Co-cre­ator Kevin East­man looks back on 30 years with the TMNT — and their future

Animation Magazine - - Features - By Tom McLean

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.”

Sharp Eyes

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.”

Kevin East­man

Raphael is the team’s tough guy, while Leonardo, be­low right, is a tra­di­tional leader, and Donatello, at bot­tom, likes gad­gets.

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