Episode 115: Rebecca Sugar, Karen Toliver and Kia Commodore on Making a Statement
On this episode, we hear from animator, illustrator and songwriter Rebecca Sugar, who’s the creator of the award-winning Carton Network series Steven Universe (if you haven’t seen it, go and check it out immediately after you’ve listened to this episode!). Rebecca takes us through her journey to becoming an animator, and talks about building worlds that are populated with a fully-realised, diverse set of characters. She also talks about some of the obstacles she has faced making her way in the industry.
- Rebecca’s entry into the animation industry came through making comics
- Finding a path in the male-dominated comic and animation spaces was a battle
- The inspiration for the characters in Steven Universe came from friends and family
- Sometimes the best creative work comes from breaking (or not knowing) the rules of your craft
- As a marginalised person, there is a burden that comes with the expectation to represent your entire community
Also on this episode, we’ll hear from Kia Commodore. Kia is the founder of Pennies to Pounds, an online platform designed to teach young people about personal finance. She tells us about how she managed to build her business, and also reveals some of the content creators she’s feeling inspired by right now.
Finally we hear from Karen Toliver, Senior Vice President of Creative at Sony Pictures Animation, and a producer of the animated short Hair Love. Karen tells us the best and worse advice she’s ever heard, and how you can’t always expected to be liked by everyone, especially if you’re doing creative work that’s challenging the status quo.
Welcome back to the fourth season of the Wanna Be podcast, the podcast that takes you from where you are now to where you want to be in 30 minutes or less. Thank you so much for taking the time to be here. I’m Imriel Morgan, the founder of Content is Queen, a podcast agency and club for ambitious podcasters with phenomenal taste, high expectations and a desire to sound as good as I do right now. Wanna Be’s focus is to help you take consistent action to build a successful life and career in the creative and entertainment industry. In this episode, we are bringing you three phenomenal human beings who I have the utmost respect and admiration for.
They’re going to help you feel less anxious and overwhelmed about your money. They’re going to help you say yes to the work that gives you joy, and no to those that don’t. And they’re going to help you find your true worth. You are exactly where you need to be right now. First up, I’d like to introduce you to a woman who has shaken the table when it comes to talking about finance in the black community. I’d like you to get to know Kia Commodore, a personal finance guru and the founder of Pennies to Pounds. Take it away Kia.
Kia Commodore 1:21
I am a personal finance guru, public speaker and overall content creator, and I am the creator of the platform Pennies To Pounds. Pennies To Pounds is a financial literacy platform aimed at young people to empower them with the knowledge around their finances that we aren’t often taught at school. Right now I’m currently working on improving and building Pennies To Pounds as a platform. It was born and created in October 2019. Now in January, it has grown so much on Instagram, we have almost 10,000 followers. On Twitter, we’re on 20,000. We have thousands of people streaming the podcast every week, and it’s just absolutely amazing. So right now I’m working on expanding and offering more things to people to help them to learn and better themselves. On a more personal level, I’m working on building up the skills that I have. I’ve been looking at how to better video edit, things like photo manipulation, all these kinds of things, which I used to admire from other creators, but never really took the time to learn. Now I’ve got a bit more downtime, that is what I’m interested in doing. I really want to just up the content that I create.
I can recommend two things that have inspired me along my journey. So number one: one of my favorite podcasts I listen to is Gary Vee. Gary Vee is an insane content creator. He literally puts out content for every single social media channel that you can think of every single day without fail, and his podcast is just about motivating you and pushing you to reach new levels with regards to content creation and what you’re doing personally, and kind of motivating you and showing you how you can actually achieve what he has managed to achieve. He didn’t go to university, but he’s managed to build up… I think he’s like a seven-figure earner now.
The second piece of content that’s motivated me and inspired me personally is Martin Lewis. So he has his Martin Lewis Money Show, he has his website – Mindset of an Expert. But him as a person, obviously it’s a bit more niche for me and what I do, but him and just seeing what he does, what he’s managed to build and achieve, he started up his website Money Saying Expert just over 10 years ago now, and to see him where he is now, he is almost the voice that we have in the UK when it comes to personal finances. When it comes to learning what to do with your money, he is the person that we look to in the UK. I aspire to be that one day for the younger generation.
Imriel Morgan 3:38
I highly recommend following Kia on Twitter. Her threads are legendary, so be sure to follow Pennies To Pounds on Twitter and Instagram. It will be the best money decision you make today.
Next up, I want to introduce you to Rebecca Sugar. I have been obsessed with her for the last few years. When I put together my top five guests for the podcast, Rebecca Sugar was right there, and that was over three years ago. So if you don’t know, Rebecca Sugar is an illustrator, animator and songwriter. She’s most famously known for being the creator of the multi-award winning Cartoon Network series Steven Universe. The focus of this conversation is about building worlds and being the architect of your own destiny. So if you’re currently working hard to pull off your masterpiece, listen carefully and take notes.
Imriel Morgan 4:34
Who did you want to be before you became who you are today, and why?
Rebecca Sugar 4:36
I always really wanted to be an animator, and I really wanted to create an animated show. And so I really looked up to Jhonen Vasquez, in particular. I was really big Invader Zim fan and I saw his path from making independent comics – which I was also really excited and into – to making an animated show. So I was really inspired by that, and back then I was drawing my own Independent comics, in large part because I saw that other artists had made that path from comics to animation. And when I was younger, I didn’t really have the resources to do animation in the way that a lot of younger people do now. I did some animations in Photoshop, but I didn’t really have access to Flash. So making comics was something that I could do at that time. Before that I was really into just any information about any animator I could get my hands on. I read all of Chuck Jones’s books, which were around the house, my dad had a copy of books about old Disney animators, like The Illusion of Life.
Imriel Morgan 5:36
Was your dad an animator too?
Rebecca Sugar 5:37
My dad’s a graphic designer, and he really appreciated animation. He always liked to have whatever the most hi-fi visual audio equipment was, and he had these laser discs of the old Looney Tunes, and we would watch them together as a family. And he would always talk about what the process was because he had read about it. So when I was young, even when I was very little, it wasn’t magic to me, like I understood people had created animation. I don’t know if you’ve seen this, but there’s a version of Beauty and the Beast that cuts between all these different stages of production, which existed on LaserDisc, and that’s the only copy I had. So it would be us, you know, there’d be a scene that’s just the storyboards, then there’d be a scene that’s the rough animation, the key animation, pieces of finished animation. And to this day, when I see the movie, and it’s fully animated and in colour, I’m still surprised because I got so used to this in-progress version. And we had National Film Board of Canada shorts, so I had access to a lot of stuff from a lot of different countries, and I understood that animation didn’t have to be one thing, and that it was made by people, when I when I was like five and six. Like I really wanted to be one of those people.
Imriel Morgan 6:45
That sounds incredible. And also, you’re so incredibly lucky to have had access to all of this knowledge, and this, I guess, library of resources that enabled you to kind of tap into that, which is just rare, I would say. Or have you met people that were really quite similar, who had like a whole wealth of things in regards to animation? I guess other animators that you meet, do they come from a similar background, or are they all coming into it in very different ways?
Rebecca Sugar 7:13
Yeah, I think people people come into it in different ways. I think I was also really lucky, because I just had access to all these resources on the internet. And I think that in a lot of ways, this is still true, but definitely when I was growing up, comic bookstores were not a very friendly place for me to go. And being able to find…
Imriel Morgan 7:33
Rebecca Sugar 7:36
Well, it’s a very male space. It’s not necessarily welcoming to people who aren’t already really into comics and have encyclopaedic knowledge of comics. It was always hard to find. Eventually, I would usually find a comic book store that I could go to where I wouldn’t be treated poorly, but that was hard to find. And, yeah, it makes me really sad because I’ve worked with people, you know, who had the experience of being little boys going into comic shops and having people show them all sorts of great and interesting comics, and that’s not the experience I had.
That wasn’t your experience? That’s such a shame.
Rebecca Sugar 8:18I would be shown inappropriate material. I would be hit on by the person behind the register, you know, as like a 15, 14 year old. I wish I could undo a lot of those feelings in the past, and if I could catch somebody at the beginning who’s being treated poorly, I just want them to know that you’re not wrong, you’re being wronged. It shouldn’t be like that. It really shouldn’t.
Imriel Morgan 8:39
I know that you say you’re feeling comfortable in your own skin now, and you don’t have that kind of that feeling of something missing today. But do you still kind of miss the anonymity that came with drawing? Or do you still actually think in part you have that?
Rebecca Sugar 8:51
I don’t know if I get to enjoy that anymore the way that I did before, but I think it’s healthier. I think the way that I enjoyed it before was not healthy. I think that I enjoyed the fact that when I was making work before, people knew who I was, that they would assume that I was a man. And I’ve had to sort of figure out how to separate that in my mind from being… because I’m genderqueer, I’m non-binary. And so there was a part of me that enjoyed that. But then there was another part of me that enjoyed it in a really unhealthy way, which is that there’s this idea that if it’s not coming from a cis white male, then the work is less, or somehow it’s coloured by who you are, in this way that makes it worse. It’s very disgusting. I don’t even like saying these words out loud. But that was really the sentiment at the time. And I think the reason that was, is because if people found out you were other than that, they would start to explain what was deficient about your work and say, well, that’s why. It’s really gross, but it’s definitely what happened to me and unlearning that idea…
I mean, it’s also hard when every everything you’re learning about… so many people in this industry, who are not male and who are not white, have been erased from history. And so you end up with this impression that the work that you love is all coming from one type of person when it’s actually not true. The first full-length animated film was created by a woman in Germany named Lotte Reiniger. Or at least the first one that we still have preserved. That has been really covered up, not only because she was a woman, but also because she was German and the world wars happened after. And so it’s really hard to track that down. People think of Disney as the source of all of that. It’s not necessarily true. And then Disney has an environment, and this is true at Warner Brothers too. I think the other problem is that in a lot of cases, women were really kept out of story in a systematic way. They were relegated to the ink and paint departments, which is also why those films are so incredible-looking, because you have these really talented artists doing all of the cleanup on everything. And it’s incredible.
Anyway, the point is – I had the internet, so if I had known what to seek out, I would have sought that out to begin with, but I still was able to find all of this. I really like going back and back, and like if I have someone I like, I like to look at what their influences were. I was really into one piece in high school – I love Eiichiro Oda, and you can see his his influences, because he has all these influences. You can see the Tom and Jerry in his drawings, you can see how he’s inspired by sort of Golden Age Disney.
And then if you go back to Tezuka, you can see Tezuka is being inspired by Disney, and also by Fleischer. So I like to follow those webs back and back and back in time. This is what I did online obsessively as a teen, just like – who do I like and then who did they like? And then that sort of opened my mind because I would think, anime has all these cool crystals and science fiction, and then I would be like, oh no, but that’s French, like so much of that is coming from French comics. And all the lines started to blur for me about what’s coming from where, and it really made me understand that part of that false notion that I had, and that rigidity, not only is it not true, it keeps you from seeing the fact that there are all these different cartoonists from all these different walks of life. And when they bring something to the medium, it goes all the way around the world. And then also all these people, who weren’t welcome, doing it anyway and really changing the medium in these ways, it has these lasting ripple effects. And even when they’re erased, you can’t erase the visual ideas that they have, because they just go everywhere.
Imriel Morgan 12:32
I can imagine, actually, because that’s the thing with learning any new creative form, is that there are rules. But I’ve read, or at least heard a few times, that in order to do really great creative work, you have to know the rules in order to break them. Would you agree with that?
Rebecca Sugar 12:48
Yeah. Well, I think that there’s another element to that, which is that sometimes you could be breaking the rules because you don’t know them. You might be able to arrive at some of the same conclusions, once you’ve gone all the way around the block of learning the rules, and then realising that you don’t have to follow them. I feel like that a little bit in my life right now. I spent so long entrenched in the rules, and now I’m sort of reaching to casually break them the way that I did as a teenager. And I think it’s always better to know more, you know?
Imriel Morgan 13:21
Rebecca Sugar 13:22
The idea of, I don’t know, I can’t get behind wanting to be ignorant in order to like… but I find when I look at art that does feel naive but is coming from a genuine place, I love it so much more than art that is an extremely studied display of rules without intent. I would rather see something naive with a huge amount of intent than something with no intent, but a huge amount of skill, because I really want to hear what someone has to say. And that’s just me personally, at this point, that’s where I’ve arrived, because I’ve been someone who really worshiped the skill thing above all else. And I used to be someone who, when I was younger, I had a teacher who would say like, ‘that art has to make a statement’. And I didn’t like that, because I wanted to do commercial cartoons, like I was fine with making… I wanted to make schlock, and I didn’t want it to like ‘have something to say’. I just wanted it to be like a real cartoon on TV.
And then at a certain point, I realised that everything is an opinion, and once I started to realise that, I started to resist that more, or resist that less, just the idea of making a statement, and all the ways that that could be flexible. And I think my resistance to that too was also because I wanted that anonymity. People would put a lot of pressure on me, even as a teenager, because I you know, they perceived me as a woman, that I must have something to say about that. Like what am I going to say about that? And I didn’t know what to do with that, because I didn’t really feel like a girl or a woman. So I didn’t know how to express that. I just wanted to make cartoons. I think I’ve really come out the other side of that, where not only, I mean, it’s going to happen one way or the other. I think it was confusing for me, because that’s not what I had to say. But the thing you do have to say is going to come out of you. And resisting it is just going to make things a lot more difficult.
It also doesn’t mean that what comes out of you has to be the right thing. You know, maybe you have a bunch of deep, dangerous, upsetting opinions that you’ve never let out of your body before in order to see how harmful they are. And you just have to do it so you can take the next step to look at it and say, “Oh, I really need to change as a person”, then you change as a person, then you make art about how you’ve changed. All of that really can’t start until you accept that the work that you’re making is a statement coming from you. Does that make sense?
Imriel Morgan 15:50
That’s a brilliant and terrifying prospects to be honest, because you are kind of having to confront parts of yourself that maybe you aren’t necessarily ready for, especially people that are very compelled to just create and create and create. And you’re right it is actually… you’re always making a statement, you’re always saying something even when you don’t intend to say something.
There was something you said about intent that was really interesting. I had a celebrity makeup artists as a guest called Tasha Brown, and she likes to do graffiti as like a side. But she was saying what she’s learned is that anyone can be a technician – you can do something technically very well. But that makes you a technician, it doesn’t make you an artist. That was her way of kind of creating the two different spaces in her mind. And in her space, which I was inclined to agree with, you can technically learn to do anything over time. But after a while, it’s about what you’re expressing and saying and doing, that makes you the artist.
Rebecca Sugar 16:49
I think it’s possible to try to break down what you do or don’t like about something without saying that it is right or wrong, or good or bad. And I’m not trying to say that from a moral standpoint, I’m just trying to say that from an artistic development and growth standpoint, just to clear as many obstacles from your path as possible that are keeping you from doing something you might want to do, exploring something you might want to explore. Like, “Oh, I don’t have those skills” – or exploring something you might want to explore going, “oh, I’ve done this a hundred times, and this is just like the thing that people do. So I won’t do it”. Because that’s the rule. And I have to break the rules. Like all of that is just holding you back, right?
Imriel Morgan 17:27
I like the way you put that! I was quite interested in learning about the representation side of Steven Universe, because it is a very, very diverse cast of characters, loads of different experiences. Steven doesn’t technically have parents, he has guardians, but he has a dad. And there’s all of these different family dynamics. And I love that there is an African family represented with their fish stew pizza, which sounds gross. But you know, there’s just such a wealth of characters, and for a show that’s what, each episode is ten, 15 minutes, so you’re kind of just like thrown into this world with such a huge range of people that you get to meet in such a short period of time. But it feels very normal. And I think that is a testament to your ability to create a fantastic story and a fantastic show. But also, how intentional was the representation? Or did that kind of come about through iterations and time and planning and conversations?
Rebecca Sugar 18:23
The goal from the very beginning of Steven Universe was was to have it be really unapologetically personal. And so a lot of the characters in the show are based both on my family — like my brother being the main character — but also the families of members of the crew. And when I started the show, I was developing it and co-showrunning it with Ian Jones Quartey. And so the pizza family is directly based off his family – his cousins are Kiki and Jenny. They’re real people. And he was so excited to show first-generation family. And so those themes, like we would find a way to kind of have characters that were literally our family, you know, as immigrants. We wanted to be able to incorporate that, not just in a literal sense, but also in the fantasy. And so we’d be able to talk both about ourselves as humans, but then these abstract metaphors for our lives.
Ruby and Sapphire are based on on us and our romantic relationship and the fact that we were running the show together. So Garnet as a character, you know, Garnet’s fusion is our relationship and the fact that we were showrunning together as a couple. We were writing about really personal things, and then when we finally got to get to the Ruby and Sapphire stories, we got to actually share a little bit more about what our relationship is like as two people, when we’re not show running.
And then some of that, I mean, that was also really personal to me too, like ‘Stronger Than You’ and a lot of those stories is based off an experience that we had in our early twenties when we were the target of a racist and homophobic assault, which we got away from. But I wanted to find a way to write about that in a way that could reach kids and I thought about the fact that that’s an experience, that was a childhood experience, like my experience as a child of anti-semitism as a Jewish person. I wasn’t seeing that in the cartoons I was watching. And his experiences as a child, you end up with this impression that that’s somehow like not… also my experiences as a queer kid. The idea that that’s not an experience that kids are having is just not true.
So when I started the show, and I sort of put this out to my entire team, I was like, all those details, I want to get them all in here. I want you to feel… I want to see all the things that we didn’t see. I want to see them on display as things that are relatable to kids. Because I think the ultimate statement you make when you don’t tell stories like that to kids is that things like that aren’t relatable. And when you see the things like that aren’t relatable, it basically means that kids like you aren’t kids, like aren’t there. Because of course, that’s relatable to queer kids. Of course, that’s relatable to kids of colour. The idea that that’s ‘not relatable’ means that the only kids that are allowed to relate to anything are cis hetero-normative white kids. And bless them. it’s great that they have a lot of content. But I think, you know, I realised more and more as I was getting into the show what the absence of that does, and I think it also is something that is denied to cis hetero-normative white kids, the opportunity to relate to other kids. And I feel so strongly about that.
Early on too, a lot of people were really confused. They would say, “Steven Universe isn’t feminist because there’s a male main character”. I couldn’t understand. Like why are we not having a feminist conversation with young boys? Like why do you only speak to little girls? And you say, “hey, you should feel good about yourself”, and then you don’t tell anyone to treat them better? It doesn’t make any sense to me. That’s why I wanted to sort of have it all revolve around my brother, because he had been an ally for me throughout my entire life and I felt safe with him in a way I didn’t feel safe with anybody else. And so I don’t know if I would have described it that way ten or eight years ago, when I was starting the show, but when I sat down and thought, who would I want to write about every day, maybe for the next decade, you know, there was a reason that it was him because we grew so much creatively together, I always felt like I could count on him in this way.
Imriel Morgan 22:31
I find that completely relatable. You have to somehow be the representative of all of your identities, especially if your identities fall into niche categories, or like underrepresented communities. So you are either representing all black women, or all X women, or all black gay people. You become like this mascot, and it is genuinely impossible, like it is the most stifling way to create because the burden and often the responsibility for creating that does fall on a marginalised person’s shoulders. It’s never… no one is ever holding other people — typically cis white men — to account to represent everyone else. But we have to represent ourselves and everyone that looks like us at the same time.
Rebecca Sugar 23:21
Yeah. There’s a flip side of it. By being given that impossible task — and being set up to be picked apart — there’s like a flip side too, which is that when you do something that people appreciate, I think for marginalised creators, there’s this idea that because you’re marginalised, it’s just oozing out of you naturally. That it’s not a skill you cultivated, that it’s not something that you studied, that because you’re marginalised, you just can’t help but say something brilliant about the way that you’re marginalised, because you’re just breathing it out
It’s a gift.
Rebecca Sugar 23:55
Yeah, they’ll come to me at cons and then they’ll say, “No, you’ve done this really fascinating study on the semiotics of gender within this show”, and all these little details about it, and then they’ll finish the question by saying, “did you do that on purpose?”. And it’s like, well, everything in the show is on purpose. I mean it’s an animated show, so it’s calculated down to the frame. It’s not an accident. But these are people who like it. I was reading an interesting book by Ursula Le Guin, who was talking about how women are often associated with children and animals. And you really see this in Disney. As an animator, it really set something off for me, because every Disney movie is like children and animals and the beauty in nature.
Imriel Morgan 24:42
That’s so funny. A thing that you can’t un-see now?
Rebecca Sugar 24:47
Yes, yes, it’s everywhere. And the thing is, that was something when I started Steven, I hadn’t read this yet. But I really wanted that to be something that Steven would get to have, that he would have this connection with animals and that he would have his connection with flowers and nature and all of this. Because I was tired of that only being associated with Disney princesses. I wanted it to be this equal opportunity thing. I mean, why shouldn’t he get to have that too?
I think the idea, especially in animation, people will talk about making timeless media, which is dubious. When you look at what makes something timeless, it’s that it exists in this sort of nebulous past, European past. But I think it’s also… you know, one thing that’s beautiful about TV is the way that it’s ephemeral and it captures a moment, and I hope that anybody who aspires to make TV or comics or anything won’t be afraid of channeling all of the beauties and ills of any given moment in time through themselves as an artist.
Imriel Morgan 25:44
My cup is so full after that conversation, we actually spoke for a full hour and if you’d like to hear the extras, then screenshot this episode and tag @contentisqueenhq in your Instagram stories. Be sure to watch Steven Universe if you haven’t – it’s genuinely joyful. Follow Rebecca Sugar on Instagram @RebeccaSugar. You will not regret that decision. Oh, and if you’re a fan of Steven Universe, or you want to break into illustration, listen back to episodes 23 and 24, where I spoke with Tiffany Ford, the former storyboard artist on Steven Universe. Before we wrap up the show, Karen Toliver would like to share some soul-stirring advice about your work. Karen is one of the producers behind the Oscar-winning animated short Hair Love. Over to you Karen.
Karen Toliver 26:34
My name is Karen Rupert Toliver. I’m Executive Vice President of creative at Sony Pictures Animation, and I’m one of the producers of the Oscar-winning animated short Hair Love. The worst advice I’ve ever received falls into one simple category: people making an assessment of my worth, or what they perceive as my lack of worth. I met a very successful black female TV executive at the time who visited our school. She was the first person I met doing what I wanted to do, who looked like me. And her advice was: don’t try, don’t come to Hollywood. She said there’s too many people out there. Well, that hurt.
Later, when I was in Hollywood, had become a junior exec and thought I wanted to be a producer, my male boss plainly said, “Oh, you’re not a producer”. He said, “I want to be six foot tall and good looking. But I’m not. You don’t have it in you”. Basically, he was saying you can’t get there from here. I think the thing that really hurt was both people thought they were helping with their well-intentioned advice. There were a lot of things I wish I had said. Obviously, it ultimately didn’t stop my career growth, but it definitely made me question my path forward.
The real lesson here, of course, is you should never allow anyone to assess your own worth. I’m a nice person. But don’t mistake nice for weak. Insecurity is not potential. That has nothing to do with what you can ultimately contribute. And look, maybe that is the point. If that bad advice was enough to sway me, maybe this path wasn’t for me. But what’s more helpful is when I hear about very talented people admitting that they have doubt. It reminds me that it’s okay to be unsure.
The best advice came from my father. And it wasn’t something he said, rather it was something he did, and I saw him do all his life. And that is, if everybody likes you, you’re doing something wrong. When you’re doing something different, it will be challenged, people will think you’re strange, or difficult, or just going in the wrong direction. My father was the only black scientist studying neurology in the sixties in Texas. He faced lots of pushback. But he loved what he was doing so much, he did not care one bit what people thought of him. It took a long time for me to really embrace that for myself. Of course you don’t set out not to be liked, but setting out to be liked or to fit in, especially if it isn’t who you are, is not the way. Don’t pursue something creatively because you hope it’s going to be well received. That will never work. So don’t be deterred by any resistance, especially in this day and age. We need voices that disrupt the status quo if they’re going to tackle any of society’s challenges. And that’s the best advice I’ve ever had.
Imriel Morgan 29:03
That’s a wrap on episode one. Thank you so much for listening to the end. I hope there’s half an hour has been a calming and joyful part of your day. I’d like to encourage you to think about that one person who needs a little joy and calm and share this episode with them right now what if you want extended interviews, please do screenshot and share this episode in your Instagram stories and tag @contentisqueenhq. Until next time, bye.