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A Fresh Order of Heroes in a Half-Shell
Nick launches a brand new CG take on an ‘80s classic with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
This month, fans of the classic ‘80s comic and toon property (and a whole new generation of would-be fans) will be introduced to the shiny, new CG-animated faces of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, thanks to a new series from Nickelodeon based on Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s much loved characters.
Set in modern-day New York, the show follows the once human six-foot-tall rat Master Splinter and his four reptilian “sons”—pet turtles who like himself were transformed into humanoid mutants by a mysterious green ooze. Having been raised and trained in the ninja arts in their hidden sewer HQ, the now teenage turtles long to explore the surface world.
The hour-long premiere episode finds the turtles visiting the surface for the first time, where they rescue a teenaged April O’Neil and her father from a group of thugs—and find themselves in the middle of one doozy of a conspiracy involving aliens, robots, missing scientists and that crazy green gunk. The impressive cast features Jason Biggs as Leonardo, Sean Astin as Raphael, Rob Paulsen as Donatello, Greg Cipes as Michelangelo, Mae Whitman as April, Hoon Lee as Splinter and Kevin Michael Richardson as the villainous Shredder.
For Ciro Nieli, who executive produces the show with Joshua Sternin, Jeff Ventimilia and Peter Hastings, the chance to tackle his own take on the popular franchise was a dream come true.
“I thought I’d get some Turtle action!” he jokes during a recent phone interview, adding that he was a big TMNT comics fan as a kid.
A graduate of Philadelphia’s University of the Arts animation program, Nieli created Super Robot Monkey Team Hyperforce Go! in 2004 and has directed and designed cool action toons like Transformers, The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes and Super Friends. He also worked in his dad’s pizza shop as a kid, which is all too appropriate for a TMNT show runner!
Coming Out of His Shell
One thing the enthusiastic producer had never done before was work on a CG-animated series. Nieli explains that having heard Nickelodeon acquired the rights to the property he scheduled a meeting with the studio’s development department back in 2009.
“All the artwork I presented were drawings—it was my very first meeting with them—and they said, OK, this is Nick. We want to try to do this in CG,” he recalls. “The idea was, if we’re going to do this, let’s bring something to it that’s original. Well, regardless of the 2007 film being CG!”
Throughout the roughly 14-month development period, Nieli and his crew focused on fine-tuning the storytelling and character dynamics using 2D methods. The producer and two other artists also crafted a 2D “proxy pilot” which lead to the series’ greenlight. Nieli shares that although the subsequent CG production has been “a constant learning curve,” he’s found the new medium rewarding.
“A lot of people have asked me, how are you going to do it? My answer is always: With extreme patience and good taste!” he adds.
In developing the look of the show, Nieli says he dove in to looking at as many examples of CG animation as possible—including student films—to figure out what he wanted and how to communicate that to the artists. One of his goals was to be as true to the graphic nature of the original comics.
“To me, Ninja Turtles isn’t just an American comic book, it’s specific to an ‘80s comic trend, which was the explosion of the indie comic,” he explains.
The show is touted as blending American and Japanese animation influences, but Nieli says it’s more the Japanese elements in the Turtles’ lives that matter—after all, Master Splinter is Japanese, and this is reflected in their fighting skills and even in the details of their sewer home, which looks like a traditional Japanese house.
As far as updating the show for a new generation of fans, Nieli recalls seeing other pitches for the show after his version had been picked that had fallen into the trap of being too current.
“When I looked at what [the show] was all about, it was about camaraderie and the relationships between these four brothers … I want it to play as well today as it can in 20 years,” he insists. “I saw a bunch of other pitches; I kind of saw some weird takes—trying to be more timely than just austere and reverential. I just don’t think that kind of approach is sustainable.”
We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Terrarium
The key challenge in crafting a new, three-dimensional world for the Turtles to play in proved to be the sheer scale and amount of sets needed to create a believable CG New York. So far, the team has built about 52 sets for the first season of 26 half-hour episodes. Nieli notes that the team is allotted two sets per episode to keep on budget, but because of the type of show they want to create (and blessed technology advancements) the producer says each set is roughly six times bigger than those on his previous projects.
There is also a lot more diversity in the 21st century Turtles world. TMNT’s New York has its own China Town as well as local bodega, Korean markets and mix of languages.
“New York City is what a melting pot is. We tried to show as many ethnicities as we could,” Nieli explains. “We wanted New York to feel kind of … New York-y.”
The artists devoted a lot of creative energy to giving a sense of the diversity and immensity of the city within realistic limits, achieving this by offering at-a-glance tastes of distinctive neighborhoods.
“So many times, I’ve seen shows where it’s just ‘a city’ with this generic sense of skyscrapers. Are they made of glass? Brick? Is that Midtown? Downtown? Nobody knows, because they’ve only lived in Burbank,” Nieli deadpans. “To be able to go, this is the manhole the Turtles come out of and they only stray seven or eight blocks from it—to talk about what the span was and what our own truncated, affordable New York looked like—it gives the city a lot more charm and personality. The city is an important character in the show.”
Adding to the scale of the sets is that fact that much of the action takes place at night or underground in the sewer. Keeping the lighting flattering and realistic whether in wide shots of the large sets or character close-ups has been tricky, Nieli admits. He adds that he did not want to go too dark with the show, preferring to maintain a poppy, cartoony look.
“But the darkness, believe it or not, has been helping me,” he notes. “In CG, the brighter things are the more fake they look … But I didn’t want it to look like a David Fincher film.”
Altogether it takes the Nickelodeon crew of 86 about 15 months to see an episode from script to final animation, and Nieli says they are often working on at least one aspect of nearly every episode at any given time. All the sets, characters, planning and some animation is handled at Nick’s Burbank studio, and the rest is tackled by partner studios Technicolor in India and Bardel in Canada. The animation is done in Maya, with Nuke for compositing.
Nieli is most impressed with the way every department at Nickelodeon has come together to make the process run smoothly, noting this is perhaps the largest production of his career so far.
“The show’s gorgeous,” he adds, “The guys and gals I have working on the show are such a talented bunch that the design is not so standard. We’re all taking some strange twists, visually. And that goes hand in hand with how we want the storytelling to come off. It has a lot of color in terms of story—kind of an odder, offbeat sensibility that’s intrinsic to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”
Welcome to the Sewer, Dudes
While Nieli says the fan reactions he caught wind of early in the development and production process were startling, he is confident that once the show is on the airwaves every Turtles fandom faction will learn to enjoy it for what it is, rather than what they expected it to be. Fans may be assured by the knowledge that co-creator of the franchise Kevin Eastman is a regular visitor to the show offices and has given his stamp of approval.
“[Kevin] comes by once in a while in a non-intrusive, blessed kind of way. He really inspires the crew,” says Nieli. “He’s kind of psyched, and I’m psyched that he’s psyched, and it kind of becomes a big love-fest.”
As to what sets the new TMNT apart from other action-adventure toon fare, Nieli believes it’s the pure turtle power of the heroic bros:
“The Turtles add a uniqueness to what could be a mundane story. It’s like having the Beatles—we got the Turtles! It’s a special, weird brand only the Ninja Turtles can do … It’s a real world with dangerous stakes, full of weird characters having fun.”
Of course, we had to ask the fan-turned-showrunner which Ninja Turtle he most identifies with—and after a moment’s thought, he simply lists all of them.
“All my life I’ve been going through which Turtle I like best,” he summarizes. “It’s not really that there are four different characters, it’s more like four different shades—depending on where we are in our lives, there’s a little of each Turtle in all of us.”
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles launches on Nickelodeon with a one-hour premiere Saturday, September 29 at 11 a.m. and will air regularly in the same timeslot.