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Shelling out

Adam Zacharias / 21 April 2013

The heroes in a half shell are back to fight crime and devour pizza in a new animated TV series. City Times speaks with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles co-creator Kevin Eastman plus Ciro Nieli, executive producer of the show

Twenty-nine years ago, aspiring cartoonist Kevin Eastman scribbled a masked, nunchuck-wielding turtle to amuse his buddy Peter Laird.

Tickled by the idea, the duo scraped together some cash to create a single-edition comic called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, published under the banner Mirage Studios (so called because there was no actual studio at the time).

The concept revolved around four turtle brothers – Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo and Donatello – who have mutated into human-like beings. Using their martial arts skills, the quartet live in the sewers while fighting crime in New York City.

The premise rapidly gathered steam, leading to a toy line and eventually a 1987 cartoon series, which saw the pizza-loving siblings battling against their arch-enemy Shredder (voiced by James Avery, better known as Uncle Phil on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air). 

Since then, the Ninja Turtles have proven a surprisingly enduring pop culture mainstay – spawning four Hollywood movies to date (with a fifth on the way from director Michael Bay), multiple TV series, comic books and video games, and even Vanilla Ice’s moving ode, Ninja Rap.

The gang are now back on the small screen in the critically-acclaimed new series Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, featuring the vocal talents of Sean Astin (Lord of the Rings), Jason Biggs (American Pie), Rob Paulsen (Pinky and the Brain) and Greg Cipes (Ben 10: Alien Force).

To celebrate the series’ launch in the Middle East, City Times spoke with Ninja Turtles co-creator Kevin plus the show’s executive producer Ciro Nieli, who previously created the cartoon series Super Robot Monkey Team Hyperforce Go!


Kevin, if the Ninja Turtles were alive today, they’d be middle-aged. What do you think they’d be doing?

KEVIN: Probably something really boring! Maybe they’d sit around watching reality TV, bowling and playing bingo. But the perpetual teenager thing is part of superhero lore. Spider-Man’s been a teenager for almost 50 years!

Did you know much about martial arts when you started out on Ninja Turtles, or did you just wing it?

KEVIN: We completely winged it! That is beyond watching Bruce Lee movies and the TV series Kung Fu with David Carradine. We just made up our own martial arts and had a good time making it look as real as we could, not knowing a single thing.

Ciro, is it true your dad owned a pizza shop while you were growing up?

CIRO: That’s correct. I actually put his pizza shop Antonio’s in this series – and I drew his face on the pizza box. I grew up watching Ninja Turtles and eating my father’s pizza, so I guess this is my manifest destiny!

How is the new show different from previous incarnations of Ninja Turtles?

CIRO: There have been so many different versions of the Ninja Turtles in the past, you can pick and choose what was great in each. We took all our favourite Turtle berries and made a Turtle smoothie! Plus technology has allowed our fight scenes to be really strong, and it’s a little smarter and hipper.

How odd has it been seeing the comic book industry go from being marginalised to mainstream?

KEVIN: When I was in high school and told my parents I wanted to draw comic books for a living, I think their worst nightmare was me living in their basement forever! They’d always tell me I needed to learn a trade to get a real job, and my father told me he’d pay for me to go to any school but art school. But we lived through the middle of that change, when comics started becoming both mainstream and respected as an art form. People realised it was a valid opportunity as a professional career, and it was nice to be part of that generation.

CIRO: Once a month, my mum used to have to drive me to the comic book store half an hour away. They were so hard to find, and if you talked about something like The Avengers people would look at you funny. But fast forward to now and you see Comic-Con crawling with hundreds of thousands of people – including beautiful women!

Ciro, how did you come on board for the series?

CIRO: It came to my attention that Nickelodeon was looking for someone, and I presented myself at their doorstep. It was a long process, but I got on their good side and they appreciated my take. It really came down to the simplicity of my pitch – I boiled down what Kevin and Peter had done for so many years and distilled it into a very simple philosophy.

What does your role as executive producer encompass?

CIRO: I have my hands in a lot of it. I did most of the design work in the beginning, I supervise design and storyboarding, I sit in on story meetings, I read scripts and give notes, I see through all the steps of post-production, I approve all sets and lighting…the only aspect I don’t manage is things like music and sound.

Kevin, how difficult is it to not be precious about your work and let other people take the reins?

KEVIN: That to me is one of the most exciting parts. When I was growing up reading superhero comics I’d follow different artists and their take on certain characters. (Legendary comic book artist) Jack Kirby would go from Fantastic Four to Spider-Man to Captain America. So when it came to other people having input on our ideas, we had control of the overall idea, but working with other talents who could bring fresh ideas was very exciting.

Kevin, we hear you’re working on the new feature film too. How’s everything coming along?

KEVIN: I’ve read the script and seen all of the designs. They actually start shooting this month in New York. The story is fantastic, it’s very much rooted in the Ninja Turtles legend and I think the fans are going to be incredibly happy.

What’s the future of the new Ninja Turtles TV show?

CIRO: We’ve got a third series greenlit. I’m in the middle of production on season two, but we haven’t actually aired all of season one in the States yet.

In what ways is the animation process different today than say 25 years ago?

KEVIN: The first Ninja Turtles cartoons were done the familiar way: cell animation with loads of people hand-drawing everything. It was a fantastic world of art, but when I see what Ciro’s doing in the new series with cutting-edge technology, there are a lot of cool opportunities. It still comes down to story though. 

Kevin, what made you hone in on the Ninja Turtles idea after you first thought of it?

KEVIN: It was so completely silly, we were positive it wouldn’t work and no one would believe it for a second. Peter and I were sure we wouldn’t sell a single copy of the first issue. And now here we are nearly 30 years later!


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