Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Ciro Nieli & Brandon Auman

We chat to the producer, director and story editor of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Nickelodeon cartoon series...

In 2016, there are three main running Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles continuities. There’s the film series, which I like, the comic book series, which I love, and the Nickelodeon cartoon series, which is my favourite.

I’ve written a lot of articles about the show because I think it’s excellent. I’d argue that it’s the best new take on the Turtles since the 1990 live-action film. It takes a lot of what I love about the Ninja Turtles and runs it through a filter of weird horror films and odd sci-fi. Then they add their own elements too, shaping it into this this sharp, funny lovely little oddball of a show.

It was my absolute pleasure to get executive producers Ciro Nieli and Brandon Auman on the phone to talk all things Turtles.

Here’s how our chat went.

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I wanted to start with how you write the show. I wonder if you could talk me through the process, from when or where ideas are generated through to where writing stops.

Brandon Auman: Well, Ciro and I get together. Usually we don’t have a lot of time during the week because we have so many meetings. But we get together and talk over stories.

Ciro Nieli: Usually over lunch, right?

BA: Usually it’s over lunch. We don’t have a lot of time. Ciro’s got a lot of meetings. Fortunately I have less, so I can get more writing done. So we discuss it and then I’ll start writing up a beat sheet. Essentially it just hits all the points of the story in a very rough manner and then I convert that into a premise, which is essentially a two page treatment for the network so that they can get on board with the idea. From there I’ll assign the premise out to a writer to turn that into an outline, which is usually about seven pages. And from there I generally rewrite everything (laughs). Or at least, I rewrite a lot.

It goes back to the writer and they have two weeks to deliver roughly a 26-27 page script. And then from there it gets assigned to the board artists, it gets turned into an animatic. Ciro and I tend to do a lot of revisions during the animatic stage. Sometimes we’ll come up with new story ideas or new dialogue. Not usually story ideas, the story’s usually pretty set, but we’ll alter certain scenes. Sometimes we’ll add dialogue where it feels a little empty. From there it gets sent out to be animated. And I think that’s everything, right Ciro?

CN: Pretty much. The biggest snafu is the boards because there’s a breath to the show, whether it’s talking or action, and how do you treat it simultaneously? How much time do you spend on each thing? Our stories end up becoming, once they’re drawn out, some times they go as much as ten minutes over in length. Then it becomes this whole juggling act of what do we cut? Or do we rework a whole sequence? A lot of the time it works out better; you know, the script is a blueprint and we’re pretty open to changing the build along the way. But it does get complicated. That’s probably the hardest part, for me. Brandon does a lot of the writing so I don’t know how hard that is for him.

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I mean, we’ve had shows where we’ve recorded almost half of the whole show twice. Or actually we’ve done even more. We’ve restarted a show that we’ve done completely. We did a lot of work, because it takes like 6000 drawings to get a show done.

And you guys are doing 26 of those a year. So it’s 6000 drawings, 26 times a year.

CN: It’s a lot. We have an army of people doing it.

BA: Generally we don’t usually change the stories too much. But sometimes the animatic’s not working; it’s just a matter of trying to figure out how to make it work. Usually it’s just a matter of chopping down. We don’t usually change a lot when it comes to story. A lot of times it feels like we go a little overboard. Generally what we chop down is the action, which I prefer. I think if we go on too long with the action, and it’s not really organically part of the story, you start to lose interest. So it’s a delicate balance.

When did you start talking about space, with regard to Ninja Turtles?

BA: I think we started working on the space episodes two years ago. Because that was the genesis of season four, so it was probably two years ago. Space was something we always knew we were gonna do. It was just the extent to which we didn’t know quite yet. We always like to parallel the original Mirage stories and issue 6 in the Mirage stories, actually kind of from issue 4, the Turtles start going in and out of space and meeting the Triceratons, so we always wanted to do that storyline. When it came down to a network need and marketing need, they really liked the idea of us spending a longer time in space so we extended it out to fourteen episodes.

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Those Mirage space comics play out over a few issues and thinking of the Triceraton battle arena, you guys do that story in one episode. Was there no temptation to make any of these stories longer?

CN: Yeahhhh. It’s a programming thing. We don’t really have the ability always to do shows that are longer than one episode. Like, we don’t have any guarantee on programming. If we had a story we wanted to make three episodes long we have no control over how they’re going to air. In the past we’ve done two-parters and unfortunately when we marry them together, those two part specials, they’ll only play those the one time, or the initial release that weekend, and then they have to live later on on DVD.

You’ve got to understand, Nickelodeon has its bread and butter in making stories that are 11 minutes. The comedy shows, they’ll take a half hour show and split it into two stories.

BA: We try to take these stories and spread them out. You know, all the space stories are kind of interlinked. Even then, it gets difficult because Nickelodeon kind of discourages serialized shows. They’d rather have complete standalones that can play even out of order. They don’t really like the fact that we’re telling these linear serialized stories. It’s kind of difficult. We’d love to tell more in some of these arcs, but it just gets really difficult.

So when you decide to relocate the entire show into space, how much strain does that put on you, with new characters and a new environment every single place they go?

CN: *laughs*

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Is it ridiculous?

CN: It was pretty ridiculous. That’s the part where Brandon just gets to watch and worry, and that’s the part where I just start to melt down.

Space was pretty hard. The space shows were really difficult because not only was it the initial, what we call almost like a main build or main model pack of the key components that we’re gonna see, but also every episode throughout we’re going to a new planet. We kind of adopted a little bit of an original Star Trek series model. We didn’t have a break in production; that first space episode was made just as fast and in the same manner that we would a random episode where the Turtles are just eating pizza in their lair. So we had to kind of absorb the time in design.

It’s not that easy, you can’t just add more people to the show. Well you could, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they understand what they’re doing, or the specific demands or needs of our production. We had the Ulysses, which is Fugitoid’s ship for instance, rebuilt two and half times. It was redrawn completely twice. And then, once it was built in CG, we went through and kind of kept resculpting it. That was all done on the fly, very late. We had to build the bridge, hallways, living quarters, the food replicator. That was just to have a place for them to sit and talk.

Then we had to start thinking about locations that they’re visiting, and that was really hard ‘cause the first one was like a market place, and we used a lot of tricks to populate that place. The biggest problem with space show is, going to a new world you don’t really have the money to populate the world with incidentals that are walking about that you can meet and talk to. Not the easiest show to make.

It’s hard. You want to do it, creatively. Nickelodeon definitely wants to do it. But it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s that possible or feasible.

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So yeah, we got a little tired from that one.

I want to ask about Armaggon, who is your intergalactic, heavily armoured shark bounty hunter, voiced by Ron Perlman. What was the process of reimagining that character?

BA: We wanted to make him like a super badass bounty hunter/space assassin. He’s from the Archie comics. The original Archie comics version, he just didn’t seem as interesting. He was a cool character that we borrowed from them, but we wanted to make him more badass, one of Lord Dregg’s assassins, and Ciro had a bunch of ideas for visually what he should look like.

CN: I just liked the idea of a giant space shark. We didn’t want to make him so giant because, we wanted him to be a formidable foe, but not someone that would scale unrealistic with the Turtles. We came up with the idea of, what if we came up with a giant, shark-shaped space-sled, almost, and then a shark came out of that? And then that evolved into, well maybe it’s his armour and he can wear it all the time.

It was very much Jaws inspired. We like the idea of this thing roaming through the galaxy and then just eating space ships and leaving them to bleed out and suffocate in space. It’s a pretty badass visual.

Originally we had Ron Perlman do this cowboy drawl, this real southern take, and it just wasn’t working so we had to ADR all of his dialogue again, just sounding more like Ron Perlman. Just sounding badass and growly. That was one of the few times we’ve had somebody come in, do a certain take on something and then it just didn’t work and we had to rerecord everything. But he really loved the character. Like, he got into it. I think he had more fun doing all the ADR than the first time out, when he wasn’t really sure what to make of the character. When he actually saw it and did the ADR to it, he nailed it.

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BA: That character is great.

CN: I worked with Ron when he was Slade on Teen Titans. That guy is great. The way he paces around and stuff. He’s a pretty intense individual. He was kind of perfect for that character.

I think he’s my favourite guest you’ve had so far. So, the way I tend to watch the show is on iTunes, as there aren’t many ways to get it in HD. Watching back on TV and DVD, you lose so much animation detail. I wondered if there was any chance of a bluray release?

CN: It’s not something that they generally do. There was some talk that it was gonna happen last year and then it just goes away. We’re waiting actually, as well.

BA: I thought it was released on bluray overseas. For some reason I thought it was only the American release on DVD.

I do check online a lot and I’m not aware of any international bluray releases. It’s a shame because hearing your stories here, I kind of want commentaries on the episodes!

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CN: Oh my god, Brandon and I could talk forever about each show. I don’t know if Nickelodeon would like some of our commentaries.

BA: Yeah, no kidding.

CN: There’s some serious backstory to some of the smallest, dumb things we do. I mean, I’ve known Brandon for a decade so a lot of those just come out of, we don’t even generate them, we just share a lot of the same life experiences. If we were to actually talk about some of that stuff it would be pretty hilarious. We would sidebar a lot. But that’s part of the charm, I think. Everything has an origin, in a way.

BA: I actually found a little space turtle on a lava planet with Ciro.

CN: Remember the time you were making out with that lizard girl?

BA: Yeah, that was back in Philly.

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Do you have a favourite toy based on your show?

BA: The Revoltech figures.

CN: Yeah, those are amazing. They’re so accurate and they have those swap-out heads. Those ones are Japanese made and they’re exactly on-model to our show, which is really refreshing. They have full mobility and expression. They’re really cool.

BA: Those toys are incredible.

CN: The same company also made a Friday The 13th Jason Voorhees. I have that, it’s pretty awesome.

BA: They’re a great toy company.

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Oh yeah, I have those. They’re great!

CN: I know. They’re so awesome. I talked to those guys recently, I was in Dubai and I met one of the lead designers at Bandai and he said they would try to maybe talk to people to see if they would make a second series. I would love to have a Splinter and a Casey Jones, an April and a Shredder. Those four, I would be so happy. A Splinter at that level would be just phenomenal.

At Den of Geek we ask everyone we interview their favourite Jason Statham film. I have yours, Ciro, from last time we interviewed. So Brandon, I’d like to get yours. But also, for both of you, if you were to cast Jason Statham as a character in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, who would you cast him as?

BA: I think my favourite Jason Statham movie is either Lock, Stock or Snatch. And if we cast him as anyone… man, that’s a tough one.

CN: Would it be from scratch or someone new that we could add in?

BA: Are we casting for the live action movie?

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Whichever you like. However you’d like to interpret it.

CN: He’d almost be great as like a Casey Jones or Raphael. In our show it’d be great if showed up as an actor. I’d actually just cast him as Jason Statham. Like, the Turtles start watching his movies on VHS, or DVD I guess, and they’d run into Jason Statham and then they’d beat peoples heads in together.

BA: Or they’d mutate him. Jason Statham ends up mutated with a potato or something.

(collective, solid laughter from all parties)

CN: I think that’s it. A Statham potato would be horrifying, but amazing.

BA: A Statham (Englishing up his accent) po-ta-to. Mashed Statham.

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Ciro Nieli and Brandon Auman, thank you very much!

Nickelodeon are currently running through every episode of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, with episodes showing every night on Nicktoons at 8pm.