Co-creator Kevin Eastman looks back on 30 years with the TMNT — and their future
The story behind the creation of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is, 30 years since it happened, the stuff of legend.
Created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird as an independent, self-published, black-and-white comic book that came out in 1984, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles somehow caught on — sparking an indie comics boom followed by a hit animated series, toy line and live-action movie series.
Now celebrating its 30th anniversary with new comics from IDW Publishing, a new animated series on Nick and the new liveaction feature. Eastman was happy to talk about how TMNT became a hit at a time when the market for such things was radically different than it is today. What expectations did you have for this little comic book project? Zero. When Peter and I formed Mirage Studios, it was because we worked together well. We wrote it for ourselves because we didn’t think anybody else was going to buy a copy of it. When did you start to think this was catching on and would become something bigger than you had imagined it to be? We started getting calls from some of the distributors who had gotten calls from comic book stores in the fall of 1984 saying, ‘Well, when are you guys going to do a second issue?’ We hadn’t even thought of doing a second issue! I remember getting a superexcited call from Peter, and he said: ‘You know, we got preorders of 15,000 copies, and if we do six of these a year we’ll basically make about $2,000 profit each, per issue.’ So we could actually draw comic books for a living! How did the first animated show come about? Did someone approach you or did you guys take it out and shop it around?
We had an agent named Mark Freedman, and he set about putting together the toy deal with Playmates. Once the toy deal had been negotiated, it was important for a boys’ action-figure line to have an animated show to support it. So Playmates agreed to put up advertising money. And then we spoke with several different animation companies to come up with the cofunding for the first five episodes. We settled on Murakami Wolf Swenson, which became later Fred Wolf Films. We literally had just enough money to produce five shows with some advertising dollars, with a stipulation that if it went forward, the same partnership would come up with the funding. Looking back at it again from 30 years out, why do you think it connected with people and remains popular? You can look at some obvious things that were traditional in comic books, if you will, which is a superhero group, individual personalities. There was a family aspect. They were misfits. It was quirky, funny. At the end of the day, they were the heroes I think we would all like to be: When there’s a damsel in distress, or someone needs your help, everybody want to stand up and be that hero that saves the day. What do you think of the new feature? When Michael Bay’s production company took over, Jonathan Liebesman, the director, practically reached out to me from day one and basically said: ‘What do you think would make a great movie?’ And they officially brought me on as a consultant. I got to do my Stan Lee thing, doing a cameo in the new movie. I’ve seen a lot of it and I think it’s fantastic. I’m very optimistic that once fans see the handling of the characters — what it looks like — they’ll get really enjoy what Bay and Liebesman have done. Everything is there: The story is there. The fight scenes are awesome. takes, but also body motion-capture, facial motion-capture and key-frame animation, the ability to edit was essential to making the movie work. “If we didn’t have that system, it would have been impossible for us to do the project,” says Helman.
Designing a look for the characters that worked in a live-action/CG movie was another major challenge, Helman says. “There’s always a reason why a design works or doesn’t work so you always want to go back to the origin of how these Turtles were created and the truth is that these are comic book characters,” he says.
Two-dimensional drawings — whether in a comic book or on a storyboard — work by different rules. “There are a lot of things when you’re storyboarding that you don’t really need to resolve,” Helman says. “If a turtle is delivering a line, it’s basically a bubble of words drawn on the screen, but there’s nothing of the mechanics of how we get there.”
Setting the Turtles Apart
ILM started with very raw designs from Aaron McBride that reflected as much of the Turtles’ mythology as possible. Those incorporated each character’s personality into the designs of the characters, which when combined with other traits such as dialog, the actors playing them on set and the contributions of animators, made them believable and distinct characters.
Each Turtle also had physical elements and personality traits to set them apart. Donatallo is the tall and slender brainy gadget guy; Leonardo is the archetypal leader, like a high school quarterback; Michelangelo is the skater-surfer type, always cracking jokes; and Raphael is the street-smart tough guy, Martel says.
Much of the basic personality for the performances came from the actors, helping the animators to keep each performance distinct, he says.
In addition to the Turtles, there were two other CG characters: Splinter, the man-size rat who serves as the Turtles’ sensei and mentor; and Shredder, their armored, blade-wielding arch enemy.
“We wanted to get some little bits of rat movement in (Splinter), which we hadn’t really seen in the previous Ninja Turtles films,” says Martel. “So we thought it would be interesting to get, just from time to time, either a little ear twitch or a little scratch in there. It reminds you what he is and who is, which is nice because you start to just accept him as this wise older man and then you’re reminded he’s a rat. It’s a neat little head trip.”
Shredder, on the other hand, was not dis-
similar to the work ILM did on Iron Man. “It was mainly about having him walk and fight in a way that it was somehow believable with that kind of weight he’s got on him in terms of the armor,” says Helman. “And the eyes were completely minimized; we didn’t want to see or deal with the eyes so they are basically a blank socket.”
Martel says it helped that Liebesman was familiar with the effects and animation processes. “He can really break down a shot and he understands each separate stage of shot building, which was fantastic,” says Martel. “When we’re presenting animation, he knows that he’s just looking at the performance and the movement and he doesn’t get sidetracked by details that he knows will come later.”
Digital environments included recreations of Times Square in New York City, where the final battle unfolds atop the Condé Nast building; and the Turtles’ lair, which was the setting for several sequences.
But the film’s foundation remains the four lead characters, whose performances represent a big step forward for digital characters.
“They’re on screen for 48 minutes of the film, which is pretty wild,” says Martel. “They have some of the longest scenes I can remember working on in my 17 years at ILM — they just have these long scenes with four Turtles talking and no cut. It’s amazing to be able to sustain that level of performance.”