Inside Steven's Universe: GT Computing Student Lending Talents to Popular Cartoon

When third-year computational media student McKenzie Atwood began posting fan videos for her favorite show, Steven Universe, she had no idea where they would lead.

Relatively unknown creations on Tumblr became YouTube sensations, and Atwood catapulted from just another fan to the de facto voice of one of Cartoon Network’s most popular shows.

“I was just posting this stuff online. And then,” she adequately says, “it became a thing.”

Joining Steven's Universe

Steven Universe tells the story of a young half-human, half-alien boy named Steven who uses a gem he inherited from his mother to help protect the Earth with the three other Crystal Gems.

Atwood discovered the show more than a year after it premiered to critical acclaim in 2013, but was so entertained by it that she felt the need to join the fledgling universe of fans that was beginning to take shape.

She created a small blog on Tumblr where she shared videos, but a decrease in the quality led her to YouTube. There, it took off.

From concepts as simple as a compilation of every time one character, Pearl, says Steven’s name, to more in-depth re-edits of scenes that create entertaining new narratives, Atwood’s YouTube videos began racking up views in the hundreds of thousands and, eventually, millions.

“I thought it was really fun to work within the boundaries of the stuff I had available,” Atwood said. “Like, if I use this clip from this scene and this clip from this scene, it’ll give the appearance that this is happening. Or if I use this line that this voice actor used at a panel and lip sync it, can I create something new? It makes it feel like new content, and the popularity was exponential. It just exploded.”

She remembers the first video that ever hit a million views. It was a compilation of Pearl’s “saltiest” moments, after which salt would pour over a real-life Pearl figurine in a clear glass jar. That video was shot and edited in her Georgia Tech dorm room on west campus during her first few months on campus.

“I literally bought six pounds of salt and brought it to my dorm room,” she said.

Finding her voice

Shortly thereafter, her most popular video, a re-edit that explored Pearl’s secret career as a rap artist, attracted over 2 million views. The video had featured a cameo of Deedee Magno-Hall, the voice of Pearl, who Atwood had met at a musical Magno-Hall was touring with.

At the time, Atwood was already working as an intern for Cartoon Network in Atlanta, where she helped with the games department and social media.

One day in May, she received an unexpected call from an employee at the west coast campus of Cartoon Network in Burbank, Calif. Through Atwood’s friendship with some of the voice actors on the show, which she had developed over time as they learned about her now-prominent YouTube channel, her name made it all the way to Steven Universe creator and showrunner Rebecca Sugar’s desk. As summer began, they were looking for someone to host a new Steven Universe podcast – a fan, who could also offer a behind-the-scenes look to the series.

She was asked to host and help produce episodes of the podcast, and also serve as a production intern at Cartoon Network Studios.

“I didn’t even know (Sugar) knew I existed,” Atwood said. “It was amazing. When I got the call, I was at my house. After I hung up, I was just yelling and running circles and losing my mind. It was such a good opportunity.”

She was given plenty of leeway about how to construct the series. She had access to all the voice actors, producers, and other creative personnel, and she focused different episodes around various elements of the creative process.

She learned how to conduct interviews and how to plan a series, how to balance her fandom with professionalism and how to differentiate between topics that may or may not be of interest to her listeners. Additionally, she learned more about the technical side of the show, gaining valuable knowledge that could inform her career choices down the line.

“The whole thing was an educational experience,” she said. “It gives me a lot of perspective on what I’m learning at Tech and on my career.”

Preparing for the Future

There was a brief moment, she said, where her interests in the field began to take shape, and she couldn’t figure out the need for coding or computer science.

“But then, I realized, I still love those things,” she said. “And there’s still an application. There are ways to combine the two. That’s why the major, computational media, is special.

“Right now, we have TV shows, and it’s a very linear format. But Cartoon Network is thinking more toward multi-platform initiatives like shows that are shorts that you can interact with and make choices that affect how it plays out in a (smartphone) app. Stuff like that. TV is changing, and I think computer science is a part of that. I want to make sure I am well-equipped when it’s my time to start working in the industry.”

What the future holds for Atwood, her podcast, and her YouTube channel is still up in the air. Nine episodes in, the podcast has gotten overwhelmingly positive reviews and continues to be among the top 25 in the TV & Film category on iTunes. She’s continuing work with Cartoon Network during a semester off, but will return to her education in the spring.

Beyond that, she’s still just soaking in the excitement of a Steven Universe fan who has literally joined Steven’s universe.

“It’s crazy,” she said. “The fact that people are actually listening to the things I’m saying. It’s an incredible experience.”

Contact: 

David Mitchell

Communications Officer

david.mitchell@cc.gatech.edu