SDCC: The talent behind Nickelodeon’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

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There have been many iterations of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series over the last two decades, but Nickelodeon’s 3D-animated version of the turtles has the perfect mix of action and comedy that reminds me why I loved watching the cartoon as a kid. What really brings the show to life are some great writing and amazing voice talent that bring everything together. At San Diego Comic-Con we got to pick the brains of the people behind the show.

Our trek into the world of the Turtles began with Brandon Auman, executive producer and head writer of TMNT and executive producer Ciro Nieli. Right away we got into a conversation about Ash vs Evil Dead with Bruce Campbell, which led into writing Season 3’s first episode, “Within the Woods,” which had a very Friday the 13th horror movie feel. What about an Evil Dead-themed episode? Ciro Nieli replied, “We’ve definitely done homages to Evil Dead at least four or five times. I think we had two episodes that were at least 30% Evil Dead like, mixed with the Thing…or giant insects. I mean there are so many story ideas that fuel things that I really loved when I was a kid that I kind of go back to.”

I asked them when writing the show for kids, how was it for them being able to write in all these horror-themed episodes?

“We never think of this show as a kids show,” replied Ciro. “The last thing you want to do is pander to children. You don’t want to someday live in a world where children were pandered to, that are grown up. I feel it’s our responsibility to treat them as equals and entertain them as we would adults. For Brandon to sit down and write the episodes, it came very naturally.” Brandon added, “Yea those things were the easiest things to write, but like Ciro said, you want to appeal to kids, you also want to appeal to some of the older fans, and you want to appeal to the parents sitting down and watching with their kids.”

So how does it feel for them working on the show, especially with fans of the original series also following? “Turtles unto itself is great by design, conceptually, and visually. It doesn’t matter who draws it, the concept is so rock solid. The idea of a turtle with knee pads, a ninja sword, and a bandanna, any great or bad artist knows how to draw a ninja turtle in their own way and own it,” said Ciro.

Brandon added, “Even Seth Green,” which lead to both of them cracking up

.Ciro said, “He [Seth] draws Ninja Turtles on his scripts.”

When I asked them what some of their favorite cartoons were when growing up, names like G.I. Joe, Transformers, Dungeons and Dragons, The Real Ghostbusters, Thunder Cats, M.A.S.K and He-Man were mentioned. Brandon said that the first cartoon that blew his mind was Tranzor Z, also known in Japan as Mazinger Z, which was different from other cartoons because people died in the series and cried. In college they were influenced by cartoons like Batman: The Animated series and Ren and Stimpy, and obsessed over the Tick. Their biggest inspiration of all were Looney Toons.

When talking about the voice talent the show had featured in the last three season, I had to ask what are some names they would love to add in the upcoming seasons. Both happily replied with names like Harvey Keitel, Jeff Goldblum, Barbara Steele, Bill Murray and Bruce Campbell, with him playing some strange version of himself or Ash, slightly older, extremely handsome man with great hair and a pension for trouble and good timing.

It wouldn’t be fun without chatting with the turtles themselves, so soon after we had a few moments with Rob Paulsen (Donatello), Greg Cipes (Michelangelo) and Sean Astin (Raphael) about their roles in the show.

How was it going from playing Raphael in the original TMNT series (1987) to Donatello in the new Nickelodeon series? 

Rob Paulsen: It was a huge surprise, but an incredible thrill to get another crack at this storied (no pun intended) evergreen franchise and this iteration. As proud as I am that I will always be the original Raphael, this is probably the purest expression of turtle mythology to date. That’s because the people that are making it (Ciro Nieli, Brandon Auman and their team), grew up watching Turtles and were huge turtle fans. When we did the original show, the only people who really knew the whole mythology were Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. So now we have a whole generation of people your age who get turtles, and the reigns were turned over to people who really get it… are passionate and are turtle fans themselves and really respect the fans and the fanbase.

How was it taking over the role of Raphael in the new series? 

Sean Astin: I love the part. I really didn’t know that much about the turtles. I had my own relationship with the idea of the turtles because of my little brother-in-law. I felt I was too old for them when it first came out, or I was taking myself too seriously or something. For whatever reason I wasn’t a turtles guy growing up until my little brother-in-law.

We brought him to Disney World, and he didn’t care about any of the movies, franchises or characters. All [he] wanted to do was meet a turtle. One of the locations had a turtle walk around, and we got it set up where we could have a meet, and it happened to be Raphael that he met. We were waiting in this little private room and in walks Raph and he almost fainted. He was only four or five years old and I was trying to figure out what it was about the turtles and what struck me is that they are a family, that they are brothers and the connection they have are deeper than most people.

When I ultimately got called to come in and audition for Raph 20 years later…15 years later, I sort of had that memory coming in and then I saw the lines of dialogue that they had for the character, and he is like the badass. He is really fun; he just says all the kind of stuff, parts I normally don’t get to play as an actor.. I play a Hobbit, I play Rudy, I play these characters that are sweet and not the tough guy.

Greg, when I see you playing Michelangelo and Beast Boy, it seems you have a lot of fun being both characters. Do you incorporate any of Beast Boy into Mikey?

Greg Cipes: Both characters are completely different, but both are just definitely close to my soul. I grew up with Mikey since I was a little boy, around seven or eight year old, and Mikey got me into meditation, surfing, skateboarding, martial arts and ultimately it’s kind of who I am. For Beast Boy, it was something I ultimately got to create, fresh in a way and he’s just more wild free, unhinged crazy guy.

When asked who their favorite voice actors to work with are, the first name was Kevin Michael Richardson. Paul said, “He could read the phone book and be entertaining. He is super talented.” Other names included Clancy Brown, Christian Lanz, Nolan North, Jeffrey Combs, and Corey Feldman, which brought up the turtle fraternity of previous voice actors and people involved with the Ninja Turtles.

You can watch the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on Nickelodeon and at Nick.com.

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