Home Channels Events SDCC2015: Lean, Green, Mean, Fighting “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” Roundtable Interview

SDCC2015: Lean, Green, Mean, Fighting “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” Roundtable Interview

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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Season 4

Teenage Mutant Ninja TurtlesThe latest incarnation of mega franchise Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles currently airs on Nickelodeon. During San Diego Comic Con 2015, Toonzone News met up with producers Ciro Nielli and Brandon Auman for a quick Q&A.

TOONZONE NEWS: What was your very first exposure to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?

BRANDON AUMAN: My first experience was with the original Mirage comics. The early run, that’s how I got into them, and just totally influenced me and getting into anthropomorphic animals.

TOONZONE NEWS: Do you remember the first arc you read?

BRANDON AUMAN: It was that first run, that early run. I’m old.

CIRO NIELI: Same for me. My mom took me to comic shops once a month, and I happen to be growing up in the Northeastern United States. I grew up outside Philly, and we were kind of in the area where those books shipped. They weren’t fully shipped out to all the US, and that was the corner they were easy to get them. I went one day and the comic was there, the first issue. It was $1.50, I bought it. That first arc came and went in one issue. They met and killed Shredder. That was 1984. I was 28 years old, I was a little too old for comics, but it’s okay.

BRANDON AUMAN: 28 years old? He was like ten.

Teenage Mutant Ninja TurtlesQ: So if you were a fan of the original comics, did you think the 80’s cartoon got it all wrong?

CIRO NIELI: Yes. You’ve got to understand, I spent four years telling all my friends how they didn’t know anything because they weren’t down with Ninja Turtles. Then the cartoon came out, mainstream, and it completely contradicted all the cool factors that I described about the comic I was reading, so I almost had a violent allergic reaction to the cartoon when it first came out because it was so different than what I had grown to love. Turtles to me was the most amazing thing that was ever shown to be conceived, so yeah, I didn’t like the show at first.

BRANDON AUMAN: Yeah, same with me. I remember being in school and my friends were like oh, Ninja Turtles is coming on, it’s a cartoon, and I was getting more and more stoked, and I was like, I hope it’s going to be good.

CIRO NIELI: You don’t even think it’s could be bad back then because we’re just so young.

BRANDON AUMAN: But there was this anticipation. It was like a countdown to the show is going to start. I remember I watched the first episode and I was like “Are you freakin’ kidding me?” and I immediately tuned out.

CIRO NIELI: I later learned in life that that cartoon was just training for me to watch Episode I. The thing is, it’s about anticipation versus reality. I understand why people love it, it’s fun, but loving the comics, it’s not what you wanted as a kid.

BRANDON AUMAN: We were just slightly too old at the time. Before that, the comic could get dark, it was dark, and it was very adult, but the concept of it lends to a children’s series. I don’t want to say you have to water it down, but you water it down and turn it into this goofy thing and then it becomes a phenomenon. As soon as you take the dark elements out, it goes worldwide and it’s a huge, giant deal, but it just wasn’t for us at the time because we were just a little bit too old. Because we’re old men.

Teenage Mutant Ninja TurtlesCIRO NIELI: I was glad that I got to make this series because in retrospect, I have a strange affection for that 80’s show finally. In retrospect, I like it. After 30, 35 years of fandom, it makes sense. But at the time, it wasn’t the first thing I wanted as the coming out to the world Turtles party. That comic was really this punk rock rag. It was made in a garage, it felt like, almost.

BRANDON AUMAN: It kind of was, and that’s the thing, it’s like, with our series, we try to make it sort of an amalgamation of the classic Mirage comics and some of the 80’s cartoon elements, the funnier goofier aspects, but we still try and keep it grounded, and the humor isn’t completely ridiculous. It’s grounded humor. It’s almost like a movie, in a way. We see every episode every week as being a mini movie.

TOONZONE NEWS: What was the last Turtles project before this?

CIRO NIELI: 2007. The series was 2K3, then the movie, then it kind of really just there was a period of three or four years where you couldn’t find toys on the shelves anywhere. There was no Turtle presence in the universe for, I’d say, four years.

BRANDON AUMAN: They didn’t have anything to back it, that’s the thing.

CIRO NIELI: The movie had their toyline, that didn’t do well.

BRANDON AUMAN: It tanked.

CIRO NIELI: By 2008? By the time I was developing in 2009, I remember being Turtle hungry and looking for stuff anywhere outside my collection. So you do things like go to Toys R Us and it was just a ghost town.

BRANDON AUMAN: Was it just the NECA Turtles?

CIRO NIELI: The NECA Turtles was the only thing. That was the only thing that happened between 2007 and 2K12. NickTurtles, I think is easier.

Teenage Mutant Ninja TurtlesTOONZONE NEWS: What was your approach to bringing the Turtles to a new generation?

CIRO NIELI: There was a lot of weird pitches. Everybody came out of the woodwork. Apparently, there were 200 people that pitched. I asked, “Who are they?” and they were like, “You wouldn’t believe it. “Anyone and everyone. People came from across different media. There was such a huge love of Turtles and everyone wanted to be a part of it. I got a sense of some of the pitches while I was pitching because it wasn’t as simple as me just pitching once and getting in.

BRANDON AUMAN: You told me some really weird ones.

CIRO NIELI: There were some really weird ones. There was one where they dropped “Teenage” or it was just called “Teenage Mutant Turtles” or something like that and they were on bikes and delivered pizza.

BRANDON AUMAN: Or Just “Mutant Ninja Turtles”.

CIRO NIELI: And Mikey was dressed like Flava Flav.

TOONZONE NEWS: Was this in anticipation of the Michael Bay movie?

CIRO NIELI: No, no, no.

BRANDON AUMAN: That wasn’t even around then.

CIRO NIELI: That came way after us. There were some other ones like in the not too distant future Shredder–in this Orwellian not too distant future, Shredder has taken over the universe and everyone almost like this junior foot brigade is being trained. All children are taken into that. The turtles were teenage boys, and Michelangelo was a girl, but they were humans.

BRANDON AUMAN: They weren’t even turtles.

CIRO NIELI: And at midnight, they would turn into turtles. They were taking pitches from everyone.

BRANDON AUMAN: And kids love dystopian societies, let’s face it. But even Ciro’s early pitch was a little bit different. Master Splinter was already dead, and things were changing around, but I think the reason why Nickelodeon was most into Ciro’s version is that it was probably the purest version. Everybody else was trying to change it, and why do you need to? The wheel’s not broken. Why do you need to change it? Keep it pure. I think this version that we’ve got now is the purest version you can get. It celebrates all the previous versions of the Turtles as well.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Season 2 FinaleNIELI: When I pitched it, I talked about the dynamic of how the show would play, and they turned and asked me what are the Turtles like, and I said, “What do you mean?” Mikey is the party dude, Donny does machines, I didn’t understand the question. So the focused switched to, “You’ve got to do something different with April,” which I would’ve anyway, but it wasn’t too different. To me, she’s the same April we all known, but we’re catching up with her at a younger time where you’re able to let the Turtles influence her and empower her as opposed to coming upon her middle aged and the damsel in distress. That was the sole purpose of how we changed her. For the most part, I looked within Turtles. You sit down and you write down on paper, these are the things I like about these. I made a whole list, I quantified what made the Turtles work, and I amplified that. Simple enough.

TOONZONE NEWS: Favorite moments while working on the series?

CIRO NIELI: We always kind of do a nod. In a weird way, we’ve always done so many episodes, but you can kind of string along the first 12 Mirage comics and the one shots. Whether it’s the Raphael one shot or issue 10 of Mirage, the Leo one shot, there’s these great stories that were told in the first 12 Mirage books, and we’ve done those. I think we’ve done all those stories, in a way. Gone to the farmhouse. All the classic stuff.

BRANDON AUMAN: But beside the Mirage books, we also look into the movie stuff, which also kind of addressed the Mirage storylines as well, but we also had references to the original live action movies, there’s even references to some of the 80’s cartoons. There are a couple of jokes, like Mikey wiping his face and it’s an 80’s Mikey face, and some of the others. We try to pull from every version of the previous Turtles, because we love those versions, and it’s also fun and just cool. It’s kind of a fun little aside that fans like, but for the most part, we tell our own stories. We don’t necessarily rely on it.

CIRO NIELI: Going to work everyday, we’re not writing Turtle comics. We’re not geeking out on Ninja Turtles, we’re trying to tell good stories. Turtles happen to be our actors.

Teenage Mutant Ninja TurtlesAUMAN: And sometimes we’ll pull from things we love. Like the Toxic Avenger or Evil Dead or The Thing. Ciro and I are huge horror fans, so Cannibal Holocaust, Cannibal Ferox. The Turtles sometimes eat human flesh. No, I’m just kidding. That doesn’t happen.

CIRO NIELI: It will happen, maybe. Who knows? Just keep watching. It wouldn’t be cannibalism, right? It’s a switch on Cannibal Ferox where they eat turtles. In our show, The Turtles are going to eat people.

BRANDON AUMAN: Yeah, that’s season seven. Cannibalism.

CIRO NIELI: The stories come from what would the Fantastic Four do? All right, Mikey can be in there. I don’t see them as Ninja Turtles. I don’t. It’s weird, I see them as fully formed personalities. They’re kind of real to me. And then you go, wait, they’re green? I didn’t notice they’re green. What’s that on their back? I just thought that was their clothes. Oh, that’s like flesh and stuff. It’s weird.

BRANDON AUMAN: The worst writing comes out when some of the writers try too hard to make it like what they think Ninja Turtles is instead of just trying to make it organically live. It could be anybody, it could be anything, as long as you’ve got those sort of personalities. You don’t have to wrangle in something you think Ninja Turtles is. As soon as you think, oh, it’s like the 80’s cartoon, or it’s the Mirage books, and that’s all it is, you’re kind of dead in the water. You just have to bring it to life and you let it live on its own. It exists and flourishes on its own.

CIRO NIELI: It’s funny because the Turtle fandom is so split because it’s had a long life, and there’s times when the 2K3 people are like, we love those guys, that show is for us, and then they watch us and go, “Oh, they just care about the 80’s show.” The Mirage people are like, “This is so Mirage” and that went back and forth for years, and now it’s all just kind of congealed into this goulash finally. I’d like to think we’ve brought unity to the Turtle fandom, finally. It’s like, enough with all the old stuff, let’s just all watch this new one together.

BRANDON AUMAN: Sometimes we actively avoid trying to make references because the references are never forced, they’re just a part of it as we go.

CIRO NIELI: How do you make Star Wars without saying “I’ve got a bad feeling about this”?

BRANDON AUMAN: But it has to live on its own. It’s like, this would work as a reference to the Mirage book. But then other times, Ciro will be like, I really want to do this story where Leo is fighting the Foot and he gets hurt and he gets thrown through the window just like in the comics, and then we work out, and it works. It’s an organic part, and it usually turns out pretty cool.

tmnt_04HRTOONZONE NEWS: Favorite Turtle and why?

BRANDON AUMAN: Oh snap, that’s hard. That’s like trying to choose your favorite kid.

CIRO NIELI: Every day it’s different. Today I woke up feeling probably, I don’t know, I wake up feeling someone different. I usually feel like Donatello, I like Donatello a lot. I have a strange connection with Donny because he’s the inventor, and a lot of times I’m forced to design his vehicle, so there’s this kinship, and I liked him as a kid.

BRANDON AUMAN: What about Raphael?

CIRO NIELI: For months I was obsessed with Raph. It goes all over the place.

BRANDON AUMAN: And Mikey’s great too.

CIRO NIELI: You take Mikey for granted, kinda. If you took Mikey out, you’d be crushed.

BRANDON AUMAN: He’s like the soul, like the spirit in a way. And he’s generally considered the favorite Turtle. But Leonardo is great too because he’s introspective, a little bit more spiritual, and he’s neurotic a bit, so I kind of connected to that.

CIRO NIELI: There’s a little self loathing with the Leo in me, so I take Leo for granted, too.

BRANDON AUMAN: And Raphael is great, too, because he’s hot tempered, and I have a tendency to be hot tempered but his hot temperedness kind of masks his real heart. He’s truly sensitive, and that’s probably why Raph is so hot tempered, but honestly, we can’t really say, this is our favorite. They’re different aspects of a personality. Everybody has those aspects to their personality.

CIRO NIELI: Splinter’s my favorite character. He always has been.

BRANDON AUMAN: Splinter’s just great because—

CIRO NIELI: He’s the patriarch.

BRANDON AUMAN: Yeah. And he really is the soul. Maybe Mikey’s the spirit but Master Splinter’s the soul of the team, and he’s the Father Figure and he’s easy to love. He’s like the Zen Master, right?

CIRO NIELI: He’s Obi-Wan.