'Turtles' live again in CGI spinoff 'TMNT'

By Martin A. Grove
"Turtles" talk: Reimagining a franchise that's grossed over $256 million domestically but ran out of boxoffice steam 14 years ago poses big challenges that demand exactly the right filmmaker.

A case in point is the series "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," whose fourth film opening wide Friday via Warner Bros. is the computer animated family adventure "TMNT." Freshening up "Turtles," which originated as a 1984 comic book by Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman, was a perfect fit with writer-director Kevin Munroe's background in CGI, comic books and video games. Moreover, the timing for the new digital "TMNT" looks encouraging considering the enthusiastic reception moviegoers have just given Sony's comic book driven "Ghost Rider" ($110.4 million in 31 days) and Warner Bros.' graphic novel based "300" ($129.2 million in 10 days).

The first three "Turtles" films, distributed by New Line Cinema, were live action adventures that got off on the right foot about 17 years ago. "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" opened March 30, 1990 to $25.4 million and went on to gross $135.3 million domestically. "Turtles II" arrived March 22, 1991 to $20 million and ended up with $78.7 million domestically. "Turtles III" kicked off March 19, 1993 to $12.4 million and wound up with $42.3 million domestically. By then the films were running out of steam and for the past 14 years the "Turtles" were sidelined theatrically although they lived on as a successful syndicated television cartoon series. Today there are high hopes that Munroe's computer animated "TMNT" will give the movie franchise a new lease on life.

"TMNT," a Warner Bros. Pictures and Weinstein Co. presentation of an Imagi Animation Studios production, features the voice talents of Chris Evans, Sarah Michelle Gellar, the late Mako, Kevin Smith, Patrick Stewart, Ziyi Zhang and Laurence Fishburne as its narrator. Produced by Thomas K. Gray, H. Galen Walker and Paul Wang, it was executive produced by Francis Kao, Peter Laird, Gary Richardson and Frederick U. Fierst.

While "TMNT" marks Munroe's feature directorial debut, it also follows years of work on his part as a writer, artist and director for companies like Disney, Warner Bros., the Cartoon Network, Fox, the Jim Henson Co., Stan Winston Studios and Nickelodeon. On the comic book front, Munroe wrote the series "El Zombo Fantasma," which he co-created with Dave Wilkins, for Dark Horse Comics, and "Olympus Heights" for IDW Publishing.

"With the franchise, it had sort of gone away after the third movie," Munroe told me when we spoke recently. "They had some live action TV (shows) that didn't really work out that well. I think the (plan) with the rights holders, Mirage Studios, was to let it sort of die out for a year or two and in that time they were recreating the new version of the TV series that they started in 2003. It's basically revived the entire franchise and contributed, I think, to that whole $6 billion empire that's been created to date with them. It's just an obscene amount of reach that this property has. And then they started talking about trying to expand it into the movie space.

"At the same time, the production company Imagi started up. They were doing 'Father of the Bride' for NBC and DreamWorks and they were basically creating a pipeline in Hong Kong (as) it's a Hong Kong based studio. They were looking to figure out what their 'in' was going to be into the world of feature animation because that's what they wanted to get into. I was doing a rewrite on another script for them called 'Cat Tale.' It was this very cute and cuddly (feature) -- everything that you would expect from a CG movie. They said they were going to work on the 'Turtles' and I was like, 'I'm a huge Turtles fan!' I had like issue No. 1 and there's something about it that always appealed to me. So I basically pitched what I thought I would do with it and one lunch sort of began another and then here we are! It was pretty cool. They just got to the point where they asked me, 'Would you be interested in directing it?' I was like, 'Are you kidding? It'd be awesome!'"

At that point Munroe went to meet with "Turtles" co-creator Peter Laird, the sole owner of Mirage Studios, Inc. "He basically had approval of the writer and director," Munroe said. "I spent the day with him talking about what he wanted from the franchise and what I wanted to do with it and then at the end he signed my first issue and he drew a little picture of Raphael and said, 'Dear Kev, Make a good movie -- or else!' When I opened it up on the way back to the airport that's how I found out I got the gig. It was very cool. So, yeah, here we are."

That was in the fall of 2004. Munroe, of course, had never directed a feature film. "You'd think they were insane when they signed up to do it," he laughed, "but it's great because I think it worked out. I had worked in every other facet of animation. I'd written scripts and I'd done development and I'd done storyboards and I'd worked in CGI on stuff like Christmas specials (for television). So I'd done like every aspect of it, but never in one encompassing thing. And (with) a company just starting out, I think they were sort of in a position to take a chance because they were trying to this for a price, but not in a sense that you would actually see (how little it cost) on the screen. And also, at the same time, (Laird) had a very specific vision for what he wanted.

"I think it was about him clicking with somebody who wanted to take the franchise in that direction. They'd met with lots of other people but, I guess, I was just the one who really was passionate enough about it and really had specific goals about what I wanted to do with the franchise. I'm thankful to this day that they took a chance -- especially with CG it's so hard to have a movie that looks like it has a point of view. So often these things are just put through the wringer for years and years at a time and so many people work on them (that) they really feel at times that they could come from anybody -- like it's a team of X amount of producers and X amount of directors. And the goal with (the new) 'Turtles' is to feel like it comes from a specific vision for what this movie could be. It sort of became the rebellious little movie."

When Munroe came on board there was no screenplay yet: "We were talking to a couple other screenwriters and then I just kept on pushing (saying), 'No, this is what I'd rather do with the story.' I had a very specific tone because mixing that sort of action and comedy is a very specific thing. Most people were just coming and wanting to make it too funny. I think that version of the movie could do really well, but we wanted to do something where it sort of pushes the envelope a little bit more and says that animation is more than just comedic animals bumping into each other and farting! Eventually, the company said, 'We need to get going with the screenplay' and Imagi just said, 'Well, do you want to write it, too?' And I said, 'Of course.'

"I think on this schedule any time you can sort of consolidate any of those things into one person it's probably a little more helpful because we had a very fast turnaround. From the time that we finished the screenplay to today, it's been probably under two years. I mean, after doing a treatment I started the script. We started full production in March of 2005 so it's been just under two years and that's incredibly quick. We had a really intense treatment period with Peter Laird, who had really specific ideas of what he wanted from the whole thing. So I started working with him and then rewrote the script."

At the same time, he added, "We were doing preproduction and redesigning the Turtles and starting to go and create this universe. And that's when I hired my production designer. We had a really small crew here based in L.A. and we started to do the film. With the production designer, I really wanted a unique look to it. We ended up going with a live action production designer and art director, Simon Murton, who's worked on 'The Crow' and (such films as 'The Matrix Revolutions,' 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' and 'I, Robot'). He's just got this really cool genre sort of eye. So it was neat to take some of the live action aesthetics and apply them to the movie because it just had to feel different to me. I didn't want it to look like any other CG animated feature out there."

Asked about casting the film's voice talents, Munroe explained, "The whole point with the Turtles is that we really wanted to sort of go the Christopher Reeve route in that you look at Superman and he's Superman -- you don't think of him as being (a superstar actor) -- not Tom Cruise playing Leonardo or something. We just wanted to hire these really talented voice actors. We went out and got these guys who are all seasoned pros and since day one it's been a fight to keep (the casting) that way. You can imagine the studio's point of view is, 'Let's just front load it with every hot young actor out there.' But, at the same time, for me that sort of pulled away the magic of who the characters are. So we did sort of stand strong and we ended up winning that battle.

"And we ended up doing some celebrity casting for the other voices. It's cool because, at the same time, it doesn't feel like they're cast just because they're celebrities. Their voices sort of fit the characters, which is your ideal goal. And it's also like a really cool genre cast. I mean, we've got Sarah Michelle Gellar as April and Chris Evans as Casey, Patrick Stewart as Max Winters, our villain, and we've got Zhang Ziyi, who's one of our female villains, as well. And then Kevin Smith does a little cameo. So you've got Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Gellar) and you've got Captain Picard or Professor X (Stewart) and you've got Johnny Storm (Evans) from 'Fantastic Four' and the girl from 'Crouching Tiger' (Zhang). So it's kind of neat and it still fits the movie, which is great. It really works."

As for the challenges he faced in bringing "TMNT" to the screen, Munroe noted, "The biggest challenge for me was just making a movie. This shows it was my first movie. Beyond trying to get the movie done, I think (it was a challenge) because it was the first movie for the studio (Imagi). There were like 400 people in Hong Kong. For half of them, this was their first art based job. So half of (the challenge) was 'art school' and half of it was just constantly communicating with a large group of people who for the most part don't speak English except for all the production managers and everybody who sort of interprets all the comments and stuff. And (part of the challenge was) trying to still maintain the quality that we wanted. That, I think, was the biggest challenge. It was just the machine that this company was and sort of beating it into shape. In the end, it ended up working out great. But it was definitely something that wasn't a walk in the park from the beginning."

Since an animated movie is essentially all storyboards strung together, I asked if he'd bothered to do boards while the film was in production: "The funny thing with animation is that you basically edit up front. Ideally there's very little left on the cutting room floor in animation simply because you can't afford to over animate anything. So, yeah, it was basically like a glorified TV scale (but) on a much bigger scale -- but like a TV setup where we have the writer-director, we have the design team and we storyboard the entire thing. And after storyboarding we take it to animatic, which is just like a flip book put to sound. And you can actually sit down and watch the hour and a half static image version of your movie and sort of see (what it looks like) and see how it feels.

"Then you do a previz pass where you do like really low poly-animation, where it's just basically like these bad looking action figures sliding around the screen. And that's where you set your camera moves and stuff. And then that gets shipped off to Hong Kong (to be animated). So you previz the entire movie. So, really, the movie exists ever since you do the first animatic. There's a form of the movie unlike (in) live action where you have to wait until you get your dailies and start putting stuff together. It's more controlled, but it can also drive you crazy, I think, because you can tend to over develop stuff sometimes, too, in animation, which is a bit of a pitfall."

Animating the film, by the way, wasn't nearly as high tech an operation as you might suppose. "The majority (of the computers used in making the movie) were in Hong Kong and it's all PC-based stuff," Munroe pointed out. "There's no big proprietary software or anything. It's all basically just desktop PCs with (the) Maya animation program. It's pretty popular. We use it in (creating) videogames. Renderman was the other main rendering package they used to do it. And that, again, is an off-the-shelf kind of (software). It's a crazy world. 'Toy Story' came along and the stuff that they used to make that movie (was very special at the time) and now if you have the money to sink into it you can have the setup at home and do it yourself. It's exciting and it's scary at the same time.

"I was talking with some of the sound crew yesterday and they were saying that with the advent of Final Cut Pro and all these sound editing tools everybody sort of thinks they're a filmmaker. I mean, some people can undercut prices from other people simply because they have the equipment now, but it's cool. It's almost like it opens up the field a little bit more and takes the club aspect out of it, I think. Anybody can just sit down and animate a short if they want to."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From April 5, 1989's column: "With all the recent talk about who was going to buy MGM/UA, a multiple choice quiz might have offered (a) Marvin Davis, (b) Sony, (c) Elizabeth Dickenson Industries, (d) Rupert Murdoch, (e) Warner Communications, (f) Giancarlo Parretti or (g) none of the above.

"As things turned out, the correct answer is g. Before Friday's news that Australia's Qintex Group is taking MGM/UA off Kirk Kerkorian's hands and then selling MGM's name, logo and various other assets back to him, virtually no one in Hollywood could have identified Qintex. Now suddenly it's a major player in the burgeoning worldwide business of producing and distributing filmed entertainment.

"UA is the second major studio to be bought by foreign interests. Twentieth Century Fox, the first, was purchased by Rupert Murdoch, who went on to become an American citizen. What does UA falling into foreign hands mean to Hollywood? That question was asked of me by both NBC Nightly News and Cable News Network in interviews last weekend. (Indeed, as we spoke it remained to be seen if Japan's Sony Corp. was going to take over MCA.) Only time will really tell, but my hunch is that UA will be a lot better off in any other hands than it was in limbo as MGM's corporate shadow.

"After being combined, divided and recombined repeatedly with MGM, UA had lost much of its old identity as a major studio. Earlier in its history, UA had had the misfortune of being owned for a time by Transamerica Corp., a conglomerate that was largely in the insurance business and had absolutely no perception of what Hollywood was about.

"Transamerica let the management team that had made UA a great studio -- Arthur Krim, Eric Pleskow, Mike Medavoy, William Bernstein and the late Robert Benjamin -- walk out after a dispute (reportedly over leasing a Mercedes-Benz for a top executive) to form Orion Pictures. The only thing the Transamerica-installed management that replaced them is remembered for is making 'Heaven's Gate.'

"The 'Gate' debacle prompted Transamerica to get out of the film business, selling UA to Kerkorian in 1981 for $380 million. Kerkorian merged UA with MGM and over the years hired various management teams to run the studios. Ted Turner's purchase of MGM/UA in 1986 (after which he sold UA back to Kerkorian, who then bought MGM's name and logo) followed a long period in which both studios were in limbo awaiting completion of that deal ..."

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.