At last month’s San Diego Comic-Con, Polygon sat down with Steven Universe creator Rebecca Sugar to talk ... just about everything. The animator had arrived to the interview after debuting the first trailer for Steven Universe the Movie. This Monday, the feature-length movie will finally air on Cartoon Network.
Set two years after the last installment of Steven Universe, the animated film represents a big step forward for the series — and a huge challenge for the show’s creators, as Sugar tells Polygon. You can listen to the hour-long chat here as a podcast, but if text is more your style, you can now check out the full conversation below.
Polygon: There’s a lot of talk about with Steven Universe, about the characters, and the themes of self empowerment and diversity. But we thought we’d take a different tactic because Steven Universe is also this very creative, epic, sci-fi story that, to a certain extent, is about an alien race with a very different society and very different ideas about gender and family than us. So we wanted to talk about how you put Steven Universe together in that sense; the world-building that you’ve done with it.
I think the thing that people who go to in Steven Universe realize as they go through the show is that it really feels like everything is planned out. From episode one you’re making references to the end of the first season and stuff that comes back. So can you talk about like how you put that together and what it was like feeding that into the show?
Rebecca Sugar: Oh, sure. Well, from the beginning we were conceptualizing it as a coming of age story. And part of the way that we were approaching that was that we were all writing what adults knew that Steven didn’t know yet, which was the way that we could keep the show a kid’s show, because they only say to him what you would say to a kid. And everything is from his point of view. So we would be talking about the world — the gem world, the human world, or I guess “the world.” And then we would try and figure out when Steven himself is being introduced to all of these concepts, when you would introduce a kid to those, and what they’re specifically sheltering him from.
I got really excited back in college, I took a class on the sublime and idea of art that is un-frameable, that the art exists outside of the frame. And how that shows up in everything, like even just the idea of like a fashion model with a blank stare. The fact that you can’t know what she’s thinking or pieces of art that just imply that there’s something just beyond. I mean, it’s completely implied. It has everything to do with animation to me because even just seeing characters standing in a room, if you only see one quarter of the room, that’s the only, that’s the drawing that exists. The other side of that room, it doesn’t exist at all. But that implication that you’re in a real space, that idea that you’re in this larger, the illusion that you’re in this larger space. I like to think of that in terms of the drawings, the layouts, the world building, the characters, everything, everything based on the theory of the sublime.
Was there a particular form of the show that crafted how you seeded all of those ideas and put in the world building?
Form of the show? Well, I mean I would organize everything and I would make a lot of charts and lists. I mean, it’s really dry. We’d just be like this is this place, this is this character, this is how — I mean I even as I say that, it’s so it’s so character based.
You just had a big bible of Steven Universe.
I mean early on when I was pitching, I didn’t share this while I was pitching, but I just had a list of every Fusion and what their weapon would be. Like all of their names and all of their weapons. And that wasn’t part of my Pitch Bible because it doesn’t mean anything until you know who the characters are. But I had all that data from the get go.
You mentioned that when you greenlit the series, Cartoon Network mandated Look, it’s going to be shown non-sequentially. You’re going to have to work within those constraints, so people can watch any episode.
Yes. So continuity was not really an option. It was something I really wanted to do. And on Adventure Time, the same thing was true back then, and so we would find ways to create continuity. Like, if Finn picked up a sword, he would then have it from then on. And it felt like only we knew that, but we were very meticulous in tracking everything. But ultimately what they wanted, what we were making, was supposed to be designed to play in any order all around the world.
And that was not desired, at all. With Steven, it was like, there was no way I didn’t want to have continuity, but every episode also had to work on its own. So we were just planting all these seeds. And we would actually chart it out in terms of what he would learn per episode. What piece do you need so that you can have one episode where the puzzle completely comes together, but you’ve had this piece and that piece and this piece leading up to it so that we could still make a self-contained episode about the puzzle, which would then make sense because you had all the pieces from before.
And did that change over the course of the show? Did Cartoon Network sort of give you a little more leeway to have more direct continuity?
Yeah, the first time, well, it was around the time we were working on — internally, we call it the Barn Arc, but — Peridot’s arc. We were already working on it and then all of a sudden they had started doing runs of episodes and they were like, We want — I forget how many they wanted. It was like eight, eight related episodes. I was like, Done! We were already doing it. So, it was really nice and we were always going to do it. And then ultimately, they aired in a very bizarre way, but we planned them all of all together. And at a certain point, we just hoped that people would watch the whole thing some day from start to finish and see the flow that we had designed. Which is actually going to be possible soon because they’re going to air every episode of Steven in a massive marathon. That is how, yeah, that is the way to please — well, I mean, I don’t know if that’s the way to watch anything, but [laughs] But if it was the way to watch anything, it would be the way to watch Steven.
I love hearing about this stuff because some of my favorite creative stories, and a lot of them are in animation, are about productions that were like, We wanted to do this thing and either it was impossible or — I’m a huge fan of Batman: The Animated Series, and they talk about how the censor rules that they had to go under, that they were lucky —
Glass breaking, yes!
Yeah! For a character who drops down from skylights all the time, they could not actually show any glass breaking on the show. And stuff like they had the same paint palette as Tiny Toons to make Batman: The Animated Series and — god, what’s the one — they were like, we are blessed that we actually got the censors to agree to let us have guns that shoot real bullets. Cause we were making a noir show and it was in the era of like GI Joe and all the stuff where everything was lasers.
Works that flourish under the constraints that are put on them are some of my favorite creative stories. And do you feel like that applies to your world building on Steven Universe?
Oh, absolutely. I mean we would even, we created our own constraints. I’m actually a really big fan of, I guess not a fan, but I really believe in setting limitations. One of the things that is super inspiring to us, or was inspiring to us when we were doing designs was really old video game character designs that had to function with the extremely limited amount of pixels that they could work with. The constraints force, a level of creativity that is just beyond. And so the way I like to approach a project is to actually design constraints first. It’s kind of daunting to be faced with a blank page where you could do anything. People say, Oh, in animation, you can do anything, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be good. [laughs] The thing that is exciting to me is, instead of trying to find a solution when there’s no problem, you create the problem and then you solve it.
So what were some of the constraints that you laid down for the show?
Oh, that everything is from Steven’s point of view. You don’t know anything he doesn’t know. You don’t see anything he doesn’t either see or hear about and imagine in his mind. And that is the thing that conceptually makes the show because it’s a coming-of-age story, so you’re experiencing that with him. You’re gaining an understanding as you’re gaining an understanding with him. But it’s also just a puzzle that is exciting to have to continue to solve. Like the episode “The Tests,” is the first time he’s seeing the Gems talk about him and they don’t know he’s watching, that kind of stuff. Cause we would write, we know what they were doing, what they’re talking about when they’re not telling him. We would write it. And that’s related to what I like about the theory of the sublime. Like there is stuff going on that Steven doesn’t know about that we know about as writers. And then trying to figure out these moments where the seal can be broken for him and he’s suddenly let in on this. That was just so fun to solve, just every time, always.
And I think that particular moment speaks so much something that everybody goes through — is realizing that grownups are just larger kids.
Oh, yes! What a terrifying [laughs] moment when you realize. Because you think that somebody has things figured out that there’s some sort of difference, adults are different, and then.
You realize that maybe you have to have it figured out.
Yes, yes. Yeah, you do, or no one does, or everyone sort of does. It’s a lot more complicated than it seems like when you’re young.
Steven Universe came from a very planned out place. But you came to Steven from Adventure Time, which also has this really interesting approach to world-building. It seems very like a very different approach to it. Was your Steven Universe planning a reaction to that or something that you wanted to take a different approach from.
Oh, sure. I mean, I was so inspired by everybody that I was working with on Adventure Time. I was working with some of my heroes from the world of independent comics, which is where it was coming from. And the thing I loved about Adventure Time is that it’s the real world, it’s just the future. People know that, right? Did I just ruin that? [laughs] Everybody knows that, right? Cause you know, they sing the Cheers theme, like, it’s our world. That was just so exciting to me to know that it’s this level of reality. I mean it just is reality that we’re working with but just so, so far. Everything is grounded by that idea.
And then going into Steven was different because — I mean I would’ve loved to just do exactly that cause I loved working with that idea that everything’s changed and you’re kind of slowly realizing that this just is our world, piecing that together with all these little bits of information. We used to have — there was a lot of crew overlap from [The Misadventures of] Flapjack at the time and we used to talk about having them just find, like, a tape of Flapjack and then just make a Flapjack episode, and just have them sit there and watch it. Things like that just were just so exciting to me. So with Steven I was like, well, it can’t be our Earth. Adventure Time is our earth, that’s what’s exciting about it. So approaching Steven, I was like, I want to create an alternate earth.
It’s not the future. It is the present, but it’s an alternate present. And a really full understanding of what that alternate present is. Because it’s our present where Gems invaded Earth six thousand years ago. And I’d wanted there to be all these little differences that everyone takes for granted. You know, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia are all one state called Delmarva. Hollywood is in Kansas in this universe because — there’s a reason! — because Disney never left Kansas. Laugh-O-Gram Studios took off in Kansas and he stayed. And so that’s why [laughs] when Jamie’s like, “I’m going to go be an actor in Kansas,” it’s just not in California. And I can go — but this is the thing, I have so much information, it’ll matter when it matters to Steven. [laughs] But there’s tomes and tomes of info. I liked the thought that in this world, if you know Harman and Ising, they’re an old animation staple, I liked the thought that they were called Izing and Harmon. Like they didn’t figure out to do the names of the other way? Anyway. [laughs]
I think the reason why that works is because we’re so used to media properties where creators need a stand-in for the thing that actually exists. Cause you can’t use an actual brand name. Like, in DC Comics, there’s no Coke or Pepsi. It’s just Soder Cola, S-O-D-E-R. And I think we all expected that, Oh, he just lives in a made up state, like the Simpsons. And so the shock when you see the map of the world!
So you have all of these details, and then you go in to make a pilot and you have to put it into this into 11 minutes that’s going to get you the rest of the show. Did you have help slimming it down?
Oh, sure. So I always think and work like this. I would say overthink, but I think I think exactly the right amount. And at the beginning I had a ton of information about the world and this was about the same time that I was working on Hotel Transylvania with Genndy. He had brought me on just for a very short time, for a month. There was this intense month I was going to have a month off from Adventure Time. And I thought, Oh, this is good, cause I was already working two jobs. I was already working on the pilot on top of Adventure Time. And then Genndy asked if I’d come work on Hotel Transylvania. And I was like, “I will of course not say no to you.” And so I immediately went, I learned so much from him in just a month.
And I was driving back and forth to Culver City, which takes about an hour to do. So I wrote the theme song to Steven driving back and forth in the car cause I had a lot of time to be alone and sing. And I remember talking to him about it, because I was pitching him a bunch of ideas which were all intensely complicated and he was just like, Let’s boil this down. What’s the one sentence? Who are these people? And what’s their relationship to each other? And it was so helpful. I think I’ve never quite stopped since getting this advice from him, taking this macro micro approach to everything. I want all of that complexity, but I also want that simplicity at the same time.
And once I was looking at it from that lens, I started to just strip away all of the complicated things that weren’t informing the simple thing. So it’s like you can get as complicated as you like. You can add so much complexity to something, but if it’s not reinforcing your point, it’s slowing you down. So I was just enhancing the things that did enhance the simple version and removing all the things that were complicating the simple version. That was so helpful for me.
And he agreed to direct the pilot?
Yes, he did the animation direction on the pilot. I went back, this was after I was off Hotel Transylvania. And I came back to ask him “Oh, do you know anybody who could do the animation direction for the pilot? Would you recommend anybody?” And he was like, “Oh, I could do it!” And I was shocked. From that moment on, it was in such a daze, I went to the parking lot, I got in my car and I ran into a pole. And it put a big dent in the front door of my car. And from that point on, the wind would just whistle through it when I drove anywhere, there was this little gap in the front door. And I would just Oh, but, I get to work with Genndy. [laugh] Like it would make me sort of sort of sigh.
[To audience] And you guys all know who Genndy Tartakovski is, right? Samurai Jack?
Check out Primal cause it looks unbelievable.
So, obviously when you’re going to create something new, it comes from all the stuff that you have shoved into yourself over the years and becomes who you are and gets put in the thing. And so I wanted to talk to you about a bunch of your influences. And because I’m the moderator and it’s my favorite anime, we’re gonna start with Revolutionary Girl Utena. Speaking of a work that flourishes under constraints.
Yes, Utena was super life-changing for me. The person who lent it to me, in high school, was named Connie and that’s where Connie’s name comes from. I mean it’s beautiful and fascinating and funny. It’s funny. That’s the thing that I really — like when Akio jumps on the front of that car, that is hilarious. Oh my gosh, it’s so fun.
But also it was my first time seeing something about this character that’s gender expansive and bisexual and I was just like blown away. It just stayed with me — and I actually I don’t recommend this, I saw the movie first. [laugh] And it was completely incomprehensible. And then I watched the series and I watched the movie again. I didn’t know why they were turning into cars, but I figured there was probably a reason! I mean, it’s just phenomenal.
One thing I like to do, especially when I get really into something, is just try and trace it back and back and back to the source. I really am fascinated by where things come from and what artists are influencing the artists that are making the thing that I like, because I want to know what they were getting inspired by. And Utena, is very clearly related to Princess Knight.
I’m really interested in Osamu Tezuka and I didn’t really discover Princess Knight until much later. And recently — not recently, 2015 was not recently — but in 2015 I got to go to Japan and I went to Takarazuka, the town that Osamu Tezuka is from, which is amazing, they play the Astro Boy theme on the train. I wanted to go there to go to the Tezuka museum, but I also wanted to go to go to the Takarazuka theater.
It’s just so clear, to be there and to be like Tezuka was here, right by this — is anyone familiar with Takarazuka theater? Um, so, in this small town, there’s a theater. It’s been around for a hundred years, where women play every role. I saw them do Guys and Dolls and it was awesome. It was one of the best productions I’ve ever seen. They do so, so, so many performances.
And the theater itself is amazing. It’s like walking into a middle schooler’s jewelry box. The carpets are red, and gold railings, and the people who are there, it’s these, you know, teen girls are there screaming to see all of the performers, but then also their grandmothers are there because it was around for them when they were teenagers, it’s amazing! And the show is amazing.
And to know that he grew up, Tezuka grew up next to this gender expansive theater and created Princess Knight, which informed Revolutionary Girl Utena, which eventually reached me. And to see his influence — I mean, obviously he influenced all anime — and also his influences because he was so influenced by Disney. It’s just so, so, so exciting to me. It was so unbelievable to get to just be in that place and think about how — I just like thinking about people getting inspired [laugh].
Just in the general trend of trends of influences, I think in the past five or six years we’ve seen — or maybe it’s just this generation of animators and the slow diversification of the American animation industry — that we’re getting a lot of works from people who grew up identifying with magical girl characters and are now modernizing it and — regurgitating sounds gross, but — changing it and bring it to new audiences and to the age of kids who they were when they saw it. I feel like Steven Universe is definitely a part of that. Can you sort of like speak to like where that trend is and you’re influenced by magical girls?
Well, it’s interesting. I tend to not like to use the word trend, because I think that a lot of the people who are creating material now were actively stopped doing it for so many years. So to me it doesn’t seem like a trend. It’s just that it was prohibited from happening, and that’s why it’s happening now. And could have been happening, and honestly, when you, when you think of something like Takarazuka, has been happening and will continue to happen and will always happen because we’re all humans that have to express ourselves.
I think what’s interesting now about this generation of American artists is that for me, a lot of that stuff I was saying, I was watching it on Cartoon Network when I was a kid. I was watching Tenchi Universe and I was watching Sailor Moon, and I understood it wasn’t American, but I didn’t understand it didn’t belong on Cartoon Network, cause it was there. So I think that I just had so much access, I was very lucky. And now I think everyone has so, so, so much access to everything. There’s just so much to get inspired by. And I was also really lucky growing up because my dad was a really big animation fan, so he would have copies of Canadian shorts and I grew up with the copy of Beauty and the Beast that has all the storyboards and rough animation.
This is the only copy I had. Like, he got the copy that had — there’s a version of Beauty and the Beast where it cuts to all the different stages, as it goes through. So all the sound I think is essentially the same, but you’ll see boards and you’ll see layout and then you’ll see finished animation. When I was little, because my dad was an animation fan, I never thought that it was like real. I always knew it was something artists did. I had all this access to this kind of behind the scenes info. So I knew that anime was anime and I knew Canadian stuff, you know, it was so Canadian. I was just so excited by the different approaches. And I think people have more and more and more access to that. And that you see the influence where people coming out of college, their stuff looks so French, but then I say it looks French, but then, you know, people in Japan are inspired by France and people in France are influencing what’s going on in Canada and everything becomes so interconnected.
Here’s what I think is really exciting. I don’t know if I would call it a trend, but the fact that we all have so much access to, like, not everything that ever existed, but so much of it, at our fingertips. And there’s so much to be inspired by. That, I think, is really changing the animation world. It’s certainly changed my life to be able to just, find and instantly watch — things that I used to dig and dig searching for it, I can just see instantly. It’s almost a little overwhelming.
Evangelion is on Netflix now!
Yeah, Evangelion is on Netflix! [laughs] Yeah, oh gosh, I’ve been telling people like, just open up, on Youtube, “Fly Me to the Moon,” and as soon as it ends just watch it. [laughs] Like, please watch the real ending. But, that’s exciting. I watched that all in one weekend as a teenager, which is not the way to watch that show [laughs].
Ghibli’s obviously a big influence for you. and you recently did some work with Ghibli?
Not with the museum per se, but with GKids, I did an intro for Whisper of the Heart, which is my favorite movie of all time. It’s a film that was directed by Yoshifumi Kondō and it was storyboarded — it was a manga that Miyazaki then boarded and made work as a film. And it’s just a beautiful, naturalistic, stunning expression of what the creative process feels like. And there are other Ghibli movies that I think do that amazingly well, too, like Kiki’s delivery service is such a beautiful depiction of artist’s block.
But what I — I don’t want to just launch into my intro — but I mean what I really love about Whisper of the Heart is that it has this focus on craftsmanship. And then the thing that I really feel about the way that I like to look at animation and art. I really like to approach it from a craftsmanship perspective. Talent is important, but I’m interested in the work aspect of it, in the study aspect of it.
And I feel like often when people talk about art and artists, they focus on that one moment of inspiration or that one eccentric talent that’s just bleeding content out of themselves. I like thinking about the person that is taking notes on what works and what doesn’t to make a piece of media good. I like the thought that this is a craft that you can study. I’m saying the same thing over and over again, but I just love thinking about art that way. And it’s so rare to see art expressed that way and it really is, in Whisper of the Heart. The work is part of it.
Yeah, we’re very in love with the idea of the Muse and the tortured artist up in their hideaway and they slide the art out under the door, and it just happens.
Have you seen Film, Film, Film? It’s this Russian cartoon, Film, Film, Film. I’ve been thinking about it everyday because I’ve been working on the Steven film. There’s this sort of Muse, there’s a writer character, when you see him, you’ll see the zircons are very influenced by this particular design. I love this character. Seeing the Muse, and frantically writing, and by the end just so terrified that his story is going to be mangled by the process and, it’s great.
We talked about a bunch of your influences and one that I definitely want to touch on is The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin, which is another scifi epic that deals with issues of gender and also confronting the alien and learning something about yourself. Could you talk about your experience with discovering that book?
Oh, sure. Well, Kat Morris — Kat is my co executive producer on Steven — way, way, way back when we were starting the show. We were roommates for a brief time, as well, when we were in college together. She lent me this book, and it was just so interesting. There’s so many things that I liked about it and I haven’t read it since, so my memory may be a little hazy, but I liked how it’s this alien world and this human person is entering it. And so much of how their society works is just expressed through how they treat him. Again, it’s science fiction but it’s so character-based. And it really comes down to these interpersonal interactions and people’s personal philosophies based on this world that they’re in. And the world is just different. I think similarly to how I like to approach things: You create this different world, but then you bring it all into the lens of the personal, which I thought was really exciting. And I was lucky enough to see Ursula K. LeGuin speak not too long ago and it was so inspiring and she read some of her poetry, which was just stunning. Yeah, I’m very lucky.
That’s very cool. And I don’t want to leave off without one that you’d wanted to talk about, Jules Feiffer.
Oh, yes! You had been asking earlier what are the deep, deep, deep Steven influences. And I was really racking my brain trying to go as far back and as deep as possible, but Jules Feiffer is so much of it. His cartooning also, I just love the way that he draws. But I read a bunch of his children’s books when I was young. I used to carpool with his nephews when I was a little, little kid. And so I had that this one book, his nephews had a bunch of extra copies because it was dedicated to them. So I got one of these extra copies.
It was called A Barrel of Laughs, A Veil of Tears. And I loved this book. It felt so sophisticated to my little child mind. And it is, it’s really this beautiful story. The whole thing is deconstructing these trope-y fairytale ideas. There’s this prince who every time he gets near anyone, like his power is that they’ll just start laughing hysterically and it’s good, it’s like a positive thing, but he can never really be close with anyone. It’s just so interesting and a very huge influence on Pink and Rose, honestly, as a character. And the other super direct reference to that book is that there’s a character in it called plain Sadie, and that’s where Sadie’s name comes from.
And of course, Steven Universe isn’t just about, what the characters look like and what they say. They are also very musical. They express themselves through song. And I imagine that there are a lot of musical theater influences on the show as well.
One of the really big influences on the show was Patti Lupone. I went to college in New York City and I got to go see her perform. There was a version of Sweeney Todd where the cast was also the orchestra and she played the tuba on stage, during her part, she was Mrs. Lovett. And my hair was just blown back. And I wasn’t familiar with her before, before that really. The thing that I learned from her, and I wrote her a letter about this when I was asking if she would play Yellow Diamond, the idea that you could be so dramatic that it’s funny or so funny that it’s dramatic. She can do all of it.
And then I saw her in Gypsy a little bit after, she did “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and I can’t even talk about, cause I get like full-body chils, and I feel it starting just thinking about how I’m about to talk about it. She does this part, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” and she’s performing to the audience and the audience is — we’re all going crazy because she’s so good. Right? And then you see her character drinking in the applause of the audience she’s imagining, who is us. And it’s this meta moment, this transcendent theater moment, we’re all like participating in it, we are her fantasy. We don’t even really exist. All that matters is her, because that’s what her character feels. Like, oh my gosh, it was just so unbelievable.
My ideas about drama and comedy, so much of that comes from seeing her perform. Which is what I said, and then “Will you please play this part on my show [laughs], because you’re incredible.”
And you’ve been doing even more musical research in as you’ve been working on the film, because Steven Universe musical, but it is a musical.
Yeah, The Steven Universe Movie is a musical, a full musical. And so I was gearing up, for years I was gearing up to do this. It was like a whole stretch, I think there were probably two years, it was me and Ian Jones-Quartey, we’d go home from work and we’d either put on a musical or a movie based on a TV show.
Cause I’m like, “This thing has to be a really good movie based on a TV show and it has to be a really good musical. So what makes both of these things good?” And so we would watch it and I would be just taking down notes. Why is this working? Or if it doesn’t, why is this not working?
I really enjoy a lot of these like ’70s musicals that completely dissolve into psychedelia in the third act. It’s just interesting. Well, I shouldn’t say ’70s. These are from like the ’40s and ’50s, honestly. So we would just be going back and forth. All right, we’ll watch Ziegfield Girl and then the next night we’ll watch Beavis and Butthead do America. [laughs] And it’s just like Why does this work? Why does this work? How do we combine this?
And just going back to things that I saw when I was a kid, I really liked Zigfield Girl. Busby Berkeley is a huge influence on Homeworld. So I was watching a lot of Busby Berkeley, a lot of Judy Garland. But I love Bob Fossey and I really subscribe to his philosophy, which is that a character has to be feeling something so strongly that they’re compelled to sing, and then when that’s not enough, they’re compelled to dance. There are definitely some musicals where that’s not happening where you’re kind of going Song, song, song.
The Goofy Movie is a really good movie of a TV show. Although I wish I had a couple more songs in it.
Let’s talk more about The Goofy Movie.
The Goofy Movie is intense! The Goofy Movie is intense. That scene in the hot tub? “My son respects me?” Oh my god, that’s intense. I really like it.
I feel like I’ve been getting a lot of Goofy from the general churn of the Internet lately.
I don’t know, maybe it’s just that Polygon put up a big post the other day about diving into what happened to Goofy’s wife.
Oh gosh. There’s so much interesting [stuff in] tracking Goofy back in time. It’s like, who are we really talking about? Are we talking about George Geef or are we talking about — like, which iteration of Goofy? Yeah, he had that other wi-e in like the ‘50s and that other son with the red hair. You know, I’m interested in the Geefs, the infinite Goofys that exist in those how to cartoons. I really liked a lot of those. And then you can go all the way back to Dippy Dog, which was kind of his own character.
One thing I love, oh my gosh, this is this sort of an influence, too. Art Babbitt wrote this description of Goofy that I read back in college, I just love it, it’s so beautiful. He was trying to explain Goofy to other animators, like This is how this character moves, but it’s so beautiful. It’s like “He’s absentminded. He’ll be thinking about a song that will occasionally escape as a whistle.” It was like, how is his clothes hang on his body, the way that he’s a little disheveled. This thing, it reads like a love letter. It’s beautiful. The depth.
It’s funny because you understand all these things about Goofy, you understand what he’s like and that he deserves your respect in this interesting way. Like there’s something wholesome [about him]. Maybe not in — the new shorts are actually kind of a different side of Goofy as well. Maybe not the Art Babbitt, humble, respected Goofy. He’s sort of scary in the new shorts.
Isn’t there one that ends with him swallowing Minnie and Mickey whole?
Uh, I would believe that, I haven’t seen that one, but that sounds about right. I saw the one where, just recently, where he broke apart into a bunch of pieces and they reassembled them into like a car and stuff. That was a little freaky.
OK, well, bringing it back to Utena, I guess. [laugh]
[laugh] I’ve been working recently with, I have a co-executive producer Alonso [Ramirez Ramos] who has been working on the Mickey shorts for many years, and it’s so cool to hear about them.
Anyway. You talked about Utena, what I love is that cartoons can be so many, many, many things, and I love studying all of it and trying to find those exciting moments, from, from Utena, Princess Knight, Film, Film, Film, Log Driver’s Waltz, Looney Tunes.
There’s so many beautiful visual ideas and often there’ll be things that are, especially if you delve down deep, deep, deep in animation history, there’s so much that’s honestly horrifying to find. But then we also have access to all of these brilliant thoughts or these moments of genuine expression that people made over all these years that we can take and reinterpret and make our own. I love the thought of combining what I love about Utena and The Goofy Movie. I love the thought of taking what I like about, uh, you know, Ziegfield Girl and mixing it with what I like about The Good, the Bad, and the Huckleberry Hound. There’s brilliance everywhere. And I love that we are each, we can each be our own individual gold panning device to just try and sift out these little moments of brilliance in and then take them for ourselves. Yeah.
Many episodes of Steven Universe have the one song that sort of caps off the heart of the episode. But “Mr. Greg” is just a full musical that has all the rhythms and the beats of a musical. Do you feel like you have learned stuff from “Mr. Greg” and going to the movie?
Yes. Oh yes. I mean, “Mr. Greg” was my first experience trying to write a musical. Albeit an 11-minute musical. And that was just so overwhelming. And Joe Johnston and Jeff Liu who storyboarded the episode, I write songs with Jeff all the time. And then they just did such a beautiful job. Seeing it come back and I don’t know if I ever have been so moved, getting a work print back and just seeing it and being like, Oh my gosh, we actually made a musical episode. And I love musical episodes of things, so I was excited to make a musical episode, but that was also sort of practice for the movie. And the other thing that was practice for the movie was “For Just One Day Let’s Only Thing About Love.” At that point we all knew for sure we were going to get to do this. So we were just like, We are going to officially test, can we do a number, like a really musically, musical number.
And I really love songs where people sing and then they chat for a little bit and then they launch into singing again. I used to watch A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum a lot as a kid. I loved when like Zero Mostel would just stop and be like, And now I’m explaining this part! and then he would launch back like into the singing. So I talked to them about “Comedy Tonight.” That stuff is so fun to me.
And “Comedy Tonight” is very much the same theme as “For Just One Day.”
Very, very inspired by that.
Do you feel like there were any particular musicals that you were hitting with “Mr. Greg”?
Oh, yeah. Victor/Victoria. I was very inspired by Victor/Victoria. And just directly the sequence where the camera’s panning around Pearl as she’s singing is a very direct reference to “Crazy World” with Julie Andrews, where she’s in a suit. And the camera’s slowly panning around her as she’s singing this song. And the audience is there, but you lose them, you’re just focused on her until they, until it comes back around. It’s like you’re in this very personal place and then you see that she’s being watched.
I love that sequence. And that movie, you know, all of these things, they’re dated in their ways, but there’s a lot of just beautiful moments that stuck with me.
My best friend is an animator and whatever he sees turnarounds like that, he’s just like, [triumphantly] Oh, they did it! Was there also a technical challenge to that shot?
Well, Joe Johnson drew that part, and really posed it out. But also, our super brilliant directors that Sunmin studios in Korea. I mean, you can see how much care was put into that sequence. It’s just really beautiful. I have some of the, the paper drawings from “It’s Over.” I went to visit Director Park and Director Kim and Director Bae, and took home some of the Pearl drawings from that. And they’re just so, so beautiful.
Oh, if anybody doesn’t know, Steven Universe is animated on paper. Everything is inked by hand. The colors digital, but the pencils and the inks are all on paper. So I have some of those paper drawings from “Mr. Greg” is just so I have the whole sequence where she’s walking on the glass bannister, which is so, so lovingly done, and the inks are super beautiful.
Anyway. A lot of cartoons are still drawn on paper. I just really want everybody to know. Because I really care, I really love traditional animation. I really love 2d animation. And it’s still alive in TV animation.
I remember, I think “Mr. Greg” came out during San Diego Comic-Con two years ago and I downloaded it on my laptop with hotel wifi sitting in the shuttlebus, and watched it on the shuttle next to my coworker who had never seen the show and didn’t understand why I was /losing it, to this song. And I had no nothing to offer.
Oh, we had been building up to that episode for so, so, so long and it changed a lot. It became a lot sweeter and simpler. There was an early version of that where when Pearl was upset she was picking up cars and chucking them at Greg. [laughs] We went in a different direction. But it’s odd to say it out loud, because we always knew we wanted it to be in Empire City. Like that was always a part of it and we always knew that we were going to explore their conflict. But everything evolves a lot. So.
You’ve been doing a lot of a TV movie research for Steven Universe the Movie. And you told me that the first thing that you sort of learned from that was how to make it feel like a movie and not just like a long episode.
Right. Um, I’m not sure exactly how much I can say that about, my approach towards the movie. But I think in approaching a movie based on a TV show, you really have to dig into what the TV show is fundamentally about and work with that. Like how do you make this like a quintessential expression of what this is, but also also new simultaneously. I was really interested in these different approaches to that.
I actually thought a lot about, I don’t know if anyone’s seen the Dexter’s Lab movie, Ego Trip. I think that’s just such a smart approach because it’s a scifi concept, but it’s so character-based. It’s Dexter and Dexter and Dexter and Dexter. But you get all this insight into him. I just thought that that was so brilliant and I really liked it when I was young.
I think another thing I really like about Beavis and Butthead do America, which — my team has several artists on it that worked on that movie. My animation director, Nick DeMayo, who is Steven’s namesake, the real DeMayo is Nick, worked on Beavis and Butthead, and so did Kimson, my director Kimson [Albert]. So I also feel an affinity towards it for that reason, but I think it’s just also really smart because what matters in that show is that they’re watching TV and their TV gets taken away. That’s big, that’s a big deal! You need that for the show, this is something beyond. I think it was really smart.
You’re going from a very short format of 11 minutes or maybe a 22-minute two-parter to a movie. Did you find that freeing? Was it exciting? Was it nerve-wracking?
Oh, everything about the movie was terrifying. I mean, we had just, you know, we’d been doing “Change Your Mind,” which was an a 44-minute episode. It’s just incredibly difficult. And also the culmination of so much of what we had been working on for six years at that time. Um, and then we couldn’t even quite feel good about that because we rolled off of that onto an even bigger, even longer, even harder version of Steven Universe. It was like we’d ramped up and up and up and up to “Change Your Mind.” “Reunited” had been so difficult, too, that half hour. And then we just came off of that just trying to keep all cylinders firing, But then firing even harder.
I guess what I’m trying to say is I’m really tired. But I’m so excited for this to be out! We just worked so, so, so hard on it. it’s not just like eight episodes strung together. It’s not even like eight “Mr. Greg”s strung together, which would be a closer analogy. I mean this is completely different. And approaching it as a musical, approaching “Mr. Greg,” it was so exciting, How do we make these songs inform each other? and How do we create reprises and make this all like a piece, like each individual song? So much of it is like the show, each individual piece of it has to be great on its own and then together even greater, that’s so exciting.
When I was really young, you know, and I liked cartoons and then I like first discovered anime. I’d be like, Oh cartoons, it’s just one story, anime is so much more complicated because it’s this long overarching story, this must be so much harder. And then I started working in animation and I was like, Oh man, making one self-contained story is really hard. It’s actually a lot harder. But then I guess because I’m such a masochist, I tried to make a show that is both an overarching story and has self-contained episodes that still are good on their own. And I tried to approach everything like that, every song to be good on its own but also a really important part of a larger piece.
So, Steven Universe comes to an end, eventually. You take hopefully, six months off to recuperate. Do you have something you want to do next? Is that even on the horizon?
Yeah, I mean, I don’t know if I can talk about it per se. I mean, between, I would like to take some time to just like go somewhere and write poetry that no one will ever see. I’ve been learning guitar and I really want to write songs on guitar.
Steven is so important to me, so my head is really in it while I’m seeing it through, and there is more after the movie. And please know, this world, there’s a lot — the movie takes place two years after the events of “Change Your Mind,” and there are a lot of stories to tell, that... I should just stop talking [laugh]. There’s some things that uh, you know, can’t get wrapped up into two years even. So we still have a few things to say about this universe and about these characters. I’m just so excited for the movie. I’m just really excited about everything.