It’s been 10 years since Steven Universe unlocked his Gem ability to summon a shield as he savored the last of his beloved, now-discontinued frozen treat Cookie Cat.
What Rebecca Sugar initially introduced as a brightly colored animated series about a 13-year-old half-Gem, half-human boy raised by his three extraterrestrial guardians, soon became so much more. In its five-season run on Cartoon Network, “Steven Universe” navigated such themes as same-sex relationships, genocide, consent, grief and PTSD — a groundbreaking feat for a series with a target demographic of six to 11-year-old boys.
“Everything was very difficult. At the time, that we were exploring LGBTQIA+ characters and storylines — it was really not something that was possible,” Sugar says. “I really do feel that we got to explore everything we’d hoped to, just maybe not in the exact order originally intended.”
She continues, “It’s just such a time capsule of what it took to make this show over that period of time. Because of that, it’s really special to me, and everything that was shaped by that process reminds me of how proud I am of what we were able to accomplish.”
In celebration of “Steven Universe’s” 10-year anniversary, Sugar discusses with Variety the original concept for Garnet’s wedding, Gems that were never unearthed and the possibility of a series revival.
The creator also shares an exclusive clip of an axed song from the animated series, nicknamed the “Meatball Sub Song,” which she once performed at a “big meeting” amid the early development of “Steven Universe.”
“A bunch of international executives were in town, so [Cartoon Network Studios] wanted a bunch of us to present some of the ideas we’d been working on,” Sugar recalls. “We would go in and we would do our presentation, and we pitched a little scene. I pitched the song, brought out my banjo ukulele and played it, and people laughed. I didn’t hear anything for a while, and then later, they were ready to make the show.”
“It’s very possible that this song pushed it over the top, and allowed the show to exist,” Sugar says.
“Steven Universe” premiered 10 years ago on Cartoon Network. What are your thoughts looking back on the first season a decade later?
First seasons are always really fascinating, because you’re figuring out everything from scratch. As the show got rolling, we all developed a shorthand to draw the characters. In your first season, you’re under intense scrutiny, because everyone above you really wants to make sure that the show will work. And “Steven Universe” was interesting because technically our demographic was specifically six to 11-year-old boys. Part of our goal with the show was to break those boundaries, and free ourselves of those limitations, and make something that would appeal to a much broader audience while still satisfying our jobs, our core demographic.
I recall really navigating the expectations of what would fit that demographic, of what six to 11-year-old boys would watch. I felt, too, that six to 11-year-old boys deserved a lot more credit because it was very narrow what was considered acceptable to them: what they were willing to watch and what they were gonna like. One big push I had very early on was I said, I think that this show could be beautiful. There was concern that that would alienate our target demo, that it would have to look edgy in a certain way, or look cool. And the color palette we were choosing, I mean, everything down to the way the character’s hair would have big swooping lines. All of these things were under scrutiny. Is that gonna be cool enough? Is that gonna be funny looking? It has to be cool, it has to be funny, and it’s like, but can this also be beautiful? Can it also be stirring? Can it also be dramatic? We were feeling all of that out in Season 1, and then just trying to get it made at the same time.
What was the casting process like for “Steven Universe”?
This is another thing that you don’t really know at the beginning of the show, but you find out much later, is that these different types of Gems would not normally be interacting. They’re coming from really different places, and different statuses within Gem society. So what I wanted right from the very beginning of the show was to find a cast that would not normally be in the same cartoon, or the same project, and I wanted you to be able to feel that. So Deedee Magno Hall, who voices Pearl, is from musical theater and has stage experience. Michaela Dietz, [who voices Amethyst], had been a dinosaur on “Barney,” and Estelle, [who voices Garnet], is an international superstar. And then with Steven, Zach Callison is just this incredibly talented young actor who, at the time, was really the age of the character, so there was like a reality there. But also he was just immensely talented and really understood the personality of Steven, and was coming in as this very ambitious new voice. And I was like, yes, this is the balance that I want between all of these characters.
I was incredibly lucky that Estelle, at that moment was, and continues to be, just very interested in animation, and wanted to be a part of a piece of animation. She made time while she was touring around the world to come into the booth and record with us. The other thing I think that is cool, which I don’t know how much I’ve ever talked about, is that many of the people who almost played the main four characters ended up playing other Gems in the show. Shelby Rabara, who ended up being Peridot, was almost Garnet. And Jennifer Paz, who ended up playing Lapis, was almost Amethyst. Charlyne Yi, the voice of Ruby, came in originally for Stevonnie. Once I got to meet someone, and hear their really unique voice, they just stayed in my mind indefinitely, and I just felt like we had to find a character for this person. Erica Luttrell, who plays Sapphire, was also almost Garnet. That was something where I was thinking, well, this was almost a Garnet voice and could still serve a part of this character, so she could be an amazing Sapphire. There were a lot of instances like that.
I saw on TikTok that you had written this “Meatball Sub Song” that didn’t make it into “Steven Universe.” Could you tell me a little bit about that song as well as any other songs that were cut from the series?
The “Meatball Sub Song” was from a board, which we colloquially referred to as the shield board, and it was a concept for an episode that came after the pilot, but before the first episode of the show. This is so funny, because now that we’re reaching 10 years, this would be around the time that that had hit the cutting room floor. Actually, probably a year earlier than that because we were working on the show in 2012 and 2011, too. So in the shield board, [Steven] is hanging out at the carwash with his dad, and he’s washing cars with Greg, and he’s singing a song about wanting to be a meatball sub.
There are a lot of songs, especially drafts of songs, that didn’t make it into the show. I wrote several versions of “Familiar,” and I still have some of them sitting around, but you can see the beginnings of what it will be. I’m a bit of a perfectionist and pretty hard on myself, so I would redo a lot of things several times. The movie had many songs that were almost there, and little pieces of them would end up in the final [cut] that used to be entire songs. That part that’s like, “Happily we’ll face whatever comes our way, and after we might do it all again.” That was its own song with that melody that I had been working on with [singer-songwriter] Gallant, and it was an earlier version of Bismuth’s song. So that song ended up on the cutting room floor, but this little piece of that melody ended up inside of another song. That honestly is how many episodes came to be, is that we would have these wild swings of ideas that we would end up putting on the shelf, and then later we would return to them.
Did Estelle collaborate with you on any of Garnet’s songs?
She was a huge help. When I was first going to write her a song, it was very intimidating, and I wanted to do a really good job. I asked her if it would be all right for me to write her something for the show, and she said yes. So I described to her “Stronger Than You,” which I hadn’t yet written, and she gave me so much insight. I said, “I’m working on this song for Garnet’s character, and it’s going to be a love song, a fight song and a victory song all at the same time.” I asked if she had any references or thoughts about how something like that could sound, and she sent me a bunch of thoughts, which totally informed “Stronger Than You.” And from then on, anytime I would write her something, I would chat with her beforehand and find out how she felt about that idea.
What was Estelle’s input on “Here Comes a Thought,” if any?
I told her I wanted to write a song that’s related to meditation. I was struggling with panic attacks at the time, and I was like, I want to create something that’s not slow and not asking you to slow down. When you’re in that state, it’s really unhelpful for someone to say, slow down, calm down. At least for me, I couldn’t do it. So I said, “I want to do something that’s calm, but fast,” and she sent me a lot of different thoughts. She sent me something she had been working on, she introduced me to Emily King’s music — particularly an album called “Seven” — and years later, I reached out to Emily King and we got a chance to include her voice on the end credits to “Steven Universe Future.”
Garnet’s wedding is one major storyline that you were planning on showing much earlier in the series. When the wedding was approved for Season 5, how much did the final narrative differ from the initial storyboards you created?
It was completely different. Originally, the idea was a single episode, and it was called “If You Love Yourself So Much.” The implication, the unsaid part being, why don’t you marry yourself? Garnet was gonna marry herself, and originally she was going to do it as Garnet. It was going to be a single episode where she was just going to get a chance to celebrate herself, and put a ring on each of her fingers.
When we couldn’t do it at the time, we started looking ahead, and trying to find a way where we could do this story in the most impactful way, but also in a way that was so interwoven into the story that it couldn’t be lifted out. Because that was the issue, is that this single episode about Garnet, we could have done it or we could have not done it. It would have had the subtle ramifications of the characters [Sapphire and Ruby] being married from then on. So we were looking for some of the most impactful action sequences that we were going to do, some of the biggest musical numbers that we were intending to do, and trying to just put them all around this event, so that it could feel as climactic as it deserves to be.
It became part of the two-parter in “Reunited” and this long ramp-up, and I’m so glad because I love that we got to show their proposal, I love that we got to show them having time apart — I think the characters got an opportunity to grow. Ruby and Sapphire got an opportunity to change and grow and confront some things that they hadn’t confronted, and we also had to ask ourselves tough questions about, what is it about these characters that makes this so important for them to do? How is their relationship changing that makes this the next step? It’s a very human custom, why is this something they’re interested in? And we realized that, it’s strange to say, the next step in their relationship was to be able to be alone a little bit more, so that being together could be meaningful in a new way.
Were there any Gems or fusion Gems that weren’t introduced in the show?
There used to be many more Off Colors. You can see them, I think — it’s very, very small in the [“‘Steven Universe’: Art & Origins”] art book — you can see some drawings of them. Early on, there were many more Off Colors that they would meet, including two that were pretty well-defined named Flint and Chert. They were Quartzes that were peaceful, and so they were rejected from Gem society because they weren’t doing their job of fighting. They had a kind of Robin Hood, Little John dynamic to them.
I thought they were really charming. Flint is a little taller, with long flowing hair, and Chert had a little bun and a gem for a nose. And then there was a Ruby that wore limb enhancers. That was one of the Off Colors: a Ruby that wanted to be taller and wanted to be a Gem other than a Ruby. And those drawings are in many of the Off Color concepts right up till the end.
When we sat down to start making these episodes, we just saw the character count was so high. It was just going to be really, really challenging to fit that many characters into a single shot and also give them each time to shine. So we boiled it down to the ones that are in the show: the Rutile Twins, Padparadscha, Fluorite, Rhodonite. Flint and Chert would have been there, and there were a lot of other Quartz concepts too that we were circling as we were trying to find more Quartzes that had rebelled. I had drawings of a Milky Quartz that never came to fruition.
Did you ever toy around with the idea of a Peridot-Lapis fusion?
That was also, similarly, a complicated discussion in the writers’ room. Lapis’ history with fusion is very complicated and heavy; it was an incredibly difficult experience for her. Peridot, initially, is very repelled by fusion as a concept, in part because she’s really invested in the culture that she came up in on Homeworld, where that’s just not something you would do. On Homeworld, fusion is acceptable if it’s with Gems that are exactly the same as you — it’s really fusing with someone who’s different from you that is incredibly taboo in their world, and part of that is because they don’t really consider Gems to be individuals. So if you’re fusing with another Gem that’s your same Gem type, they just would think, well, that’s a bigger version of you. This is one of you and another of you coming together, right? It’s the big you. But for different kinds of Gems, that’s incredibly inappropriate there.
One of the things I came to, as we were discussing this, I was visiting home and I had a really illuminating conversation with a friend of mine who is aroace [aromantic asexual], and I thought because of the complicated backstories in relation to fusion — with Lapis and with Peridot — that it should also be totally acceptable for a character to not want to fuse. Particularly in Peridot’s case, she didn’t have a personally difficult experience with it, and we wanted to make sure that she does explore that it’s a possibility. But what would it look like if somebody was comfortable with the fact that it’s not something that they wanted to do? That is something that we also wanted to show on the show. Not everyone has to be waiting for a relationship, whether it’s a relationship to lose themselves in, or to make themselves realize something about themselves that they need. You can also realize that that’s not something that you need. So yes, we had long discussions about how to handle it with those characters.
It’s been three years since the epilogue series “Steven Universe Future” ended, and you’ve recently worked on “Fionna and Cake,” which is a spinoff of “Adventure Time.” Will there ever be a “Steven Universe” revival or spinoff?
I would really, really appreciate it if everyone who would be interested in something like that would make a ton of noise and make it really known — because I would be thrilled to explore that. I think in this current media landscape, if there’s a huge amount of public demand, then that is something that becomes impossible to ignore.
I love these characters and I love this world, and I would love to return to it. And I hope, if everyone else feels the same as I do, I may have an opportunity to do something like that.
What would you like to explore in a “Steven Universe” revival?
I know these characters in this world very well, and there’s so many interesting things in store for them and aspects of their personality that they’re still grappling with that I’m interested in exploring.
It’s not an easy answer, because there’s so much, and I’m also so grateful to the “Steven Universe” team, the crew that I worked with for eight years on the show. Thanks to them, these characters are so incredibly rich, and this world is so beautifully defined. Even just our rules and our lore and the meaning behind why the characters are the way they are is so full that, if I had an opportunity to work with them again, they really take on a life of their own.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. All seasons of “Steven Universe” are available to stream on Max and Hulu.
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