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Steven Universe is an American animated television series created by Rebecca Sugar for Cartoon Network. It is a coming-of-age story of a young boy, Steven Universe (voiced by Zach Callison), who lives in the fictional town of Beach City with the Crystal Gems—Pearl (Deedee Magno), Garnet (Estelle), and Amethyst (Michaela Dietz)—three magical, humanoid aliens. Steven, who is half-Gem, has adventures with his friends and helps the Gems protect the world from their own kind. It premiered on November 4, 2013 as Cartoon Network's first animated solely created by a woman. The themes of the series include love and family. Books, comics and a video game based on the series have also been released.

Steven Universe
Steven Universe logo.svg
Genre Action[1]
Fantasy[1]
Comedy-drama[1][2]
Created by Rebecca Sugar
Developed by Rebecca Sugar
Ian Jones-Quartey
Phil Rynda
Voices of
Theme music composer Rebecca Sugar
Aivi & Surasshu
Jeff Liu
Opening theme "We Are the Crystal Gems", performed by Zach Callison, Estelle, Michaela Dietz, and Deedee Magno Hall
Ending theme "Love Like You", performed by Rebecca Sugar
Composer(s) Aivi Tran
Steven "Surasshu" Velema
Country of origin United States
Original language(s) English
No. of seasons 5
No. of episodes 132 (list of episodes)
Production
Executive producer(s) Rebecca Sugar
Ian Jones-Quartey (co-executive producer, seasons 2-3)
Producer(s) Jackie Buscarino
Chuck Austen (supervising producer, season 1)
Running time 11 minutes
Production company(s) Cartoon Network Studios[3]
Distributor Warner Bros. Television Distribution
Release
Original network Cartoon Network
Picture format 1080i (16:9 HDTV)
Audio format Dolby Surround
Original release Pilot: May 21, 2013 (2013-05-21)
Official: November 4, 2013 (2013-11-04) – present
External links
Website www.cartoonnetwork.com/video/steven-universe/index.html
Production
website
stevencrewniverse.tumblr.com

Sugar developed the series while she was a writer and storyboard artist on Adventure Time, and left the show when Cartoon Network greenlit her series for full production. The series is storyboard-driven, meaning that when episodes are being produced the show's storyboard artists are responsible for writing the dialogue and blocking out the action. To develop new stories for the show, the show's crew often play homemade games during the writing phase of production. The main voice actors (Callison, Dietz, Magno and Estelle) record several episodes in three-to-four-hour recording sessions. The series—which has developed a broad fan base—has been critical acclaimed for its design, music, voice acting, characterization, promotion of LGBTQ themes and science fantasy worldbuilding. It has been nominated for three Emmy Awards and five Annie Awards, and was renewed for a fourth and fifth season in March 2016. The fifth season premiered on May 29, 2017.

Contents

Synopsis

Steven Universe is set in the fictional town of Beach City on the Delmarva Peninsula[4] on the American East Coast, where the Crystal Gems live in an old beachside temple and protect humanity from monsters and other threats. Ageless alien warriors, the Gems project feminine humanoid forms from magical gemstones which are the core of their being. The Crystal Gems comprise Garnet, Amethyst, Pearl and Steven (a young half-human, half-Gem boy who inherited his gemstone from his mother, the former Crystal Gem leader Rose Quartz). As Steven tries to understand his gradually-expanding range of powers, he spends his days with his father, Greg; his friend, Connie; his magical pet lion; the other people in Beach City; and the Gems. He explores the abilities passed down to him by his mother, which include fusion—the ability of Gems to merge their bodies and abilities to form new, more-powerful personalities.

The first season reveals that the Crystal Gems are remnants of a great interstellar empire. Many places they visit are ruins that were once important to Gem culture but have been derelict for millennia. The Gems are cut off from their home world, and Steven learns that many of the monsters and artifacts they encounter are Gems who, corrupted by a Gem weapon of mass destruction, can no longer maintain rational humanoid form. By the end of the first season, Steven learns that the Homeworld Gems intended to sterilize the Earth to incubate new Gems millennia ago, but Rose Quartz led the other Crystal Gems in a violent (and apparently successful) rebellion against the genocidal plan. Five thousand years later, the Homeworld's machinations again extend towards Earth with the arrival of hostile envoys Peridot and Jasper. In the second season, Peridot allies with (and eventually joins) the Crystal Gems to prevent Earth's destruction by a Gem "geo-weapon" in the planet's core. During the the third season Lapis Lazuli, an errant Homeworld Gem, lives on Earth with Peridot; Jasper is defeated and imprisoned, and Steven learns that his mother shattered Gem society matriarch Pink Diamond. In the fourth season, as Steven wrestles with his conflicted feelings about his mother's actions, Homeworld's remaining leaders return their full attention to Earth. The fifth season begins with Steven brought to Homeworld to stand trial for his mother's supposed crimes; he escapes with the help of Homeworld fugitives.

Conception

 
Rebecca Sugar (creator of Steven Universe) is the first woman to create a show for Cartoon Network.

In 2011, after former Cartoon Network vice-president of comedy animation Curtis Lelash asked the staff if anyone had ideas for a new series, Rebecca Sugar, an artist working for the network, described her initial ideas for what would become Steven Universe, and the project was chosen for development. While developing her show, Sugar worked concurrently on the Cartoon Network series Adventure Time.[5] The series was inspired by Sugar's "Ballad of Margo and Dread", a short story about a sensitive child helping teens with problems they could not verbalize.[6]

Cartoon Network executives greenlit the show after the crew's art presentation, which made Sugar the first woman to create a show independently for the network.[7] Before she had a crew for the series, she tried to alter elements of the show's plot and developed the character's identity so her crew would have the freedom she did when she worked for Adventure Time.[8]

Development

When Sugar's show was greenlit, she decided to resign from her role as a storyboard artist on Adventure Time to focus on her own series.[8] As production for the pilot began, Sugar decided to focus the short on the main characters and their personalities, as a way to demonstrate the series' humor. The pilot was a slice-of-life type episode (meaning that it did not involve major events happening, since the series world was still in development),[9] and Sugar and her crew focused the plot on how the Crystal Gems and Steven would interact.[10] Sugar strove to go above and beyond to make her pilot distinctive, in terms of its artistic and aesthetic detail, but the time limit imposed upon her by Cartoon Network hampered her capabilities to do just that. This unsuccessful experience helped Sugar with the show's concept: "to know that there is so much more that you can't see and the way that knowledge frustrates and excites and confuses and scares you."[7]

The title character, Steven, is loosely based on Steven Sugar, Rebecca's younger brother.[11] During Steven Universe's development Sugar repeatedly asked her brother if it was a good idea to name the show after him; she stopped asking when the show was greenlit. Her brother had no problem with it, and trusted Sugar to use his name wisely.[12] In an interview with the New York Times, Sugar discussed developing the background of the show's protagonist, expressing her desire to base the character's viewpoint on her brother growing up "where you're so comfortable in your life because you get all the attention, but you also want to rise up and not be the little brother."[13]

When the original pilot was presented to Cartoon Network executives, they announced to the crew that the series would air in 2013.[7] Cartoon Network released the original pilot in May 2013. Sugar and her crew panicked, since the series was going to be very different from the original pilot. It was popular when it was released, engendering forum discussions in which people expressed their hopes of seeing it on the air soon. Those who knew Rebecca Sugar from Adventure Time were also interested. Positive reaction to the show reassured its crew.[14]

In preparation of the showing getting picked up by Cartoon Network, Sugar began focused on culling a production crew.[8] Jackie Buscarino, who was brought on as producer in September 2012, was tasked with hiring people and supervising the show's crew.[15] During this period of development, Sugar and her crew were moved to a building behind the main Cartoon Network studio and situated on the same floor as the crew for The Powerpuff Girls CGI special. Some artists who had worked on the special, such as the colorist Tiffany Ford and the art directors Kevin Dart, Ellie Michalka and Jasmin Lai, were later invited to join the Steven Universe crew.[16] Cartoon Network also provided Sugar with a list of suggested writers, and when she saw Ben Levin and Matt Burnett (former writers for Level Up) on the list, she immediately asked them to join her crew as she was familiar with their work.[17] Freelance artist Danny Hynes, whom the former supervising director Ian Jones-Quartey knew from his own project Lakewood Pizza Turbo, became the show's lead character designer.[16][18] Steven Sugar was assigned as the background designer after his work on the original pilot,[15] and was assisted by Dart, Michalka, Lai, background painter Amanda Winterston and others.[19]

During the art presentation, Jones-Quartey, Guy, Hynes and Steven created artwork which differed from their previous work. Jones-Quartey wanted to work with something new, retaining elements of the show's previous project.[20] He worked with Elle Michalka (who later took over his role as background painter for the presentation) to create concept art for an "action-comedy" series.[12] Around this time, Jones-Quartey added stars to the series' logo, as he saw them as a "versatile" symbol. However, he later admitted to over-using them, and they were criticized at the art presentation.[20] The art presentation's drawings were by Sugar, Jones-Quartey, Hynes, Paul Villeco (a writer and storyboard artist) and Steven; Michalka did the painting.[21]

Themes

Sugar wanted the show to be thematically consistent with her and her brother's shared interests.[9] The main themes of this coming-of-age series – which largely explores the process of growing up – are love and family.[22][23] The latter theme is important to the series because Sugar based the titular character after her brother, and the former theme was inspired by her relationship with Jones-Quartey. The series also expresses the importance of acceptance,[24][25] and explores relationships, LGBT identity, body shapes and "hues of skin in a colorful sci-fi magic display of diversity". According to Kat Morris, the series' central concepts are developed over time in an organic way, rather than being "overly calculated" from the start.[26] Former writer Matt Burnett said that the series' simple-life theme prevented the inclusion of "cynicism" or "snarkiness".[9] According to Burnett, the writers have no interest in a superhero theme.[27]

The unusually-strong female presence in a series about a boy – all major characters except Steven and Greg are female – is intentional, according to Sugar, who intended to "tear down and play with the semiotics of gender in cartoons for children" because she considered it absurd that shows for boys should be fundamentally different from those for girls. The series' plot is developing towards a distant goal; everything in between is kept flexible, in part, because her intentions have "changed since I've started because I've grown up a lot" while working on the show.[28] Sugar described the series as "reverse escapism": the idea that fantasy characters would become interested in real life and would want to participate in it. Steven personifies the "love affair between fantasy and reality".[29] Sugar said that Steven Universe was influenced by the anime series Future Boy Conan, Revolutionary Girl Utena and The Simpsons.[30] Musically, Sugar has cited Aimee Mann as "a huge influence".[31]

Design

During the development of the Steven Universe pilot, Sugar focused much attention on the design of the world, adding notes to whatever she drew.[32] Inspired by the idea of foreign figures (Gems) living a human life, she drew many sketches depicting their world and history. The series' design was also inspired from her and her brother's interests in video games, comics and animation.[9] After the series was greenlit, Sugar decided to redesign everything to make the series "flexible and simple" for her future crew to add ideas of their own.[8] During this time, the creative director was Kevin Dart, followed by Jasmin Lai, Elle Michalka and Ricky Cometa.[33] Dart's artistic style remained a great influence on the show even after his departure. Steven Sugar praised his work and was inspired by him in college years, saying that Dart had more ideas for the art than he did.[19]

In the pilot, two locations appeared: the Temple and the Big Donut. The Temple was designed by Ian Jones-Quartey, Steven Sugar, Ben Levin, Matt Burnett and Andy Ristaino (a storyboard artist then working on Adventure Time). The Temple's dual faces were based on Guy Davis' ideas.[19] Steven Sugar designed the rest of Beach City for the series, and was painstaking in his attention to detail; he also designed people, houses, cars, buildings and restaurants. Because of Rebecca Sugar's redesigned drawings, the two original locations had to be redrawn.[16]

To find inspiration for the show's backgrounds, Rebecca, Steven and Jones-Quartey went to their favorite beaches.[19] Beach City (the series' setting) is loosely based on Rehoboth Beach, Bethany Beach and Dewey Beach, Delaware, all of which Sugar visited as a child.[11] Steven Sugar drew Beach City with a boardwalk lined with a variety of shops.[16] He wanted it to have a "specific style" so viewers could believe that it was based on an actual location, and he drew the roads and shops consistently oriented with the Temple and the water tower.[19] The concept for the primary setting was inspired by Akira Toriyama's Dr. Slump, which featured a small environment in which the recurring characters lived where they worked. Steven Sugar made the boardwalk the focus of Steven Universe's human world.[16]

Characters

During the early stages of production, Sugar worked on character appearance and personality development simultaneously;[34] during this process of conception, she was heavily inspired by fantasy television characters that she and her brother used to draw when they were younger.[9] Lead character designer Danny Hynes, influenced by the design of Mickey Mouse by Disney artists, wanted the characters to be standardized, simple and recognizable.[35] He proposed 24 human characters to the crew; Rebecca and Steven Sugar drew 22 designs, 13 of which were made official and the coloring was done by Jones-Quartey.[36] Rebecca Sugar fused several characters during the pilot development,[9] and supporting characters Lars and Sadie were originally created when she was in college.[37] The Pizza family was based on Jones-Quartey's Ghanaian family,[19] and Ronaldo was created by Ben Levin and Matt Burnett.[38] Guy Davis, a childhood friend of Rebecca and Steven Sugar, designed the early monsters and Gem architecture.[19]

Making a character "look alive" was always a priority in designing a character, and, according to Jones-Quartey, a character's emotions should be clearly delineated.[39] The character-design team mission is for the characters to resemble a classic cartoon such as 1940s Disney cartoons, Dragon Ball Z or Osamu Tezuka and Harvey Kurtzman's projects. In drawing the characters for each episode, the crew has only two weeks to make modifications.[35] Character names (and some designs) were inspired by certain types of food,[40] and some characters were redesigned because the pilot revealed discrepancies between appearance and personality.[41] Sugar planned to have the character designs receive visual benchmarks so the artists working with the crew can draw them consistently.[42] So that the production crew members would not be bogged down by overly-complex details, Sugar sought to make the designs for her characters simple, flexible, and consistent.[35] This redesigning meant that the appearance of the characters in the pilot episode differs substantially from their depiction in the television series.[32]

Sugar wanted the Gems to resemble humans, and developed the Crystal Gems to ride a roller coaster of family life with Steven,[9] whom they would treat like a brother.[43] She wanted their gems to reflect their personalities: Pearl's perfect smoothness, Amethyst's coarseness and Garnet's air of mystery.[44] According to Sugar, the Gems are all "some version of me ... neurotic, lazy, decisive".[45] Their facial designs were influenced by Wassily Kandinsky, who taught at the Bauhaus and encouraged his students to pair three colors (red, yellow and blue) with the three basic shapes (square, triangle and circle). Because of the characters' personalities, Garnet is a square, Amethyst a sphere and Pearl a cone.[42] In developing the Gems, Sugar wanted to give them a superpower similar to classic cartoon characters such as Bugs Bunny. The Gems' ability to shape-shift is a reference to older cartoons such as Tex Avery's MGM era, where characters would change at will. Although the Crystal Gems are intended to be serious, the writers wanted them to be "funny and weird" as well.[46]

Production

According to Sugar, production for Steven Universe began while she was working on Adventure Time. Her last episode for the latter series was "Simon & Marcy"; after that, working on both series simultaneously "became impossible to do". She also encountered difficulty in the production of the episode, "Bad Little Boy".[47] Cartoon Network executives authorized the crew to begin production after their pre-production presentation, for which Sugar and her crew were well-prepared. The episodes "Cheeseburger Backpack" and "Together Breakfast" were developed at this time.[12] Although Sugar works on the series' art, animation and sound as executive producer, she considers herself "the most hands on" at the storyboarding stage.[48]

The outline of an episode is passed to the storyboarders, who block out the action for the episode and write its dialogue. The storyboards are animated, based on paper drawings and the production crew's designs, by one of two Korean studios (Sunmin and Rough Draft)[49] and the production crew's designs.[29]

Storyboard

 
Portion of the storyboard and script from the episode, "Island Adventure". The series' storyboard artists are also its writers.

During storyboard meetings, artists draw their ideas on post-it notes, which are then attached to the walls, table and boxes in the corners of their conference room; the drawings play a major role in episode ideas. Sugar looks over these designs and occasionally makes changes to key poses, as she likes to go through scenes and re-draw scenes and characters so as to inject storyboards with additional pathos and emotion.[50] The storyboards for every episode are created by a pair of artists; each writes half of the dialogue, and draws panels similar to comic strips. This process can be quite complex, as the storyboard artists must block out the cinematography as well as focus on scenic design, similar to film production. After the panels are made, the thumbnail storyboard artists draw mannerisms and dialogue based on their own experiences; Sugar draws "quintessential" scenes from the memory of hanging out with her brother after school when they were young.[51] The storyboard artists then discuss their work with the rest of the crew and make changes as needed.[52] After the team discussion, the storyboard artists draw a revised board (based on the thumbnail board) on a full-size panel with notes. The storyboards are again discussed, corrected and finally approved.[53]

Writing

During the pilot development, Sugar wrote and sketched a number of plot ideas which later became episodes.[54] The series' initial premise focused mostly on Steven's human side (instead of his magic side), but the premise was later changed.[55] As Sugar developed the pilot episode, she also began to develop the Gems' history.[9] While the first season of the show introduced the human and Gem characters and their relationships, Sugar began to plot out and explored plotlines involving the Crystal Gems in season two.[56] Eventually, Sugar created a chart with taped printouts about a 2,000-year Gem and Earth history, with a number of events needing to be "fleshed out" for production. And although the series' overall plot is established, the writers are "improvising" to arrive at its ending (with that said, Matt Burnett claims that the storylines will be resolved by the series' end).[57] Sugar wanted the series to focus on comedy and positivity before venturing into controversial subjects involving the main characters, thinking that it was "more honest" to begin the show with happiness instead of action or drama.[9]

The writers (formerly Levin and Burnett) would write the premises and outlines while the storyboarders write and draw the episodes.[58][59][60] Everyone would wait at least a day to get together and discuss.[58] The writers write episode names on paper cards, pinning them on the conference-room wall to look over what they have written overall and plan their meetings. They discuss episode pacing and vary each season's texture by balancing "lighter" and "heavier" story arcs.[38] Changes in major-character appearances (such as Yellow Diamond) in a storyline can be difficult for the writers.[27] According to Ben Levin, writing a season of Steven Universe is like a "jigsaw puzzle" in that the writing team must assemble a number of plot ideas; some are discarded if they do not benefit character growth. After further discussion and questions about the writing, an idea becomes an episode. After discussing a season's proposed episodes the "puzzle" is complete, and they begin writing a major story arc or a season finale. Burnett said that writing a season is like an algebraic equation "where one side is the season finale, and the x's and y's are the episodes we need for that solution to make sense" and cited "Ocean Gem", "Steven the Sword Fighter", "Monster Buddies", "An Indirect Kiss" and "Serious Steven" as examples. Those episodes led to the season-one finale as a minor story arc.[38] To develop new ideas for episodes, the writers play writing games. In one, a scenario with characters was drawn and passed to another writer. The second writer added a few sentences before giving it to a third, until the drawing has a "three-act" story. Episodes such as "Island Adventure", "Future Boy Zoltron" and "Onion Friend" were written this way.[61] The writers also play drawing games which design new Gem characters and technological ideas. Burnett said that he and Levin use fewer ideas from the storyboarders than they previously did; since the episodes have a "stronger continuity", storyboarders change fewer things than they did before.[27]

According to Levin, he and Burnett try to balance the focus between the main characters (with Steven in the center) and the theme of episodes in their writing. The balance indicates that Steven has the same interests on his human side as he does on his Gem side. Levin said that the Gem mythology and drama would have been less interesting if Steven was not as well-developed in the first few episodes. Grateful to work on a show which is unafraid to be "sincere and vulnerable", he said that if every episode was emotional the series would become formulaic; happy episodes balance out emotional ones.[38] Levin said that he and Burnett have found ways to integrate Steven's powers into the plot. The character's powers and home-world technology are revealed at a "measured (very slow) pace", satisfying the viewer and keeping the series clear of superhero territory.[27]

Before significant plotlines air, the writers reveal bits of information relevant to a "climactic" episode for the audience. According to storyboard artist Hilary Florido, much of the series' action and magic are narrative climaxes demonstrating the characters' discoveries, difficulties and views. Florido said that if a character's evolution is not directly related to the plot, there is no drama.[27] The crew is discouraged from breaking perspective involving episode development as they want the audience to know what the protagonist's point of view is. Although the writers could hint at future events, they prefer to focus on plot and develop Steven in real time. Levin said that if the pilot tried to present Gem history in five minutes, the audience and protagonist would be equally confused.[22]

Backgrounds

After the approved storyboards are received, the production of background art begins. If the characters visit old locations, the pre-existing backgrounds are modified for authenticity sake, as it is likely that locations would change slightly over time. Steven Sugar likes to hide narrative bits in the backgrounds because he believes that the key to world-building is "having a cohesive underlying structure to everything". Former art director Elle Michalka said that the backgrounds' artistic style was inspired by French post-impressionist painter Paul Cézanne, whose apparent lack of focus belied detail and "specificity". The art was also inspired by Tao Te Ching, whose work highlights the importance of empty spaces, "like the space within a vase as being part of the vase that makes it useful". During the painting phase, the lines are seen as "descriptive bones" by the painters and the color is used loosely. This intentionally means that the color is slightly "off register", highlighting the distinction between color and line.[62] The painters used "superimposed" watercolor texture before switching to Photoshop, because the former made the backgrounds "very chunky". When painting the backgrounds, they use one color and several secondary colors; Amanda Winterston and Jasmin Lai found color combinations which were "just right". After the primary backgrounds are painted they are sent to the color stylist, who chooses colors for a character or prop from model sheets matching and complementing the storyboard and background. The lines of the character (or prop) are rarely colored. When a scene needs light effects, the lines are removed. The coloring in early season-one episodes was experimental, since the stylist would have difficulty if a storyboard's character and background mixed together or a bright character walked unchanged to a shadow. As the crew planned and checked storyboards, such mistakes became rare. The primary backgrounds are made in Burbank, and the secondary ones by Korean artists.[63]

Animation

After the crew finishes constructing an episode, the production team sends it to animators in Korea. The animation is produced by Sunmin Images Pictures Company and Rough Draft Korea. The production team and animators communicate by email, sometimes using video chat when animating a major episode. Before an episode is sent to one of the studios, animation director Nick DeMayo and his team create a plan for the animators after reviewing the animatics.[64] They then add character movements on exposure sheets to guide the animators. Mouth assignments for the characters follow, describing mouth shapes and timing for lip-syncing.[65] The episode is then sent to one of the animation studios. The black-and-white version is sent first, followed in about two weeks by the colored version.[66] The animation is drawn and inked on paper, before it is scanned and colored digitally. The crew then arranges a "work print" meeting to discuss the episode and review it for errors. DeMayo notes any errors, removes them and sends the episode back to the animation studio or to Cartoon Network's post-production department to fix any remaining issues.[67] Minor animation mistakes or omissions are fixed by the crew.[68]

Voice cast

The main voice cast (clockwise from top left): Zach Callison (Steven), Michaela Dietz (Amethyst), Estelle (Garnet) and Deedee Magno (Pearl)

American actor Zach Callison voices Steven in his first lead role on television.[69] For his audition, he spoke ten lines from the pilot and sang the theme song while being recorded.[70] Garnet (the Crystal Gem leader) is voiced by Estelle, a singer, songwriter and actress. She was asked by Cartoon Network to take the part, her first voice-acting role.[69] For actresses Michaela Dietz (who voices Amethyst) and The Party singer Deedee Magno (who voices Pearl), it was also their first animation voice roles.[71][72] Sugar wanted Tom Scharpling, whom she knew from his The Best Show with Tom Scharpling podcast, to voice a character for one of her projects before the show was conceived. She approached him for the part of Greg Universe, and the character was originally named Tom. The Ruby Gems are voiced by Charlyne Yi, after Sugar wrote to her that she was confident Yi would be perfect for the role.[70] Grace Rolek, who voices Steven's friend Connie, was 16 years old at the series' start and has been a voice actress in animated productions since the age of five or six.[73]

The show's four main voice actors (Callison, Dietz, Magno and Estelle) spend three to four hours recording per session, three to four weeks a month for ten months per year. Cast members record together or separately, since they are often recording multiple episodes. Each recording session covers a new episode, with retakes for that episode or previous ones if needed. In group recording sessions, a maximum of six actors stand in a semicircle.[74] Sugar and voice director Kent Osborne are at the sessions,[75] advising the actors on voicing the characters in specific situations as needed. If they like a take, the production assistant marks it and gives it to the animation editor for the episode's rough cut. When a recording session begins, Sugar explains the storyboards and describes the sequences, character intention and the relationship between the; Osborne does the actual recording. Before the sessions, Sugar and the voice actors discuss new plot elements and she shows them the advanced storyboards. Magno has expressed her enjoyment for the group recording sessions, as the funny faces that the cast members make while recording lines requiring emotion or movement often cause them to laugh.[74]

Music

Steven Universe features songs and musical numbers produced by Sugar and her writers, who collaborate on each song's lyrics. Multiple drafts of the theme song's lyrics were written.[76] Sugar composed the extended theme song while she waited in line for a security check at Los Angeles International Airport.[77] The series relies on leitmotifs for its soundtrack, with instruments, genres and melodies allotted to specific characters. The music is influenced by Michael Jackson and Estelle.[78] A soundtrack album, Steven Universe Soundtrack: Volume 1, was released on June 2, 2017.[79] The soundtrack debuted at number 22 on the Billboard 200 and at number two on the Soundtracks chart.[80] Sugar writes songs for the series during her travels, accompanying herself on a ukulele.[77] According to Sugar, not every episode features a song; she uses them occasionally, to avoid forced creativity.[47]

Most of the incidental music is composed by the chiptune piano duo Aivi and Surasshu, with guitars by Stemage.[81] Familiar with producer Aivi's musical score for the video game Cryamore, Jeff Liu recommended her to Sugar as a composer. Sugar asked her to audition, and agreed that producer Surasshu could join her. They scored a clip from "Gem Glow", the series' first episode; Sugar liked their work and hired them as series composers.[82] Before composing an episode, they video chat with Sugar and the creative director to discuss the episode and have a week to send Sugar a preview score.[83] After any necessary changes, Aivi and Surasshu send the score to Sabre Media Studios for the final mix with their sound designs.[84]

Each character has an instrumental theme expressing their personality, which changes slightly depending on situation.[85] Pearl is often accompanied by a piano, Garnet by a synth bass, Amethyst by a drum machine with electric bass and synths, and Steven with chiptune tones.[78][83] Sound palettes were produced for the humans to represent the evolution of the series, its characters and their relationships. Sound motifs and palettes were also created for locations, objects and abstract concepts.[83] When Sugar or the other writers write a song for an episode, they record a demo which is then sent to the composers. The same musical style for a song and the character singing it is used for each song. Over time, the songs have become increasingly complex, and production has became more difficult since the show's original musical style no longer fits perfectly with the newer lyrical themes. An example is "Here Comes a Thought", sung by Estelle and AJ Michalka (who voices Stevonnie). The two were less inspired by a specific musical style, but rather by the song's "feel", which had been explained to them by Sugar.[86]

Broadcast

The pilot episode for Steven Universe was released on Cartoon Network's video platform on May 21, 2013,[87] and an edited version was released on July 20.[88] The pilot was shown at the 2013 San Diego Comic-Con,[89] and Sugar hosted a 30-minute panel discussion about the series at the 2013 New York Comic Con on October 13.[90] On November 14, thirteen additional episodes were ordered for the first season.[91] The series was renewed for a second season on July 25, 2014,[92] which began airing on March 13, 2015. It was renewed in July 2015 for a third season, and in March 2016 the second and third seasons were split in two (for a total of five seasons).[93][94]

The series premiered in the United States on November 4, 2013 on Cartoon Network with two episodes.[95] In Canada, it began airing on Cartoon Network on November 11, 2013[96] and on Teletoon on April 24, 2014.[97] It began airing on Cartoon Network channels in Australia on February 3, 2014,[98] and in the United Kingdom and Ireland on May 12 of that year.[99]

Since 2015, Cartoon Network has aired new episodes in groups of five over one week (marketed as "Stevenbombs") rather than one episode per week. The hiatuses between groups have irritated fans, causing (according to The A.V. Club) "agonized cries of a rabid, starving, pained cult following". The format (also used for other Cartoon Network series) has, in the website's view, contributed to the network's spikes in Google Trends associated with each "bomb". The A.V. Club attributed the effect to Steven Universe's unusual (for a youth cartoon) adherence to an overarching plot, which can generate "massive swells of online interest" – similar to the release of full seasons of adult TV series – which are "crucial to a network's vitality in an increasingly internet-based television world".[100]

Episodes

Season Episodes Originally aired
First aired Last aired
Pilot May 21, 2013 (2013-05-21)
1 52 November 4, 2013 (2013-11-04) March 12, 2015 (2015-03-12)
2 26 March 13, 2015 (2015-03-13) January 8, 2016 (2016-01-08)
3 25 May 12, 2016 (2016-05-12) August 10, 2016 (2016-08-10)
4 25 August 11, 2016 (2016-08-11) May 11, 2017 (2017-05-11)
5 26 May 29, 2017 (2017-05-29) TBA

Crossover

"Say Uncle", a crossover episode with Uncle Grandpa, aired on April 2, 2015. In the episode, Uncle Grandpa helps Steven use his Gem powers when he cannot summon his shield. The episode contains a plot hole in which Uncle Grandpa acknowledges that the episode is not canonical.[101] Steven, Garnet, Amethyst, Pearl and other Cartoon Network characters from current and former shows made cameo appearances in the Uncle Grandpa episode, "Pizza Eve".[102]

Other media

Minisodes

Two volumes of minisodes have been released by Cartoon Network. The first one includes "We Are the Crystal Gems" (the extended version of the title theme); the second and third one are the Crystal Gems teaching Steven lessons about Gems in a classroom setting; the fourth one is an unboxing video of his new duffel bag; the last one is a video showing his pet Lion playing with a cardboard box.[103] The second one includes fives minisodes that shows Steven cooking, karaoking, doing a reaction to "Crying Breakfast Friends!", skyping with Lapis and Peridot, and playing a new song.[104]

Companion books

A number of companion books have been published by Penguin Group's Cartoon Network Books imprint:

  • Steven Universe's Guide to the Crystal Gems (October 2015, ISBN 978-0843183160) by series creator Rebecca Sugar, with information about the Crystal Gems.[105]
  • Quest for Gem Magic (October 2015, ISBN 978-0843183177) by Max Brallier is a "colorful journal and activity book" for 8- to 12-year-olds.[106]
  • Steven Universe Mad Libs (October 2015, ISBN 978-0843183092) by Walter Burns is a Mad Libs word-game book.[107]
  • Steven Universe: Live from Beach City (February 2016, ISBN 978-0843183498) is a music and activity book with chord charts and sheet music for the first season's major songs.[108]
  • What in the Universe? (February 2016, ISBN 978-0843183481) by Jake Black is a collection of trivia about Steven and the Gems.[109]
  • Best Buds Together Fun (June 2016, ISBN 978-1101995167) by Jake Black is a "quiz and activity book" for at 8- to 12-year-olds.[110]
  • The Answer (September 2016, ISBN 978-0399541704) by Rebecca Sugar is a children's-book adaptation of the episode, "The Answer". It was seventh on The New York Times Best Seller list on October 2, 2016.[111]
  • Arts and Origins (July 2017, ISBN 978-1419724435) by Chris McDonnell, with an introduction by Dexter's Laboratory creator Genndy Tartakovsky and a foreword by Rebecca Sugar. The book contains concept art, production samples, early sketches, storyboards and commentary by the Steven Universe production crew.[112]

Video games

The tactical role-playing video game Steven Universe: Attack the Light! was released on April 2, 2015 for iOS and Android devices.[113] It was developed by Grumpyface Studios in collaboration with Sugar for mobile devices. Players control Steven and the three Crystal Gems in fighting light monsters.[114][115] A sequel, Steven Universe: Save the Light, was released for consoles in summer 2017.[116]

A rhythm-based mobile game, Steven Universe: Soundtrack Attack,[117] was released on July 21, 2016 in the United States. In the game, a player-created Gem flees her pursuer through side-scrolling stages set to remixes of the series' music. Another mobile game, Steven Universe: Dreamland Arcade, was released in 2017; it is a collection of arcade games with characters from the series.[118]

Steven Universe characters appear in Cartoon Network's kart racing game, Formula Cartoon All-Stars, and in the side-scrolling beat-'em-up game Battle Crashers.[119] In common with other Cartoon Network series, several browser-based games (including Heap of Trouble, Goat Guardian and Gem Bound) are available on the channel's website.[120]

Comics

BOOM! Studios has published several limited comics series based on Steven Universe:

  • A monthly comic series, written by Jeremy Sorese and illustrated by Coleman Engle, was first published in August 2014.[121]
  • A graphic novel, the first in a planned series, was published by KaBOOM! on April 6, 2016.[122] Also written by Sorese and drawn by Engle, Steven Universe: Too Cool for School is about Steven accompanying Connie to school.[123]
  • A four-part comic miniseries, Steven Universe and the Crystal Gems, was published in 2015.[124][125]

A comic series written by Melanie Gillman and illustrated by Katy Farina began in January 2017.[126]

Toys and merchandise

In October 2015, Cartoon Network announced a line of toys based on Steven Universe which would be sold by specialty retailers. For the 2015 holiday season, Funko made "Pop!" vinyl figures and Just Toys offered "blind bag" novelty products. PhatMojo sold plush figures and foam weapons and Zag Toys released collectible bobbleheads and other mini-figures in spring 2016. The following year, Toy Factory planned to sell a line of plush and novelty items.[127] Cartoon Network sells a variety of products, including mugs, blankets and clothing, based on episodes and characters.[128]

Reception

Critical response

Steven Universe has received acclaim, with critics praising its art, music, voice performances, storytelling and characterization. According to James Whitbrook of io9, it is an "equally rewarding watch" for adults and children,[129] and Eric Thurm of Wired has called it "one of the stealthiest, smartest, and most beautiful things on the air".[130] Over the course of its run, Steve Universe has attracted a rapidly-growing fan base.[131]

Production values

Critics have praised the "breathtaking beauty",[132] "intriguing, immersive environments"[133] and "loveably goofy aesthetic"[129] of Steven Universe's art, writing highly of its distinctive, soft pastel backgrounds[133] and its "gorgeous, expressive, clean" animation.[134] Aivi Tran and Steven "Surasshu" Velema's chiptune-inspired music has also been positively critiqued in reviews, with Oliver Sava of The A.V. Club mentioning its range (from "peppy retro" to Ghibli-esque "smooth jazz piano").[133] According to Thurm, the musical numbers are characterized by "uplifting determination".[135] Whitbrook wrote that they have evolved from being "little [...] goofy ditties" to an integral part of the show's storytelling.[129] Thurm wrote for Pitchfork that "music matters in Rebecca Sugar’s work", more than in most musicals, by structuring the characters' lives rather than merely telling a story.[136] Reviewers enjoyed the diverse ensemble cast's voice acting, particularly Tom Scharpling's Greg,[137] Zach Callison's "exuberant and expressive"[138] work as Steven and Grace Rolek "singing her heart out" as Connie.[135]

Writing and themes

Steven Universe, according to Eric Thurm, is a low-key, slice of life portrayal of childhood, an examination of unconventional family dynamics, an homage to anime, video games and other pop-culture mainstays and a "straightforward kids' show about superheroes".[139] Jacob Hope Chapman of Anime News Network noted that the anime series Revolutionary Girl Utena and Sailor Moon are Steven Universe's strongest influences visually and structurally, reflected by its "predominantly playful tone, interrupted by crushing drama at key moments" and its its "glorification of the strengths of femininity, dilution of gender barriers, and emphasis on a wide variety of relationships between women, aimed at a family audience".[140] Other Japanese cultural icons to which the series refers include Neon Genesis Evangelion, Akira, Cowboy Bebop, Dragon Ball Z, Studio Ghibli movies and Junji Ito's horror manga, The Enigma of Amigara Fault.[140]

According to Whitbrook, the series' "masterful sense of pace" allows it to integrate foreshadowing and worldbuilding into scenes which make an overarching dramatic narrative emerge from what might otherwise be "monster of the week" episodes.[129] The narration of a complex story from a child's perspective means that its exposition remains "artfully restrained, growing in ambition with the series" and Steven's character.[130] Steven Universe's measured pace allows its characters to become "more complex and interesting than most of their counterparts on prestige dramas",[141] developing "as real people and not entities serving narrative functions".[138] The series explores increasingly-challenging facets of relationships, such as the possibility that Pearl may partially resent Steven because he is the reason his mother Rose no longer exists[142] or the growing self-destruction of Pearl's "all-consuming passion" for Rose.[135] Its action scenes are occasionally cast as philosophical arguments, such as when Estelle's song presents the climactic fight in "Jail Break" as a contest between Garnet's loving relationship and Jasper's lone-wolf attitude.[141]

Adams highlighted the "groundbreaking and inventive" portrayal of the complicated "mentor/caregiver/older sibling dynamic" between Steven and the Crystal Gems[132] in a series which, at its core, is about sibling relationships.[133] Thurm wrote that a notable emotional difference from Adventure Time and Regular Show is that those series deal with their protagonists' transition to adulthood; Steven Universe was, during its first season, content to be "enamored with the simplicity of childhood".[134] Steven slowly grew from an obnoxious tag-along kid to an accepted member of the Crystal Gems in his own right by the end of the first season, a change brought about by increased insight and experience rather than age.[141] Joe Cain noted in The Mary Sue that, unlike heroes from antiquity (Hercules) to modern fiction (Luke Skywalker), Steven is defined by his mother's legacy rather than his father's; the preponderance of mother figures in the series undescores how rare they are in other fiction.[143] The Gems' alien nature (which prevents them from fully understanding the world they protect) is handled with "remarkable depth and intellectual rigor", according to Kat Smalley of PopMatters, even as they deal with human issues such as the "depression, post-traumatic stress, and self-loathing" remaining from the long-past war for Earth.[144]

Smalley characterized Steven Universe as part of a growing trend of cartoons appealing to adults and children, which includes Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005); its sequel, The Legend of Korra (2012); Adventure Time (2010); and Regular Show (2010). This is reflected in the series' outreach to minorities seldom appearing elsewhere in animation and its broader themes; instead of delivering genre-typical mustache-twirling villains, the series "deals with issues of extraordinary violence and horror, depicts its characters in shades of grey, and subtly plays with matters of philosophy, morality, and interpersonal conflicts, all while refusing to reset any development to a status quo".[144]

Gender and sexuality

 
Pearl (left) and Steven's mother, Rose Quartz, embrace in a flashback shot edited out of the British broadcast. Their past relationship is gradually seen to affect Pearl's relationship with Steven and those around him.

"Gender is at the forefront of the conversation surrounding Steven Universe", according to Erik Adams of the A.V. Club, who noted that "the show's superheroes are all women".[132] As a self-aware pastiche of "magical girl" anime, the series subverts the genre's premises by having Steven embody the loving femininity of the typical magical-girl protagonist without ridicule or losing his masculine side. Whitbrook characterized the series as "about love—all kinds of love", including nontraditional forms such as the both motherly and friendly bond between Steven and the Gems, as well as Garnet as the "physical embodiment of a lesbian relationship".[129]

In placing the series on the honor list of the 2015 Tiptree Award, which recognizes works of science fiction or fantasy that explore and expand gender roles, the jury wrote: "In the context of children’s television, this show deals with gender in a much more open and mature way than is typical for the genre, and has some of the best writing of any cartoon [...] In addition to showing men and women who do not necessarily conform to standard American gender ideals, the show also gives us an agender/non-binary character and a thoughtful exploration of growing up".[145]

Autostraddle's Mey Rude wrote that Steven Universe was the most-recent animated series for a younger audience with significant queer themes, such as the androgynous fusion Stevonnie and the romantic relationship between the Gems Ruby and Sapphire. This, according to Rude, reflects the growing prominence of these themes in children's cartoons; previous depictions were subtextual or minimal, such as the 2011 Adventure Time episode "What Was Missing", the 2014 series Clarence or (more explicit but unexplored) the 2014 finale of Nickelodeon's The Legend of Korra. In Steven Universe, LGBT themes are prominent in the first season's second half.[146]

According to Sugar, her series' LGBT representation is not intended to make a point but to help all children understand themselves and develop their identity. In her view, queer youth deserve to see themselves in stories as much as other children—and, given pervasive heteronormativity, not allowing them to do so can be harmful. LGBT children deserve to see the prospect of love for themselves in the characters with whom they identify – the ideal of fulfilling partnership and true love, established as the thing to aspire to by generations of Disney cartoons, extended to all.[147] During a 2016 panel discussion, Sugar said that the LGBT themes in Steven Universe were also in large part based on her own experience as a bisexual woman;[148] the following year, she said that Fluorite (the fusion of six Gems) represents a polyamorous relationship.[149]

The series' reputation as "one of the most unabashedly queer shows on TV"[150] generated controversy when, in 2016, Cartoon Network UK censored an embrace by Rose and Pearl (but not a kiss between Rose and Greg) from its British broadcast.[151] The decision, explained by the network as intended to make the episode "more comfortable for local kids and their parents", was criticized as homophobic by fans and the media.[152][153] In 2017, the Kenya Film Classification Board banned Steven Universe and other cartoon series from being broadcast for "glorifying homosexual behavior".[154]

Fandom

 
Cosplay of the character Opal in 2014

Steven Universe has a large, active fandom. Public interest in the series (measured by Google Trends) by far outstripped that of Cartoon Network's other series in April 2016, which The A.V. Club called "definitive proof that Steven Universe is now Cartoon Network’s flagship series".[100]

Fans have campaigned against censorship (outside the United States) of the series' representation of LGBT relationships. A fan campaign persuaded Cartoon Network's French subsidiary to re-record the song "Stronger than You" with a translation making the singer's love as explicit as in the original,[155] and another was launched in 2016 to protest Cartoon Network's British subsidiary's practice of removing scenes of affection between Gems from the UK broadcasts.[150] Swedish fans originated a protest petition after flirting between Gems was changed to unrelated dialogue in the Swedish broadcast of the episode, "Hit the Diamond".[156]

According to io9, "while most of the Steven Universe fandom is supportive and welcoming, there is a small subsection that's known for being extreme and hostile under the guise of inclusiveness".[157] A fan artist attempted suicide in 2015 after she was bullied on social media because of the body proportions in her art,[158][159] and in 2016 storyboard artist and writer Lauren Zuke quit Twitter after she was harassed by fans because of her perceived support for a romantic relationship between characters.[157]

A full-length fan-made episode ("The Smothering",[160] set in an alternate version of the story's continuity) was called "one of the more impressive pieces of work to come out of the Steven Universe fandom" in 2017 by io9.[161] Beach City Con, a Steven Universe fan convention, was held in Virginia Beach on October 13–15, 2017.[162]

Awards and nominations

Year Award Category Nominee(s) Result
2013 Behind the Voice Actor Awards[163] Best Male Vocal Performance by a Child Zach Callison (as Steven) Won
2014 Annie Awards[164] Outstanding Achievement in Character Design in an Animated TV/Broadcast Production Danny Hynes and Colin Howard Nominated
Outstanding Achievement in Production Design in an Animated TV/Broadcast Production Steven Sugar, Emily Walus, Sam Bosma, Elle Michalka, and Amanda Winterstein (for "Gem Glow") Nominated
Young Artist Awards[165] Best Performance in a Voice-Over Role - Young Actor Zach Callison (as Steven) Nominated
Behind the Voice Actor Awards[166] Best Female Lead Vocal Performance in a Television Series - Comedy/Musical Deedee Magno Hall (as Pearl) Won
Michaela Dietz (as Amethyst) Nominated
Best Female Vocal Performance in a Television Series in a Supporting Role - Comedy/Musical Kate Micucci (as Sadie) Nominated
Best Female Vocal Performance in a Television Series in a Guest Role - Comedy/Musical Jennifer Paz (as Lapis Lazuli) Won
Susan Egan (as Rose Quartz) Nominated
Best Vocal Ensemble in a Television Series - Comedy/Musical Cast of Steven Universe Won
Hall of Game Awards[167] Most Valuable Cartoon Steven Universe Nominated
2015 67th Primetime Creative Arts Emmy Awards[168] Short-format Animation "Lion 3: Straight to Video" Nominated
James Tiptree Jr. Award[145] Honor List Rebecca Sugar, Steven Universe Won
2016 Annie Awards[169] Best Animated TV/Broadcast Production For Children’s Audience "Jail Break" Nominated
Outstanding Achievement, Directing in an Animated TV/Broadcast Production Ian Jones-Quartey (for "The Test") Nominated
Outstanding Achievement, Storyboarding in an Animated TV/Broadcast Production Joe Johnston, Jeff Liu, and Rebecca Sugar (for "Jail Break") Nominated
Kids' Choice Awards 2016[170] Favorite Cartoon Steven Universe Nominated
2016 Teen Choice Awards[171] Choice Animated Series Steven Universe Nominated
Primetime Emmy Award[172] Short-format Animation "The Answer" Nominated
Behind the Voice Actors Awards[173] Best Female Vocal Performance in a Television Series in a Guest Role AJ Michalka (as Stevonnie) Nominated
Best Female Vocal Performance in a Television Series in a Supporting Role Jennifer Paz (as Lapis Lazuli) Nominated
Best Female Lead Vocal Performance in a Television Series Michaela Dietz (as Amethyst) Nominated
Best Vocal Ensemble in a Television Series Steven Universe Nominated
2017 GLAAD Media Awards[174] Outstanding Comedy Series Steven Universe Nominated
2017 Teen Choice Awards[175] Choice Animated Series Steven Universe Nominated
Primetime Emmy Award[176] Short-format Animation "Mr. Greg" Nominated

References

Bibliography

Footnotes

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