Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles return in an updated mutation
For fans of the famed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles -- whether you were hooked on the quirky crime-fighting quartet via the TV cartoon, live action movies or the original comics -- there are certain elements that darn well better be included in any new tale dreamed up in Hollywood.
Those folks can rest easy. The souped-up skateboard, turtle van, Shredder (as villainous as ever) and, of course, the pizza, their fuel of choice, all appear in Paramount's new high-tech Michael Bay-produced reboot, which stars Megan Fox (as intrepid reporter April O'Neil, who discovers the unusual reptiles) and Will Arnett (her skeptical sidekick). The film hits theaters Friday.
"It was important to get various touchstones into the movie -- and then visually update it, so a new audience could come and be intrigued by the turtles, and discover what makes them so cool," says director Jonathan Liebesman.
Thing is, in this tale, what makes them so cool might be what you don't see.
Coming out of their shells
These turtles come to life utilizing some of the latest advances in motion-capture technology. But not mo-cap (as it's called in the biz) alone.
"It was important to mesh science with artistry-animators with actors -- to tell a story," says visual effects supervisor Pablo Helman. "Filmmaking is one of the only fields left where collaboration is key."
Back in the early 1990s, when the first live-action "TMNT" films were shot, the actors wore foam rubber latex suits and giant turtle heads created by the Jim Henson Creature Shop. The actors and stunt men were limber in the bulky getups, but the overall look fell somewhere between Muppets and the Michelin Tire guy.
Visual effects have come a long way since then.
"It was important to me and Michael Bay that -- just by looking at their silhouettes -- you could tell who was who," says Liebesman.
So this Leonardo, the leader of the foursome (played by Pete Ploszek, and voiced by Johnny Knoxville), has an athletic physique. Michelangelo, the jokester (Noel Fisher), is smallest. Donatello, the brains (Jeremy Howard), is more cerebral, thus envisioned as taller, thinner. And Raphael, the muscle (Alan Ritchson), charges in linebacker large.
The actors wore specialized jumpsuits, headsets with two tiny high-definition cameras sticking out in front of them, and 138 dots of makeup on their face, which computer animators studied to digitally "connect the dots" on-screen, creating four turtles that walked, talked and smirked like regular folk.
"We want you to see them talk, and feel like the words are really coming out of their mouths," says producer Andrew Form.
Films like "Avatar" and the recent "Planet of the Apes" epics used similar methods, but the latest mo-cap advances allowed "TMNT" animators to edit together different takes, enhancing the smallest of muscle movements, like around lips and eyes.
"There's a thin line between an honest smile and a wince," says Helman. "If you have an animal showing his teeth, it could be interpreted as happy . . . or violent."
Turtles and table tennis
The "turtle" actors also donned headpieces with two ping-pong balls perched above their heads, whenever they shot scenes with non-turtle characters, like Fox or Arnett. That's because the turtles -- once digitally created -- appear larger on-screen than the humans around them.
"Actors are used to looking at each other," says Form. But if Fox or Arnett looked at a "turtle" actor face-to-face during shooting, he explained, "it would look like they were staring at Leonardo's chin" in the final product.
For an actor, it takes some getting used to, but "Fox, in particular, was a pro," says Form. (The actress has appeared in several of Bay's "Transformers" films, chock-full of mo-cap and other special effects.)
The film was shot last year at sites in and around New York City, including Manhattan's Cipriani restaurant, the Guggenheim Estate in Sands Point and Big Tupper Ski Area in the Adirondacks.
Such locations add a certain grandeur to the film, says Liebesman, but at its heart this is a story about family.
"They're a normal family," he says. "They just happen to be turtles, whose father just happens to be a rat."
No worries if you're unfamiliar with this tale. The rat (named Splinter, and voiced by Tony Shalhoub), the turtles and how they came to be is all explained for newbies in the audience.
Yes, it's a crazy crisscrossing of ethnicities, species and surfer-dude dialect.
The original comic was a parody and "the title was meant to be a joke, but the chemistry just works -- hence, the 30-year franchise," says Gene Grillo, an Emmy-winning animation writer and Queens native. "It's kind of a four-way bromance . . . and it's just plain funny."
"With today's superhero movies, you have to bring a level of action that wasn't possible before," says Liebesman. "So we're trying to meld those two elements -- have a huge scope, but have the charm and humor of the first movie. After all, that was one of its hugest assets."
How the Turtles evolved
1984: Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird's "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" comic book (in black and white, with four heroes improbably named after Italian Renaissance artists) premieres at a comic book convention in Portsmouth, N.H.
1987: The animated series debuts, running through 1996, and introducing different color masks: blue (Leonardo), orange (Michelangelo), purple (Donatello) and red (Raphael).
1990: The first live-action film premieres, earning $200 million worldwide. Two sequels soon follow.
1997: "Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation," a short-lived live-action TV series, introduces a fifth turtle -- a female named Venus de Milo.
2003: A new animated version runs through 2009.
2007: A CG- animated feature film hits.
2014: Paramount's turtleganza hits theaters Aug. 8, plus a new documentary, "Turtle Power," on the history of TMNT, debuts on DVD, VOD and Digital HD on Aug. 12.