Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: creating season 2

Matt meets the makers of the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon to find out what's in store in future episodes...

It’s generally considered, I think, that the early nineties was the time to be a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fan. I was there and it was pretty terrific. Still, while Turtlemania may not be sweeping the world in the same manic, fevered way, I think there’s an argument to be made that right now is a pretty great time to be a fan of the Green Machine.

Certainly, the current comic book series from publishers IDW has proved itself to be worthy of any fan’s time. Whether they’re creating new mythology (The Secret History of the Foot Clan mini-series) or reinventing our old favourite characters (Bebop & Rocksteady one shot), IDW have been putting together some excellent comics. The very talented team behind these comics seem to have a reverence for the older Turtles tales, reinterpreting some elements from the wacky eighties cartoon (along with drawing from just about every other version) in a tone close to that of the original comic books. It’s so much fun to read.

The team behind the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon, currently airing on Nickelodeon, seem to have a similar fondness for the old stuff. As if this wasn’t clear enough from watching the show, it became quite apparent at a recent event I attended at Nickelodeon’s UK HQ. In a Skype presentation on the currently running second series and a brief Q & A (beamed to rainy London from sunny California), the team behind the show made references to Venus de Milo, We Wish You a Turtle Christmas and the Coming Out of Our Shells tour. These are things so obscure only the most dedicated of Ninja Turtles fans know to be horrified by them.

The presentation was led by Nickelodeon’s Senior VP of Animation Current Series (I’ve no idea what that means, but it sounds important, right?) Rich Magallanes. We were lucky enough to sit down with Rich Magallanes (along with TMNT co-creator Kevin Eastman) to have a chat about the Nickelodeon Turtles series back when it first launched in 2012. Also on-hand to chime in and to answer questions was Peter Hastings (Executive Producer), Ant Ward (Supervising Producer) and Brandon Auman (Story Editor). For a room full of people with so many ‘Executive’ and ‘Producer’ titles, there were not a lot of suits in the room.

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Finally, also in the room to chat and also not wearing a suit and tie was Executive Producer Ciro Nieli. If Rich Magallanes was running this Skype-show, Ciro Nieli was the ring leader of the trouble makers. Ciro Nieli is kind of a dude. Nickelodeon’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is based on his pitch and, to my outsider eyes, his is the voice that seems to be guiding the show.

I’d also note that, while this may paint Rich Magallanes as the straight man, in response to a question about potential crossovers with other shows he was quick to pitch Twin Peaks. Even the bosses at Nickelodeon seemed keen to have fun with us.

Much of the information covered in the presentation was a bit spoilery and, if you’ve somehow managed to work out how to access internet search engine Google, easily available should you be inclined towards being spoiled (UK transmission is running some months after the US). It was about characters to expect and how to expect them. That kind of thing. Just keep watching and you’ll find all of that stuff out.

More interesting, to me, was the information about the production. The gang told us that it takes a crew of more than ninety people to make an episode. Each episode takes a year to make, from story idea to the end of production, and there are currently around thirty episodes in various stages of production. “Which actually gets very confusing for us” they elaborated “because we exist in two or three seasons all at one time, and trying to remember ‘wait, what’s going on now, because I just watched a show from a year ago.’”

They also touched on the serialization element of the show. Season two started with the Turtles attempting to thwart a delivery of mutagen from robot-suited aliens the Kraang to Foot Clan leader and over-bladed bad-egg Shredder. Unprepared for a monkey-themed robot piloted by a Kraang (which I think it’s only fair to refer to as Kraang Kong), things get a little out of control and the canisters of mutagen end up scattered across the city. Season two, then, finds the Turtles tracking them down and dealing with the subsequent mutations. This allows the season to have an overall arc but also for the episodes to be, to degree, self-contained.

It’s also facilitated the introduction of a lot of new mutants. As mentioned, I’ve got no interest just repeating back to you a bunch of names and ruining the upcoming surprises, but there are a lot of familiar faces returning. This, in turn, has allowed them to cast some really exciting guest voice actors. It was highlighted that Brandon Auman and Ciro Nieli have enjoyed bringing in actors from their favourite horror movies. Names like Doug Bradley (Hellraiser), Jeffrey Combes (Reanimator) and Robert Englund (A Nightmare on Elm Street) have been or will be featured.

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“We also love The Stuff!”

Old horror movies are a recurring theme in the series, and a welcome one for me. In fact, the reason I love the show so much (along from the awesome fight scenes and the jokes) is that it’s basically Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles run through a filter of my personal interests. Recent episode ‘Invasion of the Squirrelanoids’ is an Alien/Aliens homage, with Alien-like squirrel monsters, fuzzy remote camera footage and a hysterical cry from Michelangelo of “Game over, man! Game over!”

In the same episode we get a look into Michelangelo’s bedroom, and the posters on his wall are like tribute to my DVD collection. The posters are slightly warped recreations of the posters for films like City of the Living Dead, Ghoulies and C.H.U.D.. They’re not the focus of any plot points, they’re not mentioned in any of the dialogue, they’re not even the focus a single frame of footage. They’re just details in the background.

I asked Nieli about these details (because I couldn’t let a C.H.U.D. reference on Ninja Turtles pass without comment) and he told us “Yeah, that really comes out of me blackmailing, emotionally, the crew. It’s a labour of love. There’s no time at all in the schedule to do details like those. Just so you guys know. We try to find ways to make it fun for the artists, myself included, so that they want to do it on their own time, otherwise it doesn’t get in there. Otherwise it would never happen.”

When the details are for fun, they’re for motivation, they tell us. But not all of the background details are just to make nerds like me slightly over-excited. A keen eye will have noticed Casey Jones stickers and tags in the background throughout season one, for example. On the subject of design detail, they tell us “It’s not like an average animation. When we design everything we know that it’s going to be part of our prop house and that any given time we might want to use it as a foreground element or for a close-up. So a candy bar has five-ten jokes on it. That comes from, a lot of us when we grew up were fans of ‘Wacky Packages’. Just finding the humour in the boring stuff.”

For me, it’s the Ninja Turtles in-referencing that makes my heart the warmest. Most of the show’s audience is more than likely children; they’re really unlikely to have enjoyed Michelangelo reciting Vanilla Ice’s “Go ninja, go ninja, go!” from the Ninja Rap in recent episode ‘Follow the Leader’ as much as I did. Similarly, younger fans probably won’t know why it’s cool that Corey Feldman, who voiced Donatello in the first and third live action movies, is voicing a character in season two (in fact, the guys revealed that they had hoped to cast Feldman as one of TMNTs, but his gruff voice didn’t fit). You tell me what nine year old will have gotten a kick out of a mock movie poster for a film called ‘Muck Man’, an obscure character/awesome Turtles action figure from the nineties. There’s even going to be a cameo from four very familiar characters from the first cartoon series when the show hits Dimension X later in season two, complete with the original voice actors.

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My favourite in-reference detail-spot came in the first season. Again, it was no more than a background detail. The Fugitoid was a comic book created by Peter Laird prior to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and one that was quickly worked into TMNT canon. The shop sign for ‘Futur-toid Electronics’ even uses the same font as the comic book cover did.

It’s always the case when someone starts working on an existing franchise or series they say they’re a fan. Every single time. Every actor taking on the role of a superhero has apparently read all of the comics. Everyone signed on to remake a slasher movie was allegedly traumatised by the original when they were a kid. It doesn’t seem like it should be possible to aggressively roll your eyes, but I don’t have a better way to describe my reaction whenever I read it.

However, at the end of this event, the thing I was thinking about, more than all the information we’d been told about story arcs and upcoming characters, was that these guys checked out. There’s perhaps nothing more invigorating and endearing than when the people who make the things you love love them as much as you do.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Season two is currently airing on Saturday mornings at 9.30am on Nicktoons.

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