Miranda Wang

The artistic medium of animation and cartoons is one that is often neglected and even shunned in the mind of the general public as childish drivel. Many seem to think this because cartoons are unlike fine art in their form and don't deserve the same scrutiny that other mediums receive. This is a cultural disappointment, as there are trained artists who come together to build entire animated worlds and fill them with wholesome, multi-faceted characters that deal with very real situations and themes that are relevant to most people, especially children and those that are coming of age. Countless animated films--often those produced by big studios like Disney and Pixar--have been created in the past that can be described similarly, as well as several TV show series like Recess from the late 1990s and Avatar the Last Airbender from the 2000s. All of these animated works can be analyzed and observed as to what made them so popular and enjoyable, which is proof in itself that animation--particularly cartoon TV series--can be considered as art! One particular Cartoon Network series that has been on the rise for the past three years is up to par with the quality cartoons of the past, but also has something new to offer in the world of animated media.

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Steven Universe (SU) centers around a 14 year old boy of the same name who is learning to take the place of his mother in a team of gemstone-based aliens called the Crystal Gems. The Crystal Gems protect the Earth from the rest of gem society, who want to harness the Earth's power to strengthen their empire. Steven himself (pictured above) is unique because he is the only half gem/half human being in the entire universe (pun not intended, probably). Despite how sci-fi heavy the show seems to come across as, SU contains less conflicts that are intergalactic, and more that are emotional and social. The emotional aspect, in fact, and the overall "feeling" of the show is what creator Rebecca Sugar considers to be the most central element to the entire project. Sugar states in many of her interviews that the only thing that hasn't changed about what she thinks of her show is her difficulty to describe it. And SU does seem to be an interesting conglomerate of many things, from Sugar's relationship with her brother (also named Steven, not by coincidence!), love and family, intersectional feminism, and growing up. But in short, the show is ultimately meant to be feel-good or what many people call "comfy", which Sugar intended; she wanted it to capture the feeling of hanging out with
her brother, who conveniently works on the show with her as a background designer!
Episode: Onion Trade
Episode: Onion Trade

Background designed by Steven Sugar, Episode: House Guest
Background designed by Steven Sugar, Episode: House Guest

All lot of time and care is put into creating these digitally painted landscapes and interiors, and it shows! Background artists create the spaces that the characters will exist and move around on and (in my opinion) make some of the best artwork on the show. The gentle but clean line art works beautifully with soft, watercolor-like hues in friendly palettes to create a positive and pleasant effect on the viewer. Large areas of the drawings, like the sky, are rendered in soft, rounded streaks and shapes that give the illusion of glowy clouds. These are some desktop worthy backgrounds here, folks.
Episode: Gem Glow
Episode: Gem Glow

Other "background" aspects of the show are also carefully composed to complete the show's atmosphere, like the the soundtrack! The world of SU is brought to life not only with fantasy-like special effects and character animation, but with music to accompany the visuals. Composer team aivi & surasshu have a unique style that uses a selection of both electronic and acoustic sounds (mainly piano and strings) to match the show's mood perfectly in a somewhat "8-bit" video game soundtrack.

The above song, "Steven's Shield", was one of the audition pieces submitted by aivi & surasshu, later to be used in the episode Gem Glow. In an interview with the composer duo, they affirm that their music is strongly influenced by video game scores, most obviously from Nintendo games like Super Mario Galaxy and Animal Crossing. They also claim to draw inspiration from different genres of music such as jazz, classical, show tunes, and even modern electronic genres like trap. In fact, these styles are used as motifs that correspond to specific characters on the show. For example, Pearl, the elegant and graceful member of the Crystal Gems, is represented by a slightly "ragtime" minor piano with a touch of harp. Aivi & surasshu are careful to match the music to characters, settings, and situations in the show, once even scrapping an entire song to exchange it for a new one that dramatically changed the way an interaction between a few characters could have been perceived. The show also has several full length songs sung by the voice actors. The latter half of "Steven's Shield" features a string version of the opening theme's melody, "We Are The Crystal Gems", a song written by Sugar herself. She admits in many interviews that she did not expect to ever create music as anything more than a hobby, and has previously written songs for Adventure Time as well. She has composed nearly all of the full songs on the show either with fellow storyboard artist Jeff Liu or on her own, and these give SU its "musical theater" element.

So if Steven the character was inspired by Sugar's real life younger brother, where was the inspiration drawn for the three remaining Crystal Gems? Not surprisingly, from Sugar's own ways that she is (or aspires to be) in her brother's life. Reckless but lovable Amethyst represents how she feels totally comfortable around him, enough to be messy and make silly jokes. Pearl is the animated embodiment of Sugar's tendency to be overprotective of her younger brother, while the "strong and silent" archetype gem, Garnet, is what
Sugar wishes she could be for him.

"I don't think I could ever be that cool", she confesses.

From left to right: Amethyst, Garnet, and Pearl
From left to right: Amethyst, Garnet, and Pearl

The Gems have a lot to offer in terms of diversity of personality and design, and despite the fact that the Crewniverse
(as they call themselves) has affirmed that Gems are genderless aliens that simply use feminine pronouns, the obvious female presence of the characters is still prevalent. Sugar intended the show to refute gender stereotypes in a way that was not meant to be a political, preachy statement, but simply a reality. The range of heights, body types, and races of the entire SU cast is an element that has gotten the show attention, but the writers are careful not to make a big deal out of this. And as a show with a female-heavy cast and a male main character, it is open for kids of any gender to enjoy and not strongly marketed as a show for either boys or girls. When Sugar pitched the idea for SU, she wanted it to be something she would've wanted (or even needed) to see on television as not just a kid, but a teen as well, as fictional Steven's perspective is a coming of age tale where he is figuring out just who (and what) he is as the series progresses. The show also constantly references media Sugar and her brother enjoyed growing up, like video games, anime, and comics, a more literal nod to Sugar's childhood.

"Coincidence"? I think not.

You'll even be happy to find that SU contains an art history reference here and there, aside from references to more modern media.

In the episode "So Many Birthday's", Steven discovers a painting in Amethyst's room that very clearly resembles a John Singleton Copley oil painting done in 1778 titled, "Watson external image 640?cb=20140605013653and the Shark".
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Additionally, the Golden Ratio of composition was found in a shot from the April Fool's episode "Say Uncle". Although it is not a specific art history reference, it is a composition used by classical painters and still used today throughout various visual media.However, Liu, who storyboarded the episode, stated that it was only by coincidence that the Golden Ratio appears in this shot.external image 91c.png

TO CONCLUDE...Steven Universe is a multitude of things; its really a show for everyone. There's action, a sci-fi space plot, comedy that's never mean just for the sake of being mean, emotional depth within the complex character relationships, beautiful artwork and music, and a diverse cast to top it all off, the "icing on the cake" as Sugar says.I've been careful not to spoil any major plot twists, so if you're looking for a show with heart and catchy tunes, give SU a try. The first season starts off slow in terms of plot development, but picks up very quickly by the end of season one. Even so, there is still a lot to enjoy, as the characters are all well rounded and function wonderfully off one another. All in all, it's a series that proves that cartoons don't only have to be for kids, and still can present quality life lessons and themes consistently in every episode that are relevant to what children already know and what they have yet to understand about the world.
Sky Pan- Layout by Steven Sugar
Sky Pan- Layout by Steven Sugar