of the same size that just keep pulling each other into our space. There are some moments of creative vibe or constant arguing, in the best sense. I can’t do it his way but I respect it so much and I know he feels the same, so I can never disagree, but I always disagree, simultaneously, it’s like a perpetual emotion in my mind and in my heart.

Animac Magazine: Thank you very much for your time!

Rebecca Sugar: Thank you!

Interview conducted by Adrian Carande, Carolina López and Xavier Manuel

La Paeria - Ajuntament de Lleida

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