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Credit: NECA

Exclusive: The incredible step by step artistry of making NECA's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles toys

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Sep 27, 2018, 11:38 AM EDT

For thirty years, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have been a staple of pop culture. The animated series of the late ‘80s has been reincarnated a number of times in various formats and gave way to one of the longest running toy lines in history. In all those years however, the 1990 movie versions of the Leonardo, Donatello, Michaelangelo, and Raphael have been criminally underrepresented. It wasn’t until NECA released its quarter-scale incarations just a few years ago the live-action Turtles were finally given their due.

As successful as this larger line has been for NECA, quarter-scale collecting is a niche within a niche. For this past San Diego Comic-Con, NECA worked its magic to bring a limited edition box set of the Turtles at one-twelfth scale to fans attending the show. Little did fans know that at that very same time NECA was working with Nickelodeon and Gamestop to find a way to bring the 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to the masses.

In an exclusive visit to NECA’s headquarters, SYFY WIRE spoke with the team behind the figures to learn not just how this partnership came about, but also how NECA crafted its screen-accurate 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles figures.

inside neca studio

NECA’s history with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles stretches all the way back to 2008. That year, the company released figures inspired by Peter Laird’s and Kevin Eastman’s iconic Mirage comic. After 2008 however, Nickelodeon acquired the license to the Turtles from 4Kids Entertainment, and it would be another six years before NECA revisited the brand.

Around 2014, discussions between NECA’s Director of Product Development, Randy Falk, and Nickelodeon began in earnest about what NECA wanted to do with the Turtles. Playmates has been the primary licensee since 1988, giving the company exclusive rights on what could be sold where, when, and in what size. As long as it wasn’t in direct competition with Playmates, NECA had almost free reign. Those initial talks led to the SDCC 2016 exclusive Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game sets. NECA had started a video game-inspired line in 2013, and the response and sales of those stylized figures made them a priority for the company, even if the 1990 movie was the “crown jewel.”

neca tmnt raphael

During SDCC 2016, NECA stunned fans when it revealed the first glimpse at the 1990 movie line, a series of quarter-scale figures that were so detailed, they looked as if they were fresh out of Jim Henson’s studio. Before any of the four characters could hit shelves though, they each had to make it through a lengthy development process from initial idea to finished product.

“From sculpting, which can take a month or two, to final produced figure, it’s more often than not at least a year until the figure can come out depending on how complicated the figure is too," Production Supervisor Stefan Folkins said. "Adding weapons or more hands, how complicated the paint deco is, or adjusting the package to house it all in, that all factors into how long it takes.”

neca tmnt prototypes in progress

Credit: NECA

Whether a figure is being developed for one-twelfth scale or quarter-scale, all of the sculpts start at around 12-inches at the studio. Those scaling efforts can lead to challenges of their own, but the more pressing issue for the 1990 Turtles was first finding enough reference to render the four heroes to NECA’s standards.

Even with the higher-resolution copies of the movie available today, a grain persists when enlarging the images beyond the scope of the letterboxed presentation. Fortunately for NECA, one of the original movie costumes had been sent to a nearby studio for restoration. Tom Spina Designs, most famous for its work on several Star Wars-related projects, was tasked with refreshing one of the foam latex Leonardo costumes to its former glory. Several of NECA’s staffers even went to take a look at the memorabilia for documentation purposes.

tmnt tom spina restoration

Credit: Tom Spina Designs

“It was interesting,” painter Geoffrey Trapp said. “It’s kind of funny how all that stuff deteriorates over time. It was nice to see the colors, but the suit was severely degenerated. The original stuff just deteriorates so much… It was cool to see an original costume, but it was also kind of sad too.”

Even when pieces like that costume can’t be seen in person, hunting down images of similar props from private collections becomes necessary, too. Reference from the film and older magazines only revealed so much, and even seeing the pieces no longer in their former glory could help fill in the blanks for smaller details.

neca tmnt shredder gauntlets proto

Credit: NECA

“It’s piecing different parts of the film together and searching online to find people who’ve bought the props,” fabricator Roger Fernandez explained. “That comes in handy. I found someone that had a set of Leo’s swords, and that really helped especially with the wrap. You could see how the leather went around the hilt and everything. You find all these little details that just by watching the movie you would never notice.”

Once all those combined sculpting and fabrication efforts are completed, the prototype figures are passed over to the paint team. All NECA’s figures are painted by hand in the studio, with the team of Geoffrey Trapp and John Wardell handling each and every piece themselves. Those hand-painted masters are then sent to the manufacturing factory in China to use when the toys go into mass production.

neca geoffrey trapp tmnt

Even though the first attempt at a figure’s paint app might look good and make it through the arduous approval process, that doesn’t mean NECA doesn’t revisit pieces to improve them if there is time. Since Donatello was the first figure in the line to hit shelves, the initial run has a slightly different look than the rest of the Turtles, and subsequent re-release of Donnie.

“Initially I hadn’t done as much of the spotting on the Turtles, and because the releases were spaced out, we had a little more time on the later Turtles,” Trapp said, looking over different Donatello heads. “You can see the spotting changed a little bit. Donatello, who was the first released, his spots weren’t as specific. We added them in on later when we put them all together in the four-pack. That was a change made between the 18-inch figures and the four-pack. The original Donatello doesn’t have the spotting, but the newer versions will have the specific spots.”

neca 1990 tmnt donatello variations

The process remained nearly identical when NECA secretly moved forward with its one-twelfth scale versions for the Comic-Con exclusive. Some minor adjustments had to be made when shrinking the figures down, like finessing the textures of the Turtles’ skins, but the heavy lifting was already done. All that remained was to get the figures manufactured in time, and put a special touch on the release since it was so limited.

neca 1990 tmnt packaging

NECA is well-known in the collecting community for the elaborate packing it creates for exclusives at Comic-Con. The Turtles especially have been host to a number of fan-favorite display boxes, and designer Chris Raimo and photographer Stephen Mazurek went all out to craft another memorable package for the ‘90 Turtles.

“I’ve wanted those movie-accurate Turtles since I was a kid," Raimo explained. "Usually we try to replicate the feel of the VHS boxes or the old ‘90s promos. We start there, and we adjust it to fit our needs. I do an endless amount of research to find the right images. For the SDCC set, we scanned in Randy’s old VHS box to have an exact replica of it. If you look at the packaging, some of the dents and dings are actually from that cassette case.”

neca tmnt sdcc slip cover

The process didn’t end with a simple scanning of an old home video case. Mazurek reworked all the imagery from that original package to star the figures NECA worked so tirelessly to create.

“With the VHS box, we specifically took that box and I emulated exactly what was on the back of the case,” Mazurek said. “People may not even realize, but we actually posed the figures exactly like it was on the front of that original box. On the back, there were a couple things that didn’t work so it’s a little bit different than the actual VHS. My job was to look at that and emulate it as closely as possible. Chris, who did all the design work, was instrumental in that as well.”

neca tmnt photography

While fans were both celebrating the figures and lamenting that SDCC was the only way to get them, Randy was working hard behind the scenes to explore more consumer options for this line. Since the closure of Toys ‘R Us, it’s been a challenge to find partners, but Gamestop and Target are certainly giving NECA a chance. Gamestop, in particular, is proving to be a strong ally in a post-TRU world.

It did take some convincing to explain how NECA’s version could be successful in Gamestops where other TMNT toys were not, but the retailer eventually bought in to NECA's plan. Since Playmates had no retail presence inside Gamestop, Nickelodeon approved of the exclusive offering, which will allow more people than ever to obtain some of NECA’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle toys.

neca tmnt michelangelo prototype

Credit: NECA

Due out next February, the four original Turtles will be available separately and in a bundle, but they aren’t the only TMNT figures NECA is planning on bringing to retail. The 18-inch Raphael in his trench coat will also find his way to stores in a smaller scale… eventually.

Releasing the alternate version of Raphael at quarter-scale gave NECA much-needed time to invest in the Foot Clan and Shredder figures, and will do likewise when released at the one-twelfth scale. Yes, NECA is also planning for the villain figures to eventually see release with these new, smaller Turtles, too. It’s not really a question of if, but rather when, since there are still so many other variables to get through. Most notably, releasing the actual quarter-scale versions first.

necan 1990 tmnt foot clan prototype

Credit: NECA

The Foot Clan grunt was shown off this past Comic-Con, and is on track to arrive by the end of the year. Early next year, the movie version of Shredder will finally round out the larger 1990 line. Despite sharing some similarities to the Foot soldier in the build, the sculpt for Shredder brought about some painstaking detail work for Alex Heinke.

“The original sculpt for Shredder was done by Trevor Zammit,” Heinke said. “When we blew them up to full-scale, a lot of details weren’t there. I went back in on Shredder and did all the chain mail and stuff on the armor. There’s a lot of intricate detail on the armor that didn’t come out when it was enlarged."

“Doing the chainmail is one of the most difficult things," Heinke continued. "I can do other metal or leather textures pretty easily, but chainmail is always a challenge. There’s a repetition to it, but you want a small amount of chaos too. I’ve seen chainmail done digitally where every link is identical, and something looks off about it. You want that little bit of chaos, but to do every link the same is tough.”

The intricacies of the mesh and mail are impressive for the scale NECA is crafting these figures at, and Shredder looks to continue the company’s efforts to provide the “quintessential, ultimate versions” of the silver screen interpretations.

neca 1990 tmnt shredder proto

Credit: NECA

Randy is hopeful they’ll be able to expand all incarnations in both characters, and to a wider audience. Whether that means more convention exclusives or store exclusives at Gamestop or Target, it’s all about finding the balance. At least for now, there’s plenty to keep fans happy and busy while NECA plots the next steps for its heroes in a half-shell.