Here at Den of Geek, we’re big fans of Nickelodeon’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon. Our carefully considered opinion is that this is the best cartoon the Ninja Turtles have ever been in, and that this take on the Turtles is in fact one of the finest versions of the Turtles in any medium to date.
We were lucky enough to get to sit down with Ciro Nieli, the hero/executive producer behind the show, to have a talk about how much we love it and about the upcoming third season.
How long have you been working on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?
I started pitching the show in early October. I think I had my official meeting where they liked my pitch October 22nd, 2009.
So that’s just over 5 years.
Just past 5 years, yeah, and as it stands now I’m gonna be on this for a few more years.
When you approach it do you know you’re making that size of a commitment?
I hoped I was. You mean back when I first started?
Yeah, I had hoped to. The amount of work that I put into it, I was doing it wholeheartedly knowing that it would also last long and take care of me. In animation, it got to the point where the average job was becoming four months long and nine months started becoming a long job. It’s a hard way to plan your life, you know? It’s not very healthy. So this has been great for me.
It’s been very hard but at the same time it’s been very gratifying and rewarding. It’s kind of amazing.
Your role on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is Executive Producer which, to me as an outsider, it sounds corporate, but then it was you that pitched the show which doesn’t sound corporate. What do you do?
Just because you have the title ‘Executive Producer’ doesn’t pigeonhole you into one type of job. There’s all kinds of Executive Producers. There’s ones that strictly want to write, there’s ones that just don’t even show up for work. (laughs)
What I do is, I’m drawing a lot of the concepts and supervising. I’m also Supervising Director so I’m supervising all of the storyboards. I’m working closely with Brandon (Auman) who’s the other EP right now, who’s been writing all of the stories since season 2. So he’ll write something, he’ll want to break a story, I either will or won’t be able to sit down and break it with him. Right from that point I start doing doodles, how to design the sets and all that. Then I start taking his words and his great ideas and start putting a spin on it and start making it cinematic and playing it out.
So at the end of it all I go through all the post, all the sound effects, music, mixing, put the cherry on top. And then I do the last drawing at the very end. That’s how I put them to sleep. For me, regardless of how busy I get I always make time to do that last drawing. So for me it’s like a coffin nail, it’s like goodbye. It’s my peace I can make with each show. I really enjoy doing those.
How many of those are drawn at 2 or 3am?
Like, all of them.
I think I draw ‘em at 2, 3am and then I scan ‘em and paint ‘em at 6am the next morning before everyone shows up. Sometimes I get ‘em done like a week early, though. It depends.
You know when they’re done late? It’s when there’s special effects. If you ever watch a show and you that there’s actual effects happening, know that I did it really late because I had to wait for the effects guys to do their pass, to give it to me so I can draw it, so…
So one week you had to draw it late because you had a talking Greg Cipes head in the episode?
So it’s his fault.
Yeah, it’s his fault.
We just got through a patch of shows that required so much of my drawing, there was just 4, 5 episodes straight I was just getting buried, it was so hard. But it’s worth it, you know? They’re so hand made.
So, season three. At this point you’ve already had more than 50 episodes, so that’s a lot of stories. There were already, what, four hundred episodes of various Ninja Turtles before you guys came along. There are hundreds of comics, six movies. How difficult is it to come up with original stories?
It’s never hard to come up with original stories. The only hard thing about coming up with these shows is how do we do it with our budget? Because having it be produced as CG becomes quite problematic. Trying to come up with a clever way to build a set that’s not just new and interesting looking but a good fight set piece. But from a story standpoint, Brandon is brilliant and he has a very fertile imagination. If he’s ever at a loss, you throw us in a room and we can springboard anything. We’ve been working together so long that we share the same imagination. It’s kind of great that way.
I could probably knock out a hundred and thirty of these before I start to get bored.
I hope so.
Another of your frequent collaborators in Greg Cipes. I don’t so much have a question about him, but he is a dude.
Yeah, he definitely abides. Cipes is kind of amazing. He was always Michelangelo to me. When I was developing the show, before anybody else was even cast, I was spending a lot of time with Greg, so he was always Mikey. As I would draw the Turtles, I was drawing Mikey, but I was drawing Cipes, and he was talking in my ear. It was always Cipes. He’s great.
He’s been in almost all of my shows. He wasn’t in Avengers. I forget what he was doing at the time, he was really busy. I think he was doing more on camera stuff during that period. But he’s always my hero. And he’s always dating Ashley Johnson in cartoons.
Season 3 you have Bebop and Rocksteady appearing. I think that’s out there, right?
Yeah, that’s out there. They got leaked!
It’s always the toys, isn’t it?
Yeah, and if someone doesn’t leak it by accident, it’s always the fans somehow figure out a way. They’ll find Toys R Us SKU numbers. It’s crazy. And I just… I get it, but at the same time do you really want to be that kid that’s in the attic snooping for your Christmas present two months before Christmas? You’re only hurting yourself. (laughs)
We’ve had to crack down on it a little bit. I think we’ve been a lot better about it since we had a couple of missteps. But there’s so many international partners sometimes stuff comes out by accident. And it could be something as simple as kids hacking a beta version of a website in Asia, and it’s just like, ‘Oh, how’d that happen?’
They do it a lot to Avatar, too. It’s kind of terrible.
Bebop and Rocksteady are characters that people have been asking after since the show relaunched. Did you hold off on using them because you didn’t know how integrate them with what you were doing or because you wanted to establish yourselves first, or…
Well, from the beginning I had hoped that we could do enough episodes that we could take our time. But I always went with the philosophy that you have four Ninja Turtles, that’s who your show’s about, and they’re mutants, and I wanted them to be the special mutants. Yeah, I know we do monster of the week and stuff, but they would kind of be defeated and disappear. If I had mutants that showed up that were evil and that were super cool, I just thought it would step on our Turtles. And I wanted the beginning to be more about ninjas, you know, and stuff like that. So I waited and waited, and then the time finally came and it’s like ‘okay, let’s do it’.
And I was waiting for Brandon, too. Brandon was working on Iron Man and I wanted him to come over, do it with me, ‘cause I thought he’d write it well.
One of the themes you guys seem to come back to, and I don’t know if maybe this is inherent in the character make up of Ninja Turtles, is relationships with fathers. Is that something you’re consciously exploring?
Relationships with fathers?
If you go back even to Star Wars, that’s always a big thing, right? Obi Wan, Luke, Vader; the thing about those guys, and a father figure even, is that you can see in that character all the characters. Luke is like Vader, he is like Obi Wan, they’re all the same character at a different point in their life. So to me, just taking Splinter for instance, there’s a part of Splinter in each of the Turtles. So it’s nice to play with that.
There’s some really basic stuff, too. We made him really tall, so the Turtles always look like children around him, even though when they leave they’re like teenagers and they’re holding their own. But the Shredder thing on the flipside of that is really crazy, too. That’s been a lot of fun, just exploring that with Karai.
But when you have a show with ‘Teenage’ in the title you kind of need that ‘us versus them’. So having strong father figures, like benevolent or kind of ruthless, is always good to rebel against, you know? I think every kid can relate to that.
You guys have a really good balance, I think, in bringing back characters and introducing new ones. Are there still characters that you’re looking to bring in that we might be familiar with?
Yeah, for sure. For sure. I think in season 3 you’re gonna get a lot of that, and a lot of stuff that I’ve been working on for season 4 is a lot of that, too.
I’m a big fan of the toys, you know, the old 80s Playmates stuff, so a lot of that stuff is really inspiring. Some of it’s not.
So we’re not gonna get Ray Fillet?!?
I’m not sure about Ray Fillet, but you know you’ve got Monty Moose? Some of those guys are a little odd. Who’s the – why am I spacing out? – the basketball giraffe?
Ohhhh. I know who you mean. (I’ve looked it up since – it’s Halfcourt!)
But there’re guys who are really cool, though. Like Antrax, Scumbug. There’s some really good, cool guys, you know? Muckman, I love.
You guys have a Muckman poster in Mikey’s room that makes me so happy.
I love Muckman.
I liked that you had the Ace Duck thing recently.
Haha. Yeah, I don’t know if we’ll ever do a show about Ace Duck. But we had to serve them all a little bit here and there. There’s some really good stuff coming up in season 3. It gets crazy.
You guys have a lot of horror in the show. I imagine for kids it can be quite scary. I’m obviously not afraid as an adult, except for a little bit. Is it difficult to have that balance of wanting to have horror but not wanting to scar children for life?
I don’t think about it so much. The thing that I’ve gotten from adults who are parents is that they watch this show with their children. There’s a certain responsibility that parents have and I think if parents can watch the show with their kid and it’s scary, I think that’s only going to bring them together. I think this idea of family horror, it’s really bonding. I grew up watching horror films with my family and I was never really scared. I watched some pretty weird, hard core stuff as a kid with my Dad and I never once felt scared.
Now, every kid’s different, so I don’t know. I don’t know that we’ve ever really quite crossed that line with season 2, I think it’s been okay. Cause we try to strike that balance, like if it does get really scary to cut it right away back in the other direction.
CG’s been great in letting that play. I remember when I used to work on Teen Titans, which is a 2D animated show, one of the bosses would say “I bet you can’t scare me. I bet you can’t draw something that scares me.” And he’s kind of right; it’s hard to draw something scary. But with the sound design that I have in this show, the music, the lighting, you can do some really spooky stuff. It’s fun. Lots of great John Carpenter moments. Early John Carpenter.
But season 3, it’s heavy horror, the beginning of it.
I really enjoyed the Pizzaface episode. I think that’s my favourite one.
Pizzaface is fantastic.
The pizza zombies look like the creature from The House by the Cemetery.
Oh my god, I can’t believe you just said that. Maybe.
I can’t believe you pulled that out. That’s so funny. Yeah, I’m a big Fulci fan.
I like Fulci too.
And the music in that one is awesome. It’s by Fabio Frizzi and I love Fabio Frizzi.
But I give my music guy… I’m really weird, cause he’ll be like “What do you want to do for this episode?” and I’ll say “Here, take this” and it’ll be the vinyl soundtrack for Phenomena. And he’ll say “What?”, and I’ll be like “Just, here’s Suspiria, and The House by the Cemetery and The Beyond!”. He’ll call me up “This music’s amazing!” and I’ll be like “Okay, here’s El Topo.”
I think music makes the show. The one comment I’ve gotten isn’t like, “Hey, this is really scary,” I’ve gotten “Sometimes it gets a little uncomfortable” and I think music can do that. So, usually if I get a network note that this is too scary I just pop up the music a little bit and it kind of fixes it.
But yeah, I love horror soundtracks, too. I love Death Waltz. Do you know Death Waltz?
Yeah, the vinyl company?
Yeah. Those guys are great.
I want to ask you about Turflytle (Michelangelo’s superhero fly alter ego), because Turflytle is so funny. The second instance of Turflytle popping up was, I’m assuming, being worked on before the first one had aired. How can you tell something like that is gonna play well?
I don’t know. Some of it was, well, a lot of it is Cipes, right? For sure. Cipes’ delivery for that as Mikey is phenomenal. We were just cracking up in the room. But Turflytle, the costume, we wanted it to be super ridiculous and it came together and it was really funny.
But where that character really came from was, I had a roommate in college who used to dress like a bumblebee, and he used to mess with me. We’d show up to class and he’d be wearing antennas and a striped shirt, like he was John Belushi in that skit. And I would look over at him and he’d say “Buzz buzz”.
I remember when we went in to record Cipes doing those lines, it was very specific how he had to say “buzz buzz.” Cipes was just kind of shot out of a cannon, doing it his way, and we were like “No, you have to do it like this, buzz buzz”. As soon as Cipes got it he ran with it and it became so magical. And now it’s going to be an action figure!
Ciro Nieli (whose favourite Jason Statham film is Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels), thank you very much!