Visiting the Set of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

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There were no actual teenage mutant ninja turtles on the set of this summer’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. That’s because the film is fictional. As far as science is concerned, there are no Yao Ming-sized animal/man hybrids living under the streets of New York. Even if they did exist, leaving them out of the picture was probably for the best; Imagine asking a slobbering abomination to its mark when all it wants is a slice of pizza? That ain’t right.

Without actual teenage mutant ninja turtles to employ, Wrath of the Titans director Jonathan Liebesman sought to find the next best approach. He may have found it in 100% CG creations, enhanced with state-of-the-art motion capture. Speaking on the New York City set of the Michael Bay-produced reboot, Liebesman radiates excitement and terror. He’s stoked to deliver grounded, logically-sound versions of TMNT comic creators Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman’s bipedal amphibians, photoreal heroes that today’s spectacle-fed young people can accept. But Liebesman’s unnerved too.

By the time SuperHeroHype and a handful of journalists met him in June 2013, the production had been shut down and resumed, rumors of rewritten, sci-fi skewing origins circulated across the Internet, and paparazzi were on a daily hunt for revealing on-set snapshots. Six months after our visit, fuzzy, leaked images of the Turtles would preempt the movie’s first trailer. Liebesman’s previous movies were blockbustery, but never under scrutiny. It’s easy to understand why he’s scared – even in the middle of a shooting a wild fight scene. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has fans.

“I took the movie to have fun, but it’s the hardest I’ve worked on a film. Which is probably a good thing.” says Liebesman. “I’ve never had a film where people are so excited to see [it] so long before. It’s challenging to meet those expectations.”

The day of our visit, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles found itself off the streets of New York City and inside 23 Wall Street, former home to J.P. Morgan, now a vacant concrete mass a.k.a. the perfect place to shoot a gritty action movie. The Turtles are intrinsically connected to NYC, so it’s only fitting that Liebesman would strive to shoot a majority of his movie on location in the city and against real interior backdrops. The director and his crew tricked out 23 Wall Street into a mini-studio, capable of housing Shredder’s lair – a massive warehouse space, craggily from dripping concrete – and a laboratory set, complete with hospital gurneys and tanks of ooze, just waiting to be pumped into… someone/something.

It’s in this makeshift blood transfusion ward that Liebesman stages the day’s lowkey action scene. Not only aren’t there actual teenage mutant ninja turtles in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the quartet of anthropormophizied crimefighters are nowhere to be found in this spat of fisticuffs. Today is all about April O’Neal (Megan Fox) duking it out with Shredder’s number two, Karai (dancer and “General Hospital” star Minae Noji). This version of April packs a punch – and she should, Liebesman having enlisted a battle-torn Transformers veteran for the part. April slams Foot Clan goons with stretchers, swings across a series of pulleys to kick them away, then lands in just the right way to pull Raphael’s sai from out of her boot, blocking an incoming attack from Karai.

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This is something of a dream come true for Fox. The actress recalls spending most of the Transformers press tour talking up her TMNT obsession. When it came time to reinvent the franchise, she was an obvious, if not perfect, choice. “My name was always floating around the idea of the movie and when it became a reality I went in for a meeting with Jonathan and Andrew [Form, producer] and I imagine of the actresses on the table, I was the most legitimate fan. I really wanted to do it badly.”

Team TMNT shoots the choreography over and over again; One shot may be close up on April, precisely positioned lights a-flarin’, another might be wide enough for the reporter’s cameraman Vernon Fenwick (Will Arnett) to pop into the background, as he wards off his own adversaries. “[The role is] much more physical,” says Arnett. “Apart from putting a rufie in Jason Bateman’s mouth, it’s a real departure for me in that sense.”

Liebesman plays fast and loose with his camera – if you didn’t know you were on the set of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the down and dirty style might convince you it was the third season of “Mortal Kombat: Legacy.” Fox holds her own, sells the ferocity. It doesn’t have the scale or shine of Bay’s “Transformers” movies or a Marvel hand-to-hand combat set piece, but Liebesman is economical, pulling off the sequence with run-and-gun pickups and saving the true spectacle for his digital stars.

Technically, there were teenage mutant ninja turtles on the set that day. They were just 8 inches tall. And not alive. Stationed nearby the action are maquettes of the turtles, hyper-detailed and revealing. Visual Effects Supervisor Pablo Helman studies them for continued answers to the production’s pressing questions. If Liebesman is piloting the rocket ship of a movie, Helman is the guy calling the shots at Mission Control. He’s on set to figure out what shots require post-production tinkering – which is basically all of them when you’re working with four actors donning giant grey sponge suits that will later be painted and reanimated as the 7-foot-tall bodies of the turtles. The hulking Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello, and Michelangelo are played by four human actors (Pete Polszek, Alan Ritchson, Jeremy Howard, Noel Fisher, respectively) whose emotive work will be digitized into the CG faces that appear on screen. Think Andy Serkis’ work in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes with a far less human facade on which to graft performance.

The challenge required a mutation of its own. Previous mocap performances were captured by single, standard definition cameras – footage your iPhone could outshine. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles utilized two HD cameras to capture facial details, and a third to capture body movement. Visual information captured by the trio of cameras are then “retargeted” on to the previously-designed turtle characters. Or in the case of Splinter, performed by “Seinfeld’s” Danny Woodburn, the smaller body of a rat.

Fox lauds the work of her motion-capturing costars, a few of whom will have their voices replaced in the finished product (Johnny Knoxville will voice Leonardo while Tony Shalhoub takes on Master Splinter). “The hardest thing is you want to look into their eyes,” Fox says of acting against the mocappers, whose costumes allowed them to react with their eyes while giving the actress a mark for where the turtle eyes would eventually go. Much will be added on to the Turtles in post: Ragged threads, battle armor, and a heap of steampunky inventions strapped on to Donatello are among the accoutrements. A Shredder maquette reveals a beefed up version of the slicing, dicing villain we know and love. Helman suggests he’ll get even crazier in the film’s finale.

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“At the end, there’s a section [where Shredder] does some… unnatural things. In that case, he’s half [real] and half CG because we only built half the suit.”

Any trepidation over serving TMNT fans with a fresh, tweaked incarnation of the series–necessary, because, c’mon: the Turtles fighting a scampy street kid Foot Clan didn’t even make sense the first time–is met with enthusiasm and dramatic consideration. Sure, it’s a kid’s movie, but a little thoughtfulness never hurt anyone. In this version, April crosses paths with the Turtles early on in life, before getting to know them as an adult. Fox relates the character’s relationship with the Turtles to Wendy and the Lost Boys. “She’s the mother they never had,” she says. More importantly, Fox stresses that everything that made April a great role model for girls of the early ’90s is back. They didn’t have to modernize her, says Fox. She was already progressive. “Minus that jumpsuit she was doing all right! Though those are making a comeback.”

What Liebesman lacks in Weekly World News-worthy teenage mutant ninja turtles, he makes up for with an aspiration to replicate the magic of films he loves as a kid. Arnett and Fox say he directs through movie references. “He’ll say, ‘Remember that shot from _____!’” says Arnett. “His absolute idol is Steven Spielberg. He’s created so many iconic images in films.” Fox adds, “He’s also a lover of the J.J.. Those lens flares!” They both describe Liebesman’s techniques as a kind of directorial motion capturing: The scenes of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have their roots in other cinematic gold. Through discussion and camerawork, Liebesman can retarget those genuine moments to his comic book movie.

Arnett says that Liebesman’s cinephile colors were so prevalent, he couldn’t help but crack wise. “It did get to the point where he referenced so many movies, [one] day on set I asked him in front of Dave, the camera guy, I said, ‘Is [this scene] like ‘Look Who’s Talking Too?’”

During a break from her fight scene, Fox echoes what we’ve now seen in the trailers for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. “It’s a darker, scarier world then we’ve seen previously. And it’s very realistic. I think that’s a big thing, selling the reality so you stop thinking about looking at ‘mutant turtles.’ They’re just the heroes of the film.”

So to be clear: The turtles you see in the movie are not actual teenage mutant ninja turtles. But they should make for great action stars.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles opens on Friday, August 8, with previews on Thursday night.