The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles return to the big screen as never before in an all-new CGI action adventure, written and directed by Kevin Munroe.
Making this new incarnation of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles truly cutting-edge, the film was created entirely with state-of-the-art CG animation, giving them a completely new look for the 21st century.
"Let's make a movie, dude."
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were created in 1984 by Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman. "TMNT" writer-director Kevin Munroe reveals, "They did it to spoof the world of superhero characters. The original comic book was published in black-and-white and only 3,000 copies were printed, which, much to everyone's surprise, sold out right away."
Within a year, Laird and Eastman were approached with a toy license, which was followed by a cartoon television series and three live-action feature films over the course of nine years. The live-action films, released in the early 1990s, provided a brand-new TMNT experience for audiences around the world with state-of-the-art animatronics and expert martial arts choreography.
Producer Thomas K. Gray, who also served as producer on all three previous TMNT films, notes, "We wanted to take the Turtles to another level in film and do something we hadn't done before. For more than 20 years, they have been one of the most popular toys sold in several parts of the U.S. as well as Europe, Australia and in some Asian-Pacific countries. With the syndicated cartoon series doing great, and the comic book enjoying cult status, we wanted to give the fans something new."
Even with the perennial success of the TMNT franchise, the film's producers still had the task of convincing the creators to grant them the rights to bring their heroic, sewer-dwelling bipeds back to the big screen.
Producer H. Galen Walker offers that in an early meeting with Peter Laird to pitch the idea for the new TMNT feature, "I was nervous, because Peter didn't really know me, and everybody from the company was waiting for an answer. So there we were, walking along, and as I was about to ask the big question, he puts his hand across my chest to stop me and says, 'turtle.' I looked down, and saw this little turtle crossing our path!"
But, in spite of witnessing such serendipity, Walker didn't know that he had Laird's formal blessing until, he recalls, "I was on the airplane flying back, and I opened the book that Peter autographed for me. On the first page he wrote, 'Let's make a movie, dude.'"
To re-imagine "TMNT" for a new generation, the producers turned to up-and-coming animation filmmaker Kevin Munroe. Gray comments, "Kevin came in and designed a great trailer for us. It was obvious that he loved the Turtles and we really liked his ideas. It turned out to be a beautiful fit."
Daring to go where no Turtles have gone before...
Production of "TMNT" took place over roughly 28 months, in two very different locations: Sherman Oaks in sunny Southern California and on the other side of the Pacific Ocean in Hong Kong. More than 300 artists were employed in Hong Kong and nearly 70 artists in Los Angeles. With the production offices separated by 7,000-plus miles, a project like this would have been almost inconceivable in the pre-high speed internet era.
However, with access to advanced video teleconferencing and high-speed point-to-point data transfers, Munroe says, "It felt like the Hong Kong office was just a click away. Also, because of the time difference, we could work around the clock. When it's five in the afternoon in LA, it's nine in the morning in Hong Kong, so we could teleconference at the end of our day, while they were just starting theirs."
Walker notes, "Having a 24-hour production schedule allowed us to move faster. But, you know, not everyone in LA got to go home at the end of the day, since there would be issues from Hong Kong that needed to be addressed during their working hours--also known as our middle of the night. It was extremely taxing, but Kevin and the team handled it wonderfully, and the animators in Hong Kong were amazing."
However, there were some barriers that were not so easily overcome by modern technology.
Producer Paul Wang notes that the Hong Kong crew were given a crash course in Americanisms, "Kevin speaks with a lot of slang, so it took a few meetings for them to accept that when Kevin said 'cool,' he wasn't referring to temperature, but that he meant 'it's approved.'"
Munroe remarks, "It was interesting to work with so many of the artists in Hong Kong because they have such a deep appreciation for martial arts, which complemented the style of the film. These are guys in their twenties who've been raised on Kung Fu action flicks, and when I would say things like, 'Okay, I want you to make your own Kung Fu movie in this scene,' they'd just go nuts over it."
In establishing a fresh storyline for the all-new CGI version of "TMNT," the director states, "We didn't want to go back and remake the original, so we decided to start a new chapter in the Turtles' lives. We wanted to focus on each of the Turtles more by emphasizing their family relationship and how it's evolved since the last time we saw them."
Drawing inspiration from modern-day family dynamics, Munroe chose to begin his story with a rift in the close-knit team. He expounds, "Splinter has sent Leonardo away on a worldwide training mission; and he has become even more protective of the remaining Turtles by discouraging them from fighting crime without Leonardo."
As a result, the remaining Turtles' sense of purpose has become somewhat derailed in the humdrum of their day-to-day lives. Tech-guru Donatello has been reduced to providing computer technical support over the phone, and fun-loving Michelangelo has resorted to entertaining kids at birthday parties as "Cowabunga Carl," a clown-for-hire in a "fake" turtle suit. Hot-headed Raphael, whose burning quest for justice doesn't wait for anyone, has assumed the secret persona of a solo crime-fighting vigilante, known to the outside world only as "The Nightwatcher."
Providing the voices for the Turtles are veteran voice-over artists: James Arnold Taylor as Leonardo; Mikey Kelley as Michelangelo; Nolan North as Raphael; and Mitchell Whitfield as Donatello. Once again representing the wise father figure in the Turtle Lair is Splinter, voiced by the late Oscar-nominated, Japanese-American actor Mako.
Munroe offers, "Splinter's biggest concern is the unity of their family.
When Leonardo comes home from training, we see Raphael showing a little resentment towards Leo--kind of like a kid who's envious of his brother who went to college while he stayed at home to work in the family business."
Raphael's frustration becomes more apparent as the well-disciplined and perhaps a tad self-righteous Leonardo openly condemns the latest triumph of The Nightwatcher. Brotherhood and egos are put to the test when Leonardo catches the rogue crime-fighter in action, setting the two on a collision course that brings forth a never-before-seen face-off between Leonardo and Raphael.
With trouble brewing at home, even bigger problems lay on the horizon. "We continued the storyline that The Shredder has been defeated and, as a result, the Turtles' other nemeses, Karai and the Foot Clan, have basically become muscle for hire, acting as a private army for anybody who's willing to pay the price," reveals Munroe.
Karai, the de facto leader of the Foot Clan, is voiced by the martial arts-trained Chinese actress Ziyi Zhang, who first caught the world's attention in Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," and more recently received multiple award nominations for her leading role in Rob Marshall's "Memoirs of a Geisha."
Munroe continues, "One of the clients Karai and the Foot Clan end up working for is the enigmatic Maximillian J. Winters, a very powerful multi-billionaire who lives in a monolithic tower and collects ancient artifacts from around the world. He's a very mysterious guy and, as the movie goes on, we realize that he's collecting monsters. As a result, really strange things start happening in New York City fueled by Winters' secret plan."
Winters is voiced by award-winning actor Patrick Stewart, who already has experience in the mutant superhero milieu as Professor Charles Xavier from the "X-Men" films. Stewart recalls being familiar with the Turtles franchise 20 years ago when his son was a fan and, now, is proud to introduce the exciting world of half-shelled heroism to his grandchildren.
Describing his character, Stewart offers, "Max is not what he seems. He may look like a healthy, vigorous and modern individual, but, as his character unfolds, we see why he is such an anomaly in today's world."
Caught in the middle of Winters' plot is the Turtles' friend and ally April O'Neil, an archaeologist who collects rare treasures and artifacts for wealthy individuals.
"When April returns from her latest overseas expedition, she unwittingly brings a relic home that could be the catalyst for possible Armageddon," says the director. "Of course, she's completely in the dark about its true origin because she's just doing a job for her client...Max Winters."
April O'Neil is voiced by Sarah Michelle Gellar, who has portrayed something of a superhero in her own right on the hit television series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," and more recently starred in the horror thrillers "The Grudge" and "The Grudge 2."
A fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon series herself, Gellar recalls seeing the program for the first time in the late '80s. "I remember sitting at home, flipping through TV Guide when I saw a listing for a show called 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.' It's a household name now, but when I first saw it, I thought it was the strangest combination of words. And I remember laughing and thinking, 'This is great, I am definitely watching this!'"
Original TMNT fans may also remember the baseball bat-wielding, hockey mask-wearing vigilante Casey Jones. Another Turtle ally and boyfriend of April O'Neil, Casey is voiced by actor Chris Evans. Evans also has experience in the superhero realm, having recently played Johnny Storm in the action adventure film "Fantastic Four," based on the comic book series of the same name.
Munroe offers, "Casey is just a guy who misses the good old days of vigilante crime-fighting with the Turtles. In this film, Casey and April are now an item, but April doesn't like the whole hockey-mask vigilante thing, so they're at a crossroads and aren't getting along the way they used to."
With tension abounding, the tone of the all-new TMNT film "is very different from the TV series and previous films," says the director. "Stylistically, it's more like the comics. The action's more intense, and the threat to the world is more intense, as are the emotions of the main characters."
Also lending his voice talents to the film is Laurence Fishburne, who provides narration for critical flashback scenes that take us back 3,000 years where the story begins.
Additionally, longtime TMNT fan and writer-director-actor Kevin Smith serves up a cameo role as the Diner Cook, who faces one of Winters' unruly monsters.
To bring his vision for the latest incarnation of TMNT to life, Munroe sought the talents of veteran art director/concept illustrator Simon Murton. With more than 25 years of experience in film concept illustration and design, Murton counts among his recent film credits "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "I, Robot," "Van Helsing" and "The Matrix Revolutions."
Munroe says, "This was Simon's first all-CGI project and, to me, that's the most exciting thing about it because he had a different take on design coming from live action. I told him that, when we're done, I want to be able to go through this movie, and pull any frame of the film and put it into a comic book...in widescreen, of course."
"We began with cinematic cues from certain black-and-white films from the 1940s and '50s," notes Murton. "I really wanted to push the lighting and the environments to create the look and feel of an alternate reality."
With most of the story set in New York City, Murton stylized the familiar Manhattan skyline and urban landscapes to make them appear uniquely "TMNT."
For an action sequence early in the film where Michelangelo turns the sewers into his personal, extreme skate park, Murton describes, "I found excellent examples from waterworks projects in Hong Kong and Japan. Pipes in those places have to serve such dense populations that they make for some very interesting designs and shapes, which, in Mikey's mind, are perfect for ollies and railslides."
The look of Winters' monolithic tower was inspired by architectural illustrations from 1920s New York and Chicago.
The art director offers, "Max Winters is a very successful man with the world at his fingertips. We gave him a huge, round office that also worked as an encased, glass elevator, so he can access any floor at the push of a button. The elevator office became the defining exterior feature of the Winters Tower."
Three basic levels of the city were designed to juxtapose Turtle "safe" zones against human zones. Particular attention was paid to how a ninja would move stealthily through the city.
"A ninja would use shadows, rooftops and sewers to get around and remain undetected. To indicate Turtle 'safe' zones we made the sewers warmer-looking, with rich browns and reds, versus the surface streets, which are lit with bright neon signs that seem very alienating to the Turtles," notes Munroe. "The rooftops are also a safe zone for them, warmly lit by the night sky and the lights below. Like the sewers, it's a quiet place for the Turtles to look at the world from extreme vantage points."
Digitally Outfitted Heroes
Half the battle in creating believable, CG-animated lean green crime-fighting machines was fought by digital artists who were responsible for researching and developing the Turtles' overall musculature, along with such details as the translucency of their skin and each of the characters' defining traits.
"We designed full-on muscle systems for the Turtles because they're essentially wearing nothing but a sash and a half-shell," Munroe explains. "We also gave them unique characteristics. For example, on Raphael, he actually has veins that pop out whenever he flexes, and Michelangelo has freckles."
Apart from the reptilian crime-fighters, Splinter, a human-sized, mutated sewer rat, presented the animators with another challenge. Munroe describes, "Not only is Splinter furry, but he wears a robe. So we fully rendered and animated the robe as well as his fur to show the effects of movement and outside elements."
Exterior structures ranging from muscles to shells to tentacles also had to be designed and animated for Winters' monsters--all 13 of them.
"A few of Max's monsters are based on those in popular folklore. We also created some monsters that are slightly off the beaten path like a little guy we jokingly dubbed 'The Jersey Devil Monster,' which is a little crustacean-like creature who's basically a freakishly strong koala bear with a bad temper," jokes the director.
Beyond attention to the aesthetic quality of the backgrounds and characters, much effort was spent on choreographing the fight sequences for maximum impact.
Working closely with Munroe, animation director Kim Ooi was responsible for overseeing the execution of anything that moves on screen. Ooi offers, "The Turtles' fighting style is derived from Chinese and Japanese-style martial arts. Many of the fight sequences were inspired by Hong Kong action films, but because we're doing CGI, we can push and stylize beyond the limits of live action."
Movement for each of the Turtles was also scrutinized to enhance their individual characteristics. Ooi explains, "For Leonardo, he's very confident because he's the oldest and the leader, so he walks very tall and has good posture. Raphael's the rebel, so he's got a bit of a swagger. Michelangelo is the more childlike one, so he's jumpy and restless. And Donatello's movements are more subdued because he's the intellectual one and characterized by more polite gestures."
In tackling one of the most action-packed sequences in the film, Ooi says, "There's a sequence where three Turtles, together with April, Casey and Splinter, are trying to rescue Leonardo. They have to go through tons of foot ninjas to get into the tower, and it was the most challenging of sequences because there are so many things happening at once."
Perhaps the most important challenge was staying true to TMNT fans while creating a completely new look for a new generation. Tom Gray attests, "We wanted to stay true to the concept while taking the Turtles in a new direction. We went back to the original comic book, which is actually grittier than the previous films. We think this will be a fun experience for core fans and new fans alike."
Munroe concludes, "We've done everything possible in this film to fill it with wall-to-wall action and classic TMNT humor. At the end of the day, this is a story about a typical American family," smiles the director, "that is, if your family lives underground and saves the world battling countless ninjas and big bad monsters!"
ABOUT THE FILMMAKERS
KEVIN MUNROE (Director/Writer) has spent the last decade in the animation industry, working on television shows, feature films, comic books and video games. "TMNT" marks his feature film directorial debut, although his experience in the animation arena ranges from screenplays to production design to direction.
He has worked as a writer, artist and director for such companies as Walt Disney Studios, Warner Bros., Cartoon Network, Fox, The Jim Henson Company, Stan Winston Studios and Nickelodeon. He also wrote the critically acclaimed comic book series El Zombo Fantasma, which he co-created with Dave Wilkins for Dark Horse Comics, and Olympus Heights from IDW Publishing.
Munroe also created, scripted and produced the international Christmas special "Donner" for ABC Family and TV-Loonland.
Cited by Animation Magazine as one of the "Rising Stars of CGI," Munroe is currently writing the screenplay for Imagi Studios' next CG-animated motion picture, based on Japan's popular "Gatchaman" anime franchise, which he will also direct for a 2008 release.
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