Over the course of five seasons, Rebecca Sugar has woven one of the most intricate storylines on TV at the moment—animated or otherwise—with her Peabody Award-winning, Emmy-nominated hit Steven Universe.
Now she’s pushing her intergalactic saga, as well as her creative sensibilities, even further with Steven Universe: The Movie, which she’s calling her “hugest endeavor ever.” It debuts on Cartoon Network on Monday, September 2, at 6 p.m. EST.
“This was a story that was bigger than something that could fit into a single episode, but also more cohesive than something that could be spread across multiple episodes,” Sugar says. “As much as we wanted to be excited that we were done with this massive [five-season] story [arc] that we’d been working on since 2011, we still wanted to challenge ourselves and we still want us to grow as artists.”
The show follows its 14-year-old titular character, who protects his hometown, Beach City, from otherworldly baddies alongside the Crystal Gems, a race of humanoid aliens fashioned after various gems. The ruling class among the gems, the Diamonds, had made a habit out of colonizing planets. However, one gem, Rose Quartz, fell in love with Earth and vowed to protect it against her own kind. She led a rebellion with other likeminded gems, instigating a 1,000-year civil war. In a measure to quash the rebels, the Diamonds staged one massive attack toward Earth to obliterate all the gems. Rose Quartz managed to shield some gems, but many were corrupted, turning into warped versions of themselves. Rose Quartz settled on Earth with the Crystal Gems and eventually fell in love with Steven’s dad. However, in order to have Steven, Rose Quartz had to give up her physical form, and all that’s left of her is her gem, which is now a part of Steven, making him half-human, half-gem.
The five-season arc is a coming-of-age story for Steven as he develops his powers, grapples with never knowing his mother, and tries to figure out who he is. A mind-blowing twist in season five, episode 18, sets the stage for a final confrontation with the Diamonds, which ultimately ends in reconciliation.
Steven Universe: The Movie takes place two years after the season five finale. Steven is now 16 and feeling like his troubles are over, until a new villain storms into town seeking revenge against both him and the Crystal Gems.
Steven Universe: The Movie is partially a victory lap for the characters (and the viewers) after five seasons of high drama (trust us, this show gets really deep), but it’s also a bridge to what lies ahead for Steven and the Crystal Gems—and Sugar wanted the tone of the movie to match that scope.
Sugar explains how Chance the Rapper changed her whole perspective on writing music, how Beavis and Butt-Head Do America influenced Steven Universe: The Movie, and why she thinks kids shows are more complex than media for adults.
Finding the truest “true”
While the show features original songs here and there, Steven Universe: The Movie is a full-on musical, which meant Sugar had to call in reinforcements, including Chance the Rapper, Aimee Mann, and Ted Leo.
“I’m working with people that I’ve never worked with before, coming from these really different musical perspectives. And I get to have the outrageous privilege of trying to learn from and understand where everyone’s coming from when they write,” Sugar says. “It was such an incredible learning experience.”
Sugar tested the feasibility of a full musical with the season three episode “Mr. Greg,” in which she managed to cram seven songs into 11 minutes, reprises and all.
“That was a real crash course,” Sugar says. “This movie is more difficult because it’s more than just eight episodes in a row: It’s one large piece.”
The first song Sugar wrote for Steven Universe: The Movie proved to be one of the most eye-opening experiences since creating the show. Sugar collaborated with Chance the Rapper on the film’s main single, “True Kinda Love.” After creating a rough cut with rapper/singer Estelle (who also voices one of the main characters, Garnet), Sugar flew out to Chance’s studio in Chicago.
“I studied animation and drawing, so I know if you ink a drawing with this brush and it has a little texture, just how different that will make the drawing feel. But with music, I write lyrics and I write chords and I’m like, this is what the song is,” Sugar says. “It clicked for me watching him work, how all of those nuances exist for music, nuances like the texture of a brush.”
“True Kinda Love,” which is a duet between Garnet and Steven (Zach Callison), has a refrain of the word “true” being repeated. In the initial version, Estelle sang the “true”s in a more sultry and melancholy way. “There was something about the rhythm that felt romantic about it, which made sense because it seems like it should be a romantic song,” Sugar says. However, Chance suggested the “true”s feel more like “a kid skipping home from school and swinging his arms.”
“We rerecorded it, and it completely transformed,” Sugar says. “It isn’t a romantic love anymore, just because of the treatment of the word ‘true.’ There’s something about that rhythm that feels like the kind of freedom that you experience when you are so open and honest to just experience whatever’s coming around the corner, as opposed to this yearning for romance. I was just astonished what a difference it made.”
“I thought about the characters singing [the songs], but I had never thought about the character of the singing or the character of the rhythm or the texture of the instrumentation,” Sugar continues. “I was plunged into the deep end. This whole world opened up for me since that was the first [song] that I did. From then on everything was different, and I would see everyone’s different approach and how they brought their particular character to every aspect of the music that they were writing.”
The (unlikely) influence of Beavis and Butt-Head
In addition to the music, one thing Steven Universe: The Movie successfully accomplishes is how cohesive the narrative is. A common pitfall for TV shows adapted into TV films is that they can feel like a bunch of episodes haphazardly stitched together. Sugar says she studied musicals she’d never seen and other TV movie adaptations to isolate what worked and what didn’t.
“It couldn’t feel like a tangential story. It couldn’t feel like a 100% rehash of things that we had already done,” she says. “It had to feel like an expression of the characters and of the fundamental message of the show, reinterpreted into a movie format in a way that we could never have done with the show.”
Sugar looked to TV films like Ego Trip, based on Cartoon Network’s series Dexter’s Laboratory. “It’s so character-based,” Sugar says. “It’s a sci-fi story, but ultimately you’re with [multiple versions of the main character Dexter.]”
But one framework she particularly found useful was the 1996 cult classic Beavis and Butt-Head Do America, based on MTV’s Beavis and Butt-Head.
“One thing I found when I was studying TV movies is that the ones that I loved the most found some way fundamentally to break the foundational premise of the show and then put it back together again. That was really interesting to me, because it makes you instantly feel like, this is a show, but it’s not the show. There’s something much larger about this,” Sugar says. “The Beavis and Butt-Head movie, for example, they lose their TV and I was like, oh, that’s brilliant because that’s the show. What are they with their TV missing? This is going to force them out of their comfort zone in this really expansive way. I thought that was brilliant.”
“I also feel a lot of connection to the Beavis and Butt-Head movie because several staff on my show worked on it,” she adds. “So I think that’s extra special.”
Acting grown for your age
Steven Universe has established a fervent fanbase that just might be comprised of more adults than kids. The show has become a staple at Comic-Con and has spawned several podcasts, YouTube channels, and discussion boards debunking or positing theories. The show has also been highly praised for its inclusive representation of nonbinary characters. The gems are aliens and therefore technically don’t have human gender constructs. However, they are all female-presenting and use her/she pronouns, which has led many LGBTQ+ viewers to feel represented in a space that has largely shut them out.
“Ultimately, this is a show that’s by and for marginalized kids. It’s a show about how marginalized people have a fundamental right to exist,” Sugar says. ‘”It’s not the show’s responsibility to teach someone who doesn’t understand that. It’s not actually really designed to do that. We really designed this to be a show where we, on the team, could express ourselves.”
Sugar feels the depth of storytelling she’s been able to create could, in many ways, only exist in the format of a kids’ animated show. For an adult watching Steven Universe, complex issues like true love, the loss of a parent, and self-identity may be put into sharper focus in contrast with the show’s dreamy color palette and family-friendly tone. But, as Sugar keenly points out, those deeper layers to the story aren’t lost on the younger audience.
“What’s exciting about making a show that’s primarily for kids is that they’re honest and they expect a compelling story. They expect something authentic, and they can tell when something’s not,” Sugar says. “You have to approach a story for kids with a level of maturity that you don’t have to approach a story with adults. I find that media for adults is often, ironically, very immature. And media for kids is an opportunity to make something mature enough that it will meet their standards.”