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On Set with the ‘TMNT’s Heroes in a Half-Shell

Anyone who grew up with an original is always skeptical about the new Hollywood remakes. Gen-Y-ers who saw the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles skyrocket from comic book to afternoon cartoon/action figures to live-action movie need to be sold on a newfangled CGI version. So Warner Brothers brought us to the Imagi animation headquarters, hidden in the Sherman Oaks Galleria shopping center, for a preview.

Those old animatronic turtles were pretty convincing. They fought ninjas like the best of Jim Henson’s creations could only dream of. With little improvement necessary, the new animation technique seems to heighten the ninja fighting. Now the turtles leap from rooftop to rooftop, glistening, as rain drops bounce off their shells. They skateboard down the sewers to their hideout, grinding the pipes and ollying over gaps.

Their new enemies are no longer of the human variety, so CGI allows the turtles to fight aliens and monsters. The moves are faster than human choreography, let alone animatronic, but smooth in motion. Producer Thomas Gray, who made the original live-action films, said that this technology was the reason to resurrect the franchise.

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“I think to a certain degree, what is more interesting to us is more or less the general overall feel about where, why, what is the relevance of bringing this back now?” Gray said. “I think we will say because CG allowed us to do it in a different [way that] I don’t think we could do it animatronically. Certainly not economically we couldn’t do that. No way we would spend $140 million making a live-action picture because no studio would pick it up.”

The new visual approach allowed director Kevin Munroe to pay homage to the Turtles’ comic book origins. “I really wanted to go after this look of just feeling like a comic book, both in the design and in the rendering of the animation,” said Munroe. “I think there’s a lot that happens in between panels in the comic book that you fill in in your mind of how this pose got from here to there, or what happened from there. The idea and the hope is that this movie would feel like it’s everything that happens in between those panels. That sounds so stupid and cerebral, but after you get it in motion, as they are moving, you can freeze frame the movie and create a great comic book if you went through it, just the way it’s posed and framed.”

With most of the animation team based in Hong Kong, creating kick-ass ninja battles was almost hardwired into their system, pun intended. “We blocked everything out here so we had the camera setup,” said Munroe. “We certainly knew where it was going and then the animation director would come back and he would say, ‘Would you mind if we just opened this shot up just a bit?’ I’d be like, ‘Give it a shot.’ And they would just do this phenomenal move and just adding different fighting styles for all the different characters. We knew we wanted this stuff and I didn’t realize just how clearly it would come out, just how very impressive it would look when you see the turtle do the fighting.”

That explains the change in aesthetic approach but still begs the question, do people still remember the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Pokemon has already become passé.

“Whenever we first started this, they did a quick survey to track the level of anticipation,” said Munroe. “The level of anticipation for a 6-11 year-old was the same for 18-25 or something. The idea that that excitement lives equally in both of them, I think there is something to the idea that you sit back and remember something from your childhood. I think there’s a visceral quality to it that really isn’t there. When you go back to Speed Racer, it’s not the same of what it was originally. But, you sort of try to recreate that I think for the 25-year-old in a way that’s still going to appeal to him. Especially with today’s audiences, 10 and 11-year-olds are exposed to a lot these days. It’s that X-Men, Spider-ManI intensity. If I was 10-12 and had Spider-Man 3 to look forward to I’d be freaking out. It’s sort of tapping into that energy I think. You think it’s hard cerebrally, but you just approach it with a certain aesthetic of fun and what the movie is about.”

A new animated Turtles series has recruited a new generation of fans since 2003. “That core audience for us is that 7-11,” said Gray. “The new generation that’s seen it on the television. Then of course most importantly to us are the fan base which is the 18-25 that were there years and years ago. Those are the two segments. Probably not a lot in between, but those segments are the ones we really aimed it at without trying to dumb it down to be too much cowabunga.”

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The 10 minutes of footage screened did not include any of the famous catch phrases, though there were some empty pizza boxes in the hideout. But the dialogue expressed legends of sensei teachings, finding one’s purpose and family conflict.

“I think the one thing we really wanted to avoid with the movie was sort of those inside jokes purposely played for adults,” said Munroe. “Those sort of double entendres and stuff like that. It works for those sort of rollicking comedies. For this, I think you bond across the board with all of these different age demographics just through a level of fun and just through a level of adventure. The characters themselves are just more ageless.”

In this story, Leonardo has gone to South America on a soul searching mission. Back in New York, Donatello and Michelangelo remain in hiding but Raphael was itching to continue fighting crime. So he donned a suit of armor and fought bad guys as the Nightwatcher. When Leonardo returns, a new menace forces the turtles to come out of hiding, and deal with their different approaches to helping the human world.

“It comes from characters and the characters based conflict,” said Munroe of the all new story. “The idea that Leonardo wants to make the world a better place so he’s going out training and doing this. But, the idea that Raph is going after that same thing that Leo is, but he’s going after it in a completely different way and so how do you take all of that frustration and all of that desire to do good? So you just create a character out of that and he has this great alter ego that really becomes this personification of the sort of difference between Leonardo and Raph throughout the entire movie. Those were new creations specifically for the movie.”

The story still fits in with the live-action trilogy, though no mention of their Vanilla Ice encounter is expected. “The continuity would be the basic New York City is the backdrop,” said Gray. “I think we had to go a little bit different, a bigger story from the first movie. The second movie was pretty small within a neighborhood. This thing is taking on big proportions of extra terrestrials out there back in time so I think scope wise it’s much bigger, but the essentials of the turtles are still the same. You don’t want to fool with that. Kevin certainly had to stay within the confines of [creator] Peter [Laird]’s imagination and every time he wanted to go out there, Peter would say, ‘No, they wouldn’t do that.’”

South America falls within the boundaries of reasonable storytelling. “I think they traveled in some comic book,” said Munroe. “It’s really funny because we sat we started the story process. We came up with the screwiest ideas. It was like turtles in space and at the end of it we came back to it just has to be in New York.”

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Fans of the turtles in the 1990s certainly remember Shredder as the main villain. He will not appear in this Turtles. Though it is not an origin story, they are taking the Batman Beginsapproach of starting with a lesser known villain.

“Pete was very big on the idea of having a new villain,” said Munroe. “He didn’t really demand it necessary. I think we all sort of felt that Shredder had been done to a good extent. Batman Begins just did it great when they did the kick off with the Joker. It’s a really good idea. Now when he comes back in the next one, that’s cool because now you know who this new Bruce Wayne is and you’ve got that whole set. To a lesser extent, I think it’s the same sort of thing for the turtles. I think Shredder would make a much bigger impact in the second movie than he would in the first one because you’d sort of assume it for the first one which is kind of neat.”

TMNT hits theaters March 23.

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