Ever since she was young Rebecca Sugar wanted to make cartoons.
And make them she did. In high school, the future creator, writer and producer created comics that she brought to trade shows and shared with other indie artists. She attended animation camps and eventually graduated from New York’s School of Visual Arts.
Best known for her work as the creator, producer and writer of the popular TV series Steven Universe (on which she also performs music), Sugar is a three-time Annie nominee and seven-time Emmy nominee. Most recently she was an exec producer and director on the Cartoon Network feature Steven Universe: The Movie, which premiered earlier this month on the kidsnet.
But despite all this success, Sugar has never forgotten her creative roots. From her work as a storyboard artist and writer on Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time to creating Steven Universe, Sugar always wanted to work with indie artists who could bring an authenticity to a show and maintain a comic-book influence in their work through attention to detail and visual storytelling.
“For storytelling to have an impact in cartoons, it has to be visual,” says Sugar. “On Steven Universe everything is written and drawn at the same time, with our artists also writing. Part of the reason the show resonates with audiences is because our method leads to more authentic and personal work, where the body-language and the setting are always a big part of the scenes.”
Steven Universe (160 x 11 minutes) is a coming-of-age animated series about a young boy who lives with Crystal Gem aliens. The half-alien Steven lives and adventures with the Gems to protect the world from their own kind. Premiered on Cartoon Network in 2013, the series now spans five seasons.
The series has garnered critical acclaim and is lauded for its positive portrayal of LGBT representation and relationships, including a recent wedding between two non-binary characters. The show recently became the first-ever animated series to win GLAAD’s Outstanding Kids & Family Programming Award this past March. However, tackling issues of LGBT representation in a kids show isn’t easy, Sugar says.
“The biggest challenge of my career has been figuring out where my personal voice fits in the industry,” Sugar says. “Being bisexual and non-binary, there was nothing on TV that reflected my experience when I was young, and there was nothing telling me I could be okay. And it’s been a challenge trying to explain that my experience, and experiences like mine, are a human story that deserve to be told in a medium for children.”
Although it can be difficult to tell these stories, Sugar encourages burgeoning creators to just start producing work and not wait for anyone to give them the go-ahead.
Sugar declined to say what is next for Steven Universe, but she did make it clear that the recently premiered film, its upcoming DVD (with behind-the-scenes and making-of footage), vinyl albums and new books (The Art of Steven Universe: The Movie and Steven Universe: End of an Era) are just a part of the brand’s (and her own) future.
“I’m still very much focused on Steven Universe now and I’m not thinking about what my next project might be,” says Sugar. “But I would love to continue creating animation and music. I’m learning so much all the time because of Steven, and now I can move onto the next project with a better understanding of how to approach animation as a craft, how the industry operates and what’s missing. I also know more about what stories need to be told and the experiences that are underrepresented in kid’s entertainment. I hope to see and be a part of a change where more marginalized voices get to tell their stories and all kids can see themselves reflected on TV.”
Rebecca Sugar will be at the Ottawa International Animation Festival, which runs from September 25 to 29, attending a screening of Steven Universe and discussing the new film in a separate session.