Thirty years after their debut, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are bigger, fiercer, and tail-free—just in time for a new CG-heavy movie outing. From details on the advanced facial capture technology used to give the turtles their makeover to insight from the cast about stepping into their iconic roles, here’s the scoop about the TMNT live-action reboot straight from director Jonathan Liebesman, special effects supervisor Pablo Helman, and stars Megan Fox and Will Arnett.
When the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles made their comic-book debut in 1984, the subterranean vigilantes looked comically fierce with their chubby snouts, oversize protective pads, and ninja weapons. But in the 2014 TMNT movie, they’re taller, heavier and darker. ”We looked at a ton of real-life skins and textures of different reptiles for inspiration,” says Liebesman of his heroes’ muted green shade.
Though the very first issue of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles—released as part of Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s 1984 comic Gobbledygook—looks menacing, the quartet (leader Leonardo, cut-up Michelangelo, rebel Raphael, and brainiac Donatello) have beefed up over the years. They now resemble a reptilian NFL team, a macho makeover in keeping with producer Michael Bay’s bigger-is-better style. ”It’s definitely more badass,” says Liebesman, who last worked with Bay on 2011’s Battle: Los Angeles.
Gone too are the cheesy grins from the Turtles’ animated series (1987?96). ”The original Turtles had mouths that didn’t articulate well,” with huge teeth,” notes Lucasfilm F/X supervisor Pablo Helman, who led a team of more than 350 artists to create the characters’ new look.
The static expressions of this action figure are a thing of the past. Facial performance capture technology has been essential to larger-than-life films for more than a decade, dating back to Andy Serkis’s performance of Gollum in 2001’s The Lord of the Rings. But Helman’s TMNT team created an advanced motion-capture helmet technology that allowed actors in character as the teenage turtles to convey a broader range of expression than ever before. ”It was really important that we capture the facial performances of the actors on set,” explains Helman. ”This is a brand new thing—no project has had this.”
Here’s how the new motion-capture helmet technology worked: two cameras extended from a helmet ”so we could track all the formation on their faces on 180 dots in 3-D spaces,” says Helman. Roughly one terabyte of data a day was gathered and then the real work began. ”We had to put it all in the system, decode it?. And then the animators starting working with it and editing that data. It was the perfect combination of science and artistry.” The technology is slightly more sophisticated than Konami’s 1989 arcade game….
More than two decades after 1990’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which relied mainly on puppetry to bring the foursome to life, the facial-capture technology in this TMNT was the most expensive part of the film, notes Helman. In fact, the visual effects veteran says that for his team, the cult reboot felt more like a ”year-and-a-half science project.”
One thing remains constant between the 1990 and 2014 films: The reptilian warriors—despite their chronological age of 30 years old—are still very much teenagers. ”Turtles are very late-maturing animals,” Kate Mansfield, a marine biologist at the University of Central Florida. ”It’s definitely possible to have this extended teenage period.”
Forget the high-tech tools: The turtles have always used ninja weapons, including during their short run in the 1997 live-action TV show Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation. In addition to the quartet’s trademark weapons—katanas, bo staffs and nunchucks—there will be ”tons of weapons” in the 2014 movie, promises Liebesman. An added bonus? ”In the movie you’ll see an entire weapon wall 60 feet high of almost every samurai weapon you can imagine.”
Megan Fox has long claimed to be a self-described ”nerd” but unexpectedly upped the ante when it comes to her fan-girl obsession with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. ”I was really in love with them,” confesses Fox, who stars as reporter April O’Neil (seen here, second from right, in 2007’s Kevin Munroe-helmed animated fourquel TMNT). ”I have a sister who’s 12 years older than me, so part of it initially was because I wanted to be like my big sister. It’s a really cool project for me because it was a huge part of my childhood.”
The turtles weren’t the only character to undergo a makeover. Fox’s character April, who sported a trademark yellow jumpsuit through Turtles’ history (including in the 2009 animated TV movie Turtles Forever). Fox’s April wears a yellow jacket befitting the new leadership role she takes on in the PG-13 film. ”She’s more of a leader when she explores her relationship with the turtles instead of just the human companion that gets dragged along on the adventure,” says Fox of her revamped character. ”It’s more representative of a modern woman.”
Will Arnett plays cameraman Vernon Fenwick in a version that’s far less wimpy than in the original cartoon (so wimpy, perhaps that he doesn’t even appear in Nickelodeon’s 2012 cartoon above). ”It’s not that he’s wimpy,” insists Arnett of April’s sidekick. ”It’s like listen, it’s none of our business—let’s not get killed over this.
Though there’s no lack of action in the 2014 film, Arnett says he tried hard to stay true to the franchise’s brand of geeky goof when providing comic relief. ”I wanted it to be authentic to the Turtles,” he explains. ”I didn’t want to stick out, like here comes a wise crack!”
Keep clicking for closer looks at the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot.
The 2014 riff on Shredder (Tohoru Masamune) is slicier and dicier than ever before thanks to armor accessorized with a chilling array of knives. ”He’s got a pretty huge blade fetish,” says Liebesman. ”[His] blades are pretty amazing.”
Not to be outdone, a ninjato-armed Leonardo (played by Pete Ploszek and voiced by Johnny Knoxville) cuts an imposing silhouette.
Raphael (Alan Ritchson) wears his sunglasses at night.
Michelangelo (Noel Fisher) hangs in there.
Donatello (Jeremy Howard) wields his b? staff.
Michelangelo, Donatello, and Leonardo are the city’s stewards in the sewer.
The Turtles’ lair, complete with sushi stools, bean bag chairs, pizza box décor, and party-ready disco ball.
Fox’s souped-up April takes in the Turtles’ digs.
The Teens may be goof-offs, but their weapon arsenal shows they really know how to get down to business.
A super-advanced monitoring system helps the foursome keep an eye on crime.