In the 34 years of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' existence, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s pizza-obsessed, sewer-fighting mutant heroes have existed in comics, manga, video games, on the big screen, and on stores shelves as a zillion different action figures. It’s one of those rare properties that has thrived from being rebooted for new eyes, keeping their “cowabunga” sensibility strong for generations.
The latest is Nickelodeon’s new animated series, Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which debuts on Monday, Sept. 17. A contemporary tale of the brothers four — Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello, and Michelangelo are voiced by Ben Schwartz, Omar Benson Miller, Josh Brener, and Brandon Mychal Smith, respectively. In this series, they’re already having fun on the streets of NYC when they discover a portal that zaps them, and their buddy, April O’Neil (Kat Graham), to the Hidden City. It opens their world to a host of weird villains like Baron Draxum, and unique mutants of the week.
Developed by artist Andy Suriano and Ant Ward (a supervising producer on the 2012 animated Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has a more distinct look, and 2-D approach, than its predecessors. We talk to the pair about their goals with their show, and exclusively reveal some of their concept art.
How did the two of you come together on this new take on the Turtles?
Ant Ward: Nickelodeon had been playing around with the next phase of the Ninja Turtles for a little bit before either of us were on board. They weren't really finding anything that was sticking. I got a phone call from the network wanting to know if I had any ideas of what I would do with the franchise. I said, "Yeah, absolutely," so I did a little pitch for them and they seemed really eager.
Andy Suriano: I got the exact same call, relatively around the same time. We both put together our own pitches for our version of a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and first they brought us into a conference room together and they say, "Ant, go ahead....” He presented a bunch of images, art, and story points. I was blown away because he not only had similar stuff, but they were really not common images that he'd pulled up. We're both referencing a lot of lesser-known French comics and things like that from the '60s and '70s.
AW: It was very serendipitous. We suddenly found ourselves with a very similar focus.
Ant, you had just worked on the previous animated series, so what did you want to do differently this go around?
AW: I think there are two big elements that I really wanted to zero in on. One was this fantastical element that the 2012 show didn't really play around with. Like leaning into the myth of the Ninja, the mysticism of Ninja, and then also leaning into the hidden world; what is around us, and are we really seeing what we're seeing?
I live in Los Angeles, but my kid was looking at a pizza place across the road and asked me if they were Ninja Turtles in the store. That got me excited [thinking], "What if it wasn't just the store? What if you've got a kid visiting New York and they wonder what's really behind every street corner? What's really in this pizza shop? What's really behind this newspaper stand?"
And the second thing, was that I really wanted to do something very lighthearted and fun and broad, leading into the 2-D animation sensibilities.
What about you, Andy? What was the attraction to dive into this franchise?
AS: I actually had done some work for the 2012 version. I was doing consumer products art and developed the 3-D. I had so much respect for what Ant and the crew had done, previously, that if I was going to be onboard and do something different, then I really wanted to do something different. That was the mandate I put upon myself. There's no reason to retread familiar territory too religiously. So, I just swung for the fences, design-wise. I wanted them to think, "Okay, if this is something I'm going to have to draw, or other artists are going to have to draw, then I want to make it fun and iconic."
Where did you start with the Turtles and their new looks?
AS: In terms of the Turtles themselves, who are still iconic, if you're going to push away from [the past], then we might as well go big, so to speak. We looked at each Turtle from their personalities. We looked at each brother and, Ant and myself, wanted to make sure that they resonated as a family unit. We wanted them to exist as four brothers. We looked at their personalities and decided, "Okay, which overall shapes?"
As a designer, I look at shapes a lot, so it was deciding Raph would be the square. Donnie's personality lends itself to be a rectangle. Leo is a triangle, and Mikey is a circle. Then it was taking on specific turtle species traits, so we incorporated all of that. We wanted them to each have a distinct voice. If you see the way they move, they move in line with their personality traits. Their size, their shape and their weapons also reflect their personalities.
You've made Raph the oldest brother, and changed up their weapons. Were you worried about what fans would think?
AS: It's interesting hearing some people comment about some of our changes. They're all on the mark because it does create lots of really interesting storylines for us, and creates drama and conflict within the family unit, which is something that we can really play with. Ant and I looked at the modern family nowadays. We both have two boys each and we looked at our kids, and our kids' friends, and their schools and the world that we live in. The world that we live in now is a little different than when we were growing up, so we really wanted to show a family unit that reflected. I think it suits our origin story very organically, which will be hinted at, and revealed, as the show goes on.
AW: For us, it was about something that's still familiar but was also unique, so we wanted to pair them up with weapons that were 100% different to what fans would be familiar with, but also might be a bit unexpected initially, and then after a little getting used to, I think it all becomes very clear.
April is African-American in this series, which is a refreshing change that feels like it would have always made sense to the NYC storyline.
AS: We wanted someone that fit organically within New York City, within the story that we knew we wanted to tell with the brothers. We wanted someone that we knew could just balance right off of the brothers very organically and naturally.
AW: We touched base with Kevin [Eastman] and said, "Hey, this is what we want to do." We weren't changing things for the sake of change's sake. But we do think in today's day and age, that representation across the board is important. It felt like a very natural point of representation within the franchise, and also a nice homage to what has come before.
AS: Our April's been friends with the Turtles for many years before the show starts, so she really is already integrated into the family and really, she's the sister of the brothers.
Your take on Splinter is hilariously unexpected. He's often been the wise sage in other mediums, but not so much in the first episode here. How did he come about?
AS: I think wisdom comes in unexpected ways sometimes. We know we're leaning heavily on comedy in this version. He was a natural place to play some humor for the kids to bounce off of. That being said, viewers, I think, will have a really fun time watching Splinter's story as the series progresses.
Let's talk about your visual aesthetic. Your stories take place in New York City and in the portal-accessed Hidden City. Talk about how you developed their looks to distingush them.
AW: We wanted a vibrant, modern New York City that, again, reflected today's New York. When you imagine New York in fiction, especially superhero fiction, you imagine Hell's Kitchen. But if you visit New York, you'll notice that it's a city of constant change. There's all this construction going on, and the new meets the old, side-by-side, at a ferocious rate.
AS: We definitely have clear rules, though, in terms of what you're saying. With New York City, you'll see a lot of purples, bright neons and pinks and blues. You won't see any of that in the Hidden City. The Hidden City is more of the earth.
How much of your stories will take place in one, or the other?
AW: I think there's a balance. Obviously, New York is quintessential Ninja Turtles so it's about having a lot of New York represented in the show, say 70, 75%, as we start to introduce the concept of the Hidden City to the audience. As soon as everybody gets a bit more familiar with this incredible place, we’ll be spending a bit more time down there and exploring that location.
Why 2-D animation for this series?
AS: We use a lot of old comics reference and really dynamic posing. As a designer, I like to push the model to the extreme, as far as it can possibly go. That would, in some cases, break the CG model. Whereas here, we can actually just draw it. We do all our own special poses, which end up being key poses for the overseas animators.
And I don't know if you would be able to tell the scope of the stories we tell in CG. Going to 2-D, in this case, has really just opened up a world. We can bounce from location-to-location between episodes.
AW: Also, coming off, maybe 10 years of working in CG, I really wanted to go back to some of my own 2-D roots and just enjoy that side of the medium a little bit. So, it was a selfish reason as well.
AS: And we don't want to replicate what literally just happened in the 2012 series, which was great. So, that was one more thing we could do to distinguish ourselves from it.
Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles debuts Sept. 17th on Nickelodeon.